**edited to fix spelling error: border is an imaginary line; boarder is someone who resides in another’s house.)
(This is one of those posts where I know that I am going to probably be misunderstood and catch hell for it, but I’m going to speak out anyway.)
Michael Twitty, an African American culinary writer and historian, has an open letter to Paula Deen. (hat tip commondreams.org)
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you for a letter of reason and understanding and opening the dialogue.
Deen said “the” word. She apologized for it, but that was not good enough for the media bullies who tore the apology apart, deciding whether she was “sincere” or not. She said some ignorant and insensitive things, but in my view, not on the level of burning crosses in someone’s yard. I don’t sense that she is a hateful person. Indeed, an African American preacher went on TV proclaiming that he knows her and she is not a hate-filled person.
It’s tough to open the dialogue for subjects that make us uncomfortable. There’s always the possibility of being misunderstood.
Twitty opens the dialogue with this:
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.
This is spot on. I think we’re all a bit racist. I experienced this recently in FW–I can say up to that point, I had never experienced racism by blacks. I happened upon a group of African American folk in my building. They didn’t know I was coming down a hallway, and were saying some very hurtful things–that “white folk are the devil. It says so in the Bible.” (and they were serious). I had heard things before, but it was during a time of their distress and let it roll off me. But hearing it coming from folks that I had been nice to and treated the same as white folks was very hurtful. It made me angry to be characterized in such a way. I got a taste of how racism felt. I left me feeling hopeless–what does it take if you’re being kind and you’re still characterized as the devil? Does that mean giving up and not trying to get beyond that? No.
And Twitty is spot on that it takes a lifetime to unlearn. You may have old “tapes” running through your head which takes an active will to recognize them, and then ignore them and move beyond.
But by that same token, it was the other poor black folks who helped me out the most while in FW…even if I didn’t ask for help. They were very good at helping each other–if one had a car, they gave rides to wherever someone needed to go; if someone needed a few bucks, they helped them that way (they asked me for help once, but I had nothing to give them); if someone was out of food, they would ask others for help with a meal, and on.
There was a divide there, though….I noticed it from the beginning and didn’t understand why. I still don’t understand it–we were all poor and struggling….why not help one another instead of holding onto stupid prejudice?
In the past, it was a black woman who held me and rocked me after I had a nasty fall from bleachers at the age of five or six. I had given up sucking my thumb at that point in time,but she didn’t try to shame me when I popped the thumb in my mouth. She said “you go right ahead” as she held me and gently rocked. (And yes, I sucked my thumb, as most sensitive kids do–get over it.)
Anyway, I disagree with Twitty that it’s okay for black folk to use the “n” word. It’s confusing. He likens it to “bitch” and “fag”. Well, I guess that “bitch” used to bother me, but doesn’t anymore….because I noticed that if someone is calling me a bitch, it means that I’m standing up to them or against something they want. …so, yeah, if someone calls me a bitch I take a certain pride in that I stood up for myself. I don’t know what that means, though, in regards to the “n” word.
All I know is that Richard Pryor, another great one for helping us to realize our prejudices and make fun of them, said that after a visit to Africa, he never used the “n” word again. This is coming from a guy who titled one of his shows “Bicentennial N*gger”.
Another excellent point by Twitty:
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.
Absolutely. There’s a collective non-acknowledgement of the origins of food dishes. But I don’t think it’s limited to ignoring slaves’ cooking. At least, I feel pretty ignorant about where *any* food dish originated. It’s just not talked about that much.
It’s no doubt, though, that the slaves’ contributions to southern cooking have not been talked about….it’s tough to acknowledge it because it would mean that white folks have to acknowledge the rest…white folks do seem to have a problem being humble and acknowledging that they (men, mostly) climbed on the backs of not only blacks, but women, as well….there’s that intertwined racism and sexism, again…
In this paragraph, Twitty touches on that, but stops short of the sexism:
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.
I can only wonder at how many dishes that chefs proclaimed were their own that a woman had invented…
(When I write that, I think of Catherine Littlefield Greene, wife of Nathanial Greene, whom invented the cotton gin. Eli Whitney was a boarder in the Greene household. Catherine told him of her idea….and well, you know the rest….he was credited with the invention.)
Twitty goes on that their history is invisible when folks visit the old plantations and museums. I have to disagree with him, though, with the blanket statement that folks look at those plantations and don’t think about how they were built by slaves. I have done just that–looked at those magnificent houses (in movies) and thought about the slaves that built them. That’s why it’s hard to look at them, or any house of that stature–I wonder at how the person was able to build it—who had to suffer so that someone could live in such opulence? Who was paid minimum wage so that this person could build twenty room mansions? Who owns sweatshops in some distant country (or even in our own) so they can live in such luxury? Most folks, I have to agree, wouldn’t think about that—they would admire the luxury and perhaps want it for themselves without giving a thought about those that are invisible.
Lastly, I wonder at the art of growing food itself…how growing it sustainably is never talked about on these food shows??
Finally, Twitty is so gracious with the spiritual aspect of making mistakes:
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.
I believe Jesus, the Jew, would share the same sentiments. The problem isn’t making mistakes, but not learning from them and not growing from them.
And this made me cry:
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.
Food can heal the body… and the soul.
God Bless you, Michael Twitty. I hope Paula Deen will take you up on your offer.