This weekend’s Juneteenth celebration has more meaning of freedom for African Americans than July 4th. Yes, we became free of the tyranny of the British monarchy on July 4. But we weren’t yet free from our own tyranny of slavery. Juneteenth, marks the reading on June 19, 1865, of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln, and the official ending of slavery in the United States. It wasn’t the end of the fight – which lasted over another 100 years – but it was definitely the beginning.
Local Juneteenth festivities will be at Eden Park. And, revelers will celebrate with music and several symbolic foods. In my opinion, the food event not-to-miss at this year’s Juneteenth, will be the 10:30 AM Sweet Potato Pie bakeoff, won in years past by Roper’s Restaurant in Bond Hill. But please, bakers, don’t forget the cloves! In addition to barbecue, smothered and fried chicken, and collard greens, the most common thing you’ll see at Juneteenth is the drinking of red drinks. And millions of African Americans across the country will also be drinking ‘liquid soul’ as they celebrate this holiday, many not knowing the ties back to West Africa.
But why are red drinks so popular at Juneteenth celebrations? Historically speaking, and according to leading Soul Food Historian, and James Beard Award Winning writer, Adrian Miller, it all goes back to West Africa, the cradle of slavery. There, red drinks often mark a special occasion. Enslaved West Africans brought over the same customary social “punch” with them to the American and Carribean South. There are two such red drinks that hail from West Africa – Hibiscus tea and kola nut tea.
Hibiscus is native to West Africa, and its flower petals are used to make a tea called bissap – a hospitality drink that’s still popular in several countries today. As late as the 1700s, enslaved West Africans cultivated this plant in Jamaica. Over time, hibiscus tea spread throughout the Caribbean and Latin America with enslaved and their descendants, where it is known today as Agua de Jamaica, or Jamaica water. This is why you can typically find hibiscus tea at taco places like Mazunte in Madisonville.
Kola nut tea, was also a red drink and used in West Africa as a sign of hospitality. Sometimes guests got the nuts to chew on and buzz on (they contained a stimulant). Enslaved West Africans also brought the kola nuts with them across the Atlantic to Caribbean plantations where they were used as supposed energy drinks. Atlanta pharmacist John Stythe Pemberton used the kola nut in his original ‘medicinal’ Coca-Cola formula, along with coca leaf (from which a small amount of cocaine was present).
At early Juneteenth celebrations in the 1870s and 1880s, the red drink of choice was red lemonade, made with either cherries, crushed strawberries, or food coloring. Then the favored punch transitioned to red soda pop, when carbonated beverages became more readily available. In the 1920s, powdered drinks became the faves, with the invention of Poly-pop and Kool-Aid. Then, these red drinks moved out of just the Juneteenth celebrations into African American homes and soul-food restaurants, as a bookend of soul food. Derogatory slang terms like ‘jungle juice’ and ‘ghetto pop’ became synonymous with any sweetened red drink, some even making it into hip hop and rap songs.
The custom of red drinks and foods at Juneteenth is their symbol of ingenuity and resilience in bondage. Some have also linked the symbolism to the blood shed throughout the institution of slavery. And of course, there are regional alliances to certain red pops. Red Pop is the drink of choice at Texas Juneteenths. Faygo is the way to go in Detroit. Nesbitt’s Strawberry soda is another popular red drink. And, in Cincinnati, it’s probably our own created-here Barq’s Red Pop.
It’s important to remember the red pop tie back to West Africa and it’s symbolism for this American celebration of Juneteenth.