Sitting here right now its almost sunset in the DC area and this computer is about to be shut off in honor of the Sabbath. It’s been a ride like no other…..this journey to making this dream of mine to find my roots and trace them through food–and bring people together across lines of “race.” There is an old Yiddish proverb–“A man plans and G-d laughs.” I know what that means now. In less than two days time I will find out whether or not my dream was a marketable venture enough for people to want to read about our travels and watch and copy recipes as my team and I wind our way through the South.
I realize that for many people I am only as good as my bio and my “branding,” and those are just buzzwords for a public face. But let’s cut the chase here–I need you because making it to and past my goal is the only way the Southern Discomfort Tour is going to take off and be of some meaning and use to people. I had to think about it long and hard—how do I make this project NOT self-indulgent and make it complex enough to be rewarding for other people and not just me.
When I was a very little kid for some reason I had issues with being Black. My Mother tells me that I often talked about Black people as being ugly or scary or not as smart. If you’ve ever seen the “doll experiments” you can guess why what that reason was. I hated when my Mother would remind me about that…it was embarrassing–still is. Of course things haven’t changed much in some arenas, although our opinions are. That’s the weird thing about “race,” its a construct, its a thing…like gender….like sexuality…like nationality…like religion. It does not really cross most human minds that we choose to opt in or out of these social constructs. Indeed, they do give meaning and structure to our lives and human existence but essentially they are only as real as we put meaning and action behind them. I choose to be an African American male-identifying Jew. I am not inherently any of that….well the male part I can’t help–but how much of that is how I was raised and the society and culture I came through?
Point being–when I became “ethnic,” my life changed. I became ethnic because I really wanted a reason to love being part of the culture I was born into. So many negative stereotypes and perceptions born in slavery, oppression, segregation, cultural and class “tracking,” all sorts of little social beasties that we still have a lot of trouble talking about not just in America but in the entire Western world. Because my Mom taught me to count to ten in Swahili (because that was popular back then and she lived several years in Kenya as a teenager), because my Dad had a Black inventors t shirt he made and sold, because I had Black history posters on my wall and because I went to family reunions, celebrated Kwanzaa, went to museums, listened to the whole gamut of our musical legacy, and watched an all Black cast of Oedipus with Morgan Freeman….LOL…I grew up ethnically Black.
Don’t get me wrong–I think ethnic Black and genetic Black are still related. I believe DNA carries memory. You can choose not to believe that metaphysical stuff–but I do. I think we ache with stories and spells and prayers we don’t know the origin of. We pine for genealogy because we know that part of the reason and rationale behind “us,” is in them–the dead and the spirit. Every culture on earth just about has a relationship with their Ancestors. In African cultures libation is poured, memorial prayers are said, altars constructed, shrines put up. In Judaism one honors yahrtzeits and yizkor and say Kaddish and visit cemetaries and place stones on the grave to say “we still respect you, we were here.”
And then there’s that food thing. I’ve said it once I’ll say it again–food is a powerful way to bring us all together and it serves as a vehicle for our identities–not static fixed identities but how they change even while they stay grounded in specific realities. To use Annie Hauck-Lawson’s term your “food voice,” is a shifting paradigm. However, for most of us it starts and ends somewhere–kind of like our identities…”I am this—but I am not that….I come from—I am…” etc. etc. That’s our reality. We are not one thing but many things. Many things working together. Kind of like a plate of something or specific dish–different elements in concert with one another cooking into something new and complex and impossibly un-duplicated.
Ever since I was a little kid this identity thing has been important to me. We pretend that culture is just coincidental–but its not. It’s not like a food preference or a fashion–even though that’s what “ethnicity” means to a lot of people. Culture is always there–its this language I’m typing in–its my thoughts on how the world is ordered and what’s right and what’s wrong. It isn’t something that ever truly goes on the back burner. We do ourselves a great disservice in the modern West pretending that one’s culture is waiting for us on a hook at home while everything else is the “real” us. Nope. You are not your suit tie skirt or pantsuit. You are not your gym. You are not any of those things. You are first and foremost a complex human animal with a complex thing balanced between nature and nurture called culture living inside of you.
