The inclusion of corn in Juneteenth celebrations isn't just a seasonal fluke. The symbolism of the plant as a celebratory food for Black Americans is long and deep.

By Vaughn Stafford Gray
June 17, 2021
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Field of corn against sky
Credit: Marien Regnault / EyeEm / Getty Images

Corn is humanity's greatest agronomic achievement. Once you understand its domestication, spread, and importance to African American foodways, you'll never look at it the same way again. To understand corn is to understand American food.

Before the arrival of Spanish missionaries, Texas had long been an agricultural Promised Land. The sweltering heat, humid summers, incredibly mild winters, and 15 major rivers, which account for close to 200,000 miles of waterways, make the state's farming lands incredibly arable. Yet during slavery, due to the wildfire of greed fuelled by the 1793 invention of the cotton gin, most plantations devoted their lands to cotton growing. Per Texas Almanac archives, Texas has been a significant cotton producer since 1860. Today, over 37 percent of the total United States cotton harvest comes from Texas. But do you know what else thrives in The Lone Star State? Corn.

Texan enslavers found it not as profitable to grow food crops such as wheat, oats, pecans, and sweet potatoes that thrive in the nutrient-rich Texas soil. Corn seemed to be the exception to the rule and became the largest food crop in Texas before the end of the Civil War. Why? The enslaved used corn to feed the plantocracy in the most creative ways.

Since its domestication by Mayans 10,000 years ago, corn has been a celebratory food. For Mayan descendants, including those in Mexico, corn is deeply rooted in their culture. For the Indigenous peoples of the Americas, corn is one of the Three Sisters — winter squash, maize, and climbing beans — crops integral to their survival, history, and diets. But how did it get into the hands of African Americans? To understand that, we need to take a trip to Central Africa. 

Though there was pre-Colonial contact between Africa and the Americas, historians have somewhat determined that the Portuguese introduced corn to the continent, by way of The Congo, in 1493. Within 50 years, maize had so spread throughout Central and West Africa that it became a staple. References to it showed up in early historical travelogues, but a sketch of an ear of corn found its way in the 1554 writings of Italian geographer and historian Giovanni Battista Ramusio. So by the time the enslaved arrived on America's shores in 1619 and were placed on plantations, cotton may have been foreign, but corn was an old friend. 

Corn connected enslaved people to home. The same way that kernels were pummeled into submission, so would they be. In the same way that kernels were scattered yet bloomed where they were planted, so would they. There's an 18th-century hymn entitled We Plough the Fields and Scatter. It speaks about harvest, grain, and refreshing rain. To me, the hymn is allegorical. It speaks of the scattering of seeds (people) that had to (forced) survive where they were flung, much like my ancestors. 

The enslaved mastered how to use corn. Hoecakes, Johnny cakes, spoonbread, pone, corn fritters, and cornbread were placed on the "Big House" table and in the palms of those in the field. In American Cookery, the first cookbook published in America by an American (Amelia Simmons), corn recipes are prominent. At the time of publishing in 1796, these corn recipes were more within reach than others in British cookbooks that required expensive items like eggs and cream.

Early cornbread recipes comprised cornmeal, hot water, and lard. In a blog post, Institute of Culinary Education instructor Chris Scott (who was a finalist on Top Chef Season 15) writes, "The luxury of having butter, buttermilk, sugar, honey, baking powder or baking soda usually indicated that you had money." Besides baked or griddled foods, corn was used to make porridge and grits and coat proteins like fried catfish. The ability to use corn in myriad ways was not only a reflection of Black ingenuity. It was, too, about survival. 

Two and a half years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Lincoln in 1863, more than 250,000 enslaved people in Texas received word of their freedom. On June 19, 1865, they celebrated with food. Juneteenth celebratory foodsred velvet cake, Texas Pete hot sauce, strawberry pie, and hot links—are replete with symbolism. Integral to the celebration of Juneteenth and African American food culture is, yes, you guessed it, corn.

Raw Corn Kernels
Credit: Vladimir Sretenovic / Getty Images

Over Memorial Day weekend, journalist Jemele Hill shared a video from a TikTok user showing elder aunts conferring about a family member who puts shrimp in her potato salad, thus rendering it inedible. There was a brouhahah in the comment section with people confirming that certain dishes are so revered at Black gatherings that they should not be fussed with. Cornbread is one of those recipes. 

African American families pride themselves on being able to feed people. Dr. Jessica B. Harris is the author of 12 critically acclaimed cookbooks that chronicle African American foodways. Among them is High on the Hog, which inspired chef, documentarian and food writer Stephen Satterfield  to make the recently-released Netflix documentary of the same name. In one of Harris' earlier cookbooks, The Welcome Table: African-American Heritage Cooking, she notes: "During slavery, mama fed her young by giving up her own food, so food became a way to express affection in African-American families." 

I was in Texas for all of May, eating, exploring, and researching. As a Jamaican-born chef and writer, I've never had more conversations about corn in my life. Some farmers I spoke with never heard of cornmeal and hominy corn porridges, breakfast staples in the Caribbean. Others were impressed that Jamaica has its own version of polenta called "turned cornmeal." Barbadians have their own as well called cou-cou; it's made deliciously stretchy with the addition of okra. In Zimbabwe, there's sadza, which is technically a porridge but cooked with so little water and vigorously stirred that it resembles a stiff polenta.

Corn heavily resonates with the diaspora and holds pride of place in Soul Food cookery. We are transported with one bite of cornbread, hush puppies, cornmeal-coated deep-fried catfish, grits, hoecakes, or biscuits. In an episode of High On The Hog, culinary historian Michael W. Twitty makes a powerful statement about Soul Food that brought me to tears. "We call our food Soul Food. We are the only people who named our cuisine after something invisible that you could feel like love and God. Something completely transcendental. It's about a connection between us and our dead and us and those waiting to be born." 

African-American poet, activist, and feminist Pat Parker was born in Houston in 1945. She's one of my favorite writers, and a lot of her work speaks about what it was like being Black (and female) in Texas. Twenty years ago, while in undergrad, I read one of her poems, "Don't Let the Fascists Speak." There are six words she wrote that resonate with me to this day: "...my innards churn, and they remember." Black people live with generations of inherited grief, which Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga says creates severe emotional "dis-ease." 

Imagine surviving the horrors of slavery and being free for two and a half years and not knowing. But on June 19, 1865, instead of mourning the loss of time, free Black people celebrated the best way they knew how, by feeding each other. And on that Juneteenth table, in the broiling Texas sun that used to punish them but now kissed their smiling faces, were an assortment of corn dishes. Because corn reminded them of home. Corn connected them to those who didn't make it and would welcome those waiting to be born.