Kai Wright: Happy Juneteenth. I'm Kai Wright from WNYC, and this is a special national live broadcast of United States of Anxiety. We're a show about the unfinished business of our history and how we can break its grip on our future. Tonight we are celebrating some history live on air with all of you. I'm with our producer, Regina de Heer.
Regina de Heer: Hi, Kai.
Kai Wright: Regina, who have you got booked for us tonight?
Regina de Heer: We're connecting with Ms. Opal Lee, who's often called the Grandmother of Juneteenth. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed will explain the holiday's backstory, and we'll even hear live from a party in Houston's Emancipation Park.
Kai Wright: That's right. We are partnering with Houston Public Media, KERA Dallas, and Texas Public Radio to center the voice of Texas, but we want to hear from all of you around the country. How are you celebrating? What's the holiday mean to you personally? That's all coming up on the United States of Anxiety.
Regina de Heer: Do you know what Juneteenth is about?
Edward: I don't. I ain't going to lie to you.
Jayden: I don't want to get it wrong that's why I'm so scared to answer.
Ivan: It's actually about the freedom of slaves and how we are now "liberated."
Tuviere: I'm actually Canadian, but from what I understand when slavery ended in the United States, they didn't let certain people in the South know till later on.
Regina de Heer: What does that mean to you?
Tuviere: I think it's a step in the right direction.
Edward: I ain't going to lie we still have slavery. Still have slavery in the United States of America.
Jayden: Well, I think that's really great. We have president's day off. What is that doing for us? I love that we have Juneteenth because that's the day for us.
Regina de Heer: Will you be celebrating Juneteenth this year?
Nova: Oh, yes.
Jayden: I'm going on a little trip without my parents, because also it's father's day, so we're going to do it like a double thing.
Naya: I work on Juneteenth sadly, so we're going to fix that.
Speaker 9: Well, I mean, I ain't know it was an official holiday now, so I guess I got to now. [laughs]
Kai Wright: Welcome to the show. I'm Kai Wright, and this is a special national broadcast of the United States of Anxiety. A special welcome to those joining us from our partner stations around the country and on our YouTube live stream. Juneteenth is now a national holiday signed into law this time last year, but I do wonder how much we all actually know about the history we're marking today, whether it means anything to each of us personally. We are asking you to tell us tonight how are you celebrating this weekend, and what does the holiday mean to you personally? Not as a political idea, but to you.
We're going to prioritize Black Texans since they created this holiday in the first place. Call in, tell the country how you do it in Texas, but we want to hear from everybody. All of you, all around the country. The first person we're going to talk to tonight is Ms. Opal Lee. Back in 2016 at age 89, she set out to walk from her hometown in Fort Worth, Texas, to Washington DC to ask Barack Obama to declare Juneteenth a national holiday. She campaigned constantly from that time until last year when Congress finally answered her call to action. She was at the White House when Joe Biden signed it into law last June.
We're going to have Ms. Lee and-- Oh, it looks like we don't have Ms. Lee yet, so you know what we're going to do is we're going to skip ahead to who's also going to join us with Ms. Lee. I'm also going to be joined by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, Harvard professor, and Texas native Annette Gordon-Reed. A long intro for her as well. Her research on Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson as many of you have read, literally rewrote the story of early American history. Her most recent book is called On Juneteenth. It's a deeply personal effort to retell the history of her home state and of the experience of Black Texans going back centuries. Professor, welcome to the show.
Annette Gordon-Reed: Glad to be here. Thank you for inviting me.
Kai Wright: It is our pleasure. While we wait till we get Ms. Opal Lee on the line, you and her both were at the White House signing ceremony to create the national holiday. I just want to start with asking you why did you believe this should be a national holiday? We've heard some people say, "Oh, we think it dilutes its meeting if it's not just by and for Black Texans anymore," but why do you think it needed to be a national holiday?
Annette Gordon-Reed: Well, I have to say Ms. Lee was more instrumental, the most instrumental in making it a federal holiday. When I started writing the book, I hadn't focused on that as a question. It's a good idea to have it as a-- it wasn't my main purpose in writing the book, but I think it's a good holiday. It's good to have it as a federal holiday because we needed a day to recognize the end of slavery. Now, this is the end of slavery in Texas, and what I say its significance is that it was the end of the military effort to maintain the system of slavery.
