Personal Essay | Cornrows & Collard Greens: A Juneteenth Celebration

Juneteenth is a celebration of Black liberation and American restitution. A country can never be great if that “greatness” is tied to the oppression of any of its people; and Black folk have been oppressively tied to this land in ways that can only be remedied by Black land ownership.

It is within this historical context that I understand my legacy.

In kindergarten (from the German words kinder meaning children and garten meaning garden), we learned how to grow a blade of grass from a seed. When I proudly showed my sprouted seedling to my great aunt Dolly, she replied, “Baby, we grow food,” and promptly introduced me to growing collard greens–still my favorite greens to this day.

As an African-American woman, my culture (as the hyphenated moniker suggests) is a deeply rooted and oft contested bridge between lands and people. The older I get it seems that everything that I do is connected to this legacy that includes transforming survival techniques into remarkable innovations.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic wrapped the world in death and isolation, we were already in the middle of a food crisis. In addition to food deserts and food apartheid, increasing numbers of food recalls plagued the country disproportionately affecting Black communities. This had been decades in the making in cities like my hometown of Chicago. And yet decades ago, Auntie Dolly taught me that “we grow food” not grass. 

Juneteenth, the celebration of this belated emancipation, can be considered the original “cookout,” both literal and figurative interpretations for Black spaces and the highly coveted invites into them. 

My cultural legacy is food security in times of food scarcity and it traces back far beyond Auntie Dolly’s time. Africans braided seeds and grains into their hair to help survive the Middle Passage and enslavement in the Americas; runaways fashioned these same cornrow braids into escape routes to freedom. Yet for many generations, liberation would not arrive until the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863; and for those enslaved in Galveston, Texas, Freedom Day didn’t arrive until June 19, 1865. Two years later.

Juneteenth, the celebration of this belated emancipation, can be considered the original “cookout,” both literal and figurative interpretations for Black spaces and the highly coveted invites into them. While most Americans celebrate the fourth of July, Juneteenth intervenes in the hypocritical concept of freedom (but not for all) best expressed in Frederick Douglass’s speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” to which he answers, “a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.” 

Juneteenth is a celebration of Black liberation and American restitution. A country can never be great if that “greatness” is tied to the oppression of any of its people; and Black folk have been oppressively tied to this land in ways that can only be remedied by Black land ownership. It is within this historical context that I understand my legacy.

At the end of 2020 and still in the grips of the pandemic, my wife and I purchased a 15-acre homestead in central Arkansas. Although we brainstormed many names to try to christen it with one that would communicate the entire scope of this essay, Conner Homestead seems to do the work of blessing this land with our name in honor of our ancestors who were stripped of theirs.

We are transforming this land into a food forest. Perennial crops that return every year appeal to us as a self-replenished food source; and tree collards, reaching over six feet in height, can grow year-round in this southern climate. They also easily propagate into multiple plants.

Some may think that we’re building a legacy but I see Conner Homestead as continuing a very long, vibrant one where we are our ancestors’ wildest dreams.

Conner’s Collard Greens

Since moving to Arkansas, we’ve worked to get more involved in our food production and preparation. We increasingly grow and produce what we are able and source local, farm-fresh meats that we cure, season and smoke ourselves as required. The following recipe is best prepared with homemade ingredients (mini recipes included) but is easily enjoyed with store-bought materials as well.

INGREDIENTS

  • 3 lbs fresh collard greens, washed, destemmed and cut  (or 3 bags prewashed & cut. Wash again)
  • Choice of smoked meat– pork, chicken, or turkey (I prefer smoked turkey)
    Try adding a few pieces of meat to smoke at your cookout and freezing it to use for greens later
  • Homemade chicken stock (or 48 oz store-bought chicken broth)
    Simmer chicken frames, veggie scraps (onions, celery, garlic, carrots, etc), salt and pepper in water for 12 hrs or overnight in an electric roaster. Strain and reserve liquid.
  • 2 tbsp garlic powder
    Dry/dehydrate garden fresh (organic) garlic cloves. Grind into powder.
  • Kosher salt
  • ¼  c. Hot sauce
    Unfermented hot sauce can be made by taking 1 lb of your favorite garden peppers (cayenne, tabasco, red jalapeno, etc) and combining with 1c vinegar and ½ tsp salt to boil in a pot. Reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Let cool and process in a food processor until smooth. Strain and reserve the sauce.
  • ½ stick butter


COOKING INSTRUCTIONS

Place smoked meat in a large pot and cover with chicken stock/broth on medium heat. Wash, cut and drain greens and add to the pot. Reduce heat. When greens have started to cook down, add garlic powder, salt, butter and hot sauce. Stir in seasonings and cook on medium-low heat until the greens are tender to taste. About 1 hour 30 minutes. 

M Shelly Conner
M Shelly Conner

M Shelly Conner is an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Central Arkansas. Her multi-genre writings examine culture through a dapperqueer womanist lens and include publications in Crisis Magazine, the A.V. Club, and the Grio. Her debut novel everyman is forthcoming (Blackstone Publishing, 2021). Shelly is repped by Beth Marshea at Ladderbird Agency.