Review of Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s How We Get Free

how we get free

How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective (2017), edited by Dr. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, highlights the work of the Combahee River Collective vis-a-vis poignant and illuminating interviews with The Combahee River Collective founders, Barbara Smith, Beverly Smith, and Demita Frazier and its legacy with an interview with Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza. It ends with comments from the historian and author of Making All Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Freedom in the 21stCentury (2018), Barbara Ransby. While it is not a blueprint for collective freedom, the text definitely is an arrow pointing the way out of the darkness that we currently find ourselves stuck in politically, economically, and socially.

Not only does Dr. Taylor give careful consideration to the kinds of questions she poses to the women, with each one driving home the revolutionary work of The Collective, but the way that the text is written is extremely accessible. By that I mean that, as a reader, I felt almost as if I were eavesdropping on an easy flowing conversation between a deeply curious mentee and her generous mentors. As such, Dr. Taylor’s questions and interjections are revelatory in their deep engagement with the subject matter and the revolutionary thinkers she interviews.

The Introduction sets the stage for the rest of the text by discussing the role that African American women did and did not play in the “disastrous 2016…election” (1) of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency. After weaving together a deft overview of Black women’s historically and contemporarily oppressed position in American society she ends with the declaration that “we talk [about Combahee] because “black women are still not free” (14). Although Combahee had been meeting since 1974 and published its Statement in 1977 Black women remain one of the most disenfranchised groups in America.

The actual Combahee River Collective Statement, profound in its simplicity, follows the Introduction. The Collective asserts from the outset that

The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggle against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking. The synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives. As Black women we see Black feminism as the logical political movement to combat the manifold and simultaneous oppression that all women of color face (15).

Readers will recognize the foundation for the concept of “intersectionality” that was coined by Black feminist scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 in their words.

The Statement traces the evolution of The Collective before, in the second section, delineating what they believe; simply put, that Black women are inherently valuable. This was, and I believe, isa revolutionary declaration when we consider that Black women have been some of the most devalued beings in the United States from the time they arrived here in chains in the 16thcentury. The inclusion of the word, “inherent” is important because it implies that Black women’s value is not contingent upon her relationship to anybody or anything else. It simply is.

In a world where it is normal to attribute value to women primarily or solely through their roles as wives, mothers, sisters, church members, etc. the thought that they are important because they exist potentially created a paradigm shift for those fortunate enough to have been exposed to it at the time.

It is also in that section that The Collective introduces the term, “identity politics”, which, like intersectionality, has been appropriated, misunderstood, and misused over the decades. Barbara Smith clarifies the women’s understanding of “identity polities: “What we were saying is that we have a right as people who are not just female, who are not solely Black, who are not just lesbians, who are not just working class, or workers—that we are people who embody all of these identities, and we have a right to build and define political theory and practice based on that reality”(61). This is very different from the way that the phrase is commonly used today; as yet another tool to exclude people.

In the third section, The Collective explores some of the challenges they faced in coming together and organizing. One of the most difficult challenges that the women faced was openly claiming their Black feminism when the very country in which they had been born and raised rejected their whole humanity and insisted that they choose one or two fights from amongst the many.  The Feminist movement demanded that they put their blackness on a backburner and the Black Nationalist movement demanded that they put their womanhood on a backburner. As they state, “The major source of difficulty in our political work is that we are not just trying to fight on one front or even two, but to address a whole range of oppression” (22). The women of the Combahee River Collective, inspired by the work of the revolutionary Harriet Tubman at Combahee River in which she freed 750 enslaved people, would not be compartmentalized.

In the fourth section, with an eye toward the future, The Collective introduces some issues that they planned to take up and projects that they were working on; one of which was challenging racism in the white women’s movement. Another, though they don’t mention it, was starting their own feminist press, Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, which was active from 1981 until 1992 with the brilliant Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet Audre Lorde’s passing.

One of my favorite declarations from the Statement is at the very end:

In the practice of our politics we do not believe that the end always justifies the means. Many reactionary and destructive acts have been done in the name of achieving “correct” political goals. As feminists we do not want to mess over people in the name of politics. We believe in collective process and a nonhierarchical distribution of power within our own group and in our vision of a revolutionary society (27).

This revolutionary philosophy seems to undergird the work of the founders of #Black Lives Matter, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Opal Tometi, and Alicia Garza, the last of whom Taylor interviews for How We Get Free.

The (almost) final words of the text come from Dr. Barbara Ransby, Distinguished Professor of African American studies, gender and women’s studies, and history at the University of Illinois at Chicago where she directs the campus-wide Social Justice Initiative. Dr. Ransby, in her remarks from the 2017 Socialism Conference, echoes the counsel of the Martinican intellectual Frantz Fanon many years ago: that “each of us has our own work to do in our own time” (177).

The final words are left to Dr. Taylor in her Acknowledgements and should not be skipped as it is indicative of the impact of the firm position that The Combahee River Collective took, explicitly anti-capitalist. Her last line, which reads as a kind of prayer, is also a call to action: “Let us end the economic system that devours the people we love” (186). Amen.

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Review of Charles Johnson’s Taming the Ox

taming the ox.jpeg

I am an admirer of the African American Buddhist writer cartoonist extraordinaire Charles Johnson. Johnson is the recipient of several awards including the coveted MacArthur “Genius Award” as well as Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships. I was  introduced to his work through his fiction; initially, Middle Passage (1998), which won The National Book Award for Fiction in 1990. I then moved on to his short stories, one of which I have written about*. Finally, I ventured into his essay collections: one was Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing (2003). Another was Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970 (1990).

This all happened while I was a stressed out graduate student and single parent of a beautiful precocious preteen African American boy in middle America. I was looking for an anchor at a time in my life when I felt like I might blow away at any moment.