That's the last battle of the civil war was in Texas. The Confederates won, but they realized the war was over. They surrendered at the beginning of June, and that's when Granger comes to Galveston with the troops and makes this announcement. I think there ought to be something to mark emancipation, the process of emancipation. I say in the book it's a process. There were other days, there were other moments, but this is I think a good umbrella day to talk about what was in advance in human rights. I mean, it didn't solve every problem, but we should mark that day. That's why I think it's important.
Kai Wright: We do have Ms. Opal Lee now. Ms. Lee, welcome to the show. Thanks for calling in.
Opal Lee: Hello?
Kai Wright: Yes, we've got you. Can you hear me?
Opal Lee: Yes.
Kai Wright: Okay. Well, I am here. We're talking to Annette Gordon-Reed. I know you were at the White House signing ceremony for the national holiday with her. I was just asking her to start by giving her thoughts on why it needs to be a national holiday in the first place, and so I want to start there with you. Why did you feel like this needed to be a national holiday?
Opal Lee: Because it represents freedom, and we're not free yet. I'm wanting to peak more and people to know that each of us is responsible for getting rid of the disparities that we have. I'm sure you know that we need to do something about the education system where history is being left out of the textbooks. That if a people don't know where they came from, they don't know where they're going, and we're floundering. Then there's joblessness and homelessness and healthcare that some can get and others can't, and climate change that we should be doing something about. I feel that we are not free. None of us are free until we are all free.
Kai Wright: Can I ask you, Ms. Lee? It's a celebration as well. You have been celebrating it most of your life, right?
Opal Lee: Yes.
Kai Wright: Tell folks how you like to celebrate. What's a good way to celebrate Juneteenth.
Opal Lee: You want to know how? Hey, I've got plans like nobody's business. We've already had our breakfast of prayer. Now, I don't want you to confuse that with a prayer breakfast, because we are not sitting down eating a lot of food, but the prayer breakfast we've had have been phenomenal. I don't know what time you've got, but I'm not going to describe it to you, but we've had our pageant already, beautiful young women. One of them is going to the National Miss Juneteenth Pageant. We have what's called [unintelligible 00:08:35] empowering youth. That's when we have everything we think it takes.
People learn how to fix their credit scores. They learn how to buy a home, how to get [unintelligible 00:08:55], how to get health, all kinds of things that would empower a person. Our young people get together, all nationalities and races. They learn songs and [unintelligible 00:09:13] all kinds of things. They work a whole week, and then they do a concert.
Kai Wright: That's great.
Opal Lee: You ought to come here.
Kai Wright: I will take you up on that invitation, Ms. Lee. I would love to come there and see it.
Opal Lee: Come on, come on. Let me tell you another thing. The pandemic kept us from having parades, but we do walks and I lead the walk. I led the walk yesterday and the old lady made that two and a half miles and she was an exhausted human being, but hey [unintelligible 00:09:57] and the girl is up and going here.
Kai Wright: I love it.
Opal Lee: You need to know we will start off at ten o'clock, and we'll walk from Evans Plaza to Pier 1, that's the new City Hall in Fort Worth. That's two and half miles. We start at 10:00. Out in California, they'll start at 8:00. Philadelphia and Atlanta, at 11:00, and it's going to be simulcast. Well, what they telling me is that we did that yesterday. Okay, okay. We're going to do it again.
Kai Wright: We'll do it again and we'll do it again, and we will find the simulcast. I'm going to find out where that link is, and we'll let everybody know so they can go see it. Ms. Lee, I'm going to let you go just for time because we're getting short on this segment, but I really, really appreciate you calling in from your Juneteeth celebration. Ms. Opal Lee led the campaign for Juneteenth to become a national holiday. Last June, at age 94, she was finally present at the White House to witness her victory when President Biden made this an official federal holiday. Thank you so much, Ms. Lee.
Opal Lee: Thank you for letting me talk to them. Bye now.
Kai Wright: Bye-bye. Annette, we're going to come back and talk to you about your book in just a moment, but I want to just squeeze in one call before we have to go to a break. Let's talk to Betty in Plano, Texas. Betty, welcome to the show.
Betty: Well, thank you so much for this program. I am not originally from Texas, but I've been here for over 40 years and grew up in the south. We did not celebrate or weren't even aware of Juneteenth, but since I've been here for so long, I've started to pay attention within the last, let's say, 10 or 15 years. One question that I do have that I've never heard brought up was what is, or was the impact of Texans, Black Texans getting the notice of the Emancipation Proclamation two years late? What impact did that have on their mindset because the rest of the South, if you will, were free, and how did that impact generations to come from that point going forward? [crosstalk] Yes, thank you.
