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Remembering Juneteenth

I learned to love Juneteenth long before I became aware of the emancipation of enslaved Black people. I think my father was his happiest on that day; he permitted himself to do whatever he wanted on Freedom Day.

Deborah Roberts, “I am Human, I am Free” (2017) mixed media collage on paper, 30 x 22 inches; (copyright Deborah Roberts, courtesy the artist; Stephen Friedman Gallery, London; and Vielmetter Los Angeles)

This article is part of Sunday Edition: “Juneteenth.”
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When I look back on Juneteenth, I think of my father and how he cooked perfect BBQ for my family every nineteenth of June. He never cooked us breakfast, dinner or snacks, but when it came to that day, he was top chef. It started with seasoning the meat with his special rub the night before, cutting wood at daybreak and having his steel barrel cooker hot by eight o’clock. He would place the meat on the cool side of the grill, allowing the heat from the charcoal and mesquite wood to make its way to the huge amounts of chicken, brisket, and ribs. I remember asking “Why isn’t that piece on the hot side?” whilst pointing at a halved, uncooked chicken. Not looking up, he closed the dark, stained smoke cover and replied, “I need it to cook on the cool side.” This method of “cueing” would take all day and he referred to this as putting the “mmm” in the meat.

After the meat was off the grill (except for the brisket which always takes longer to cook) he would start making his dipping sauce. He never poured it on his meat because he always said, “If you do it right, there’s no need to cover it up.” I think he was his happiest on that day; no matter what day it fell on, he would take off work and make his much-anticipated burnt bird. My dad permitted himself to do whatever he wanted on Freedom Day.

Born in the South, he lived through the height of Jim Crow and saw most of his rights denied. However, on this day, he allowed himself to feel free, to relax and to boast to his brothers about being the best cook in the world. Not minding much if I sat quietly by him and watch him cook, I moved quickly if he needed anything and leapt for joy knowing that he had personally chosen me as his assistant. Whether he called for foil paper, cold water, onions, or more rub, I was there watching. What I didn’t realize is that I was learning his craft: how to lay out the grill, putting wood on the bottom and charcoal briquettes on the top; lighting from the side so as not to burn your hands; cleaning the racks before putting the meat down; putting the brisket on the fire to brown it a bit before wrapping it with foil paper; and finally, piling on the chicken, ribs, and sausage. Things came off of the grill like the movement of a fine-tuned clock. My brothers and sister especially enjoyed him on those special days.

I learned to love Juneteenth long before I became aware of the emancipation of enslaved Black people. As an adult, I certainly understand the significance of this day and why it is vital that we celebrate and remember Juneteenth, particularly in light of current circumstances. My father is no longer with us, but I think of him fondly on this day and smile when I light my first charcoal briquette.

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