“Freedom Ain’t Free” – Matthew Raiford on the Meaning of Juneteenth

Matthew Raiford sitting and reading a book

This Juneteenth, Bon Appétit is partnering with CheFarmer Matthew Raiford, the author of the celebrated cookbook Bress ‘n’ Nyam, which highlights the cuisine of Matthew’s community – the Gullah Geechee people. We checked in with Matthew about what it means to observe Juneteenth, which commemorates the emancipation of enslaved African Americans in 1865. 

Matthew Raiford is the great-great-great grandson of Jupiter Gilliard, a descendent of the Tikar people of what is now Cameroon. Jupiter was born into slavery in South Carolina in 1812 and was sold or traded at some point before the Civil War to a landowner in Glynn County, Georgia.1 Following emancipation, Jupiter began accumulating property, which by 1870 amounted to over 450 acres. Matthew and his family make their home on a part of this ancestral homestead today.   

The question of the emancipation proclamation and its accompanying celebration, Juneteenth, is one Matthew and his family have done a great deal of thinking about. For many, Juneteenth represents a time for celebration, especially in recent years after President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law, making it a federal holiday in the United States.  

In conversation with Matthew, he wondered aloud if the popularization of the holiday allowed for celebration to overtake reflection and contemplation about what Juneteenth truly means. “In the United States all holidays are considered celebratory for some reason,” Matthew says. “We don’t reflect on why we’re able to celebrate. For example, how many people died trying to bring the news of the emancipation proclamation to Texas, where Juneteenth was first celebrated?”  

For Matthew, if Juneteenth goes the way of many other American holidays, the sacrifices of so many will get lost in the barbecues and beer pastiche of Memorial Day, the 4th of July, and others, blurring the legacy of slavery, as well as the stain of white supremacy and systemic racism that persists in the United States. Without a struggle to understand, we’ll start to slowly dilute the memory and meaning of the day. 

Matthew’s rallying cry against apathy and forgetfulness is that “freedom ain’t free,” a reflection on the sacrifices that have been made — by the people who brought the news of emancipation to Texas — as well as sacrifices that will continue to be made. This Juneteenth, commit to doing what Matthew calls “activation” — seek to engage deeply, shun complacency, and do some reading.  

Matthew has asked us to ask you to read My Grandmothers Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies by Resmaa Menakem, which examines the damage caused by racism in America from the perspective of trauma- and body-centered psychology.  

By embracing activation as a form of celebration, we can collectively build understanding about the true meaning of Juneteenth.  

1, 2 Bress ‘n’ nyam: Gullah Geechee recipes from a sixth-generation farmer. Raiford et al. – The Countryman Press, a Division of W. W. Norton & Company – 2021