Kai Wright: I'm going to ask her to answer that, but before you hang up, Betty, can you tell us how are you celebrating?
Betty: Well, I am paying attention. I am paying attention. I am looking for more direction, and I'm just enjoying some time with my husband, my son, and grandchildren. I'll say this, being thankful for the effort of Ms. Opal Lee because I have watched her for the last number of years with her walk. I applaud her efforts and I salute her, for sure.
Kai Wright: Thank you, Betty. We'll put your question to Annette Gordon-Reed after we take a quick break. I'm Kai Wright. This is a special national broadcast the United States of Anxiety to celebrate Juneteenth. Tell us how you're celebrating and what the holiday means to you personally. I'll talk more with Annette Gordon-Reed and take your calls after a break.
Kusha: Hey, everyone. This is Kusha, I'm a producer. Tell us how are you celebrating Juneteenth? You can send us an email. The address is firstname.lastname@example.org. If you've got pictures, share them with Kai on Instagram, he's @kai_wright. Also, as you probably heard, we live streamed this episode on WNYC's YouTube channel. We're going to try live streaming out for a while, so if you'd like to watch the show in action, come hang out with us Sundays at 6:00 PM Eastern. You can chat with the show team and with other listeners, we'd love to see you there.
Finally, we've released the second episode of Keeping Score, a new series from our colleagues at WNYC about four schools, one building, and an effort to reverse segregation. You can check out those episodes every Thursday on our podcast feed. All right, thanks for listening. Back to the show.
Kai Wright: Welcome back. I'm Kai Wright, and this is a special national broadcast of the United States of Anxiety to celebrate Juneteenth. I'm still joined by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, Harvard professor, and Texas native Annette Gordon-Reed. Her latest book published last year is called On Juneteenth. It's a deeply personal effort to retell the history of her home state of Texas and of the experience of Black Texans going back centuries.
Annette, can we start with the question that our caller Betty asked right before the break? This, as we know, the holiday marks the day, a little over two years after the Emancipation Proclamation that a union general arrived in Galveston, Texas, to announce the Emancipation Proclamation. One of the things many people ask is so what was the impact on those Texans that had to wait two and a half years to hear that? Can you give some insight on that?
Annette Gordon-Reed: Yes. Well, the Emancipation Proclamation, 1863, it didn't immediately free all the slaves in these Southern areas. It took African American people running away from plantations, self-emancipation, and also the efforts of the Army of the United States. The reason it took so long is that the Army of the Trans-Mississippi in Texas continued to fight. Lee surrendered in April, in 1865, which basically indicated that the war was over because his was the most important army, but they kept fighting. It's not that people didn't know, it's just nothing could be done about it until the Confederates lost and stopped fighting.
Which they did at the beginning of June and that's when Granger goes to Galveston with his troops. African American people and enslaved people knew what white people knew. If white people in Texas knew about the Emancipation Proclamation, they did too because they heard them talk, they lived in homes with them, they were in close proximity. In fact, in the book, I talk about the fact that in a couple of days before Granger gets there, there's some Black man on the wars who start celebrating and people ask, "What are you celebrating?" He said, "Because we're going to be free."
They knew that he was on his way, but even before then, this was in the newspaper, it was clear. It's just that it couldn't be done until the army got there to take control of the place. Even after they did that, there were still some places where there was no army presence where there were still trying to hold on to the institution of slavery. It was force and people running away actually escaping the plantations, leaving the plantations, but also the force of the army that made this possible.
Kai Wright: That escaping is itself a form of force. You have to [crosstalk]
Annette Gordon-Reed: Absolutely. You got to go. War was an opportunity and people saw it as an opportunity and they took it and they left. Some of them went to Mexico and some of them-- People ran north and other parts of the South, but in Texas, they ran to Mexico in many instances.
Kai Wright: Just to zoom back a little bit, you mentioned in your book, you talk about how Texas has all these iconic male figures, the oil man, the cowboy, all these rugged individuals. You say, in some, there's one who is left out of this who helped make Juneteeth a necessity in the first place and that is the plantation owner. You say that his imprint, and it is a his, on the state remains in place. You want to expand on that a bit for folks?
