June 16, 20230 mins read
“Since you’ve put your finger in the icing, you can have one more slice of cake, but not another,” my mom said to me one summer when I was about seven at a family barbecue. Red velvet cake was my absolute favorite as a child. It had to have cream cheese frosting. Be made the real and authentic way. My family gatherings always meant great food, but I especially loved that cake! It’s not a dessert that’s eaten in Guyana, where my family is from. My aunt’s African-American husband introduced it to her and she learned how to make it — to perfection. Did I mention the cream cheese frosting?
It would not be until years later that I would come to understand the significance of the red coloring and why black Southerners, in particular, would eat red velvet cake on June 19th, also known as Juneteenth. At the time, I had no idea what Juneteenth was, and it would not be until my 20s that I would have even heard of it — a common story for many people of my GenX cohort, black or otherwise.
I would come to learn that on June 19, 1865, approximately 2,000 Union troops arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas to announce that more than 250,000 enslaved black people in the state were free by executive decree — a whopping two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, which had freed all enslaved people in the United States. This day came to be known as "Juneteenth," by the newly freed people in Texas. It was later celebrated by Black Americans throughout the United States and, after numerous attempts by advocates, was made a federal holiday in the U.S. in 2021.
Also known as “Emancipation Day,” “Freedom Day,” and the nation’s “second Independence Day,” Juneteenth means different things to different people. For Juneteenth celebrations, the color red represents the struggle and bloodshed of the enslaved as well as the ultimate resilience of the people. That red velvet cake that I could not help but put my little seven-year-old fingers on meant something. That many who came before me struggled, shed blood, and even lost their lives so that a young black immigrant girl like me could have freedom — freedom to vote, freedom to love who I want to love, freedom to own a home, freedom to travel, freedom to learn, freedom to become a professional, and freedom to live life as I please (down to freely affording myself of the icing on the cake, knowing I had already had a piece!).
But my baseline is never defeat and always to lead with hope, honoring the sacrifices of my ancestors and the allies that stood beside them. Juneteenth has meant many things to me since I’ve learned of its importance. Supporting Black-owned businesses, doing the work to understand the history of enslaved black people in the U.S. and the Caribbean, and yes, engulfing myself in the knowledge of the foods we eat to celebrate — not just to nourish our bodies but also to give thanks and reflect. In preparation for Juneteenth, I rewatched Netflix's High on the Hog, a docuseries that explores how black food transformed the United States. Episode 4, titled “Freedom,” takes a deep dive into Juneteenth. I was struck by the Juneteenth historian’s characterization of emancipation in the U.S. as a “miracle.” It seemed as if the freeing of enslaved people was something that could never happen. Oddly, I find so much encouragement in his characterization even as we face challenges against freedom in ways that I have not seen in my lifetime. It is because I know that the miracle was not without hard work, sacrifice, determination, and a constant fight. With less support, lack of legal protections, and even education, enslaved people still found their freedom. Of course, even then, it was not perfect, but it was the beginning of physical and mental emancipation for so many.
So as we celebrate Juneteenth, let us remember and treasure what it means to be free and do the work to maintain it. After all, we all deserve the freedom to learn, love, grow, and live as we please — even to eat red velvet cake in honor of our ancestors!