One would grow weary of the list of foods I generally refuse ingesting: I don’t eat beef or pork, peas or boiled peanuts, and, of course, a lot of things in between. Something about being able to decide what one wants on one’s tongue, what flavors one decides to savor, is something I hold in high esteem. And the food we desire is just as much about placement into worlds as it is about feelings of and needs for satiation. There’s this chocolate I had in the back of my parents’ Oldsmobile years and years ago that I loved but can’t locate, though I’ve tried many times. Still, every now and again, my memory reminds me of that flavor: rich and warm and not too sweet. And then, just as quickly as the memory emerges, it dissipates into forgetfulness once more. What intrigues me is how I can only recall the taste of the chocolate by imagining myself in the back seat of that champaign-colored car. Somehow, for me, the taste is linked to the place of its ingestion. In recent years, I have found myself in the most random of places, often with my 2000 Nissan Maxima pulling all of the weight. Needless to say that lots of the food that I remember in my life are because of travels to those random places and, most poignantly, the kindness of strangers.
I met Miss Carolyn when I drove my car from Durham, North Carolina to Halifax, Nova Scotia the summer of 2010. Yes, drove. Yes, my car. I apologize to it often. I was doing research on black settlements in Canada and found out Halifax was home to the largest indigenous black population in all of the northern North America. Descendants of black Loyalists who fought during the American Revolution and escaped enslaved people call Halifax home and, for me, I was interested in the small plot near the water called Africville and the eventual evisceration of this black land and community. I met Miss Carolyn through a journalist, the journalist telling me that Miss Carolyn – an older Afro-Canadian – had a wealth of information. So I gave her a nervous phone call, told her who I was and we decided to meet at McDonald’s for breakfast.
We sat in that McDonald’s for perhaps two hours, “catching up” on each others’ lives as if we were the oldest of friends. Her warmth and hospitality were inviting, so much so, that she gave me the address to her home, told me to drive there later that evening to meet her husband, children, family and friends for dinner and birthday cake of one of her relatives. I drove to her home that evening and everyone embraced me, allowed me to participate and enjoy with them. “I hope you’re hungry! We’ll show you how we eat up here!” they said to me with delight. Dinner was cabbage, which I love, and corned beef, which I don’t eat. But I refused to let my restrictions become a hindrance to sociality (it’s not for health reasons, just…aesthetic ones, I suppose). So I sat and ate corned beef and cabbage and cake with laughter, with love. To be welcomed in, to be offered refuge and conversation, to be cared for is a radical act, but I worry about the capacity for the ongoingness of welcome, of hospitality, in our neoliberal world.
I was not surprised to learn that the Federal Bureau of Investigation named Assata Shakur as the first woman to make their list of Most Wanted Terrorists along with the increase of the of the reward from $1million to 2 million for information that could lead to her capture. I was not surprised, unfortunately, because the administration under which such action has taken place has tried, time and again, to distance itself from the radical acts for liberation that were prevalent in the 1960s and 70s. In his now famous “speech on race,” then candidate Barack Obama dismissed the anger and fire of Reverend Jeremiah Wright, saying, “That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity within the African-American community in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change.” But more, he equated this anger of Wright and his generation – an anger that emerged to counter the occasion of racist violence and violation – with that of white middle and working class folks, because they “don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race.”
It’s as if the very anger that made a Barack Obama presidency possible became relegated to the zone of impropriety and inappropriateness. The movements and groups that have brought us something along the lines of equity and liberation – the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, freedom struggles on college campuses that resulted in Black Studies, Women’s Studies and Ethnic Studies, as examples – were reduced to vulgar versions of “anger,” and that anger, then, was relegated to the zone of the counterproductive. That anger was, perhaps, understandable in that past moment but we’ve achieved a new enlightenment, so it seems, if we follow the logic of then candidate Obama.
So no, I am not surprised to hear, within this ever increasingly neoliberal moment in which we exist, that Assata Shakur is the newest face of domestic terrorism. The FBI site states, “She may wear her hair in a variety of styles and dress in African tribal clothing,” and it is this concern about “African tribal clothing” that stood out to me, the way material cloth – the accouterments that are presumed to carry culture – that I find odd and a bit worrisome. Noting that none of the others listed on the site have sartorial stylings imagined as a means to identification, we should ask how seeing “African tribal clothing” works in tandem with the identification of working-class youth who “sag” jeans, both producing the capacity to be criminal. Sagging jeans and tribal clothing are stylings of dissent, are means to display on the body difference. Resulting is the criminalization of dissent itself, all the way down to the level of clothing, and Assata Shakur seems to be the face, the image, of such criminalization. What you wear, what you eat, the place you do it, can all be acts of criminality.
