You see these two ladies in Birmingham, Alabama? I would have LOVED for my Grandmother to have met them. In fact they are about the age she would have been had she lived to now.
They are sisters from Germany, survivors of the Shoah, the Holocaust, which along with the Transatlantic and Indian Ocean Slave Trades out of Africa and Chattel Slavery, the annihilation of First Nations and many other geno- and ethno- cides changed the human story forever. Not only did we lose lives–but we lost human potential and the path to being a better species of creation made in the image of its Creator.
My Grandmother and Grandfather got out of Birmingham just after my Grandfather came back from serving in World War II. They joined other relatives headed to the steel belt of Ohio in the Great Migration when 5 million African American Southerners headed northeast, Midwest and west in search of opportunities, jobs, freedom and a life free of lynch law. These are my maternal Grandparents:
My Grandparents were young and naive. My Grandmother just about believed that the streets up North were paved with gold. She well understood the idea of the Goldeneh Medinah without knowing the words. Through Grammy and Granddaddy I received part of my education in the past. Grammy’s people had been sold out of Virginia and North and South Carolina into Georgia and Alabama during the 1850’s with roots going back to the late 18th century. So did Granddaddy’s although his people came through North Carolina and Tennessee–marched west by their slaveholders. Some of his ancestors were enslaved on the largest cotton plantations in Alabama. Grammy’s great grandmother was this lady, her name was Hattie and she was born in the 1860’s to a 17 year old Black girl and her “master.” This is Hattie:
Hattie’s father was a white man born in eastern North Carolina and his name was Richard Henry Bellamy. He would eventually go to the University of Georgia, serve in the Texas legislature and would come back to Alabama to serve as a private then Captain in the army of the Confederate States of America. This is Richard:
It was probably not a loving relationship..let’s just put it that way. This much I know–Richard was captured at Vicksburg and was imprisoned and later returned to Alabama. He left two children, both with Black mothers–one in Texas and one in Alabama. These two people would never know in life that the other existed. One was my great great grandmother and the other was a man in Texas. The first time I did a Cooking Gene presentation last year in North Carolina, the white reporter’s name was Cliff Bellamy–his Bellamy’s were relatives of my Bellamy’s. The Bellamys and the Crowells had been in this country since the 1620’s. Their families went back to England, Ireland and ultimately the Norman invasion from France via the Norsemen of Scandinavia.
Let’s go back to the two ladies. They came from the Shoah…they came to the Southern United States…and decided to work for the Civil Rights cause. This was not a popular thing in many Southern Jewish communities because it risked the safety of the established communities. For example, the Temple bombing in Atlanta. Speaking up for Civil Rights could get your synagogue blown to bits. In fact, Beth El almost suffered the same fate until a Black janitor discovered the bomb. The authorities made a deal with the synagogue —we won’t touch you if you don’t expose us.
When I did a Cooking Gene/Kosher Soul presentation at Beth El I explained how my Grandfather had some possible Jewish roots from Europe (non slave holding) and how my Grandparents lived in Birmingham. Their small kitchens fed brothers and sisters a plenty. They both had victory gardens of squash, collards, sweet potatoes, white potatoes, green beans, tomatoes, okra and the like. Great Granddaddy would buy huge bags of field peas—crowders or red field peas or black-eyes and friends from the countryside would send sacks of peanuts to boil and roast in the fall. Granddaddy said people grew sorghum cane in their gardens and it was a great prank to swipe one in the early fall and steal away to a copse of trees to suck on the cane until the juice was gone. Hogs were slaughtered in the city back then, there was a dairy cow for a short time,and chickens clucked and made eggs until they didn’t right there on First Street South.
My Grandmother said that Great Granddaddy was very short, very self conscious but brave. He had a shotgun which he would gladly brandish if there was a Klan parade through the Black sections of town. She was scared to death–scared the way a drop of rain is of falling off a pine needle–but her Father said “No, this is my country, I fought in the War (World War I) and my wife and my children will sew and play.” Nobody ever touched him. When I used to get angry about prejudice my Grandmother would say, “Okay Joe,” referring to her Father. And I would get a kiss on the forehead. Her Father had come back to her.
Those two ladies–they heard me talk about how Grammy and Granddaddy left behind breakfasts of fried perch, biscuits and peach jam, grits, ham and tea for the North because as Langston Hughes put it, she was “a kinder Mistress.” The two ladies said to me, a fellow Jew–“We came back and fought after what we went through so you could come home to Birmingham.” I couldn’t talk for ten minutes after hearing that. An African American man in his 50’s who had converted to Judaism then told me his story. A woman told me how she had converted and lost her partner but learned all her mother’s secrets for making the chicken stock (she added beef bones). I had come back to Birmingham looking for family and had not realized to that little moment that I was increasing my family.