Annette Gordon-Reed: Well, I was saying in the book that I think people misunderstand Texas. There's some things that they don't think about in thinking about oil men and cowboys, even though many cowboys were Black, of course, but that's not the portrayal typically. You think about West Texas, people don't think about East Texas, which was the most populous part of the state, which was a slave society. It was part of the cotton empire. It was started to extend the cotton empire. That's why it was Texas's entry into the union into America was so controversial because it was going to be a slave state.
When you think about the plantation owner and slavers, you necessarily have to think about African American people who don't figure as much in the mythology of the West and the Western part of Texas. It brings the slave society into the picture. The slave society in the United States was racially based, so it helped cement a racial hierarchy that doesn't just disappear once the institution of slavery disappears. By the way, I should say it legally disappears with the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865. What I said before Juneteenth is about ending the force, the organized force to keep it in place, but still people wanted to keep the racial hierarchy in place.
A lot of things we're dealing with today, voter suppression, thinking about how we talk about history and history classes, all of that grows out of the racial hierarchy that was created by the plantation system and the system of racialized slavery.
Kai Wright: How we understand ourselves as well. You also write that the narrative of slavery it limits, you said, quote, "the imaginative possibilities of blackness."
Annette Gordon-Reed: Yes.
Kai Wright: Say more about that. What do you mean by that?
Annette Gordon-Reed: Well, because, if you think about it, just in terms of people working for no pay, which is what slavery was, but there were so many other aspects of it. Many things that African American people were doing outside of the context of plantation slavery. I began the book by talking about a man named Mr. Estebanico, who was brought to the area that would become Texas in the 1520s, where he ended up there. They were shipwrecked, but he ends up there with Spanish explorers. This is before plantation slavery. We don't think about that as an origin story of African Americans because they spoke Spanish.
We began our narrative with Jamestown in 1690, which is important. We should do that, but we should also think about the people who were there before. People of African descent who were in the area of Texas in 1500, down off into Mexico starting some of their own communities, melding into what would become Mexican communities down there. That's an origin story too. He was a translator for, he had a talent for languages. Cabeza de Vaca, who was the person that we've probably all heard of, wrote memoirs about this. He talks about him and that he had a talent for language and he was an interpreter.
We don't typically think of African people, people with African descent, or enslaved people playing that kind of role. I would imagine most people think of cotton and that's it. I wanted to have a different origin point and to talk about the fact that Black people, people of African descent were all over the world at that time period, doing lots of different things.
Kai Wright: Give us a little bit about the origin point of Juneteenth itself though, the celebration part of it. We know the history of this moment where Granger shows up, but what about the celebration part of it?
Annette Gordon-Reed: Well, the celebration part of it began immediately. It was called Emancipation Day and the Freedmen's Bureau, it gets set up. These are the organizations that were put in place throughout the South to help the 4 million people who had been enslaved and were now free. It solemnized their marriages. It worked on contracts with employers. It ran schools for kids and adults and everybody who wanted to learn how to read and write and so forth. They also encouraged. They arranged, they also encouraged celebrations as well. Most of them, they started out in churches in many instances.
I'd say in the book that there are a lot of people who weren't happy about these celebrations. I found instances where people were whipped for celebrating because the former enslavers and their supporters were mad about what took place. I also tell a story about a group of men who pull their resources and buy land for people to celebrate because they have it in their mind that, of course, the generations to come are going to note this particular moment and that land became Emancipation Park in Houston, which is still there. I've been to Emancipation Park as a kid to celebrate Juneteenth.
It was just a poignant thing for me to think about people who are in the middle of some pretty bad circumstances. I mean, they're happy and people ask me, "Should we say this as a celebration or is it a commemoration or what?" but these people were actually happy. They were happy. We think of all the ways that the promise fell short and how we're still fighting for many of these things, but they were happy that it would no longer be legal to sell people's children away from them and their husbands and their wives. I mean, people say, "We still have slavery now." We have bad times now. We have mass incarceration.
We have a lot of things to deal with, but the separation of families was the central trauma among enslaved people. If you read the narratives and descriptions of that time. After the end of the war, people put ads in newspapers. They went around saying, "Have you seen my mother? I last saw her here." There's a new database that just came out that was put up a couple of days ago on social media that has this voyages from the upper South down to New Orleans by boat. They have manifests, they have names and people, and so forth. One of the things that makes clear is that there was just a massive family disruption, people sold away from each other.
To know that wasn't going to happen is just unimaginable. Just think of someone coming to your home, if you have kids or a significant other, and saying, "We're going to sell that person today," doesn't happen. They were very happy. I think it is a celebration.
