Oxford American | Acts of Happiness

Black liberation—as a term—didn’t exist in my household growing up, but looking back, I realize we talked about it all the time. An expansive range of Black identity and history was accessible to me through my parents’ LPs and cassettes. Distributed throughout the house was a collection of sculptures my Nigerian dad imported from throughout West Africa, and a teeming bookshelf featured authors like Alex Haley and Angela Davis. To know me and the family dynamics from which I come is to understand that while I was not permitted to watch the decades-running animated sitcom The Simpsonsa show that my parents disliked for its regrettable, white-centric presentation of children disrespecting their parents and causing shameful mayhem, they had no issue with me watching In Living Color, a groundbreaking, risqué sketch-comedy that was decisively more explicit, but centered Black culture and experiences, even as it aimed to be universally, and hilariously, offensive. We watched it as a family. I was as interested in the show’s contents as much as I was in seeing when my parents laughed. Over these years, I absorbed that our at-home, Black culture was different from that of my mostly white public school and the media and entertainment they consumed. My friends in Black households didn’t “talk back” to elders the way my white friends did. when my father’s Edo community gathered, children ate the same foods as the adults; there was no such thing as a “kid friendly” menu. While I did endure hair relaxer treatments at times (an essay for another day), standards of beauty were generally intended to accentuate our natural features. I learned that to be Black and feel free was to create a respite from “out there.” A place where white children and their parents didn’t feel entitled to touching my hair, asking me (as opposed to my father) to explain from where my dad came, always interrogating and inquiring instead of presuming another’s baseline was also normal and mainstream, somewhere. It meant cultivating space for joy in the face of near-constant televised injustices, to laugh and embrace one another even as systemically unfair odds raged on.

The story of Juneteenth, a summer holiday tied to the emancipation of slavery in the United States, is an exceptional tale of delayed freedom, and yet the historic moment was not on my radar as an annual celebration until a few years ago. After leaving the East Bay and before we headed down south to the Inland Empire, I spent the impressionable ages of eight to thirteen in Clovis, California, adjacent to Fresno in the central region of the state. My neighborhood and school were a shift from the all-Black environments my parents experienced growing up. My father, Lucky, attended boarding school outside of Benin City, Nigeria, where he was born; my mother, Angela, was born and raised in 1960s South Central Los Angeles in an upper middle-class neighborhood where Etta James lived just down the street.

In their own way, my parents laid powerful foundations for my personal and bi-cultural identities, intending that I could lean on that knowledge as a source of deep pride. Angela, a journalist-turned-media relations expert never missed an opportunity to reframe a biased news headline or put in context the wildly restrictive immigration laws emerging from 1990s state politics. She taught me about the civil rights movement and how a child should be able to drink from any water fountain; she explained in approachable but frank terms how and why Jim Crow worked. Lucky asserted his Edo culture with custom heritage apparel tailored for the family. He hosted parties for Nigerian friends in the area where I heard him speak his native tongue and pidgin, and endless trays of potluck egusi stew, jollof, sweet plantain, crowded the kitchen counter. My father played and quoted so much Bob Marley, I may have been nearing high school before I understood that the legendary musician was, in fact, Jamaican and not Nigerian. It’s from these listening sessions that I learned about figures like Haile Selassie and Marcus Garvey and Pan-African ideas of freedom.

Over the past few years, Juneteenth has gained national recognition while school discussion of America’s history with Blackness is met with restriction. I find myself like many others, in a unique moment of reflection. What does it mean to bring forward a tradition that was not previously mine in practice, but absolutely belongs to me in the cultural realm as a Black American? Everywhere I look, I see delayed or disappeared justice for Black folks in this country. In the face of bewildering inequity from how police enforce laws, to whose homes get appropriately appraised, I know that my ability to experience, freely express, and maintain joy as a Black American is and will always be a political and powerful act. I have incorporated Juneteenth in my life as an adult, and I am moved by the complexity of the holiday as both a victory and an acknowledgment of loss. I love the symbolism of defiant joy, the willingness to cherish family and friends amid delicious food and drink.

I’ve been living in New York City since the beginning of 2020 and working on a book that reflects on American restaurant and dining culture. I’ve come across the Schomburg Center’s menu collection, a primary resource of historic restaurant and private dining menus spanning more than one hundred years. For the OA, I dove into these celebratory menus as inspiration for a fictional meal I might prepare one day—even outside the container of Juneteenth. I lingered on certain dishes because they sounded delicious, or because I liked the circuitous path of research I was led down by following the menu and its diners’ connections with one another. Each dish, each menu compilation, its own slice of history showing with whom and how Black folks spent their leisure social time and expanding our often-limited notions of what Black folks of days past ate and how those foods were prepared. I like the idea of ​​mimicking small and potent past acts of happiness and delight in my own imaginary modern celebration of Black joy and liberation. So as we say, where the food at?