When I found out that Juneteenth celebrations often use red drink as a symbol of the sacrifices of those enslaved, I knew they weren’t really talking about kool aid, and definitely not blood.
Red. A color that melanated people around the world have adorned themselves in clothing, body paste, and even in the ritualized eating of foods and the drinking of red-colored beverages. Since the Egyptians documented using hibiscus in the Ebers papyrus around 1550 BC, the species called hibiscus sabdariffa has been used from Sudan and Ethiopia to Jamaica as an elixir for its health benefits since recorded history.
Before it could be documented by the West, the Himba women of present-day Namibia have been ritualistically rubbing their bodies with red ochre clay body mixture called Ojitze. Known as the “Red People of Africa,” the women’s iconic beauty enhanced by the body paste is a signature tradition marking status—from womanhood to motherhood.
In West Africa and the Yoruba diaspora, the color red is connected with the warrior-god, Sango. In Korea, the color of red symbolizes birth and wisdom, while in China, red means luck and prosperity. So much so, for the Lunar New Year, children are given red envelopes with money in it. Moving to South Asia, red is the traditional color of a Bridal dress amongst Hindus, who revere the goddess Lakshmi who is associated with the scarlet-hues for wealth and beauty.
As traditional cultures wear red, red beverages are embedded in ancient culinary foodways. Like in South Africa, the indigenous Khoisan have been brewing rooibos, a red colored tea for over 300 years. While welcome ceremonies throughout West Africa often included the red-hued kolo nut that also was made into a tea. Plus, in China, hong cha or red tea, was the original name for black tea because the leaves were of a darkish, reddish nature. Another refreshing drink is Senegal’s national libation, bissap, which is made with the hibiscus flower and rose petals.
Traveling to the Americas, in Jamaica hibiscus takes on the name of sorrel, a island-wide and even Caribbean brew that was known to be sipped by the sovereign villages living outside of the British colonial slave system, the maroons. Evident in their very name, which implies a red connotation, the maroons who were of both Native and African heritage, were fiercely independent and waged war against the British until slavery ended.
But, before the enslavement of Africans and those in the Americas, a missing historical link to red is the Moorish civilization. A highly developed nation who employed high sciences in government and in maritime travel, they are the first fully documented people who were involved in global trade from present-day Africa, the Middle-East, Europe, the Caribbean and the Americas. All all before the enslavement of Africans to the Americas. The Moorish flag is red with a green star. Moreover, it is said to drink cherry infused elixirs.
Out of all of the red fruits, kola nuts, and teas, hibiscus seems to be a drink that stood throughout the ages. Representing the regenerative properties of nature and people, the red drink descended upon me on a cold day in Atlanta through the mixologist skills of a Black farming family growing in Shady Dale, Georgia near Lithonia.
Hibiscus train to Georgia
It was unusually cold for an October day in Atlanta, but me and my wife waited outside of Georgia State University to meet up with Najeeb Muhaimin, and his father, Mr. YaSin Muhaimin known as “Big Yah.” It was the only time we could link up between their busy schedules as farmers who go between the markets and their fields. While in “the A” we had a tight schedule as participants at the Black Urban Growers conference.
So the best time was on a corner right as the sunlight dropped. The Mahaimin men greeted us with the warmth of Georgia brick clay. Firm hand shakes and respectful small talk. Come to find out, they were from New Orleans. Hit by the 2005 storm, Hurricane Katrina, they found refuge in Big Yah’s hometown of Zachary on Port Hudson Pride Road, just outside of Crescent City, before moving to Atlanta in 2015. In their relocation, they moved their Yard Bird Farm, a poultry operation, and their hibiscus crop.
“When they sold their farm and moved to Georgia in 2015 they brought the Hibiscus with them, dropped the Port Hudson and kept the “Pride Road” and we started growing Hibiscus in small farms throughout Georgia to find the best conditions for the plant,” said Najeeb to Ark Republic’s sister organization Black Farmers Index.
After finding land in a rural community about 60 miles southeast of Atlanta and 45 miles, south of Athens, the red flower grew on the Mahaimin’s in no time. But the problem was, who do they sell it to and how do they sell it. While hibiscus is used around the world, in much of the U.S. it is not a traditional culinary product. So, the patriarch’s wife, Ms. Elaine began whipping up batches of hibiscus tea to sell at markets. The beverage caught on because one, it was good, and two, the ingredients were from soil to shelf.
Eventually they added several more products to the hibiscus tea—sparkling water and two types of chutneys. The day we met, the Mahaimin were dropping off samples of their award-winning peach hibiscus chutney. As a thank you, they added their drinks. The hibiscus was a refreshing bite to a day full of drab bottle spring water and flat coffee at the conference. To add a spark to the drink, later that day at the hotel, I made a small cocktail with tequila and some dried fruit from Bask Farm out of California. The combination was fire.
Their hibiscus farm sits on 77 acres, and they are intentional to not use any chemicals or pesticides. So rich and flavorful the hibiscus flower has been, they have been on a mission to get more Black farmers to grow it. To them, it is untapped red gold. For me, the Muhaimin’s, tapped into a long-line of beverage makers and culture-bearers who see the world through the power of red. Be it the red, black and green liberation flag where the red does stand for the blood of the people, or the ruby rich red drink on Juneteenth.
We need your help to keep the wheels churning and the stories flowing. Ark Republic is an advertisement-free online news that is committed to rich and robust narratives and reporting. Please donate so we can keep you informed. All donations are a tax write-off through our fiscal sponsors and sister organization, Black Farmers Index.