Haile Thomas on Celebrating America's Hidden Holiday, Juneteenth

After centuries of cultural suppression, Juneteenth's indulgence in food for the soul has become an expression of freedom.

Haile Thomas Juneteenth Essay
Tenneal McNair

Amid a global pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by the police, and continuing efforts to dismantle oppressive mindsets and systems and amplify Black voices, it's fitting that all Americans turn a discerning eye towards America's hidden holiday, Juneteenth. A combination of the words “June” and “nineteenth,” Juneteenth marks the day in 1865 when news of the abolishment of slavery finally made its way to Galveston, Texas, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

For far too long, Black American history has been deliberately separated from our collective American history. But in our DNA, Black Americans carry the painful reminder of the horrors that are built into this country's foundations. Meanwhile, most of the holidays (think Thanksgiving, Columbus Day) deemed "patriotic" focus solely on the oppressor's liberated spirit rather than the torture and generational genocide of native and enslaved peoples that the holidays are rooted in. Obviously, this should be no cause for celebration.

The history of Juneteenth has lived in the shadows of the Fourth of July, a force-fed day of our "collective" liberation. Each year on the Fourth, I try to embody the spirit of independence. I gather with family, prepare and eat classic American foods, watch daylight morph into dusk, and await an eruption of red, white, and blue lights to scatter the sky. Big, bright, unabashedly proud, shouldn't I feel something? As the colors fade into the dark night sky and join the parts of American history tucked away in the shadows, I feel invisible. The silence between bombs bursting in air whisper to me, "these are not your roots."

Another extravagant explosion of patriotic colors fills the sky. I hear it again. Louder. "This is not your freedom." I can't find myself or anyone of African descent within this context of freedom in America. As more color explodes into space, the ground rumbles, as if the ancestors whose forced labor built this country are screaming and shouting for visibility. For their stories to be set free.

What is it to feel free?

Growing up as a black human in America, I had to seek out the real history of people of African descent and our role in the evolution of this country. Independent research and learning are what helped me discover the full American story. As I became aware of Juneteenth, a day marking the true beginning of liberty and justice for all, it was piercing to see this holiday left in the shadows, unacknowledged by most non-BIPOC communities. In reality, Juneteenth has the potential to be an Independence Day that fills all Americans across the country with pride, as it is centered on freedom and the importance of celebrating, educating, and activating.

Haile Thomas

In reality, Juneteenth has the potential to be an Independence Day that fills all Americans across the country with pride.

— Haile Thomas

Traditionally, June 19th is commemorated through music, dance, sermons for self-improvement, prayer, and food. Dishes made of red ingredients (like strawberry soda, red velvet cake, cherry pie, and red beans and rice) symbolize perseverance and the lives lost in the long and treacherous fight for freedom. This infusion of purpose in food is healing. And after centuries of cultural suppression, indulgence in food for the soul has become an expression of freedom. It's a reclamation of culture, an honoring of resilience, and an affirming act of nourishment.

The celebration of Juneteenth, both past and present, is a powerful demonstration of the worthiness of Black bodies rejuvenating and how nurturing our ability to thrive helps all people.

I find comfort in exploring and celebrating the significance of Juneteenth–and the moment that millions of Black tongues tasted freedom on American soil for the first time in 246 years. But this flavor of freedom was only an amuse-bouche, if you will, and became a catalyst for the continued journey towards genuine equality. Which sadly, 400 years later is still yet to be an American reality.

Haile Thomas

Sadly, 400 years later after slavery first reached the United States, genuine equality is still yet to be an American reality.

— Haile Thomas

This makes me think of the intersection we find ourselves at right now. Our society, as we know it, is emotionally and spiritually malnourished. We've not been nourished by heart and soul, but rather, fed by the emptiness of hate, division, confusion, deep-rooted biases, capitalism, patriarchy, and a curated, incomplete national history to identify with. Yet, in the face of it all, something beautiful is emerging: our collective insatiable hunger.

We are famished for a country that serves us the truth. We want diversity, purpose, and equality to be the flavor of our nation because freedom and justice can no longer be an acquired taste. We are at the dawn of transcending the shame, guilt, and senseless violence that has suppressed our collective evolution for centuries. Embarking on the road of revolution is becoming irresistible. And this Friday, we can harness and honor the spirit of Juneteenth to refuel for the journey ahead. We must rejoice in the legacy of our strength and unified freedom.

So, how does one celebrate America's hidden holiday? While COVID-19 is still running in the background of so much societal upheaval, there are still many ways we can tap into the celebration, education, and activation of Juneteenth.

To Celebrate:

As we all know, food is a great connector, and it can unite us even if we can't physically be together. Host a virtual Juneteenth celebration with friends and family by preparing and enjoying red foods. This act of gathering creates opportunities to honor the fight for equality, learn about the lived experiences of Black people in America, and to have uncomfortable but necessary conversations.

To Educate:

There has been a heightened investment in the process of many Americans dismantling unconscious racism and becoming actively anti-racist through listening and learning from Black people's experiences. Here are some resources to continue your learning.

To Activate:

Make a commitment to support the wellbeing of your local and national Black community. In addition to continuing your personal education, stand with the Black Lives Matter movement by making a monthly donation to organizations on the frontlines, consciously supporting Black-owned businesses, signing petitions, and helping to educate and register voters.

Black Lives Matter. Black history matters, for it is the history of us all.

Haile Thomas is 19 years old, an international speaker, wellness and compassion activist, vegan food and lifestyle content creator, the youngest to graduate from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition as a Certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, and the founder/CEO of the non-profit HAPPY (Healthy, Active, Positive, Purposeful, Youth). Haile founded HAPPY when she was 12 years old to redefine youth empowerment through holistic education and address the need for peer-to-peer free/affordable plant-based nutrition and wellness education in underserved/at-risk communities. Follow her on Instagram and pre-order her upcoming cookbook, Living Lively, out on July 28th.

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