An Open Letter to Paula Deen:
Photo Courtesy of: Johnathan M. Lewis
Dear Paula Deen,
So it’s been a tough week for you… believe me you I know something about tough weeks being a beginning food writer and lowly culinary historian. Of course honey, I’d kill for one of your worst days as I could rest myself on the lanai, the veranda, the portico (okay that was really tongue in cheek), the porch..whatever…as long as its breezy and mosquito-free. First Food Network now Smithfield. (Well not so mad about Smithfield—not the most ethical place to shill for, eh, Paula?)
I am currently engaged in a project I began in 2011 called The Cooking Gene Project—my goal to examine family and food history as the descendant of Africans, Europeans and Native Americans—enslaved people and enslavers—from Africa to America and from Slavery to Freedom. You and I are both human, we are both Americans, we are both quite “healthily” built, and yet none of these labels is more profound for me than the fact we are both Southern. Sweet tea runs in our blood, in fact is our blood…What I understand to be true, a lot of your critics don’t…which is, as Southerners our ancestors co-created the food and hospitality and manners which you were born to 66 years ago and I, thirty-six. In the words of scholar Mechal Sobel, this was “a world they made together,” but beyond that, it is a world we make together. So I speak to you as a fellow Southerner, a cousin if you will, not as a combatant.
To be part of the national surprise towards you saying the word “nigger” in the past (I am a cultural and culinary historian and so therefore I am using the word within context…) is at best naïve and at worst, an attempt to hide the pervasiveness of racism, specifically anti-Black racism in certain currents of American culture—not just Southern. Take for example the completely un-Christian and inhuman rage at Cheerios for their simple and very American ad showing a beautiful biracial girl talking to her white mother and pouring cereal on the chest of her Black father. That Cheerio’s had to shut down the comments section says that the idea of inter-human relationships outside of one’s color bracket is for many hiding behind a computer screen—a sign of the apocalypse. So just like those old spaghetti sauce ads, yes, America, racism—“it’s in there” even when we were prefer it not be.
When you said, “of course,” I wasn’t flabbergasted, I was rather, relieved…In fact we Black Southerners have an underground saying, “better the Southern white man than the Northern one, because at least you know where he stands…” but Paula I knew what you meant, and I knew where you were coming from. I’m not defending that or saying its right—because it’s that word—and the same racist venom that drove my grandparents into the Great Migration almost 70 years ago. I am not in agreement with esteemed journalist Bob Herbert who said “brothers shouldn’t use it either..” I think women have a right to the word “b….” gay men have a right to the word “queer” or “f…” and it’s up to people with oppressive histories to decide when and where the use of certain pejorative terms is appropriate. Power in language is not a one way street. Obviously I am not encouraging you to use the word further, but I am not going to hide behind ideals when the realities of our struggles with identity as a nation are clear. No sound bite can begin to peel back the layers of this issue.
Some have said you are not a racist. Sorry, I don’t believe that…I am more of the Avenue Q type—everybody’s—you guessed it—a little bit racist. This is nothing to be proud of no more than we are proud of our other sins and foibles. It’s something we should work against. It takes a lifetime to unlearn taught prejudice or socially mandated racism or even get over strings of negative experiences we’ve had with groups outside of our own. We have a really lousy language—and I don’t just mean because we took a Spanish and Portuguese word (negro) and turned into the most recognizable racial slur on earth…in any language…because we have a million and one ways to hate, disdain, prejudge, discriminate and yet we hide behind a few paltry words like racism, bigotry, prejudice when we damn well know that we have thousands of words for cars—because we LOVE cars….and food—because we LOVE food—and yet in this language you and I share, how we break down patterns of thought that lead to social discord like racism, are sorely lacking. We are a cleaver people at hiding our obsessions with downgrading the other.
Problem two…I want you to understand that I am probably more angry about the cloud of smoke this fiasco has created for other issues surrounding race and Southern food. To be real, you using the word “nigger” a few times in the past does nothing to destroy my world. It may make me sigh for a few minutes in resentment and resignation, but I’m not shocked or wounded. No victim here. Systemic racism in the world of Southern food and public discourse not your past epithets are what really piss me off. There is so much press and so much activity around Southern food and yet the diversity of people of color engaged in this art form and telling and teaching its history and giving it a future are often passed up or disregarded. Gentrification in our cities, the lack of attention to Southern food deserts often inhabited by the non-elites that aren’t spoken about, the ignorance and ignoring of voices beyond a few token Black cooks/chefs or being called on to speak to our issues as an afterthought is what gets me mad. In the world of Southern food, we are lacking a diversity of voices and that does not just mean Black people—or Black perspectives! We are surrounded by culinary injustice where some Southerners take credit for things that enslaved Africans and their descendants played key roles in innovating. Barbecue, in my lifetime, may go the way of the Blues and the banjo….a relic of our culture that whisps away. That tragedy rooted in the unwillingness to give African American barbecue masters and other cooks an equal chance at the platform is far more galling than you saying “nigger,” in childhood ignorance or emotional rage or social whimsy.
Culinary injustice is what you get where you go to plantation museums and enslaved Blacks are not even talked about, but called servants. We are invisible. Visitors come from all over to marvel at the architecture and wallpaper and windowpanes but forget the fact that many of those houses were built by enslaved African Americans or that the food that those plantations were renowned for came from Black men and Black women truly slaving away in the detached kitchens. Imagine how I, a culinary historian and living history interpreter feel during some of these tours where my ancestors are literally annihilated and whisked away to the corners of those rooms, dying multiple deaths of anonymity and cultural amnesia. I’m so tired of reading about how “okra” is an “African word.”(For land’s sake ya know “apple” isn’t a “European word…” its an English word that comes from German like okra comes from Igbo and Twi!) I am so tired of seeing people of African descent relegated to the tertiary status when even your pal Alton Brown has said, it was enslaved Black people cooking the food. Culinary injustice is the annihilation of our food voices—past, present and foreseeable future—and nobody will talk about that like they are talking about you and the “n word.” For shame.