Kai Wright: You mentioned Emancipation Park. W're partnering with Houston Public Media, KERA Dallas, and Texas Public Radio for this show. Special shouts to all our Texans out there. We have from Houston Public Media Reporter Cory McGinnis is in Houston's Emancipation Park right now, where they have been celebrating, as you said, Juneteenth since 1872, they're celebrating now. Hey, Cory, are you there?
Cory McGinnis: Hey, I am here. Can you hear me?
Kai Wright: I can. What's the vibe in the park.
Cory McGinnis: Great. Right now I can honestly tell you that folks are trying to find shade as much as they possibly can. They're trying to stay cool as much as they can. There's a lot of hydration centers out here, but in spite of the heat, the park is pretty packed right now with several vendors around. It seems like the mood, the vibe, the energy is still upbeat, still on a high from yesterday, when they had our speaker Mayor Sylvester Turner and Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, they took the stage talking to the crowd just about how this is sacred soil that we're on.
Right now there's a lot of kids around. It's more of a family event. There's a lot of smiles. There's balloons that float. There's also registration for folks out here to come out and vote. It's a big deal out here in Houston because too, not only are we just celebrating freedom, but this also marks the park 150 year anniversary. There's a lot of artists that are taking the stage. I just heard that Sheila E will actually be taking the stage pretty soon later tonight.
Annette Gordon-Reed: I know. My generation [unintelligible 00:27:10]
Cory McGinnis: It's going to be pretty exciting. People are still walking in and out of the park. I'm actually near the entrance right now and the line is still pretty thick. That goes to show that there's a huge interest with people coming out here to celebrate Juneteenth and just what this is all about and what this means to them. In a little bit, I'm going to go out here and speak to some of the folks and just see, I guess, what Black freedom or what Juneteenth means for them. I know one thing that Opal Lee, she was vocal about saying that it's not a holiday just for African Americans, but for all.
I'm seeing different races out here, and Houston is a melting pot of different races. It'll be interesting to get everybody's take, to see, I guess, what this holiday really means to them out here as people continue to celebrate, listening to good music, going from vendor to vendor, and eating some good food. I'm smelling the barbecue right now as I'm talking to you.
Kai Wright: Cory, I am jealous. I thank you for that report. I can't wait to hear some Sheila E recorded for us so we can play some a little later. Cory McGinnis is a reporter for Houston Public Media stationed in Emancipation Park today. Have fun, Cory.
Cory McGinnis: Thanks so much. Have a good one.
Kai Wright: Let's go to Will in Houston as well. Will, welcome to the show.
Will: Hi, can you hear me?
Kai Wright: I can. How are you celebrating, Will?
Will: No, I'm doing well. First, I want to thank you for doing this show and for your guests. I think it's a very important conversation you all are having. I was just enjoying listening to it. Just as a Houstonian, I see Juneteenth a little differently. It's a way for my family to get together. We've been celebrating our family reunion on Juneteenth for a few years now.
Kai Wright: That's great.
Will: We've been celebrating it for about 110 years.
Kai Wright: Wow.
Will: What ended up happening is in the 1960s, I'm working on the history right now, but in the 1960s, a lot of people began to shift because they couldn't get off from work. If it fell on a different day, they wouldn't be able to go from work and there were issues with that. They moved it to the 4th of July. In recent years, my family moved it back to June the 19th and so we've been celebrating. That's one of the things that I found just in studying history, a lot of families came together during that time. They would have family reunions where they'd come together, especially after emancipation, and come together and celebrate and commune with one another.
I think my family's part of that tradition, we've been celebrating for over 110 years.
Kai Wright: Thank you for that, Will. The family part of it, Annette, you were touching on this just a minute ago that that was such an important part of freedom, was being able to hold your family together. I know in the book, you talk about your own family and your story in Texas, and what it was like growing up in the world that Texas became under Jim Crow. We are getting short on time, but I just want to get a little bit of that, and your own relationship to this holiday with your family.
Annette Gordon-Reed: Well, I began the book talking about integrating the schools in my hometown as a way of suggesting or showing how even though slavery ended, Redemption governments come in and they start trying to get things, as one person said, as near back to slavery as possible and one thing they did was with legalized separation. I integrated our school at age six, and actually was back there a couple of days ago to give a talk there, and just to say that we were still dealing with this question in the mid-'60s, as people were trying to get out from under the mandate of Brown.
The family part of this was always a part of it for me. I look forward to the day as a little girl, we ran around, drank red soda water, too much of that and barbecue and kids playing with firecrackers. I can't believe they [unintelligible 00:31:26] firecracker as well.
