It begins with the Santa Anas beating on my windows. The rumble of trash cans being tackled and kicked by 72 mile per hour wind gushes. And I am grateful to be warm, in bed, and thinking about cooking. I rehearse ingredients and tastes: nutmeg, cinnamon, vanilla, butter, lemon, sweet potatoes… the anticipation spurs me to get up. I am not a great cook unless it is something I truly love. Sweet potatoes – too sweet! I know my mother’s recipe by heart and with the click of the oven I can feel her sitting at the table watching – even though it has been five years since she died.
Since her death, I have incorporated an additional ritual of hearing the voices of indigenous people throughout the day. Stopping to read a poem or two, a movie, or podcast. This year I start with a 10-minute episode from Consider This on NPR The Indigenous Stories Glossed Over In The Typical 'First Thanksgiving' Story. The person being interviewed on this podcast is Paula Peters of SmokeSygnals Agency. She declares it to be “a day to acknowledge the sacrifices our [indigenous] ancestors made and be activists for the tribal injustices”. The brutal, stark, details of what Squanto, an enslaved man turned emissary endured, compared to the sanitized Plymouth lie is mind altering. Truth brings awareness and the hunger to learn and do more. I think that is what these holidays are for – to have us stop and reflect on the past and its narrative and what we will do in the future. For now, it is time to get cooking.
Pepper jack and sharp cheddar cheeses, milk, egg, onion, pepper, macaroni – boiling water. The trick is not to overcook or under cook the macaroni, stir the roux to a just-right-consistency before pouring it on. Mom would have had on a Macy’s day parade just about now. I try it out for fifteen minutes – great Broadway productions and home spun smiles from commentators – I need to let this simmer. I put on Joy Harjo, Shelter in Place Session from 2020. This isn’t activism, but a re-centering. Joy Harjo is the first Indigenous U.S. Poet Laureate who also happens to play the saxophone. I love when she shares that she didn’t learn to start playing until she was in her 40’s. The best time to start something is now, not according to an age but a desire and means. I am inspired.
My younger son drove six hours to visit with me today and he is keeping me company as I cook. I need something from upstairs and he tells me he will get it.
“Just tell me where it is.”
I am not sure.
He says, “Just tell me where you think it might be – this is a skill you need to start developing.” He reminds me that Nana was good at sending people to do things and sending them again until they got what she wanted. He says firmly, “She was a Boss Lady!” He is smiling proud and continues by explaining, “Some people do this naturally. You need to practice. You might need this skill one day.”
Our condo feels like warm sweet Hawaiian rolls. My grandmother is waiting for me to come with the polished silver, to set the table. She died when I was 12 but she visits occasionally, always at Thanksgiving. Chicken is ready, green beans almost. Obligatory dishes and unfortunately, I cooked them as such. These won’t make good leftovers. I am not a good cook unless it is something I enjoy – but next year, I need to do something different here. My mom would always mix okra with the green beans and ham hocks in a slow cooker. I know how to do better – next year.
Today it is a full table; my son and I and the memories of those we love. After dinner, I ask him did you ever get around to watching High on the Hog on Netflix.
He says, “No –I don’t like cooking shows.”
I don’t either, but this is different; I put it on, and he is completely engrossed. He is smiling and I am smiling at his joy. This was my fourth time watching it. We are in Africa, Benin with the host, Stephen Satterfield talking with Dr. Jessica B. Harris, author of the book for which the series is titled. We are learning the history of okra and gumbo and the difference between yams and sweet potatoes. In this open-air market we see huge yams. One is the size of at least ten sweet potatoes, and it is in the shape of a baby elephant’s foot. My son has a natural analytical mind, and he stops the show several times to comment on the beauty of a shot or a concept that is presented.
We see our host, walk the road that the enslaved walked. We are told about forced feedings and a mass grave. Satterfield says he carries our ancestors with him.
My son cleans the kitchen and asks if he can have the sweet potatoes and we both laugh as he says not yams – sweet potatoes. He asks me if I have the book High on the Hog. I know he is making a mental list for possible Christmas gifts. Yes, today is a day to honor our ancestors.
*High on the hog - best cuts of meat on a pig come from the back and upper leg and that the wealthy ate cuts from 'high on the hog'.
As an African-American woman it doesn't take long to become aware of the different ways people compliment and discriminate based on hair. So, changing one's hairstyle from Eurocentric to Afrocentric or visa versa is to invite a variety of comments, biased judgments and reactions.
Just the other day I was listening to a podcast on racism and protest (I don't remember which NPR podcast) and somehow the way an African-American woman wore her hair became part of the debate. The person on the defensive said the woman's complaints had no credence because she wore her hair straight, "white" as though her hairstyle was relevant to the topic and would somehow render comments moot. The young man's mother told him to apologize, but after the ad hominem the protestor wasn't open to the apology nor any sort of discussion.
It was Bill O'Reilly's disparaging comments on Congresswoman Maxine Waters' hair that brought great media attention and moved her presence into mainstream America. Most recently, there are Roseanne Barr's disparaging comments on former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett ... is equal to the “Muslim Brotherhood and Planet of the Apes”. In several variations of apologies she has declared, "I never would have wittingly called any black person a monkey.... I thought the B---- was white.... I'm sorry that you feel harm and hurt... but she does need a haircut." To be a woman of color is to risk the most denigrating comments on beauty and appearance despite or because of achievements (which is also a topic for a different post).
Some women, enjoy playing with hairstyles for hours. I am not one of those people; I am not a "hair person" except that to be black in our society, makes you a hair person by default. I used to wear my hair almost completely shaved off, but I got tired of the gender questions. To be a black woman, deciding to wear one's hair in almost any style, is to risk a myriad of reactions from being judged as unprofessional in appearance, to gender identity questions, to being compared to an animal.
So, the Marvel's Black Panther movie was a fresh break and commentary on the beauty of natural black hair. Camille Friend, lead hairstylists made the decisions on the many beautiful hairstyles of the characters in the film. She has been interviewed numerous times by mainstream media on her choices. The tone of the interviews has been one of curiosity and the commentary, whether spoken or unspoken, has been that women of color wearing natural hair is still an exotic novelty. For many women of color seeing an entire cast with natural hair is refreshing and affirming.
In the last few years my younger son has been growing dreadlocks and quite a few friends have ventured into wearing Sisterlocks. This month I have decided to embrace this style and am loving it. Dr. JoAnne Cornwall (San Diego, CA) is a brilliant woman of color who has woven a fortune in celebrating natural African-American hair with Sisterlocs. This speaks to changing times from the early 1900's where Madam C.J. Walker sold the idea of assimilation via straight hair, to the late 1900's of Dr. Cornwall's Sisterlocks. In our society, being a person of color is oftentimes to be judged or mocked by a foreign standard of beauty, whether it's facial features or hair. Despite disparaging remarks, the most beautiful women are those who embrace their own sense of style and beauty. My Sisterlocks is one more step on the road of self-discovery and celebration.