It is well known in my family that if we go out to a restaurant and the menu offers shrimp and grits, that is what I will inevitably order. And I do that not because I don't have a diverse palate, but because for several years I've been seeking the perfect bowl - which has been elusive, to say the least. In my quest, I've had some that were too 'fancy', some that were too bacon-heavy, some too sweet with tomatoes. I've had some sublimely delicious ones, including one that was a riff on South Indian upma and sambar, but still didn't satisfy what I was searching for.
And then yesterday, I had the perfect bowl: the grits retained some of their 'grit', but were creamy and unctuous, the shrimp plump and cooked to perfection, and then there was the sauce - briny and bayou-reminiscent, in the best possible way. It made me think of the slaves who were given the most meager rations, including the grittiest part of the corn kernel and expected to produce back-breaking labor. Grits that did not provide enough nutrition to thrive, but survive just long enough to return the investment made into their purchase, room and board. Through the years, when able to forage and fish, Creoles first made the grits not just palatable, but comfort-inducing, and then crave-worthy by adding shrimp poached in spices that were the only memory of home that they could recreate time and again.
You'll pardon my irritation then, when after consuming (notice I didn't say enjoying) a bowl at an acclaimed restaurant that touted its regionally sourced ingredients last year, I learned that the grits with a Gullah name didn't come from Gullah pedigree. That the ingredients were indeed fresh and local, and the dish prepared with technical precision, but it had no soul. That restaurant may be located in the land of haint blue porch ceilings, in a city built by black islanders, but the slave market still standing in the middle of town was no more than a building to them, not a place where ghosts still searched for their stolen children.
Now, more than ever, I would like to see diners in this country not just rave over 'ethnic' and 'soul' food with its nuanced and complex flavors, but see those same nuances and complexities in the people who cook, and serve it to them. I'm not just an immigrant with an accent. My children are not just bi-racial. Black people are not just black, they are descendants of dynasties, tribes and communities they cannot even trace. They give their children names that have dignified meanings in the old country, only to have them mocked by people who choose not to inquire about their origins. Oftentimes I have observed a black woman with queenly bearing and it makes me wonder what her life would be like now, if her ancestor hadn't been stolen from their kingdom.
It's lazy to look at someone and assign them an identity based on the color of their skin. Get to know someone first. Listen to their story. Think about the skills and grit it took for their ancestors to survive atrocity upon atrocity, and still possess the optimism to start a family. Compassion, kindness and humanity make for a society worth inhabiting, but grit - that ability to make it no matter what is thrown your way - that builds strong people and societies, and towns and cities. Please, allow people of color - black men especially - who carry this grit deep within their DNA - to live. Give them hope, and the room to grow while making mistakes. Stop killing them for those things, and in some cases for no reason at all. Let them breathe, as you've been able to.
Wife, mother, baker, jam maker, hug dispenser, reader.