Se wo were fi na wosankofa a yenkyi.—Twi Proverb
(It isn’t wrong to go back and get what you have forgotten.)
Food is incredibly political and so is history. Politics doesn’t feed, but activism does. That’s why we’re doing this. We’re inspired to use knowledge to make change even as we seek to preserve our traditions and our heritage. To date there is no national effort among African Americans to promote the ownership, maintenance and transfer of our folk culture in its roots in the transfer from Africa to America and the era of colonial and antebellum slavery. What this means for our food culture is that we are losing valuable cultural knowledge/culinary knowledge that can lead to a better future for people of all backgrounds. Our nutrition, health, cultural pride, economic stability, community infrastructure, self-reliance, spiritual integrity and relationship with the planet all hinge on our ability to reconcile ourselves with history’s horrors and embrace its unintended blessings.
You cannot talk about inequities and imbalances in access to food and food deserts without referring to class and racial divisions going back to the beginning of American history. Clearly one of the most salient aspects that drove class and racial division was the presence and perpetuation of racial chattel slavery. To confront food injustices and to reverse some of the detriments that the industrialization of food production, agriculture, fishing and food distribution have brought on is to go back to the source and revisit the past to find out what we can recover to rescue us from ourselves. In the Akan cultures of Ghana and Cote D’Ivoire, this idea is called Sankofa, and it is represented by a bird that looks backwards while its feet are positioned forwards, or the shape of a heart. Sankofa, an idea that has inspired many people of African descent–is often loosely translated as, “Go back and fetch it.” I was pleasantly surprised to find a Wikipedia page on the concept of Sankofa and the writer of that page so eloquently stated, “It symbolizes one taking from the past what is good and bringing it into the present in order to make positive progress through the benevolent use of knowledge.”
I am not a chef. I am (often) a colonial and antebellum (African American) cook. I think and create in the terms of the past but my feet are firmly planted in the 21st century. My 1774 or 1860 self (aided and abetted by my grandparents and parent’s legacy) has taught my 2012 self some valuable lessons. The first is appreciate what you have…and make use of everything you have to sustain yourself. That’s the spirit I bring to this blog and Afroculinaria, and the spirit my team works with. We don’t have a lot, but we believe in doing it ourselves and using that spirit of self-reliance handed down from the generations before us from our Ancestors. Planting a big garden is not a hobby, it is practicing the cultivation of my family traditions. The heirlooms I grow are a living link to our past and proof that human beings are interdependent with nature and each other. Every time I plant a seed its like I’m reincarnating their wisdom in the soil–the seasons are the dictator here–not just of what goes in or what goes out of the soil, but the very moments of life one finds oneself in as they plant.
Honoring that past in my personal journey is not however, activism. Passing these stories that I gather on to the next generation gives them narratives that they can tweak and pass on. Growing food with young people in urban communities helps “cultivate,” the values of self-reliance, exercise, healthier eating and the craft of preparing and savoring your own food and celebrating that creation. Activism is making sure our elders know that we care about their lives and stories and get them talking and active which in turns gives them more life. The elders give us the truth and the wisdom they have to offer and we can make the choice to share that information among ourselves and build community around the sum total of our experiences. The accumulation of knowledge–from the ancestors, the elders, the youth, and the rest of us added to what we need to survive in today’s world is impossibly important. That accumulated knowledge gives us a base on which to stand and have dialogue with other cultures confident in the awareness that we are just as good, just as wise and just as whole. One of the many fruits of our kind of activism–from the mouth to mind to soul–is cultural integrity and intercultural connections that can bring about understanding across arbitrary boundaries that keep us from being whole as a human race.
This dialogue over what our food has meant to us and what it means to how we define ourselves and our neighbors is an important part of the story. We have to engage with race through food–we have to engage with slavery through food–that’s where we find the answers to some of our questions about how we got here and how we plan to get out of this mess laid down by history’s hurts. Our right to quality food experiences–as people of color, or as people of disadvantaged class, or young people without the same options as the prosperous generations before us–is inviolable. Who better to teach us how to survive and create the whole and sumptuous out of broken parts than people who got through nearly 340 years of bondage? African Americans are not the only people who need to sit at the table–and that is another reason why this project is important.
We want to bring people together but we want it to mean something. I don’t want my team and I eating with the descendants of my family’s former owners–some of whom I am related to by blood—and just chomp away because I want them to really understand and comprehend how monumental it is for us to have that kind of experience and be able to represent our ancestors in the spirit of healing. Even the elephant in the room–race–can be moved by a vehicle as simple as food–if we are willing to tell the truth. We can tell new stories of our place in this saga or we can tell stories that are old but have never been told before. There is incredible power for the sake of the future when we learn to give honor to the past’s dishonored. The push to bury the enslaved in a sea of amnesia and denial and even suggesting that the Old South states have “nothing to do with slavery,” will not lead to any good for any of us—Southern or not. As an American issue–slavery continues to cast its shadow on many of our lives whether we know it or not.
In 1852-1853, according to my Uncle’s research, my great-great-grandfather and his brother and mother were sold at the Richmond, Virginia slave market to Alabama. This painting from Richmond during the same era depicts the kind of indignities that my great-great grandfather and great-great-great grandmother would have faced.
If Black farmers and cooks cannot survive and Black America doesn’t have a food system that takes them out of food desserts—slavery won. If people of different cultures can’t come to some understanding of what is past and what can be in the future–slavery won. If better nutrition does not take over, education and longevity cannot flourish and slavery has won. If we raise a generation that is helpless in feeding itself from gardens, home-raised stock and the wild–slavery has won. If we keep allowing all the little negative things to peck at our family structure and destroy our homes, slavery has won. If we ignore our history and dishonor our ancestors through disrespect for one another, our own lives, and our communities, slavery has won. If we do not have thanks for what is on our plates and don’t honor the earth and the people who worked it to get the food on that plate–slavery has won.
The Auction Block, Green Hill Plantation, Campbell County, Virginia
We don’t want slavery to win. On the other side of ignorance is an incredible well we can draw and drink from and share. That is our activism in a nutshell. We are going back to the Old South to do Sankofa work. We promise we will return to the South of today with something that will ensure that the Old South will stay gone, but its lessons will always be in hearts. Memory is sacred, recipes are sacred. Sankofa.