A Juneteenth Conversation
With Tonya Abari and Alliah L. Agostini
Are you looking for children's books about Juneteenth? Be sure to check out two titles from our very own Alliah L. Agostini, illus. by Sawyer Cloud (The Juneteenth Story) and Tonya Abari, illus. by Tabitha Brown (Let’s Celebrate Juneteenth). We sat down with these authors in a brief conversation about commemorating Juneteenth.
1. How did learning (or not learning) about Juneteenth as a child impact your knowledge of this history as an adult?
AA: I’ve always known about Juneteenth because my Buffalo, NY community has long celebrated it- but my knowledge of the depth of the history behind it and its evolution is something that eluded me until I started research for The Juneteenth Story. Juneteenth was never discussed in any of my history curriculums from elementary through graduate school.
TA: I did not learn about Juneteenth until my early twenties. That’s right. All of public K-12 and undergrad, and not a single mention of Juneteenth (*shaking my head emoji*). It wasn’t until a chance trip to Houston that I gained knowledge of Juneteenth by witnessing several local celebrations. I quickly began researching and knew that I’d devote more time incorporating additional education for myself and my (at the time) future family.
2. What Juneteenth traditions do you have/have you started with your own family?
AA: My grandfather helped start the Juneteenth Festival in Buffalo, NY in 1976, so I grew up going to and even helping out with the festival. It was celebrated annually in Martin Luther King Jr. Park on the east side of Buffalo, and it was huge - it has been touted as the third-largest Juneteenth festival in the world.
I fondly remember going to the festivals, watching the parades, and gorging on barbecue chicken, hot dogs, and sno-cones. After I left Buffalo for college, I remember not being able to find any large festivals in the other cities where I lived after, and I realized how special our celebration truly was. Now that the holiday has broader awareness, I’ve enjoyed barbecuing, blasting my Juneteenth playlist, making crafts, and going to local festivals with my family.
TA: Since we didn’t celebrate Juneteenth growing up, I’m the official tradition starter for my family. We begin the day with reflection and education — reading books, watching documentaries, whatever we can get our hands on. This year, we are participating in a walking tour where we’ll get to know more about Nashville’s Black history.
My oldest selects a Juneteenth recipe and we make it as a family with our midday tea (my husband is Nigerian, so jollof has made its way to every celebration including Juneteenth, ha!). In the past decade, we’ve attended citywide celebrations, barbecues, and enjoyed a nice spread at home. One of these years I’d like to make it back to a rodeo, just like the one I saw in Texas in my 20s.
3. What is your favorite dish associated with Juneteenth?
AA: Red sno-cones!! I love their crunchy, sweet, icy goodness. I occasionally even helped sell sno-cones at our festival, so they are very nostalgic to me.
TA: Hibiscus tea is a favorite in our household. The flower is bright red, flavorful, and native to Africa. The formerly enslaved also incorporated this tea in the first Juneteenth celebrations. We like to remix the teas, adding peppermint or lavender — and the tiny humans dress up for our “Noonteenth” tea parties (Alliah, can you dig the mashup?).
AA: Noonteenth?! I LOVE IT!
4. What do you most enjoy about Juneteenth celebrations beyond food?
AA: The vibe. The many sights, sounds, feels and smells of Juneteenth create a sensorial vibe like no other. From the multi-colored Afrocentric clothing worn by attendees and sold by vendors, to the many hair textures and styles, to the smell of barbeque smoke and incense, to the bass coming from speakers and shouts of drill teams and other paraders, there’s nothing like it.
TA: The keeping of our history is so important. Through these traditions, we celebrate and live in our joy. We have endured unimaginable circumstances, and still we thrive. It’s beautiful to see folks coming together to honor that.
5. What have you found most eye-opening in your conversations with others about Juneteenth since it became a national holiday?
AA: I’ve found the sense of guilt that so many people, especially African-American people, have about not knowing about the holiday, to be really sobering. So many of us feel almost deceived and willfully undereducated, but the reality is this lack of knowledge is the direct consequence of curricula that excluded so much of our [Black] history.
It’s not our fault- we didn’t know what we didn’t know! But now that we do know, we can use this as an opportunity to right these wrongs and teach ourselves and the next generation, and fight for continued access to books and curricula that tell our story- even when certain forces *a-hem* attempt to suppress access.
TA: I have to admit that I felt so guilty for not knowing about Juneteenth. And an even bigger secret is that I felt guilty writing a board book about it knowing that I did not commemorate Juneteenth until adulthood. But upon deep reflection, I knew I wanted to write a book that introduced babies and toddlers to the significance of Juneteenth — the same way that I was introduced to it.
You’re absolutely right. I felt deceived! But the untold and undertold [Black] history is not my fault. And now that I know better, I’m certainly doing better.
6. As the holiday becomes less ‘novel’, what message do you hope remains in the mind of those who celebrate?
AA: I hope people continue to keep the roots of Juneteenth at the forefront. This holiday celebrates the delayed emancipation of generations of enslaved African-descended people, the people who toiled and built this country under a brutal, racist, inhumane system. Holidays tend to be diluted, commercialized, and generalized with time. Let us not forget who and what is at the core of this celebration.
TA: You took the words right out of my mouth, Alliah. To add, I just saw a post online from a banner in SC that advertised Juneteenth with non-Black folks at the center and er um…no, no, no. It’s also cool that big corporations like Walmart now carry Juneteenth merch, but it’s important to remember to support Black-owned businesses, especially on Juneteenth. I’ll repeat: Let us not forget who and what is at the core of this celebration.
For additional Juneteenth reading recommendations for young readers, check out these lists: