I believe in America. Even now when so many things feel out of place and regressive. I am dedicated to reminding us about our story and the ways in which we have co-created a unique world without parallel in the history of humankind. This loud proclamation of “exceptionalism” is not just a song of praise, but of criticism and critique. I realize that this country is the only place in which I am possible, and by possible, I mean a set of circumstances so extraordinary and infuriating that its a miracle I’m here.
America is a place where living history still finds takers in the museum industry. We are young but we are aging, pushing each day further and farther away from the birth pangs of this sprawling corner of what was once merely an outpost in the Atlantic world. We crave self-knowledge of the American journey. We look into the mirror-pools of the past in hopes of divining our future, and some of us do this to protect ourselves from future mishaps. Whittled down to butter churning, sweating in a field, making shoes or reenacting speeches, living history is all and none of this. Living history is a door into ourselves as well and a clue into the everyday lived humanity of our ancestors.
For African Americans living history has been fraught with difficulty. It is full of painful reminders as well as glimmers of triumph. Only a few of us have dared to walk through the doors and remain dedicated to interpreting the past. We do so not out of any sort of spiritual masochism, but in the spirit of cultural preservation, commitment to social awareness and respect of our past paths as a people. This place, carved for us by those who saw a need is a meaningful and highly spiritual space where we confront and create, weep and rejoice, create and re-fashion.
It is a great privilege to be Colonial Williamsburg’s first Revolutionary in Residence. It will mean a year of cooking, honing my craft, creating gatherings where we can celebrate the African-Virginian heritage and legacy in Williamsburg and beyond and create tastes for the visitors of the past as shaped by African and African-Virginian brains and hands. I do not see this as merely an opportunity to enrich my career but to serve my country at its (and the world’s) largest living history museum, an opportunity to both educate and learn and give more honor and greater awareness to the astounding creativity, courage and civilized precision brought to this land by my Ancestors.
When I interpret the Africans and African Americans of the 18th century, I am in rapture. To me they are unfortunately remote from us and our cultural memory and I want to restore them to our consciousness. My journey research The Cooking Gene has brought me closer to them, and just getting a taste, I want to know more. Being at Colonial Williamsburg every month, I feel that sense of connection with them and the opportunity to ennoble them further and enlighten others about their world. I hope the food you taste when you come visit Chowning’s Tavern or Traditions will give you a sense of the deep African and African Virginian roots of Southern food. I hope you get to see our Sankofa Food Lab–a place where the historic foods of Africa and the early South will be studied intensely and brought back into contemporary use and understanding.
Join me on February 11th at the Kimball Theater to find out just what a Revolutionary in Residence is, and what we can learn from the intersecting crossroads of culture, food, history and the future. You gotta get a ticket, so please plan ahead!