Kai Wright: I know. We all did it when we were young.
Annette Gordon-Reed: I have kids now, that would be the-- [unintelligible 00:31:31], but they just said, "Be careful." The family, what he said it, I've heard this from a number of other people as well that they formed family reunions around the 19th of June. We didn't do that, but we did gather, not formally, but we did gather grandparents, cousins, and everybody. It's a family day and that's why it's something that's appropriate I think for every race, all people can come and celebrate on advancing human rights as a family.
Kai Wright: That's right. We will have to leave it there. Harvard professor and Texas native Annette Gordon-Reed's latest book is called On Juneteenth. Thanks, Annette.
Annette Gordon-Reed: Thank you so much.
Kai Wright: Thanks, everybody who called or sent messages on YouTube and Twitter. Keep them coming. If we didn't get to you, our email is email@example.com. How are you celebrating Juneteenth? Let us know. Coming up. What do you eat on Juneteenth? I'll talk with the author of a new cookbook that answers that question. Stay with us.
Kai Wright: Welcome back, I'm Kai Wright. This is a special national broadcast of the United States of Anxiety to celebrate Juneteenth. Thanks for hanging out with us on this holiday. It's time to turn this party to the topic of food. I want to know what you're eating at your own cookout. We've been taking your calls, but now let me invite you to chime in on Instagram. I got to confess, I am a very late adopter to this particular social platform, but our producers thought this would be a fun way to get me started. Since you are probably already taking pictures of your beautiful Juneteenth spreads, and probably posting them in your stories, we'd love to make sure we see them too.
You can tag me @kai_wright, that's K-A-I underscore Wright, like the brothers, or you can just use the hashtag #USofAnxiety. If you don't have Instagram, that's okay too, just email us, tell us what you've got cooking and why you eat it on Juneteenth. Bonus points if you include a photo or a voice note explaining it, but either way, just send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, that's email@example.com. That's two ways you can keep talking to us while we enter this next phase of our conversation. I am so excited to welcome someone who knows all about what you can eat on Juneteenth and how to cook those foods.
Nicole Taylor is a food writer who has written extensively about the culinary traditions of the South and she has just published, believe it or not, the first cookbook focused on the food of Juneteenth. It's titled Watermelon and Redbirds. Welcome to the show, Nicole.
Nicole Taylor: Thanks for having me.
Kai Wright: Let's start with a little bit of conversation about your own Juneteenth. When did you first start celebrating, do you remember your first time out?
Nicole Taylor: I do. My first Juneteenth Celebration was not in Texas, it was in a pocket park in the middle of Fort Greene, Brooklyn. I know people are like, "What?" but yes. Probably more than a decade ago, I attended a community-based organization's annual Juneteenth festival in Brooklyn and I will tell you something very special about that day, there was a Black man dressed in cowboy attire, with a pony, and kids were on that pony. I remember seeing a little boy, so happy, so joyful, so innocent, trotting around the park and it was that moment that I said, "Juneteenth is for me, it's for everyone."
Kai Wright: Because of the joy, you were like, I'm going to claim this joy.
Nicole Taylor: Totally 100%.
Kai Wright: I love hosting anything at my own home. I grew up in a house, in my grandmother's house where it was always for everybody, it was the town square. She loved to host. I just wondered that for you, is hosting something you learn to do, what's your relationship to hosting people in general, but specifically for a Juneteenth?
Nicole Taylor: Well, I'm definitely your grandma's play cousin.
Nicole Taylor: Because my house is always the town square and I learned from watching elders in my family. If it was the summertime, and it was a fourth of July celebration, it was all day. The kids had enough to eat, there was plenty of food, everyone was invited and everyone felt like something on the table was special for them, or made just for them. I picked up on those clues. I look at my own celebrations and I see those people there. I see elements of how they hosted and entertained people in me.
Kai Wright: That's wonderful. Let's go back to the first Juneteenth Celebration, 1866. What would have been eaten then, what would they have been greeted on?
Nicole Taylor: For sure, you find chunks and slices of watermelon. A lot of articles in Texas newspapers and magazines describe a free Black people's celebration in 1866 and they write a ton about seeing watermelons and barbecues. Those are the two things that you see time and time again that many scholars and food historians-- Listen, I'm not a scholar or a food historian, I'm a master home cook, but I definitely read a million times that you see what they call barbecue or cookouts where the whole animal is being done or it's in the ground.