I found that anchor in Johnson’s work, as well as in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life (1992) and Reverend angel Kyodo williams whose Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living with Fearlessness and Grace (2000) provided more than an anchor. It lit the tunnel that I felt I was trapped in so that I could see my way forward.

I’ve begun reading a bunch of black Buddhists writing again, mostly because so many more writings by black Buddhists have been published in the past, say, ten years. A few: Dreaming Me: Black, Baptist, and Buddhist–One Woman’s Spiritual Journey (2008) by Jan Willis, Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation (2016), edited by Rev. angel Kyodo Williams, Lama Rod Owens, and Jasmine Syedullah, PhD (2016), Spring Washam’s A Fierce Heart: Finding Strength, Love, and Courage at Any Moment (2017), and Mindful of Race: Transforming Racism from the Inside Out (2018) by Ruth King as well as several by Zenju Earthlyn Manuel(it does not escape me that women are leading the movement).

(As an aside, I got to spend some time with Spring at an amazing women’s retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center this past September. She is a powerful Shaman and thought leader, full of love and compassion)

spirit rock.jpeg

where we spent most of our days–beautiful

Another that came out in 2014 is Johnson’s Taming the Ox: Buddhist Stories and Reflections on Politics, Race, Culture, and Spiritual Practice, a collection of writings that have been previously published elsewhere in diverse venues. The author announces in the Preface to the collection that of all the books he’s published—and there have been quite a few—both fiction and nonfiction, the most spiritually rewarding work was Turning the Wheel. According to Johnson “On its pages, the two activities that have anchored my life for sixty-five years and reinforce each other—creative production and spiritual practice—were humbly offered to readers as moments that crystallized what I have learned during my passage through American literature, the visual arts, and the Buddhadharma” (ix). Ten years later, Johnson felt like it was time to publish another such work; one that honored the recent creative work of others, the changing socio-political conditions of the country, and developments in his own personal life, not the least of which is his becoming a grandfather.

The book is divided into three sections: Part One: Essays, Part Two: Reviews and Prefaces, and Part Three: Stories. Part One is the longest section and covers a wide range of topics including how the Dharma has influenced his artistic work, the Dharma’s influence on the philosophy, teachings and work of the venerable Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,  to the importance of Buddhist participation in the political process, to why Buddhism is a viable path for Black America in this current moment. He even does a treatment of the election of the man who was then to be elected two-time president of the United States, Barack Obama before ending with treatment of George Zimmerman’s murder of sixteen year old Trayvon Martin through a Buddhist lens.

Part Two, consisting of prefaces and introductions to others’ texts and book reviews, was a nice break from all the heavy thinking that I had to do in Part One ;), what with trying to remember Buddhist terms and concepts with which Johnson is intimately familiar (and which to his credit, he clearly defines several times), and the nuanced way that he works through his exploration of the intersections of Buddhism and several diverse topics that bear down on American life in each discrete essay. I was especially interested in his review of two books by two African American women Buddhists that had recently been published; both of which I’ve mentioned: Being Black (2000) by ordained Zen priest Rev. angel Kyodo williams, and the other, Dreaming Me  (2001) by Jan Willis, a Sanskitist and Indo-Tibetan scholar who is professor emerita of religion at Wesleyan University.

Johnson’s review of Willis’ work is rightfully glowing. However, when he gets to Rev. Kyodo’s text he almost seems to not get it. While he notes that the book is written with urgency and humor, and clearly understands that the author seeks “to deliver to black America the tools for survival and self-transformation” (107) he seems to have a problem with the way that the message is delivered. Channeling a poet friend of his, Johnson remarks that Being Black tries to do too much in its compact 192 pages, “resulting in congeries of well-worn Zen chestnuts” (107). He also seems to object to the the language that Rev. Kyodo uses, asking rhetorically, “Are black Americans unable to understand and accept the Dharma, or for that matter anything that originates outside their historical experience as a group, unless it is delivered with a supposedly ‘black flavor’?” The answer is, of course not, evidenced by Willis as well as, as he remarks, black (and Latino) members of Soka Gokkai Buddhists who do not need copies of the Lotus Sutra written in ‘black English’” (109). Johnson knows this, but nonetheless criticizes a work that serves an important role in the black community. Who knows how many people have been drawn to the Dharma after picking up Being Black and seeing themselves within its pages as Rev. Kyodo writes

Funky attitude, arrogant, self-pitying, too fat, kinky-haired, pimpled, freckled, too tall, too short, not enough money, always late, high-strung, unmotivated, skinny as a rail, high yellow, chinky-eyed, Kunta Kinte-looking, half-breed, flat-nosed, dim-witted, still living with your momma, working at McDonalds, conceited, know you better than anyone else, Cuchifrita, Coconut, Spic, Negro…”

There is something to be said for the use of the “language of the people” when the goal is to welcome different bodies into the fold, especially when those bodies have been traditionally shunned. I wholeheartedly agree with  the founders of the black feminist group, the Combahee River Collective’s, assertion in their defining statement that “Even our Black women’s style of talking/testifying in Black language about what we experienced has a resonance that is both cultural and political”. There is a time and place for language that holds resonance for people. Rev. Kyodo recognized that time and place and acted.

Those people who need and seek the Dharma will recognize in her language “The Dozens”, a game many African-Americans grew up playing, and that for all of its problems, in a world that doesn’t love us, signaled that we were accepted as part of a community that loved and supported us even though we were all of those things. And sometimes that’s needed—that thread that reaches out and connects.

In that sense, Being Black has its place in the Buddhism as it is emerging and evolving, including the faces, experiences, and voices of the many. I see it as a “by any means necessary approach” that is both appropriate and warranted.