Your responses have been some of the most moving, profound, generous and encouraging words I have ever heard form strangers–and a few non-strangers–hi Cara, hi Paul, hi Judy, hi Jackie, hi Jim–that I’ve ever received in my life. I never knew that I could go from 600 plus views tops to 65,000 plus. I’m humbled. I feel heard. Some people live whole lives without being heard and that is a tragedy the same way I feel this is mamesh a nes. Some of you have donated to help with site costs and I LOVE YOU! I don’t want to be anything but grateful ever again.
Some have not been so pleasant and I’m going to address them like this. Any ad hominem attack will be immediately trashed. If I don’t agree with you–that’s fine–but don’t get personal. I was accused of keeping the “race” card going…Let me say something about that.
I do what I do because African American means ethnic peoplehood to me. We are a very unique part of the human family. The average African American is some degree African and some degree European with an occasional strain of Native American or others in their veins. Race–well there’s a human race. We are barely a percent different from one another and that percent determines our phenotype–our outside make up. How you identify is up to you. Ethnicity is what happens when people form communities based on a mixture of genes and culture–an ethnos–or peoplehood if you will. Stories get passed down, recipes, understandings about the Universe and world views, manners, ethics, arts, material culture. I want to keep passing down our folklore so it is not forgotten. To tell that story I have relied on people from every major bracket of humanity–from Indian subcontinent to Australian aborigine….all in the hopes that I can help people finally understand the beauty and universality of my ancestor’s stories. When I was a kid I thought I could be every ethnicity–and my heart stays that way..Kiss me I’m everything.
Slavery was the great crucible in which the African American civilization was forged. It was for some horrifically benign and for others a malignant horror. It was colloquial and discretionary. It was at best “fuzzy,” with paternalism, maternalism, friendships, marriages, rapes, sordid narratives running through it left and right. It was the commodification of human bodies and the growing legal divide based on those bodies. It was not just a challenge to American democracy. It was a comparative existence through which non-slaveholders, incoming immigrants and outliers to the peculiar institution could see themselves and organize their lives. It’s clear that the fluid sense of ethnic self from the African littoral did not win out. You were either this or that. Yet in any case, a culture was formed–and it was diverse.
When I was a kid I learned from my Grandmother the “slave song.” Kids love to make lemonade right? “Lemonade Lemonade, Ice Cold Lemonade stirred with a spade, cools your teeth and parts your hair, makes ya feel good everywhere!” This was my Grandaddy’s step father’s Daddy Ellis’ contribution…he was born just after slavery in Alabama and learned the song from his father. The first time I made lemonade I learned the song and that was first time I had ever heard the word, “slave.”
Now I know we were enslaved. Slave is an identity, enslaved is a condition. I’m not a member of any other race but that of the human species. I am a Homo—-Sapiens 🙂
(Comment on comment: Somebody said I thought I was “perfect,” naw…being human means making mistakes and I’m thankful for those and being wrong often. Daddy always told me “If you ever get called boy, say “Thank you, because a boy has room to grow!” By the way tokekhah or gentle rebuke in Judaism is not some exercise in false piety or holier than than thou ism….It’s one of the many things I love about Judaism–and the Abrahamic tradition–perfection is not expected, its a goal, its the end of Tikkun Olam--the repair of the World through right action. Nobody and no thing is free from tokekhah–even the G-d of the Torah sends a rainbow to admit a divine “mistake.” This is one part of our many prism-ed faith. So is argument and not agreeing–but I digress! Again…)
Cut the race crap. It means nothing to me. I am Michael William Twitty, son of William, a Vietnam Veteran and Patricia, an educated Black woman. My family is traceable on these shores to perhaps the Bering Land Bridge and if not that 1622. I am 70% West and Central African, 20% British/Irish and 8% Eastern European likely Jewish, and 2% Native American. I am an educated man who is proud to be of the African American ethnicity and the family of Africans and the African Diaspora worldwide. We are humanity’s survivors par excellence even with all of our centuries of drama and issues..we are still here. Still all of us, like every other human, Betzelem Elokim–facsimiles of the G-d’s image. I am a member of the Jewish faith and identify with the Jewish people. I am an American citizen and Southern by virtue of being born to Southern roots beneath the Mason-Dixon line. And of course, if you believe it, Southern by the Grace of G-d.
(Some people don’t like the G-d thing. If you’ve never seen it–believe me its not disrespectful–its a way that some Jews respect the word and concept of the Creator even when not writing in Hebrew. Its a sayag–a fence–meant to encourage respect and reverence for even the paper this may be printed out on. So if you don’t get it–do what the nice people have done and ask–don’t make assumptions about my spirituality because I have not done so about yours–or lack thereof as the case may be.)