In Texas, you would see a lamb, it wasn't uncommon for someone to roast or barbecue an entire lamb. Obviously, brisket, you would see that in Texas, traditional Texas Juneteenth celebration and sausages as well. Those two things, for certain, and I can't forget the red drink.
Kai Wright: Well, let's talk about the red drink. First off, anybody familiar with any Black cookout is familiar with red drink of all sorts, but bring people in on what you're talking about and why that's important to Juneteenth in particular.
Nicole Taylor: I did not understand or know the connection of Big Red soda, which is a regional soft drink that you find mostly in Texas, I did not understand the connection of Hawaiian Punch, the connection of Bissap, which is the national drink of Senegal or Sorrel, what my Caribbean brothers and sisters call it, which is Bissap and Sorrel are both hibiscus steeped in water, little sugar added and spices. You find that same drink in Brazil, you find that same drink, that same steep flower drink in North Africa. It is a connection of Black people across the world, the red drink.
What I like to say is through the transatlantic slave trade, that drinking ritual, that color, that red ruby drink came with us, it came with us to the Americas. You see in all plantation cookbooks where writers say that enslaved people had cheery liqueurs or strawberry shrubs, and during their celebrations, there will be big batches of strawberry lemonade. For generations, Black people globally and particularly in America have gathered around the punch bowl.
Nicole Taylor: With the color red spewing out for sure. That's our connection. It's everywhere. Some scholars and staff say that the color red is connected to African spirituality so royalty and crazily, when I put on red lipstick, I feel powerful. It is a color that is alive and vibrant and says I'm here.
Kai Wright: It's not known. There's theories but it's not known exactly why red drinks. We have theories about it.
Nicole Taylor: Yes. There are a lot of theories about why. I definitely think the dots or I know that dots have been traced back to the continent of Africa and the drinking ritual and traditions. Many believe that we brought that with us. I know we brought it with us. Why would it still be here?
Kai Wright: Why would it still be here? Why would it still be here? I was surprised to learn that this was the first cookbook focused on Juneteenth. I don't know why I'm surprised to learn that, but when did you realize that?
Nicole Taylor: When the publisher said it. I had no clue. I've been working on this proposal since 2018 and that was the farthest thing from my mind. It took me a while to say it out loud that there's a lot of pressure and it's also like why. I was asking like, "Really, this is the first book?" I'm proud to be a pioneer. I'm also excited about the other cookbooks that are going to come after me. I want to make sure that people know that this cookbook, 75 recipes, and the stories are about my Juneteenth and that there's more than one way to Juneteenth and that Juneteenth is a holiday that's all over America because of the great migration.
Even if you're not from Texas, we are all bonded. We are all connected. We all want freedom. Our parents, our grandparents have the same dream for us and that is for us to live and thrive in America. Yeah. That's what connects us. Yes, get into it, Juneteenth people.
Kai Wright: Indeed. Thinking about the foodways part of it as the holiday has spread through the Great Migration to other parts of the country, have the foods changed in any way? Have you noticed that? Has there been any sort of thing that's been added once it's showed up in Milwaukee or Oakland?
Nicole Taylor: That's a good question. I will say one of the things that I noticed is hot links and sausages. They are a tradition in Texas Juneteenth celebration. Someone could do an entire book about Juneteenth sausages.
Kai Wright: Why is that?
Nicole Taylor: If you go to East Texas, there's a certain way and a certain type of sausages being made or hot guts is another word that people will use in Texas. It is different from what you find in another part of the state. Yes, hot links and sausages are a thing. I grew up with hot links or red links in Georgia. I was born and raised in Athens, Georgia, which is a city about 60 miles outside of Atlanta. It's Northeast Georgia. There's a brand called [unintelligible 00:43:32] and they're really red and the red comes from red 40. Those are the red hot links that I grew up on
I feel like I've talked to so many Black people who live in Chicago or DC. They have a very special sausage brand that they love and they remember folks putting them on the grill during Black celebrations. What I've noticed is that the hot link thing, I wouldn't say it disappeared, but I think it has evolved and people have had to adapt because they don't live in Texas anymore.
Kai Wright: You know what? I have never until this moment really given thought to the fact that we ate these red hot links. Again, at my grandmother's house, that was a standard part of any cookout, were these red hot links. We don't have any Texas people, our path goes back to Alabama. This was in Indiana, but I never until this moment thought about that they were red hot links and they were a staple.