Part Three is comprised of several short stories, all of which I devoured. My favorite was “Kamadhatu, a Modern Sutra” about a young priest named Toshiro Ogama who has taken over the care of a fourteen-hundred-year-old Buddhist temple called Anraku-ji, which means “peaceful, at ease”. However, rather than being at ease, the priest, having lost his parents in a car accident when he was fifteen years old, is painfully shy, and feels like “a failure, an outright fraud”(152). He hides from the world, a recluse.

His life changes when a young African American woman Buddhist scholar, Dr. Cynthia Tucker, whose work he is translating, shows up at his doorstep requesting to be his student. He, of course refuses, but agrees to let her be of some service to the temple cleaning out one of the small storage closets, which contains items that the last abbot fifty years before had left behind. What Dr. Tucker unearths, a film about a funeral ceremony that had taken place during the Korean War in the very room in which they watch the film, opens the priest’s eyes to “his own self-nature” and allows him to shed his “sense of twoness”(159). Quite a feat indeed as this twoness, this splitting of ourselves in two (duality), our need to compare ourselves to our past selves, others to us, who we could be and who we are, is a constant struggle. The fact that it is an African-American woman who aids in the priest’s revelation is icing on the cake.

I also really enjoyed the last story in the collection, “The Weave”, for very different reasons. The story, based loosely on a news article of a robbery that took place in 2012 and with an epigraph by Chris Rock from his film Good Hair (2009) is about a young African American hairdresser, Ieesha, who wears her hair natural and shuns make-up and her boyfriend, Frances, who adores her natural beauty. The two rob the beauty parlor that Ieesha has been recently fired from of its human hair supply.

Johnson seamlessly works into the story the history of the hair, collected from Indian women taking vows of renunciation of vanity, taken from Buddhist temples, sold to Korean merchants for pennies, and after being cleaned of lice, sold by those merchants on the international market in a $9 billion industry “devoted precisely to keeping women forever enslaved to the eyes of others” (190).

Johnson makes a heartbreaking connection between the misuse of this sacred cultural practice and the exploitation of poor, mostly black women who, “forced to choose between food and their winter fuel bill, go into debt shelling out between $1,000 and $3,000, and sometimes as much as $5,000, for a weave with real human hair” (188).

I will close my review of Taming the Ox by quoting from Johnson’s essay, “Why Buddhism for Black America America Now?”. He says,“Like the narrator of Charles Dickens’s novel A Tale of Two Cities, many black Americans today possibly feel ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’” (63-64). I feel immensely grateful to live at a time when Buddhist writers and scholars who look like me and share many of my concerns, preoccupations, and fears generously share their knowledge and deep wisdom to help point us/me in the direction of freedom. I am grateful to have discovered Charles Johnson at a time when I desperately needed his words. I am grateful to rediscover him during a time of renewed commitment to growth, spiritual and otherwise. I see him and the other writers whom i highlight here as purveyors of transmissions that will be instrumental in showing the world “how we get free” to quote the title of Dr. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s edited text on Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective (2017), the gorgeous text that I’m presently deep into. Stay tuned!!

* See Pressley-Sanon, Toni. “‘A Lion at Pendleton’: Charles Johnson’s Reimagining of a Moment.” Obsidian: Literature and Arts of the African Diaspora 41.1-2 (Spring 2016): 195-208

An interview with Charles Johnson about the evolving meaning of Middle Passage.

“We Cry Out for Justice” by Jan Willis

Zenju Earthlyn Manuel website

Spring Washam website

Reverend angel Kyodo williams website

Ruth King website

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Review of Nafissa Thomas-Spires’ Heads of the Colored People


Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ short story collection Heads of the Colored People (2018) is incredibly SMART!!

All of the stories are amazing—expertly crafted and honed works of literary genius.

Some of them are very clearly connected by the individuals who are their subjects while others seem to be related through a larger experience of black Americanness. Some of them are both.

There were several that I really loved. My first favorite was “The Necessary Changes Have Been Made” about an African American male professor who makes the move from a research university (inevitably white) to a teaching HBCU and gets into a war of wills with his female office mate. Another favorite is “Belles Lettres” which centers a protracted period of acrimonious communication between two highly educated mothers of the only two African-American girls at an elite elementary school.

“The Subject of Consumption”, “Suicide, Watch”, and “Whisper to a Scream” are brilliantly morbid, centering millennials’ unhealthy obsession with social media, becoming internet stars or just trying to find their voice in the world.

“Not Today, Marjorie” is a wonderful shout out to Bianca de Rio’s pronouncement during Season Six of RuPaul’s Drag Race and more recently, Kerry Washington’s spontaneous utterance on Jimmy Fallon’s Mad Lib Theatre, “Not today, Satan!” The story’s subject is a woman who is desperately trying to get her anger issues under control, but ultimately fails miserably and in a very public way.

“This Todd” and “A Conversation About Bread” are also clearly related in that “This Todd” is about a sculptor who has an unhealthy obsession with being in relationships with handicapped men, all of whom she calls Todd, so that for her, their identities are blurred. “A Conversation About Bread” centers one of her obsessions—a graduate student who ends up calling the police on the sculptor and then sues her.

My absolute favorite story is the last one entitled, “Wash Clean the Bones”, which wenches the soul. The story is about a single mother to an eighteen-month old baby boy, Ralph. The mother, Alma, is a nurse in the intensive care unit at the local hospital and a funeral singer who has witnessed more death than should be humanly possible in a so-called first world country.

Although she chooses to get pregnant and have her little boy, the stress of being the parent of a young black boy almost drives her to commit an unspeakable act.

This year I’ve been reading quite a bit on the subject of Black Lives Matter, but last year, as part of a writing class that I was teaching, I read a wonderful collection, in honor of the legendary critic and writer James Baldwin and edited by the wonderful Jesmyn Ward, The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race (2016).