So many of you have mentioned the sexual harassment aspect of the case–that’s a bit thorny but yes we should talk about it. It’s incredibly loathsome and makes my blood boil but I wanted to focus on the immediate furor. For many of you this was a breath of fresh air–I’m glad. I needed to know that I was contributing to the solution not the problem. Other folks–of all backgrounds–were angry that I was extending an olive branch at all. That’s okay. Even Koheleth–Ecclesiastes says there is a time for anger. But say WHY YOU ARE ANGRY. Get it out! Be clear! If you are worried someone will hear something from you soul you would be embarrassed to admit or hear played back to you–well then–you know what to do with that. No B.S. anymore about ethnicity, identity, gender, sexual orientation, color, religion, non-religion, ability, class, creed and the like. Tell your truth, learn his truth, hear her truth and think about it. And eat their food….
I’ve set the table for dinner again–ya’ll keep talking. I have to go make barbecue in southern Virginia for a group of Korean journalists from Seoul. I have to explain the Taino/Carib, West African and European connections, regions of BBQ and the traditional way it was cooked–I’ll be at Bacon’s Castle Plantation in Surry! So I’m going to take a breather of my own and see if I can convert them from bulgogi to barbecue 🙂 I promise future posts will not be so daggone lengthy but I had to respond to several hundred comments into the late night. And don’t I have a recipe for you!!! Or three….
G-d bless all of you, agree or disagree. This has been a hallmark 36 hours. Double chai.
(Don’t forget to come to Stagville in September–see the bar on the page!)
Wow! This brought tears to my eyes. Thanks for your response to the responses, and for all you do.
I am a sassy Southern cook who grew up in Birmingham in the 60’s and I just want to say, I’m so glad I found your little blog through FB. Bless you and your words and your cooking.
Kiss me, I’m everything, too! Great post — again. Maybe it’s just your time …
I am really enjoying your blog and your grandmother was gorgeous.
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You are one right fine human being and I am so happy to have found your writings. May G-d bless you. -Jamie
Your words, no doubt about it, are manna from heaven. It is the Irish in you, baby boy! Be well and full of joy. You make a mitzvah with every word you write.
You are a treasure! We are adoring every word. Most sincerely from our hearts to yours.
An amazing story…. The African American experience is so much a part of our country’s history. It is painful and sometimes even ugly, but just like every story, there are some moments that fill you with joy. Hope that one day, as a country, we can embrace the good, bad, and the ugly of this time in our history… I believe it is the only true way we can all learn and grow together.
What can I say? It’s my first time here but won’t be my last!
I love your name
I love your family history and your knowing your genetics. I need to take the time to do mine. I have been wanting to for years, meanwhile year-by-year the elders are dying around me. I think my mother got my name from a 1950’s actor, who played a butler on a soap opera and she adored. One of the few black faces on tv then.
WE NOW LOVE YOU EVEN MORE, SHOULD SUCH A THING BE POSSIBLE! You deserve all success. Shalom! kISS mE, i’M EVERYTHING…. #Yes!!!
Your Black-Lithuanian-Jewish-Scottish-Irish sista, a loving babygrrl from 1968 BostonMA/Rumford Maine
Farming & Cookin’ in VT. Farmer Ama
Never apologize for your post being lengthy. I read your open letter the other day and I was deeply touched. Today, even more so. You are a beautiful being, a loving spirit. Continue being just who you are–our world needs more love, respect, peace understanding.
I would so love to join you in September! xo
Thank you for saying that…you know I keep forgetting THIS IS MY BLOG. Here I don’t have word limits or other’s rules. When I write for other people–I follow their rules–here is where I take my socks off! LOL But seriously thank you for saying that…I wrote this in twenty minutes or so, in a spirit of urgency. Typos and all. And I hope you can join us in September.
Michael, we could be related — probably are when we consider six degrees of separation. There is a reason your readership has jumped to 65,000. You are a brilliant writer and a superior thinker. I am pleased to know you have joined the chorus of writers who are trying to bring sense to this latest, overblown scandal. I wish you nothing but happiness and further success.
lovely, lovely. lovely. That’s you, Michael. I’m delighted to have been guided here by a friend who posts on Open Salon. I read the Open Letter post and just started rummaging around in your bizness here, reading all of your posts, b/c it was *that* good. Best Sunday in awhile. You get to tick all of the boxes my friend –> a smart black Jewish gay Southern chef. I’d love to meet you someday; you are, by all accounts, a great homo sapien 😀 (funny too).
Michael, I found my way here yesterday because a commenter on Will Manley’s library blog linked to your open letter. I thought it was the best thing I’d read on that controversy and one of the best things I’ve read on race (using that word as a shorthand for a whole tangle of things) in our country today. Sorry the comments apparently got sidetracked and had to be closed, but that happens sometimes.
As far as I’m concerned, write your posts as long as you can get away from the kitchen to write ’em, the longer the better. The only problem I have with your blog is that it always makes me hungry. 🙂