Honoring Juneteenth: A Q&A with The Emily Program’s QuJane` Gordon-Gulley
As we celebrate the second anniversary of the Juneteenth federal holiday, we recognize how the Black community continues to fight for true racial equity in America. Solidarity and action behind the observance of Juneteenth are crucial for dismantling the systemic injustices and oppressive cultural discriminations facing Black Americans.
In this blog, QuJane` Gordon-Gulley, LPCC-S, a therapist at The Emily Program’s Cleveland Outpatient site, discusses Juneteenth’s historical and personal significance and shares stories illustrating the role that food freedom has played in shaping her culinary practices and connecting her with her heritage. QuJane`leaves us with a Sweet Potato Pie recipe inspired by longtime honored family traditions and ancestral guidance.
When did you first learn about Juneteenth and its significance in Black history?
Juneteenth may have been mentioned in an elementary school Social Studies or History class. I’m not sure if it was noted in any of the texts, however. I attended a predominantly Black Catholic school, and while the literature limited some lessons, my teachers made a point to include information that was relevant to us Black children to enrich our learning experiences. They were very passionate about our learning being inclusive in that way—even my Caucasian teachers.
What does Juneteenth mean to you?
Personally, Juneteenth is extra special because it is my birthday! So, in many ways, I have always celebrated myself and my personal journey growing up as a Black girl. With Juneteenth recently becoming a national holiday, it means that the 2020 nationwide (and worldwide) protests of racism and implicit biases in policing against Black Americans (historically rooted in American slave culture) are validated. It means that we cannot gaslight my community with messages that racism doesn’t exist. Yes, traditional American slavery has ended. But its wake continues to impact and oppress the Black community.
How will you acknowledge and celebrate Juneteenth?
With a little bit of structure and a little bit of unstructured time. It just so happens that my 2-year-old son starts his first music lesson that day, so we will start the day by embracing his love for drumming and music. I’m also going to take an hour or so for myself and go to the spa for some “me time,” which is my personal tradition. Lastly, I’d like to check out the public celebrations, including a few festivals and concerts, in the communities around my home. At some point in the week, I am sure I will find myself sitting around with friends and family, just connecting in a positive way. The conversation will likely drift into the Black experience with art, politics, economics, or social culture, and I’ll likely learn something new. Whatever the day looks like, I will be fully mindful of all it has taken for me to be who and where I am today, and I will cultivate a heart of gratitude and a spirit of freedom.
How does food connect you to your heritage?
Food is a big part of my culture. It’s a centerpiece of family gatherings, celebrations, and even tough conversations. It’s an expression of love and support when there is a loss, birth, and recovery from an illness or medical challenge. It’s also a great learning tool. Nothing taught me how to convert fractions better than tripling my mother’s recipe for cornbread dressing. It can also be a gateway to nostalgic memories. Sometimes I make or buy something that reminds me of a loved one who passed away. It’s a way to celebrate their life and form a new memory even though they’re not physically with me. When I bridge the new memory with old ones, it helps the grief feel smaller.
In what ways does sharing food provide you with a sense of cultural pride and identity?
I don’t like publicizing any Black stereotypes because they can take a wrong turn and get misconstrued. But there is nothing like the community of love, laughter, and life when my people get together in the kitchen or around a table. Sometimes, there are jokes and silly things that go on. And if I’m being honest, the energy can get a little spicy – but at the root of it all is love. For example, we are not ashamed to tell you to bring beverages or paper products if your level of cooking mastery is still in its infancy. Everyone has their own journey to learning their way around a good-tasting dish, and we respect the process. But if you promise to deliver at a big event and you mess it up, we will tell you about it AND reassign your dish to someone else next time. But you’re still invited, and we still love you. You just can’t do that again. Rehearsal is for your own kitchen. Feel free to experiment there, but not for the big function.
How has food freedom shaped your culinary practices?
So much of my culture’s cooking is led by tradition, creativity, and love. Often when I’m trying to learn to do something in the kitchen, I’m reminded that measuring cups have their place but are not always necessary. I have often asked, “How much do I add?” when I’m trying to recreate something my elders have mastered. I’m usually told, “until the ancestors say stop.” Or, I’m encouraged to let my sense of smell or taste lead the decisions.
For example, my dad makes a homemade BBQ sauce that tastes the same with every batch, but the ingredients vary depending on what he has in the kitchen at the time. I know it sounds wild, but it’s true! The only cheat code is that the base is either Open Pit or Savory Soul brand. But I encourage people to select a base that they prefer. If you’re feeling confident, start with steamed/pureed tomatoes, herbs, and spices, and build your base from scratch. After you have your base, it’s a free-for-all, literally. My dad might add ketchup, steak sauce, a few different kinds of mustard, an assortment of seasonings, half a lemon, and half an onion to simmer for an hour or more. Stirring regularly, of course. The only “rule” is this: if the bottom starts sticking, DO NOT SCRAPE IT. It will be tempting, but just leave it; otherwise, you’ll bring the chard flavor into the rest of the sauce. If you can’t help yourself, transfer the sauce to another pan and keep stirring. I have made a few batches, and it’s quite liberating. It’s like you’re a kid again pretending to cook something in your imagination—except you’re really cooking. Generally, if you want more spice, add a hot sauce you like, jalapenos, or crushed red pepper flakes. If you like sweet, add sugar, honey, or maple syrup. If you like zest or tang, add your favorite mustard or lemons. The idea is to add until your taste buds are satisfied. These days, my dad makes enough to bottle a few jars for winter when our taste buds are calling for a bit of summer on the plate.
Any recipes to share?
Absolutely! Every good dish has a story. My mom’s sweet potato pie is a popular ask around fall and winter holidays. (Speaking culturally, my people invite sweet potato pie to most celebratory occasions.) My mom, as a child, watched her mother (my grandmother) and her grandmother (my great-grandmother) bake sweet potato pie frequently. She never took a strong liking to it but has always been able to recreate it for holidays when it’s requested. My mom puts it all together and then has one of us taste it and tell her if it needs more of something or another. Making the crust may call for some measuring cups, but the filling is one led by the wisdom of the elders or the spirit of the ancestors. Add a little of this or that until your taste buds and brain are in agreement.
Sweet Potato Pie
- Rinse 4–6 medium-sized sweet potatoes
- Lay potatoes on a foil-lined cookie sheet
- Bake at 350° (covered or uncovered) until you can poke a fork through the potatoes
- The skin will shrivel up as the potatoes cook
- Remove the potatoes from the oven and let them cool enough to touch, then peel
- Put peeled potatoes in a large bowl atop 1 to 1.5 sticks of unsalted butter
- Add sugar – start with 1 cup (add more later if desired)
- Add vanilla (pour till the ancestors command you to stop)
- Add a small amount of cinnamon
- Using a hand mixer, mix until well blended
- Pour mix into a deep-dish frozen pie crust, and bake at 350 degrees for approximately 1 hour or until the top of the filling is browned
The joy of African American cooking is not found by following measurements. Instead, by cooking from your heart and soul, and letting your ancestors guide you through each ingredient, you learn to tailor recipes to suit your taste buds or those you cook for.