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An Open Letter to Paula Deen | Afroculinaria


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"When you said, “of course,” I wasn’t flabbergasted, I was rather, relieved…In fact we Black Southerners have an underground saying, “better the Southern white man than the Northern one, because at least you know where he stands…” but Paula I knew what you meant, and I knew where you were coming from.  I’m not defending that or saying its right—because it’s that word—and the same racist venom that drove my grandparents into the Great Migration almost 70 years ago. I am not in agreement with esteemed journalist Bob Herbert who said “brothers shouldn’t use it either..” I think women have a right to the word “b….” gay men have a right to the word “queer” or “f…” and it’s up to people with oppressive histories to decide when and where the use of certain pejorative terms is appropriate.  Power in language is not a one way street.  Obviously I am not encouraging you to use the word further, but I am not going to hide behind ideals when the realities of our struggles with identity as a nation are clear.  No sound bite can begin to peel back the layers of this issue.

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.  We have a really lousy language—and I don’t just mean because we took a Spanish and Portuguese word (negro) and turned into the most recognizable racial slur on earth…in any language…because we have a million and one ways to hate, disdain, prejudge, discriminate and yet we hide behind a few paltry words like racism, bigotry, prejudice when we damn well know that we have thousands of words for cars—because we LOVE cars….and food—because we LOVE food—and yet in this language you and I share, how we break down patterns of thought that lead to social discord like racism, are sorely lacking.  We are a cleaver people at hiding our obsessions with downgrading the other.

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.  Gentrification in our cities, the lack of attention to Southern food deserts often inhabited by the non-elites that aren’t spoken about, the ignorance and ignoring of voices beyond a few token Black cooks/chefs or being called on to speak to our issues as an afterthought is what gets me mad. In the world of Southern food, we are lacking a diversity of voices and that does not just mean Black people—or Black perspectives!  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.

Culinary injustice is what you get where you go to plantation museums and enslaved Blacks are not even talked about, but called servants.  We are invisible.  Visitors come from all over to marvel at the architecture and wallpaper and windowpanes but forget the fact that many of those houses were built by enslaved African Americans or that the food that those plantations were renowned for came from Black men and Black women truly slaving away in the detached kitchens.  Imagine how I, a culinary historian and living history interpreter feel during some of these tours where my ancestors are literally annihilated and whisked away to the corners of those rooms, dying multiple deaths of anonymity and cultural amnesia.  I’m so tired of reading about how “okra” is an “African word.”(For land’s sake ya know “apple” isn’t a “European word…” its an English word that comes from German like okra comes from Igbo and Twi!) I am so tired of seeing people of African descent relegated to the tertiary status when even your pal Alton Brown has said, it was enslaved Black people cooking the food.  Culinary injustice is the annihilation of our food voices—past, present and foreseeable future—and nobody will talk about that like they are talking about you and the “n word.” For shame.

You see Paula, your grits may not be like mine, but one time I saw you make hoecakes on your show and I never heard tell of where them hoecakes really came from.  Now not to compare apples and oranges but when I was a boy it was a great pleasure to hear Nathalie Dupree talk about how beaten biscuits and country captain and gumbo started.    More often than not, she gave a nod to my ancestors.  Don’t forget that the Southern food you have been crowned the queen of was made into an art largely in the hands of enslaved cooks, some like the ones who prepared food on your ancestor’s Georgia plantation.  You, just like me cousin, stand squarely on what late playwright August Wilson called, “the self defining ground of the slave quarter.”  There and in the big house kitchen, Africa, Europe and Native America(s) melded and became a fluid genre of world cuisine known as Southern food.  Your barbecue is my West African babbake, your fried chicken, your red rice, your hoecake, your watermelon, your black eyed peas, your crowder peas, your muskmelon, your tomatoes, your peanuts, your hot peppers, your Brunswick stew and okra soup, benne, jambalaya, hoppin’ john, gumbo, stewed greens and fat meat—have inextricable ties to the plantation South and its often Black Majority coming from strong roots in West and Central Africa."

So you're saying I can get better barbecue in Sierra Leone or whatever?  Dude.. I'm so there..

Wow.  Thanks for posting.  I'm sharing it in every way possible.

(I wonder if this was a Freudian slip:  "We are a cleaver people at hiding our obsessions with downgrading the other.")

No problem, please do! It's probably the most insightful thing to come out of the whole Paula scandal.

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