One of my favorite essays in the collection, which explores what it means to be black in the United States in the twenty-first century, is by Claudia Rankine: “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning.”

Rankine’s brilliant essay explores what it means to be a person of African descent in the United States. She begins with a story of a friend of hers who, upon giving birth to her son, thinks before anything else, “I have to get him out of this country”. While my initial reaction to Rankine’s declaration that “getting out was neither an option nor the real desire” I understood when she explained that they both know that there is really no place else for her friend to settle with her son. The United States is where her life is. This fact made me profoundly sad; that though African-American people are the ones who built this country in so many ways we have never been made to feel at home here. I was reminded of President Lincoln’s dilemma following the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation about “what to do with all these negroes.” His solution to the problem of what to do with the people who built this country that he led and who many white people believed belonged to them alone was to offer African-Americans passage to other “worlds”, mostly through evangelical efforts. Some black people, perhaps tired to being treated as third class citizens, took him up on his offer and sailed to Liberia, an American-controlled territory; others to Sierra Leone, and still others to the first free black nation in the western hemisphere, Haiti. Needless to say, things did not go well for the majority, who took the racist attitudes that had learned from their oppressors to their new homes. But there were those who were determined to stay, stating unequivocally, “We are Americans, we know no other country, we love the land of our birth.”

Shit! What a hard decision they made, not only for themselves, but for their children and their children’s children, and beyond.

If we consider the statistics on African American preventable diseases and the number of premature births and much higher mortality rates of black babies than white babies it becomes clear that these brave men and women who decided that America was their “home”, whether they were welcome or not, have had far-reaching implications. These implications extend well-beyond the horrific video that many have witnessed again and again of African-Americans, both young and old—all with so much potential—gunned down by so-called rogue police officers.

Thomas-Spires’ “Wash Clean the Bones” beautifully addresses so many of the  preoccupations of African American women. Very simply, as beautiful, precious, brilliant African American mothers they are scared to death for their equally beautiful, precious, brilliant African American sons. And when those mothers have been abandoned by their beautiful, precious, brilliant boys’ fathers, then those preoccupations become that much heavier on their shoulders; another preoccupation that Thomas-Spires addresses.

I make this point after reading bell hooks’ Feminism is for Everybody (2000) in which she breaks down the basic tenets of feminism. I must admit that her chapter, “Feminist Parenting, ” in which she discusses women’s/mothers’ clearly abusive treatment of their children with NO consideration given to the difficulty of single parenthood. It was difficult to stomach. Indeed, there are many parents who perpetuate the cycle of abuse that they may have suffered themselves. But there are also lots of parents of color who, desperate to save their children from later being disciplined by the system, sometimes with deadly consequences, inflict the worst kind of abuse on them: that by someone who is supposed to protect and love them, keep them safe and free from hurt and pain. But as is so often the case, what is left out of the equation is the issue is the racist system that makes such abhorrent behavior seem inevitable. hooks does not account for the system.

When Alma, the funeral singer from Thomas-Spires’ story, does what the reader may think of as unthinkable after the author has masterfully elucidated precisely how much “the condition of black life is one of mourning” we should consider that while the characters in the story are fictional, the laundry list of black victims of white racist terror of Rankine’s essay and those that we know of from our own encounters with the news and social media have left countless victims who continue to breathe, are not. Those who knew and loved them as well as those who look like them know deep in their bones that it could’ve just as easily been their bodies at the other end of those guns.

For those of us who read and know our history we can remember the story of Margaret Garner who, rather than witness her beloved children be subjected to the murderous inhuman world of slavery, chose to try to end their lives in this world. The news story in which reporters vilified Ms. Garner was the inspiration for the Frances Harper’s 1859 poem, “Slave Mother: A Tale of Ohio” and Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987).

That Alma decides to persist with Mothering as a single woman who works as a nurse in a hospital critical care unit, who’s own brother was the victim of police violence, and who has been reading the same news and social media as you and I, speaks to the hope that those that the nineteenth century held about their acceptance into the United States’ fold and its failings.

Alma’s physical ailments, infertility, fibroids, night terrors, speak to the way that the effects of racism make themselves known in the human body. Indeed, and again, we need only consult statistics about the rates of high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, miscarriages, and infant mortality, amongst African American women to get an idea about how deeply difficult it is to be a woman of African descent in this country and especially how difficult it is to be an African American mother.


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Repost: How African-American Chefs Are Revitalizing the Baltimore Food Scene


Shalonda Berry, Executive Sous Chef at the Hotel Revival

The city of Baltimore has been through a lot—it has received a reputation for violent crime over the past few decades, and has been the center of a battle against police brutality since the death of Freddie Gray in 2015. But amidst the civil unrest, Baltimore residents have been working to sway the city’s rough image to that of a place filled with opportunity: Within the past couple years, the restaurant scene in particular has grown significantly, and Baltimore has given birth to a food scene to rival New York, Boston, and its other east-coast neighbors. Local Baltimore chefs are taking advantage of the new scene, and many who left the city for opportunities elsewhere have returned to their hometown to grow their ideas into new businesses.

The food industry has its barriers when it comes to black entrepreneurs running their own restaurants or taking on top positions. “The biggest barrier is policy,” says Kendrick Tilghman, President of the Greater Baltimore Black Chamber of Commerce. “If there was policy in place, the state that would change the trajectory of small businesses and how they scale.” It is the reason why initiatives like Eat Black Baltimore are important to exposing Black chefs on the rise. “There is a great network of African-American chefs [in Baltimore]. We [want] to highlight chefs that need more exposure and build more relationships to expand their business.” says Tilghman. We spoke with five African-American chefs in Baltimore right now—from chef David Thomas redefining modern soul food at Ida B.’s Table to chef Jasmine Norton introducing the community to something a little different at the Urban Oyster—to see how they’re using their talents to flourish in their city.

