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Dr. Sunyatta's Washington Post Feature

Dr. Sunyatta's Washington Post Feature

Food and drink play an essential role in independence celebrations the world over. For many Black Americans, Independence Day is celebrated on June 19, or “Juneteenth” — the day in 1865 when residents of Galveston, Texas, learned that slavery in the United States had been abolished, two months after the end of the Civil War and 2 1/2 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Today’s Juneteenth celebrations take place everywhere: backyards, parks, as well as at large festivals and parades. And Congress finally got in on the action last year, declaring Juneteenth a federal holiday.

Juneteenth gatherings customarily feature red foods, which are used to symbolize resilience and joy. Delectable strawberry pie, barbecue, red rice, watermelon, hot sauce, red velvet cake and red sausages on the grill are all abundant. But no celebration would ever be complete without Red Drink.

This beloved drink is a modern take on traditional African hibiscus ginger tea, and is often said to revitalize the mind, body and soul. In fact, the color red is often associated with ancestral reverence in West African traditions. This ubiquitous elixir remains popular as it links our present to our past through food memories.

Red Drink is known by many names throughout Africa, and the Diaspora: bissap in Senegal, sorrel in the Caribbean, rosella in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East, karkade in Egypt, agua fresca de jamaica in Central America, and vinagreira in Brazil.

Hibiscus plants, along with other native African botanicals such as ginger and spices, were transported alongside human cargo in the transatlantic slave trade. Throughout enslavement in the Americas, Red Drink was seen as a healing beverage used to cool overheated bodies working on plantations. Hibiscus was also highly prized at that time for its ability to relieve sudden pain, reduce inflammation and lower blood pressure exacerbated by stressful conditions. Combined with the warmth of ginger and the pluckiness of traditional African spices, the bitter and sweet flavors of Red Drink were a liquid love letter in remembrance of a distant homeland. If you’ve ever tasted a “zinger” tea, that’s it — you’ve tasted West Africa.

Over the last 10 years or so, traditional hibiscus iced teas have been gaining in popularity. This is largely an effect of Jamaican restaurants popularizing sorrel, and thereby returning this healthful beverage to many people of African descent living all over North America. This shift is also seen as a form of resistance to food deserts and the food industry’s history of marketing unhealthful drinks — such as Kool-Aid, “Quarter Water,” Chubby Reggae Red Soda, Hawaiian Punch and similar sweet, red-dyed drinks — to the Black community. (Why did the Kool-Aid Man have to sound like Louis Armstrong?)

Choosing hibiscus teas over artificial, syrupy, preservation-laden knockoffs is an easy sell. The attractive ruby jewel-tone of Red Drink is dazzling. When sweetened with agave or raw sugar, its crisp tartness shines through, making it the perfect palate-cleansing complement to rich cookout spreads.

A quick word of caution: Hibiscus flowers were traditionally used to dye fabrics — and they still work! So protect those light-colored fabrics and surfaces.

We can all incorporate this delicious sip of soul food into our next summer gathering. It’s a refreshing way to celebrate and reflect on the day when all Americans knew they were finally free.

Dr. Sunyatta Amen, a fifth-generation Master Herbalist who blends her rich Jamaican, Cuban, and Indigenous heritage with her clinical expertise in herbalism. She founded the award-winning Calabash Tea & Tonic wellness brand.