Nicole Taylor: Yes. I talk about in one of the sidebars in the book, how did you have them? People like them with mustard sometimes. People like them with what I call loaf of bread or loaf bread or the cheap white bread. Sometimes people just like them on the side as almost a condiment to the entire plate at Juneteenth or other Black celebrations, but yes, they're our staple for summertime Black celebrations for sure.
Kai Wright: Yes. It's kind of throwing me, the things we do and don't even think about. I never even thought about it. That's really great. The book is called, as we said, Watermelon and Red Birds. Why, what are each of those things represent? You said watermelon would've been a big part of the 1866 celebration. Why is that and what is it about red birds?
Nicole Taylor: Yes, I came to this title at two different moments. First, I knew that I wanted to bring in a very classic all-American summertime fruit or vegetable in the title. I landed on watermelon and watermelon is the fruit that is indigenous to the African continent. It's also a fruit that all Americans love to snack on. I thought it would be very fitting to have watermelon in the title and red birds. Wow. When I was growing up, my mom used to tell me, "Look out the window, look out the window. There's a red bird. A red bird is outside. There's someone from our family that's coming back to say, hello. Blow them a kiss." I would blow them a kiss. She was like, "That bird is a symbol of good luck."
I forgot about that story. One day I was sitting on the subway, New York City Subway, and that story literally just dropped out the sky. I'm like, "Red birds. That story, that story is symbolic of the past, the present, and the future."
Kai Wright: That's such a great origin story. Right now a lot of people are maybe wrapping up their Juneteenth celebration. Some of y'all are probably just getting started. For those that are wrapping up or that when they wrap up later, what's the perfect way to end the day of a Juneteenth celebration, Nicole.
Nicole Taylor: Oh, wow. I always say this, I'm going to start with the perfect way to start, and then I'll go to the end. I like to make sure that you center the origin story of Juneteenth at the very beginning of your celebration. For all the folks who are listening and they haven't done this, stop the music, stop what you're doing and raise a glass. Raise a glass to Texans, raise a glass to our ancestors. I like to put the red cups down then and the red and blue cups, I put them away. I think starting with the reverence, with beautiful glassware, and saying, for me, it's a prayer. It could be a toast, but I think it's important to center the holiday when you begin your celebration.
Nicole Taylor: At the end, let's talk about the end. Oh boy. At the end, right before I let go, the song comes on.
Nicole Taylor: You have to pour people more red drink. That's when you start getting the shots of brown liquor out. When I say brown liquor, I mean whiskey, American whiskey. Then that's when people want a little extra food. That's when I start thinking about like, "Oh, maybe I'll make people tostadas now. I have two pieces of rib eye that I've wrapped up and snuck away. Let me make a few tostadas." I talk about that in a cookbook how it's late and people are still around, so I'm figuring out more food, a midnight snack, just that final libation, and looking at the playlist and figuring out what wasn't played. That is the way to end Juneteenth.
Kai Wright: That is the way that I need to end my Juneteenth. Instead of working, I need to go get into this brown liquor. I love it. We're going to leave it there. Listeners, do keep those Instagram tags and emails coming. We know a lot of y'all are already taking pictures of your Juneteenth spread. Show them to us as well. You can tag me @kai_wright, that's K-A-I underscore Wright, like the brothers, or just add the #USofAnxiety. If you don't have Instagram, you can just email us, tell us what you've got cooking and why you eat it on Juneteenth. Bonus points if you include a photo or a voice note explaining it. Either way, just send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. That's email@example.com. If you want to try out some of the recipes in Nicole Taylor's book, you're going to have to go get it, Watermelon and Red Birds. You don't have to cook those recipes only on Juneteenth, by the way, they are meant for celebration. Nicole, thank you so much for this time.
Nicole Taylor: Thank you so much for having me on. Happy Juneteenth.
Kai Wright: Happy Juneteenth.
Kai Wright: Thanks to everybody around the country for joining our Juneteenth special. A particular thanks to our partner stations in Texas, Houston Public Media, KERA Dallas, and Texas Public Radio, you're awesome. United States of Anxiety is a production of WNYC Studios. Our team includes Emily Botein. Regina de Heer. Karen Frillmann, Kousha Navidar, Rahima Nasa, and Jared Paul. Engineering by Milton Ruiz tonight. Our theme music was written by Hannis Brown and performed by the Outer Borough Brass Band, and I am Kai Wright. Thanks for spending time with us tonight, and happy Juneteenth.
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