I woke to the sound of my grandmama singing in the kitchen.
“Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.”
Her voice was deep and rich, like the red velvet cake she was probably making right that very moment. We always had red velvet cake for Juneteenth, and I always licked the bowl.
I jumped out of bed and pulled on the t-shirt and shorts I’d worn the day before. There weren’t too many grass stains, and my mother would make me change before the picnic, anyway. Grandmama was stirring the cake batter with her big wooden spoon. Mama had a Kitchen-Aid mixer, but my grandmother said the spoon was better. “Hand mixing adds in the love,” she would insist whenever my mother or sister would try to convince her otherwise.
I made it to the kitchen in time to join in on the chorus of the song. “Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us Facing the rising sun of our new day begun Let us march on till victory is won.” My voice wasn’t deep or rich yet, at least, not all the time, but I sang the words anyway, and there was something magical about singing with Grandmama in the kitchen when everyone else was still asleep.
“‘Bout time you showed up, handsome boy,” Grandmama greeted me. “I was beginning to wonder if you were too old to help me with the cake.”
“Not yet,” I said. “Not ever.”
“Oh, if only that were true,” she laughed. “C’mere and stir this for me. I need to rest my tired arms a minute.”
I took the bowl, tucking it under my arm like she did. We had plenty of counter space, but we never braced a bowl any other way. Not for stirring, I mean. “Am I folding or just stirring?” I asked.
“Just stirring. I want that batter nice and smooth before we add the red to it.”
It’s a little-known secret that red velvet isn’t actually a flavor. It’s really just chocolate with red food coloring in it. Only Grandmama didn’t use coloring from a bottle like most folks. Instead, she used cherry juice. She said it was better to use natural flavors because our ancestors always cooked with real ingredients, and we had to honor their memories, their struggle, and their courage with the food we made for this day.
“Is it time to add the juice yet?” I asked when I’d switched the bowl and spoon from side to side a couple times.
“Yes, I guess it is,” Grandmama said.
I put the bowl on the kitchen counter, and Grandmama poured cherry juice into the bowl. It pooled on top of the chocolate batter, and she took the spoon from me, and started folding the deep red liquid into the warm brown batter. At first, it did look a lot like blood, but once it was mostly mixed in it just looked like reddish cake batter. She didn’t hand the bowl back to me, just stirred until it was one, uniform color, and then she poured it into pans. Most people do just two layers, but our family makes four-layer cakes because Grandmama’s people had been in America for four generations when Juneteenth happened, and people here in Texas knew they were free forever.
I never asked Grandmama to tell me the story of her family. I wanted to, but Mama said it was too sensitive. It turned out I never had to ask, because if you got Grandmama singing, she’d follow that with a story, like when her four-times great grandmama (I think I’m counting that right) were forced into hot, smelly, ships and went over the ocean until they ended in Galveston. All these many years later the foods my ancestors brought with them – things like okra, and kola leaf tea (which is also red) – that have become foods everyone in the south eats all the time. I hate what they went through, but I love that these people they brought over as enslaved people ended up influencing their culture.
Grandmama says I have to learn our history, just like I have to learn to make red velvet cake with cherry juice, so I can carry our legacy forward. “Just because you’re my handsome grandson, doesn’t mean you can’t cook just like your sisters. All the famous chefs are men, anyway. Hopefully that’ll change someday.”
Once the cakes went into the oven, Grandmama took me into the parlor where the old piano was. Mama kept saying we should get a new one, because a couple of the keys just would not hold their tuning, but we never did. “Everyone’s sleeping, still,” I said as she sat down and positioned her worn hands.
“Well, then… let’s wake them up.”
And so, as the red velvet cake baked in the oven, I sang with my Grandmama, and we woke up the house.
“Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee
Shadowed beneath Thy hand
May we forever stand
True to our God
True to our native land
Our native land”
Note: “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was written by R.M. Carter, J.R. Johnson, and J.W. Johnson
Written for Brief #19 of Like the Prose 2021: Juneteenth