In the hospitality industry, cooks work tirelessly for the role of a top chef, and minority representation is hard to come by. But at Hotel Revival, in Baltimore’s Mount Vernon neighborhood, Shalonda Berry (pictured above) runs the show—at Topside, the hotel’s chic rooftop restaurant, and at Square Meal, their farm-to-table eatery. Barry worked in Chicago, her hometown, for a while, before moving to New Orleans, where she spent nine years as a pastry chef. She started making a shift to the savory side, creating fusion dishes from the various cuisines she enjoyed cooking, and ultimately found a home in Baltimore as the executive sous chef at the Hotel Revival. She represents a shift in the industry, where more women of color like Berry are claiming top-level positions in the kitchen. For her, it was about showcasing a range of foods with a variety of flavors that go beyond soul food. The menus at Topside and Square Meal are a reflection of her love for foods with global influences, including dishes such as curried butter cauliflower and ceviche with house-made potato chips.


For Jasmine Norton, shucking your own oysters is a rite of passage. It brings up fond memories of her and her father sharing a unique bond over food that wasn’t quite popular among the rest of her family. Inspired by other cities and festivals like Smorgasburg in Brooklyn, NY, Norton was determined to bring those hip, innovative concepts with her. When it came time for her to build a place of her own, she wanted it to be dedicated to her first love—oysters. “When I was younger that was our [my dad’s and my] way of bonding,” Norton says. “He taught me how to shuck [my first oyster]. When I think of seafood or oysters, I think of fellowship. It’s about coming together and breaking bread with others. Food is the center of everything, especially for Black families.”

While Maryland may be known for its fresh seafood, oysters are an acquired taste, and that’s Norton’s specialty—inviting strangers to her table to try something that she loves. The Urban Oyster is a pop-up restaurant that can often be found at the farmers’ markets in East Baltimore or at the R. House food hall in Remington on the north side. “I wanted to meet people halfway on their reservations,” says Norton. “Trying to get my friends to go to an oyster bar was unheard of—but they’ll eat the char-grilled ones because they’re fully cooked!” She combines the traditional raw bar on her mobile food truck with things like char-grilled oysters, oyster taco specials, and other unique creations like the bacon-and-cheddar-cheese oysters that delight your senses while paying tribute to her upbringing.

“I feel like Baltimore is at a point where [it’s on] the come up,” says Berry. “When I put things on the menu, it’s kind of like I’m putting more ethically focused foods and making the flavors stronger to try and challenge [diners’] ideas. There’s so much great seafood here, so much great produce, and great farms. That’s [what we want to] highlight, the experience of things that come directly from here.”


At Khepera’s Kitchen, in the Charles Village neighborhood, chef Taueret Khepera has created a communal space where the locals come for weekend brunch to dine in an open-air-style kitchen on Khepera’s appetizing dishes like shrimp and grits or brioche French toast—but that wasn’t her original idea. When Khepera’s Kitchen first opened back in 2016, she did catering for private events and private cooking classes in the space. “It was by accident,” says Khepera. “I’ve been a culinary educator for over 20 years.” In 2015, she left education to rebrand herself with a personal chef business. “I was looking at some spaces for a small commercial kitchen for preparation for my clients. My mentor found this on Facebook.” She wanted to create a dining experience that is both warm and inviting, with a soulful music playlist in the background. She didn’t start serving brunch until 2017, when she held her first open event for Mother’s Day that ended in a huge success. Since then, her festive, soulful brunch have become apart of the community.

“I think Baltimore can certainly rival a lot of other cities and communities,” Khepera says. “We have an awesome food scene—anything and everything you can get here. I came out at a time where I was one of very few Black women working in a fine dining establishment. We were invisible, I didn’t see us in magazines … but we have a lot of talent. We’ve always been in a kitchen. We’ve always been around food.”

Jasmine Norton, Owner and Founder of the Urban Oyster


For Jasmine Norton, shucking your own oysters is a rite of passage. It brings up fond memories of her and her father sharing a unique bond over food that wasn’t quite popular among the rest of her family. Inspired by other cities and festivals like Smorgasburg in Brooklyn, NY, Norton was determined to bring those hip, innovative concepts with her. When it came time for her to build a place of her own, she wanted it to be dedicated to her first love—oysters. “When I was younger that was our [my dad’s and my] way of bonding,” Norton says. “He taught me how to shuck [my first oyster]. When I think of seafood or oysters, I think of fellowship. It’s about coming together and breaking bread with others. Food is the center of everything, especially for Black families.”

While Maryland may be known for its fresh seafood, oysters are an acquired taste, and that’s Norton’s specialty—inviting strangers to her table to try something that she loves. The Urban Oyster is a pop-up restaurant that can often be found at the farmers’ markets in East Baltimore or at the R. House food hall in Remington on the north side. “I wanted to meet people halfway on their reservations,” says Norton. “Trying to get my friends to go to an oyster bar was unheard of—but they’ll eat the char-grilled ones because they’re fully cooked!” She combines the traditional raw bar on her mobile food truck with things like char-grilled oysters, oyster taco specials, and other unique creations like the bacon-and-cheddar-cheese oysters that delight your senses while paying tribute to her upbringing.

