Ruminations on Juneteenth: Red as a Living Archive

                  (Black Unity Juneteenth Celebration, Eugene, Oregon, David Geitgey Sierralupe/

On June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger made his way to Galveston, Texas. After two and a half years after Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation under the prolonged violence of enslavement, the last of the enslaved were told they were free given the victory of the Union over the Confederacy. Afro-Texas marked this celebration with the color red. Red is a living archive of the Juneteenth holiday. Under red, the archive of Afro-Texas offers strong symbolisms of not only rich diasporic traditions of transformation and sacrifice, but an archival practice reflective of the possibilities and futures of Afro-Texan archiving. What I offer here to the legacy of Juneteenth in Texas is a practice of archiving that takes place using the color red, and the importance of the possibilities and alternative archival practice that lie within the consuming and preparation of red for Juneteenth. This brief rumination ends with considering Juneteenth and its subsequent celebrations as annual epistemological openings into the future of Afro-Texas and the archival work still needing to be done.

In celebration of the Juneteenth holiday, ice cold Big Reds are popped open dripping in the sweat of hot June summers, picnic tables are adorned with watermelon and strawberry shortcakes, fresh strawberry preserves and whipped cream, while a thick fog fills the air from hickory-smoked ribs and chicken. These pieces of Juneteenth line backyards, driveways, and hills of red dirt for miles to come. The Juneteenth celebrations that transform Afro-Texas outdoors annually communes with red food and drink, a celebratory archiving of both life and death using red. Red, as a haunting – or what Avery Gordon defines as the “language of demand” – shows how Afro-Texans frequent and remake archival narratives of life, death and new beginnings through red food and drink. Juneteenth, thus, is held by color. Red reflects a language through which Afro-Texan archives speak. It demands attending to an enfleshed archive in the pleasures and toils of cooking, smoking or even finding the ripest strawberries and watermelons. Red embraces the haunting, the demand, of where and how Black bodies and flesh hold and remix this celebration of Black freedom, even across the States.

There was once much speculation around where the celebration of red comes from for Afro-Texans’ Juneteenth celebrations. Culinary historian Michael Twitty argues that the color red is a marker of celebration Texas’ African diasporic histories. This history is unsurprising given Texas’ rich socio-cultural diaspora as a result of the illegal Caribbean slave trade from Cuba, Texas personal slave trade routes to and from Africa, domestic flees by Southern enslavers from neighboring states during the height of the Civil War, to the state’s Indigenous origins (Apache, Karankawa, Shawnee, Cherokee, etc.), European settlers (German), with Spanish and Mexican lineages that brushed up with free Blacks, Afro-Indigenous, and Afro-Mexican communities and peoples. Texas was a Black diasporic geography making its very Black roots key for exploring red and other alternative archiving paths of study. According to Twitty, the focus on red draws from Yoruba and Kongo peoples brought to 19th century Texas. “For both cultures the color red is the embodiment of spiritual power and transformation,” wrote Twitty. Likewise, red is believed to symbolize both the blood shed of enslaved who had died before seeing the freedom assumedly come with Juneteenth, but were believed to have offered up their lives in sacrifice for this significant turning point of Afro-Texan living.

Haunting speaks to the duality of this annual celebration of life and death where red requires present and future engagement. Haunting also speaks to the ephemeral archival immaterial, key intimate desirabilities that go unacknowledged by archivists and therefore subsequent archive material. It captures what goes unsaid: fleeting mentions, laughter, rolled eyes, anger, sound, smoke and red. These are the parts of archived histories glanced over, therefore in need of imagination and speculation to what feels obscure, opaque, and often not fully legible. Red covers what we have yet to know but feel when drinking the cool Big Reds while cicadas hum over the last bits of food and conversations. The language at which we celebrate and revise our traditions to celebrate freedom more deeply in Texas is haunted and we actively use this haunting to fuel this joy. Yet, what haunting demands is a frequent contact, a revised archival encounter as we return to its multiple narratives, silences and absence at its core. For Texans, in a state where enslavement continues to be written away and made opaque for study, Juneteenth’s celebrations are ones dedicated to the annual enfleshment of haunting. To hold this haunting through bodily practices like eating red is to archive the ongoing complexities of Black living and livingness – the means of reconfiguring how and what we know through flesh and fleshy performances and expressions of life from song to food and everything in between and beyond. Red archives the beauty of an expanding archive emerging from praxes of knowing, remembering, and reforming from flesh to abandon what is for what is to come.

Juneteenth shares the beginning of a newfound possible living in legal freedom yet became a marker for the blood spilled and drawn by enslavers in angry refusal in losing property before the news hit Galveston. The last state to enslave also arguably became the final state to hear about the legal emancipation of the enslaved. Texas enslaved remained in slow death and living hells for two and a half years, but those two and half years shaped the fervor of celebration when June 19, 1865, came; from this, red emerges. What can a color offer our definitions of archives and its expansions when encountering Blackness and Afro-Texas? The answer to this inquiry is bolstered by the archival traditions of Texas that centered folklore (story-tellings, proverbs and oral histories) as accessible archives of Black, Indigenous and Latinx cultures. Though this mired archival practice drew from the violent intellectual practices of early sociologists and anthropologists – not to mention the biased recording practice of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) that influenced Texas focus on folklore as archive – folklore assists us in opening the archive to extend beyond material, but engage the immateriality of archives that often take the form of its haunting like red and oral traditions. Yet, contributing to this expansion granted by Black livingness, we may turn to archives that live in and by the body. Afro-Texan archives, thus, are consumed and practiced by flesh and thus, present a living archive built on the sensorium, built around red.

What does it mean to annually archive offer up red food and drink at our altars of cookout tables, barbecue pits, and strawberry shortcake? In honor of this sacrifice, we consume red and drink its tensions all in the belief that we must continue to make room for all Juneteenth stands for – in its living and violence. Red is excess. It is neither past nor present but a celebration of making futures, archiving futures using our flesh. The performances of our flesh – the cooking, the wood one chooses to smoke, the amount of time we dedicate to prepare and gather – red binds us to one another and to that history. Can a color offer our definitions of archives and its expansions when encountering Blackness, specifically Afro-Texas? It offers ways forward to advance the means through which Afro-Texans contribute to Black study on the archive, its limitations and possibilities. Red demonstrates an alternative archival practice in past, present, and more than likely, future where enslavement is erased, chastised and diminished under the victories of the Alamo, Texas’ statehood and deep pride over its good food. Juneteenth’s red is but one means of entering a haunting that begins with Black living, in response and beyond Black death. This Juneteenth, we remember not only Texas and the legal freedom that spanned across the South but we remember the power of archiving flesh that holds space for future study on Afro-Texas and its refusals as important contributions to Southern histories, but moreso epistemologies.

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Endia Hayes

Endia Louise Hayes is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. Her work, beginning with the complexity and creativity of Black living, maps Afro-Texas, past and present, through its historical sonic, affective, and overall immaterial geographies. Specifically, Endia’s dissertation examines the intimate archival practices of Afro-Texan diasporic peoples arising from Black sensoriums. She has shared her work at the American Sociological Association, Association for Black Sociologists, AAIHS, and the Rutgers Center for Historical Analysis. Follow her on Twitter @endipendent.