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In conversation with Jim Embry, Activist And Farmer, Sustainable Communities Network
Edited by Michelle DiMuzio

Can you tell us about the meaning and legacy of Juneteenth from your perspective?

In my family, we had three great great grandfathers that mustered in at Camp Nelson and fought with the US Colored Troops: brothers Jackson and George Ballew on my Mom’s side of the family and Lewis Gilbert on my Dad’s side. They were all from the plantation farms in Madison County, KY. 

Jackson Ballew served with the 12th Regiment and died early in the war. He is my direct lineage great great grandfather who left his widow, Elizabeth Ballew, with seven children aged two to 16 years old. After the Civil War, Elizabeth not only survived after the death of her husband, but thrived since all of her children eventually owned small farms and her youngest son, Don Carlos, my great grandfather, became a schoolteacher and began our family tradition as agrarian intellectual activists. Women like Elizabeth “made a way out of no way!” By most people’s standard, she would be considered as “illiterate” since she could not read or write. But thanks to Elizabeth, who tenaciously survived with her children and inspired them all to “lift as you climb“, I can write this post today! 

(Elizabeth, like Harriet Tubman, struggled for 30 years seeking pension compensation for her husband’s war service.)

So Juneteenth, for me, is very much about remembering and honoring such ancestors as my great great grandmother, Elizabeth, and all others who lived with the conviction of:

Just like Moons and like Suns; with the certainty of tides; just like hopes springing high; and still I’ll rise.” (Maya Angelou)

Additionally, I’m recognizing and honoring absolutely our collective struggles for freedom, our rich cultural traditions that we carried with us from Africa as well as those traditions developed here on Turtle Island. I’m proudly remembering and honoring members of my family and all their various contributions to these struggles and traditions. 

Our country still needs reckoning, reconciliation, reparations, regeneration, revisioning and reunification. Juneteenth is a time to remember that we must change the narrative and envision our future.

 

How are Juneteenth and the Slow Food movement connected?

The Slow Food movement in practice and philosophy dates back at least 12,000 years when women developed agriculture. Therefore, the farming practices in the United States at the founding of Juneteenth, in 1865, were essentially in alignment with the principles of Slow Food. However, the aspects of “fair” and “justice” were missing. 

Juneteenth and the North victory in the Civil War were made possible by the 180,000 Black soldiers who were fighting for their freedom, most of whom were farmers. Juneteenth is a jubilation and celebration of the emancipation of four million enslaved Africans. This moment in our country’s history is one of the best examples of joy and justice and the pillars of Slow Food. Since 1865, African Americans have been celebrating this day in a variety of ways, especially through culinary traditions and the celebration of food and togetherness. 

Our country’s founding on stolen land and labor for food and agriculture spurred the Civil War, and aspects of these injustices are still prevalent today. The global injustice of food and agriculture founded in European conquest, enslavement of Africans, and colonization of Indigenous peoples was an inspiration for the Slow Food movement. Therefore, Slow Food is grounded in dismantling these forms of injustice.

 

We hear you are traveling with 100 varieties of seeds from your new Ujamaa Seeds cooperative. Can you describe the origin of this and how it relates to Juneteenth?

The idea for the Ujamaa Seeds cooperative was born about two years ago alongside Bonnetta and Hassan Adeeb and Nate Kleinman, when we recognized there were missing links in our seed network, especially to people of color, related to the seeds of the African Diaspora. We also noticed a lack of African Americans and people of color involved with seed saving. 

With the full support of Ira Wallace of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and other kindred spirits in the seed movement, such as the Organic Seed Alliance, Ujamaa Seeds was created. The Ujamaa Seed cooperative launched its first seed catalog for sale in January 2022. 

Ujamaa Seeds is a continuation of the 150 year celebration of Juneteenth that highlights our nation’s journey towards justice. Seeds are the basic foundation of food and agriculture.

Food and agriculture were the basis and primary use of the labor of African people. Emancipation and Juneteenth meant formerly enslaved Africans could now participate in working the land and agriculture; the primary expression of freedom was to produce their own food and become self-reliant and resilient. Therefore, food and agriculture are the basis of Juneteenth and emancipation.   

However, we can’t talk about celebrating Juneteenth without talking about seeds. We can’t talk about what freedom and emancipation mean without talking about seeds. Ujamaa Seeds is a continuation of what freedom means; freedom, democracy and sustainability are all related to how we protect, honor, and preserve seeds as a way of ensuring our sustainable future and also as a way to counter the monopoly control of seeds by the large agribusinesses.

 

What are some of your favorite foods to consume on Juneteenth?

While Juneteenth is now a national holiday and recognized by forty-nine states (South Dakota is the only state that does not recognize Juneteenth), the foods eaten to celebrate Juneteenth are foods I eat daily within the season. While we often associate holidays with good eating, the Black community associates good eating as an everyday practice. Some of the traditional foods that Black folk eat are greens, okra, yams and barbeque. Specifically for Juneteenth, part of the tradition is to eat foods that are red in color such as watermelon, red drinks and red velvet cake.

Jim is currently on a Joy and Justice Journey touring around the United States meeting with members of the Slow Food community. Email Jim to connect and find time and space to meet! 

 

Additional Resources Recommended by Jim

Juneteenth by National Museum of African American History & Culture

Celebrate Juneteenth by Teach for America

The Juneteenth Foundation

Interview with Jim by WPCO-TV in Covington

Jim Embry Keynote Presentation at Stanford University 

Ancestral Vibrations Guide our Connections to the Land Essay by Jim Embry

Juneteenth Promotional Poster for Juneteenth Recognition at Stanford University 

 

Photo Credits | The Public Domain Review