Greg and Naijha Wright, Owners of The Land of Kush


When your restaurant is attracting politicians and notable celebrities, you’re surely going to capture the attention of the locals, too. The Land of Kush is dedicated to incorporating West Indian and Southern American cuisine into healthy, vegan-friendly entrees. For Greg Wright, becoming a chef came from wanting to create more tasty vegetarian options. When he met his wife, Naijha Wright, she also wanted to change her eating habits but didn’t want to give up the food she grew up loving. In 2011, the married couple wanted to changed the way you think of soul food by using health-conscious ingredients. “I was [already] vegan and my wife likes soul food,” says Greg. “We went after an African American demographic, introducing them to vegan food using foods that were familiar to them.” They opened their restaurant with the goal of encouraging more African Americans to embrace vegan foods by swapping in healthier, plant-based ingredients without sacrificing flavor. “We try to create really interesting and savory dishes that can challenge that palate,” Greg says, and that’s exactly what happens when trying their sweet candied yams, collard greens, or barbeque soy riblets that transport you back to your mother’s kitchen.


“Baltimore is more of an eclectic city, so you can get a lot of different styles of food,” Greg says. “You can see big restaurants that have made a name for themselves, but locals are looking for different experiences. You can see the engagement of people that want to support Black-owned businesses.”

Chef David Thomas, Executive Chef and Partner of Ida B.’s Table


Modeled after a classic Southern home from the early 1900s, Ida B.’s Table serves a more modern take on soul food classics. The recent winner of the Food Network’s “Chopped” Thanksgiving competition used his 25 years of experience in the kitchen to open Ida’s B.’s in September of 2017. “I owned two restaurants before this,” says Thomas. “We started working on [Ida’s] in 2016.” The space is co-owned with the Real News Network and is a tribute to the journalist and activist Ida B. Wells. All the ingredients are locally sourced from the Baltimore area and everything down to the signature sauces is made in-house.


“Baltimore has changed quite a bit,” says Thomas. “The restaurants that are coming in are a lot different than what most people are used to. Whenever you have an influx of cultures come in like that, it changes the culture. It’s time we started looking beyond [seafood], there are a lot of unique restaurant opening. Our food scene is really coming into its own.”


Reposted from Saveur 

All photos by Dana Givens


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Review of The Green Book: Guide to Freedom: The Essential Travel Guide for a Segregated America

green book.jpeg

A few weeks ago I momentarily considered laying my hard-earned cash down to see Green Book in the theatres. Fortunately for me, I thought to check out reviews of the film ahead of time. The ones I paid attention to were NOT glowing. One from The New York Times is tellingly entitled “Green Book Review: A Road Trip Through a Land of Racial Clichés”. The second from Jezebel is also auspiciously entitled Green Book is Another Film about Race for White People”. Thank you to both A.O. Scott and Cate Young respectively for saving me $5.00 and a possible spike in my blood pressure.

I learned about Jezebel’s excellent content when I was doing my review of Glory Edim’s Well-Read Black Girl (2018) and found an insightful interview with the editor of the anthology (see my 2/19/19 review). Good reporting deserves support so I signed up to receive updates from the online publication on the regular.

I will confess that sometimes I dismiss these emails, as like most people with a gmail account, my inbox is overflowing. But a few days ago I opened up their email to find the  heading of an article, “Forget the Oscars, Watch the Documentary on the Real Green Book.

The piece, written by Rich Juzwiack, first alerted me to the fact that the “Oscars [had] once again, awarded a movie about race told from the perspective of a white protagonist, directed and written by white guys”.

The Green Book: Guide to Freedom: The Essential Travel Guide for a Segregated America is an antidote to the “type of film tailor-made to court awards consideration from an Academy that had to be shamed into diversifying its ranks. With its insistence on the pretense of loving our way into racial harmony, the movie exists almost exclusively to allow white moviegoers to nod sagely about ‘how far we’ve come’ before calling the cops on their black neighbors for not waving hello”.

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In its annual installments from 1936 to 1966, the actual Negro Motorist Green Book (Negro Travelers’ Green Book) guided black motorists to safe businesses and lodging all over the country. The film about the publication was directed by Yoruba Richen (who also directed the 2013 marriage-equality documentary The New Black), a black woman. In a phone interview with Jezebel about the Oscar-winning film she stated “We haven’t been in control of our own narrative so that’s what you’re going to get—you’re going to get something like the Green Book fiction film”.

Juzwiack’s article also let the audience in on a well-kept secret: that the documentary about The Green Book was available through The Smithsonian. Needless, to say, I promptly typed in the Smithsonian Channel’s website and found the film, airing for FREE!!!

I came away deeply enriched. Richen’s film is beautiful, respectful, and gives the viewer a sense of what was at stake when the author and publisher of The Green Book, African-American businessman Victor Green, made his timely and life-saving book available to African Americans who wanted and/or needed to travel America’s violently racist roads.

In the introduction to the interview with Richen that Juzwiack conducted he states, “Her movie is not just about Victor Green’s conception and execution of his Green Book, but touches on a number of attendant issues like the black middle class, the Civil Rights Movement, women business owners, and the predominantly black vacation spot of Idlewild, Michigan. In shedding light on parts of this country’s history rarely discussed in mainstream venues, Richen’s movie overturns a stone and reveals a universe”.

The documentary, as I said, is beautifully and respectfully rendered. It became clear, as the film unfolded, what an incredible service Mr. Green rendered to the African American community. There is no telling how many lives he literally saved by providing this invaluable resource that he recognized a need for and took action on.

Ms. Richen’s Green Book is sweeping, spanning a number of years and highlighting the national and eventually, international reach of The Green Book. Among the areas that were African American hotspots during the most crucial times of the publication was Idlewild, Michigan where people of African descent flocked for refuge and relaxation during their vacations from the stress of their daily lives in white racist America. Another was Birmingham, Alabama, home of the infamous Bull Conners, but also a place of refuge in the form of the motel owned by the very successful African-American businessman, A.G. Gaston. Mr. Gaston who, although politically conservative, offered free lodging to civil rights leaders Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Reverend Ralph Abernathy during their marches, rallies, and strategic planning sessions in Alabama.

