I’m writing to you from “the most Southern place on earth,” the state of Mississippi in the midst of the cotton picking season. I am sleeping in a house that was built 160 years ago, looking out a window at an equally old slave quarter/outside kitchen. I’ve waited three weeks to say something about the “Thug Kitchen,” debacle but now I feel I have the spiritual grounding to say what I need to say. As my hero August Wilson once said, “I stand myself and my art squarely on the self-defining ground of the slave quarters, and find the ground to be hallowed and made fertile by the blood and bones of the men and women who can be described as warriors on the cultural battlefield that affirmed their self-worth.” It’s time to get real about Thug Kitchen, and I’m going to start where August Wilson said I should…on the self-defining ground of Black struggle.
We are an ethnic group, not a race. Please do not attempt to couch my argument as race-baiting or racialized babble. We are a unique group with our own language patterns, culture, history, conditions, class issues, gender and sexual variations, and structures, arts, material culture and social and aesthetic presence. We are a sovereign ethnic group, a tribe unto ourselves with many clans based on region and variables that were colloquial and discretionary to our history. We are a dynamic, category-defining ethnic group. Like our cousins, the Garifuna of Central America, or the Afro-Brazilians, Afro-Cubans, Haitians, Jamaicans, and many other unique genetic and ethno-historical parts of the African Diaspora, we are a special product of a specific story, and our people are special, and despite our constant internal and external struggles, proud of our ability to defy the odds and defy expectations. I repeat, we are a sovereign people, the African American people.
Thug Kitchen is a popular blog and now it’s a best-selling cookbook. It’s also a really great gimmick. Its genius lies in both its graphic presentation, branding and of course its Samuel L. Jackson meets Chris Rock meets Gangsta Rap (so past tense) profanity all in the effort to popularize fashionable foodieism, specifically healthy, vegan eating. If you’re a member of the Millenial generation, it’s a combination that’s sexy as fu#k.
Thug Kitchen is also written by two pretty ass white kids from West Hollywood. These pretty Anglo-Saxons not only have sex, they cook together too—and when they cook they morph into “thugs,” brandishing cross hatching butcher knives to encourage people to eat like they “give a fu#k.” They have Gwyneth Paltrow hot to trot and I’m sure they made an agent want to put a cap in somebody’s ass just because they chose to work with them to put this cookbook out and further commodify their 21st century culinary minstrel routine. Ok, so you can FEEL me getting pissed, can’t you? Other people have made the comparisons between this blog and early minstrelry and I don’t need to repeat those sentiments beyond the comment I just made. I need to take you to a new place.
Thug Kitchen is built on the privilege that two pretty white kids from West Hollywood can be “thugs,” but I cannot. In fact, Michael W. Twitty, your favorite Black, Jewish, openly gay, culinary historian who lives his history and puts it in a contemporary context; can’t even be himself because I’m too damn complicated—but actually I’m not. I’m just human, I’m just an American, and by G-d and I am proud to be labeled one—I am an African American. We’re not supposed to be thugs because of the culture of respectability; and yet we are not supposed to be complex and richly layered because that defeats stereotypes that Black authenticity is boxable, marketable only through specific lenses of comfort, cool, country, city, and coonishly quaint. And just in case you didn’t check your calendar by the way, its 2014…
What I’m referring to is the constant creative frustration African American culinary folk (and just about everybody else with an “art”) feel, especially when we, a sovereign people, a time-honored people with a history and futures and destinies that the ancestors who lived in the slave cabin I now look at could never have dreamed of are told who we can and cannot be, while Roy and Dale get to live the American Dream on the backs of the American nightmare.
I am hurt that so many of my friends talk about being put into boxes as they try to market their cookbooks or restaurants. People don’t “buy” the way we want to tell our stories, they want us to be the next smiling soul foodie or hip and cool and hoppy—but respectable. Black people from so many arts and disciplines will sympathize with this—we’re told who we need to be not told to be free to be who we are. Remember Basquiat’s famous quote about being a Black artist? “I use lots of colors, not just black…” That’s still not acceptable in 2014, where I have “the talk” once a week with a fellow African American creative who is hurt, bewildered and stressed because they can’t be themselves as they see fit.