I know that for some people this project is a little perplexing. I know some people won’t get it. I hope that people will get it. I want you to understand that I really want to know where I come from because it effects my cooking and food and scholarship. I want to know where I’m “located,” in the very culinary history I write about. I’ve been envious for years of people from Italy or Greece who can tell you about an olive or something from their region and why they love it so much and how what they do is different and irreplaceable. Those types always seem to be able to point out the antiquity of those foods and traditions. All I want is to be able to have the keys to do the same. The full story of Southern food has not been told.
Do you know what it was like to be an enslaved cook?
Have you ever seen anyone like me–a Black American male under 36 put on the funny clothes and cook and do the tasks of slavery to educate and motivate others?
Do you know the songs we sang when we cooked? Do you know the special tools and techniques that have been forgotten? Do you know the prayers and spells our grandmothers used to make things come out perfectly?
Do you have any idea of what its like to go to a Southern plantation site and see your culture and history marginalized, annihilated, obfuscated, removed, unremarked?
Do you know why we put the plates of our loved ones on our graves? Sang poetically about the gourd? Marked our bowls with sacred signs, and scratched secrets into the shells of turtles?
Can you name a single enslaved cook?
Do you know what those women and men went through from day to day? Do you know what they saw and experienced?
And then there is Africa….its my dream to know where my family comes from in Africa. Millions of people are watching “Finding Our Roots,” and “Who Do you Think You Are?” these days. I dream of that…being able to watch that tree grow and use genetic research to go where records can’t. I dream of being able to trace my Ancestors story in the flow of American and World history. This means the world to me–giving honor to my Ancestors and celebrating them and their stories and reaching others and saying hey–because of this dish or this food– we are essentially, “related.” We are one people. One humanity with many Ancestors–and what they left binds us and makes us whole.
Getting on the road means learning and listening to people even as I present what I know and share my learning with younger people. I don’t think one can truly know anything until they’ve traveled. For me–my family history goes back to six places–Virginia, North and South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia. The first four contain the most leads and its my hope that I can see the plantations or the remnants thereof–of the land my forefather’s worked. And if you’d like to volunteer–just say so–and I can put you to work 🙂
I want my Ancestors to be at peace, and I want me to be at peace. Even more so I want us all to be at peace.
I’m almost up to 1600 words…So here goes.
I love you. Please help me live this dream. Please.
We need you–I know I’ve bugged some of my readers by saying this for three months, but this is the nature of crowdfunding—and its an opportunity for those of us without grants, loans or bank accounts above month to month survival to work for our public and pursue the dreams and Big Ideas that we hope will make the world a better place.
If I am engaging you, contributing to our project is a very small price to pay in order to keep enjoying the history, research and recipes I’ve worked hard with my friends to present to you here.
To my fellow African Americans–we complain a lot when sites and shows and movies and the like don’t reflect our history or experience. We want them to tell it like it is…but many of my colleagues have complained that so often we don’t empower each other to tell our won stories. “Them,” don’t owe us our story well told. “We” certainly do. We can take responsibility and ownership so that the world receives responsibly communicated narratives about the African American experience. It’s your choice. This is an opportunity to help a fellow African American teach our culture and share information about our culture with a lot of people and provide a lot of free content and information about our contributions to American civilization for the world to see. I need to know my community supports me and isn’t just giving lip service to the idea that Black history is important. I need to know that the same people who will rally in times of rain will rally in the sunshine too. And that day is today–but the clock is ticking.
I can’t do anymore, can’t say anymore, can’t think anymore. It’s up to G-d and you.
Hello Michael: We’d be delighted to extend hospitality to you and your team while you are in Atlanta. Dinner (ideally Shabbat!), a few nights rest and good conversation await. Please let me know (dates/times) if you are interested. God smile on this inspired journey!