With the success of the Civil Rights movement came the perceived end of the need for a publication like The Green Book. This was a move prophesized by the brilliant Malcolm X who regarded integration as a surrender to white supremacy because of what he saw as its aim of total assimilation into white society as evidence of the belief that blacks had nothing worth preserving.

With integration, and black attempts at assimilation, the vast majority of African-Americans abandoned the black–owned businesses, many of them run by black women, that sustained them when white business owners not only turned their backs on them, but threatened and carried out heinous acts of violence against them all while taking their money. The majority of those black-owned businesses once listed in The Green Book have gone out of business; replaced by those owned by the white majority.

While Ms. Richen’s film does not make this connection directly, it is not difficult to link this twentieth century socio-economic and political development to the twenty-first century dearth of prosperous black-owned businesses in the U.S., including—and I would argue—most importantly, supermarkets. As I have argued elsewhere, when you control someone’s stomach you control their presents and their futures.

The Green Book: Guide to Freedom: The Essential Travel Guide for a Segregated America is a must-see. A mere 50 minutes long, the film provides brilliant insight into early to mid-twentieth century America; it is a wonderful teaching tool for both the high school and the college classroom.

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Bonus! Review of Well-Read Black Girl and If Beale Street Could Talk

I’ve been thinking a lot about service lately; more specifically, I’ve been thinking about how people serve their communities in ways that ring true to them and are impactful.

While there are things that we do that we can easily and readily identify as of service to our communities–like teachers of color who dedicate their lives to teaching children who look like them as activist work, for example, there are the less obvious–like making art that celebrates and highlights our experience.


Read the feminist critic bell hooks’ instructive Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (1994) in which she asserts that, in her younger years she believed that while writing was about private longing and personal glory…teaching was about service, giving back to one’s community. For black folks teaching –educating—was fundamentally political because it was rooted in antiracist struggle” (2). She insists that her all-black grade schools were where she “experienced learning as revolution” (2). Still, we can also recognize her art—her brilliant political and cultural critiques—as acts of service as well.

hooks continues—and I quote her at length because her words are so cogent:

Almost all our teachers at Booker T. Washington were black women. They were committed to nurturing intellect so that we could become scholars, thinkers, and cultural workers—black folks who used our “minds.” We learned early that our devotion to learning, to a life of the mind, was a counter-hegemonic act, a fundamental way to resist every strategy of white colonization. Though they did not define or articulate these practices in theoretical terms, my teachers were enacting a revolutionary pedagogy of resistance that was profoundly anticolonial (2).

hooks’ later educational experience is marred by her enrollment in racist, desegregated schools where she and her black classmates were exposed to an intellectual assault in which mainly white teachers taught lessons that reinforced racist stereotypes (3). Indeed, many hooks’ generation experienced the trauma of attending predominantly white schools where they were not welcome and people who looked like them did not show up in the curriculum as role models to emulate.

This was not my experience. I actually spent the majority of my educational career in black schools with many teachers in whom I was able to see myself. I especially remember my fourth grade teacher who, though I cannot recall her name, I do remember was tall, honey brown, and sported a completely shaved head. King Tut’s tomb had been discovered that year and we spent a lot of time learning about Egypt.  I remember the earnestness with which she dissected the history to make it accessible to nine-year olds and the way she pointed out the beauty, majesty, and glory that the discovery of this great civilization signified for us as children of African descent.

Another experience that etched itself in my memory was one of the first books I picked out for myself and read: Alice Childress’ A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich when I was in junior high school.


My personal copy of A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich

I read the thin, compact young adult novel carefully and, feeling deeply moved by the story, read it all over again.

And then I lost it in one of my family’s many moves.

When I found it again at a library sale (the inside back cover is stamped with a note in block letters: WITHDRAWN FROM FREE USE IN CITY CULTURAL AND WELFARE INSTITUTIONS. MAY BE SOLD FOR THE BENEFIT OF THE BROOKLYN PUBLIC LIBRARY ONLY) as an adult, the memory of the feeling that my community and I were being seen for the first time prompted me to buy it again, just to gaze upon it every once in a while—the magic was in its very existence.

Memories of elementary school teachers who taught as a form of service and activism and first novels in which I saw myself when everything else around me told me I had no history and no story worth telling came flooding back to me as I read Glory Edim’s masterfully edited anthology Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves (2018).


As Edim, founder of the Brooklyn-based book club online community that celebrates the uniqueness of black literature and sisterhood, Well-Read Black Girl, declares in her introduction, something which all of us who love books can relate to: “All the books in my library hold a memory” (xi). Indeed, the collection is a kind of ode to black writers and the black women who love them. Her community; those to whom she dedicates her service are clearly identified in her dedication:

To the Well-Read Black Girl Community. I am in awe of what we’ve built together. Books will always bound our sisterhood.

For the countless authors who spoke to me from the page. From Toni Morrison to Audre Lorde, their words guided me into womanhood.

 The voices and perspectives in the collection are varied, with each author uniquely offering the reader a glimpse into the way that a black author made them feel seen and worthy; truly a profound and deeply meaningful service, not only to women who read them, but to those who read those who read them—for it gave them the courage to write and act, and sing, and create, all of which in turn will positively influence the next generation of talented artists who will do the same for those who follow them.

Thus, contrary to what hooks believed in her youth, for black women artists, writing is not simply a personal endeavor. It is also a service that they gift their communities that pays itself forward. Their self-expression inspires and empowers those who see themselves in them and their stories to do so themselves.

They give their readers permission to authentically express themselves; the brilliant effect of which we’re seeing contemporarily in every milieu possible, most recently in Barry Jenkins’ (of Moonlight fame) gorgeous filmic adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel, If Beale Street Could Talk.


