by Kynala Phillips
One of the most commonly used African-American proverbs I know is “When we get to this grocery store, you better not ask for shit.”
This line single handedly had authority over my childhood diet. I ate what my family ate, and that was the end of the discussion. Honestly, I didn’t have a problem with the food we ate. Food is, and has always been, an integral part of my culture. Black culture is incredibly robust, however, breaking bread with others has always been one of the most important aspects of our culture. It’s a way to commune and fellowship. I have never been to a family function that did not bless its attendees with a plate (if you’re lucky, a plate to go).
In the last year of my life, I have been immersed amongst Black people of the vast African diaspora. Being a student at UW-Madison has allowed me to meet Black people from all over the world. The more I learn about other Black cultures and traditions, I find myself more and more connected to my own culture as a Black American. I sit and have extensive conversations with family members and community elders about how they view our people. However, it can be difficult to hold on to a culture that is constantly being attacked or sold. I frequently am confronted with people who feel as if they have a free pass to Black people, our culture, our spaces and our peace. I often feel like I am surrounded by Black pop culture, and yet none of it is mine. Because of this, I, to this day, am deeply connected to ham hocks. I have a unbreakable fondness for pork chops and my heart throbs for red beans and rice. Food has always been and continues to be my primary connection to Black culture and Black people, after my skin. It’s the one thing that is not frequently stolen and adapted for someone else’s agenda.
So when my mother and I decided we were going to try to maintain a healthier diet, I made a conscious decision to give up more than just my certain foods. I felt, in part, like I was giving up so much of Blackness. My mother and I decided we wouldn’t eat pork or red meat and in that instance I felt the distance between myself and my people thicken. Luckily, my family didn’t give me that much grief for my new healthy aspirations, however, watching them demolish pork ribs in front of me was hard. Furthermore, having to bother folks to make non-pork and non-red meat options felt like such an intrusive request. At most family functions I am always lucky enough to have a chicken or fish option. However, despite the fact that there is an option available for me to indulge in, there is still a growing distance between my family and myself. It’s hard to break bread with people when you’re breaking different foods. There have even been times when I’ve attended events and I don’t eat at all because I know there may not be any thing available for me. It doesn’t upset me at all, but I can feel some of my culture tugging away at me. I am not trying to say that food and the experience of eating it in communion with other Black folks equates to Black culture, but food remains one of the few aspects of Black culture that I feel I can keep for myself.
Our music, hair, clothing, art, etc. is often appropriated to the point that I feel as if it has been literally snatched from me. I take a lot of pride in our food and our ability to make food that can literally speak to one’s soul (not to be a cliché). Once, I decided to embark on this journey of not eating certain foods, I felt a void grow, immediately. I don’t feel absent from my culture or community, but I do sometimes get the sense that I am on the outside. With this country, and more specifically my university, being such an isolating space, I fight to stay as involved with my people as possible. I know that my decisions on my diet have been good for my health and well-informed, but I still juggle how to still live within the love that flows through pork fat while staying away from pork. How will I show my future children the complexities of collard greens without letting them experience the delicacy that is a ham hock. Especially, in a world that is constantly trying to question their Blackness and their purpose. Will I be robbing them by not giving them the most fulfilling Black household that I possibly can. I know that there are solutions to many (if not all) of these questions, but these questions still weigh heavy on my soul from time to time.