A white friend once said to me that one of the consequences of the history of whiteness is that you can fill in that “blank” of pan-European American assimilation with whatever you choose. The world is your oyster and opportunities abound for how you construct your narrative. Thug Kitchen has been defended by many who deny any racial connotations to the word “thug,” or the style of the cookbook’s language. It’s all in good fun, it’s just really cleaver, and “It’s just food,” they seem to say “not Ferguson.”
And for you amateur etymologists out there, “Thug Kitchen,” isn’t referencing a secret society claiming to be the children of the goddess Kali. Thugee and it’s equally interesting relationship to the colonial presence is not on trial here. So take that Rudyard Kipling esque white man’s burden stuff back to Wikipedia. We are talking about how a slice of the African American urban underclass reinterpreted a label given them by others privileged to define them, label them, and take their lives.
But it is a cultural battleground when you’re me. I couldn’t be inauthentic before a publisher or producer; I’m not even allowed TO BE authentic. I’m not at liberty to say who, but in my own journey I’ve had important decision makers tell me—don’t be Jewish, don’t be gay, don’t be too Black…you need to be just Black…(I’m sure they don’t know what the fu#k that means…) constant pushing and pulling over identity. You live that constant test of your personal authenticity and cultural authenticity and people trying to read you and box you in making it easier to digest you without actually trying to understand something new and challenging and real.
L.A. is a very pointed place to be branded a thug chef. Let’s get this sh#t straight: Almost nobody thought Thug Kitchen was a solely Black act, if Black at all. We (people of color) inherently knew that none of us could ever get away with melding a sliver of culture from the underbelly to sell a very upper middle class-based diet profile—I mean witness the hell Michelle Obama got for “Turnip for What?” Our First Lady—is using everything—including humor to reach the same purported goals as Thug Kitchen, but she’s called “stupid” and an “embarrassment” on Facebook, while the Thug Kitchen people get defended as geniuses and the next thing to watch. “Twice as Good to Be Just as Good,” as our parents would say.
L.A. was the home of Tupac Shakur. Tupac, no matter what his personal issues, was a thoughtful young Black man who really cared about his people and didn’t know how to answer the problems of class inequity, racial hatred and violence in his community. He struggled with marketing an image that brought him millions with a thought life that tended towards the revolutionary culture passed to him through his mother Afeni. Tupac tried to balance his perspectives by talking about Thug Life. Thug Life, is really key here because it was a code, a message, a negotiation between the street and civility.
Thug Life was never meant to be a celebration of criminality. It was about the hustle, a uniquely American hustle that has been part of the African American peoplehood since 1526 and 1619. You have nothing, you are underprivileged and disadvantaged but you use what you have to succeed and prevail. The thugs of Tupac’s imagination weren’t petty criminals (especially since we now live in the “post-racial” age of using “thug” as stand in for “nigger”) they were mental and social warriors fighting the status quo. Thug Life was an attempt to reclaim a word and a label from further linguistic destruction.
I don’t get hung up on the politics of perception. That’s not what’s important to me. What’s important to me is what is real and truly felt. It’s painful that the double standard has been ignored in this debate around the Thug Kitchen. Black people struggle to self-express and sell our unique visions while others ape and appropriate the cultures we have created and when they package it right—become outrageously wealthy and established. I have spoken often of culinary justice—and yet there are still certain white chefs who have been lauded for “discovering the African roots of Southern food.” (Post-Paula Deen essay language) This isn’t about their color—these creators of Thug Kitchen—it’s about the fact that when you are oppressed how you survive your oppression becomes the greatest capital you possess. If nothing else this debate gives us insight into the distinction between referencing, quoting, borrowing, fusing, mocking, aping and appropriating. This debate is about what we lose when we give the green light to squandering our democratic discourse by celebrating the undermining of cultural integrity.
That slave quarter out there empowers me. Sometimes when I write I feel the tension of whether or not what I say will be received the way I want it to be or will be treated with disrespect. Right now I don’t care. The bottom line is my freedom to say my truth was bought by the people who lived out back cooking and caring for the people in the house I’m typing in. Thug Kitchen is as much now a part of American cultural history as the early cookbooks that used the language of former slaves to communicate authenticity and entertainment as a stamp of authority. Well, right here and right now I’m privileged to say as a member of my beautiful, sovereign people, Thug Kitchen has nothing to do with us, because it’s not grounded in the real Thug Life, and sure as fu#k isn’t rooted in the ground on which I stand: the self-defining ground of the slave quarter, my everlasting hallowed earth.