As the feminist scholar and activist Barbara Smith reminds us in her piece, “Go Tell It” in Well-Read, in talking about Raoul Peck’s brilliant documentary based on Baldwin’s fragments of unpublished manuscript, “When I saw I Am Not Your Negro, I was struck by the fact that Baldwin’s ideas are as relevant and insightful today as the day he originally expressed them” (41-42). Sadly, truer words have never been spoken. In the film, If Beale Street Could Talk, black beauty and love are violently (is there any other way?) disrupted by the injustice that seeks to crush those who get in the line of fire of white supremacy and its many tentacles. And as the filmgoer witnesses through brilliantly placed stills in the latter half of the film, people of color are born in the line of fire today just as they were in the 1970s when Baldwin first penned the novel.


Smith continues, “Timelessness is a major characteristic of classic creations. Baldwin is a moral philosopher. His work does not merely describe and analyze oppression, but relentlessly asks the reader to examine their individual relationship to evil, to cruelty, to bigotry, and white supremacy and whether they are ready to change” (42).  Indeed, this is what teachers who are dedicated to the liberation of their communities are and do. Judging from the life-altering impression that all of the writers discussed in the narratives in Well-Read left on the artists included, this is also what all of those women and men who dared to put their creative work out into the world are and do—what a gift.

Read: Here is a lovely The Atlantic interview with the filmmaker about his obsession with Baldwin’s novel the conceptualization and making of the film:

Read: Here is a great Jezebel interview with Glory Edim on the importance of representation:

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Review of Washington Black

washington black

The simply named Washington Black (2018) by Canadian Esi Edugyan , though expansive in its reach, takes place over a mere four-year period. In that short period of time young Washington, or Wash as he is called by Christopher (Titch) Wilde, the brother of Wash’s sadistic master, Erasmus Wilde, undergoes a tragically prolonged rites of passage.

Of course, as an enslaved child Wash’s early years are characterized by hardship, some of which are conveyed to the reader. Nonetheless, he has a kind of family in the form of his caretaker, Big Kit, a formidable woman who originated from Dahomey and who at once frightens and nurtures the boy.

Wash’s movement into exile begins when he and Big Kit are summoned to the big house to serve the newly arrived master, Erasmus, and his brother, Titch, dinner.

At that dinner, with no recognition of the bond that Big Kit has with young Wash, Titch chooses to have him come live with him for, without a doubt, the noblest of reasons: the young boy is the perfect weight to act as a kind of human ballast for his “Cloud-cutter” (a kind of hot air balloon).

But while the traumatic ripping away of this child from the only family he has ever known may seem like the start of his exile period, if the reader plays close attention, she/he notes that Washington repeatedly fails to accept several opportunities afforded him to come into his manhood. Rather, he has not other hope than to remain in the service of his new master who parades as a friend and an ally, Titch.

Even though in the beginning he remains on the island of Barbados he is so cut off from his former life that when, months later, he spots Big Kit with a young boy serving at dinner in much the same way that he had, he does not even recognize her!

This could also, of course, be a consequence of the ravages of slavery, which consumes the enslaved person like a disease and then discards her or him when their usefulness is gone. (see, for example Frederick Douglass’ discussion in his narrative of the fate of his grandmother when she becomes too old to serve).

Big Kit’s body has been so torn down by the demands of field labor that she is unrecognizable to her former charge.

Nonetheless, it should be noted that despite the efforts of the slave institution to turn her into a mere beast of burden Big Kit continues to express her humanity in that she has taken on caring for yet another child and tries for just a millisecond in all of the stress of serving the ornery Erasmus, Titch, and their gluttonous and misanthropic cousin Philip, to honor her relationship with Wash with the slightest of nods and a smile.

Wash, like countless others before and after him, proves himself invaluable to his new owner, not simply as a weight to balance a balloon, but also as an exceedingly talented artist with an eye for detail. Unfortunately, it is his work with the Cloud-cutter that thrusts him further into further bodily exile when an accident during its testing at the hands of Titch and Philip deforms him for life.

Yet, even after his sacrifice he still looks to this strange white man for his salvation, seeking out Titch’s assistance when Philip dies and Wash is the only witness.

Why Titch decides to flee the island with Wash, rather than leave him to be punished for Philip’s death is unclear, especially since he abandons him later with no satisfactory explanation. In any case, their escape and Wash’s subsequent travels and adventures–which reminded me for some reason of Olaudo Equiano’s adventures (perhaps because they’re written in the first person)–mark the start of the young initiate’s deep exile.

When Wash finally finds Titch in northern Africa I got the sense that the manhood that this man-boy had been in pursuit of, was eminent. But while yes, Wash is finally able to recognize Titch for the dreamer who fancies himself apart from and above the very system that allows him to follow his dreams to the ends of the earth, it is not clear from the novel’s ending how much Wash truly understands about how much this man has stolen from him and how he is the source of his pain. There seems to be no accountability, in fact.

And that is the lesson for us all, isn’t it? African and African diasporic people have a tendency to look outside of ourselves for our salvation, and as such, are trapped in a perpetual state of adolescence, blaming the other for our failures because we have been too afraid to step into our power, claim it for ourselves, and use it for our own benefit.

We should not be the ones who balance out those who are imbalanced so much so that we get thrown overbroad or burned beyond recognition.

We should not provide the outline and intricate details of a problem that others cannot reason or create their way out of while the outlines and intricacies of our own lives go unnoticed and neglected.

We do not need to seek closure from those who have abandoned us, but must rather invest our time, our energy, and our love into those who have proven themselves worthy.

We must decide for ourselves who those beings are.

If you’d like to hear a beautifully read narration of the novel here’s a link, provided to me by my beloved tonton Patrick:

Washington Black – Episode One – @bbcradio4:

Read: An interview with Esi Edugyun on Serpent’s Tail:
or this one on Black Genius and what comes after slavery on NPR:
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