Description of a recently revived African American Holiday
Just whose party is it anyway?
By Ruth-Miriam Garnett
I have a standing invitation to a Juneteenth party from some non-blood St. Louis relatives. The invitation was graciously extended when I saw them last at a nephew's 2004 wedding. From all outward appearances, these ladies throw a sho-nuff stomp-down affair. Dressed like church women, they were sequinned, sparkling, and coiffed, reflecting—sans cleavage— that fashion tribe's utter interchangeability with nightclub devotees. Their hair was groomed beyond what I ever think of aspiring to; one's orangey-red braids curled playfully, the other's jet black, permed, slicked, impossibly long ponytail began high up on the crown and extended to mid-back. I have recurrent thoughts of an outdoor event featuring long picnic tables heaped with barbecue, potato salad and other ingratiating side dishes. My dessert reverie fixates on sweet potato pie, pecan pie and peach cobbler with homemade ice cream. 1 imagine happily eating my way through the occasion, savoring soul food with regional flourishes and chasing the meal with glasses of merlot, a gesture to my arteries.
Kwanzaa, though a significant African-American holiday, arguably mainstream, offers no such gastronomic opportunity, at least not in my circle. Alas, the Kwanzaa crowd is not your party crowd, though with the spillover from Christmas and New Year's, Kwanzaa aficionados don't have to look too far for gastronomic delights. I am certain a Juneteenth celebration will not disappoint in cuisine, revelry, or glamour.
My prescience is confirmed at Juneteeth.com, which cites the holiday as "the oldest known celebration commemorating the ending of slavery in the United States." On June 19, 1865 a regiment of Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, TX to announce the end of the Civil War and that the slaves were freed. Amazingly enough, they had in fact been freed since Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation was delivered on January 1, 1863.
Although briefly captured by the Union, Galveston was held by Confederate forces until the end of the war. Once past the shock of learning they had been free for more than two years, the ex-slaves reacted ecstatically, immediately trekking North to find lost relatives or venturing closer to home in Louisiana, Arkansas and Oklahoma for the same purpose. Juneteenth became the annual pilgrimage of this dispersed population back to Galveston to reconnect joyfully with their amazing heritage and each other. The holiday, revered in Texas, became a state holiday in 1980.
I had not heard of Juneteenth until poet Michael Harper mentioned it in a lecture at Harvard College in the 1970's. Nevertheless, 1 claim my authentic right to party. But watch those Texans. The ones 1 know believe Texas is the center of the universe and brag about their formerly independent republic. Every time 1 visit my Austin nephews, they let me know that they, meaning Texans, had their own flag. You can't let these people, meaning Texans, run away with the ball, shoot, or putt, as it were, without suffering their attendant cultural primacy. I for one am not going to be involved in any¬thing rodeo-like and do not care to smell anyone who is. Though Juneteenth petered out among African Americans, let's not blame anyone in particular, meaning Texans.
I recall my faint surprise that the hostesses for my upcoming celebration had sufficient cultural awareness to commemorate an African-American historical event no longer widely acknowledged. 1 was immediately curious about this one- upmanship and, my snobbery notwithstanding, what 1 had missed by being less savvy than they. Those hairdos should have tipped meoff.
Let's do some anthropology. Is the holiday's archetype sacred or profane? Is its ritual context moral praxis or release? Were its characteristics in this regard adequately defined, or was it zapped by recent eras' amelioration of referents for black identity? What an excruciating dilemma for armchair scholarship. What a moot point.
Juneteenth is back; things came full circle for me at a family wedding. Contemporary celebrants are dealing with loss and hope—as were the original revelers. Galveston's ex-slaves experienced an identity shift the likes of which may have no historical parallel. They symbolized the occasion buoyantly and with therapeutic acts. Freed slaves dressed up because in bondage they could not.
With the resurgence of this holiday, we should all be allowed a finger in the pie. I'm laying claim to sweet potato and some slammin' hair.
From HIATUS, Essays (Onegin Publishing Company 2007)
Reprinted from The Green Magazine, June, 2005.
The Kings of Swing Issue
Vol. 2, Issue 3