So then, Cuba. Cuba, as a place of refuge, is an open table, allowing for exile and, we hope, a bit of reprieve. I care about Assata’s well being and I wonder about the communities of care that ensured her safe travels there. But more, I wonder what strangers invited, and still do ask, her to join them for meals against the normative assumptions about who deserves care and concern. Knowing that food is a love of hers, I wonder what foods she does and does not eat, if she has experiences of culinary delight at the tables of folks who wish to care for and with her, for and with the world that she seeks to make.
I stood on the porch of the flat – the small guesthouse with a bedroom/living room combo, a kitchenette and bathroom – I rented in Sapelo Island, Georgia, smoking a Black and Mild. They stood on the ground, descaling fish and beheading shrimp they just gathered, throwing seasoning in a big pot on the fire next to the shed so they could cook up some of the fresh catch. It was the cool of the evening – which doesn’t mean much on Sapelo … it was still hot and humid and the mosquitoes were showing themselves fiercely – and chickens were clucking, cows mooing and frogs croaking just a bit. Miss Yvonne – the woman from whom I rented – looked up across the grass and asked me, “you ever seen the head popped off a shrimp before?” And I said, with as much of the northeastern embarrassment I could quell and all the humility I could muster, “no, ma’am?” almost but not quite a question, certainly tentative. “Well, come down here and learn!” she insisted. So I did.
Miss Yvonne, her husband and their friend laughed a bit at me because of the shorts I had on “you can either be cool with shorts and get mosquito bites or you can be warm and protected,” but they meant it to rib me a bit, to make me laugh. And I did. We ate so many shrimp and crabs, and drank beer standing outside as the sun was setting that I could not believe how full I really was. That experience, to be honest, was one of the most beautiful moments I have ever had in my life. They did not require of me to give anything in return; I did not have to have potato salad or black eyed peas or crab cakes. Rather, they gave of themselves, offered a world to me through gathering around a table, sharing in laughter and food, showing me that, yet again, care and concern is not limited to folks you “know.” Rather, care and concern is something that we can give as a radical act in the face of marginalization.
Assata’s new “status” in these United States got me to thinking about Miss Carolyn and Miss Yvonne. I wonder when these modes of sharing, when radical acts of hospitality, will likewise become criminalized. From at least this author’s standpoint, the importance of the narratives recorded about Jesus lay not in his gruesome, untimely death but in the way he lived, the way he was able to abide with and be open to strangers. It is from this vantage that I think Marx’s communism was not a threat because it made him known as a sometimey great writer who could persuade others with his elegant phrasing, but he was a threat because his wife Jenny von Westphalen’s radical acts of love and transgressions against the decorum of her aristocratic parentage made possible – were the very material conditions through which – communistic thought was theorized, were performed. From at least this author’s thinking, Maud Martha was not radical insofar as she perceived ordinary things like candy buttons, the sky or dandelions, but that she recognized something of the beauty of the ordinary in everything, that the ordinary’s capacity to be common was what made it cherishable. What we have to attend to, in other words, is a history of violence that targets and seeks to quell radical acts of ordinariness and kindness, various modes of being together in upper rooms with one accord, of enacting always anti-institutional and impossibly uncapturable – by nation-states – friendships as ways of life.
These are all acts of protest against the logic and grammar of nation-states that would have us enclosed and cut off from all the others in the world unless our passports are validated. And with the criminalization of protest spreading its roots in our American soils – from Bradley Manning’s to whistleblowers to Occupy movements – and with the legality of indefinite detention for folks in Guantanamo and in the States and the evisceration of privacy and legal infringements in the name of national security, I wonder how far behind the criminalizing of dining and laughing at the table of strangers is. Georgia is raising taxes on the residents of Sapelo Island so rapidly that the very few folks living there wonder how long they will be able to remain. Taxation becomes a means to criminalizing a way of life, gathering up and removing it from the land. And so we must be diligent.
It’s funny how food can take us places, how food can create community and remind us of life, of love. I want to shut my eyes. Think. Imagine. Contemplate. Welcome Assata Shakur home, wherever home may be. I want to shut my eyes. Think. Imagine. Contemplate. Cook a meal of fried chicken and fish, greens and macaroni-and-cheese. And yes, a meal also of corned beef and cabbage, of crabs and shrimp. Eating things we eat and don’t eat because, truly, the experience of being there with each other is more important than dietary restrictions, because sharing a table is more important than satiation. And I want to imagine meals with her, at her table, at whatever table, laughing, “catching up” on life gone by. Crying? Yes. But also allowing the sun to shine, the wind to blow and the rain to fall; to feel elements. Easily. To be. To breathe.
And until such time, we fight.