You see Paula, your grits may not be like mine, but one time I saw you make hoecakes on your show and I never heard tell of where them hoecakes really came from. Now not to compare apples and oranges but when I was a boy it was a great pleasure to hear Nathalie Dupree talk about how beaten biscuits and country captain and gumbo started. More often than not, she gave a nod to my ancestors. Don’t forget that the Southern food you have been crowned the queen of was made into an art largely in the hands of enslaved cooks, some like the ones who prepared food on your ancestor’s Georgia plantation. You, just like me cousin, stand squarely on what late playwright August Wilson called, “the self defining ground of the slave quarter.” There and in the big house kitchen, Africa, Europe and Native America(s) melded and became a fluid genre of world cuisine known as Southern food. Your barbecue is my West African babbake, your fried chicken, your red rice, your hoecake, your watermelon, your black eyed peas, your crowder peas, your muskmelon, your tomatoes, your peanuts, your hot peppers, your Brunswick stew and okra soup, benne, jambalaya, hoppin’ john, gumbo, stewed greens and fat meat—have inextricable ties to the plantation South and its often Black Majority coming from strong roots in West and Central Africa.
Don’t be fooled by the claims that Black people don’t watch you. We’ve been watching you. We all have opinions about you. You were at one point sort of like our Bill Clinton. (You know the first Black president?) When G. Garvin and the Neely’s and the elusive B Smith (who they LOVED to put on late on Saturday nights or early Sunday mornings!) were few and far between, you were our sorta soul mama, the white lady with the gadonkadonk and the sass and the signifying who gave us a taste of the Old Country-which is for us—the former Confederacy and just beyond. Furthermore, as a male who practices an “alternative lifestyle” (and by the way I am using that phrase in bitter sarcastic irony), it goes without saying that many of my brothers have been you for Halloween, and you are right up there with Dolly Parton, Dixie Carter and Tallullah Bankhead of old as one of the muses of the Southern gay male imagination. We don’t despise you, we don’t even think you made America fat. We think you are a businesswoman who has made some mistakes, has character flaws like everybody else and in fact is now a scapegoat. I find it hard to be significantly angry at you when during the last election the re-disenfranchisement of the Negro—like something from the time of W.E.B. Du Bois was a national cause celebre. Hell, today the voting rights act was gutted and I’m sure many think this is a serious win for “democracy.” If I want to be furious about something racial—well America—get real—we’ve had a good twelve years of really really rich material that the National media has set aside to talk about Paula Deen. Yes Paula, in light of all these things, you are the ultimate, consummate racist, and the one who made us fat, and the reason why American food sucks and ……you don’t believe that any more than I do.
A fellow Georgian of yours once said that one day the “sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners would sit down at the table of brotherhood.” Well no better time than now. Paula, I don’t have to tell you redemption is yours to choose, to have and to embrace. As a Jew, I extend the invitation to do teshuvah—which means to repent—but better—to return to a better state, a state of shalem–wholeness and shalom–peace. You used food to rescue your life, your family and your destiny. I admire that. I know that I have not always made good choices and to be honest none of us are perfect. This is an opportunity to grow and renew.
If there is anything The Cooking Gene has taught me—its about the art of reconciliation. We aren’t happy with you right now. Then again some of the things you have said or have been accused of saying aren’t surprising. In so many ways, that’s the more unfortunate aspect. We are resigned to believe and understand that our neighbor is to be suspected before respected. It doesn’t have to be this way, and it doesn’t have to go on forever. As a species we cannot conduct ourselves in this manner. As creations of the Living G-d, we are commanded to be better. You and I are both the descendants of people who lived, fought, died, suffered so that we could be better in our own time. I’m disappointed but I’m not heartless. And better yet, praise G-d I ain’t hopeless.
If you aren’t busy on September 7, and I surely doubt that you are not busy—I would like to invite you to a gathering at a historic antebellum North Carolina plantation. We are doing a fundraiser dinner for Historic Stagville, a North Carolina Historic Site. One of the largest in fact, much larger than the one owned by your great-grandfather’s in Georgia. 30,000 acres once upon a time with 900 enslaved African Americans working the land over time. They grew tobacco, corn, wheat and cotton. I want you to walk the grounds with me, go into the cabins, and most of all I want you to help me cook. Everything is being prepared using locally sourced food, half of which we hope will come from North Carolina’s African American farmers who so desperately need our support. Everything will be cooked according to 19th century methods. So September 7, 2013, if you’re brave enough, let’s bake bread and break bread together at Historic Stagville. This isn’t publicity this is opportunity. Leave the cameras at home. Don’t worry, it’s cool, nobody will harm you if you’re willing to walk to the Mourner’s Bench. Better yet, I’ll be there right with you.
Culinary Historian, Food Writer and Living History Interpreter
Michael W. Twitty
For a link to a video of the event Paula missed: click here.
For a link to the MAD Symposium video where I talk about culinary justice and injustice: click here.
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Well put. Did she ever make and break bread?
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I see she didn’t attend your proposed feast in 2013. Has there been any attempt to reach out?
Just getting into The Cooking Gene. Enjoying it immensely.
Dear Michael, I share your sentiment exactly. I too, wrote a letter to Mrs. Deen. I am curious to know, are you married? I love your wit, and everything else about your disposition. I would love to get to know you better.
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Brilliant! I can’t believe I’m just now reading this. Reading “The Cooking Gene” now and it’s just Fabulous! Thank you for the great work you’re doing!!!