This Voices In Food story, as told to Amanda Balagur, is from Dr. Jessica B. Harris, a journalist, culinary historian and acclaimed author of thirteen books. Her work — especially that of her cookbooks — focuses on the food and foodways of the African diaspora. In recent years, Harris has received multiple awards, including a lifetime achievement award both at the Soul Summit and from the Southern Foodways Alliance. She’s the lead curator for an upcoming exhibition with New York’s Museum of Food And Drink called “African/American: Making the Nation’s Table.”
On being Black during the pandemic
We talk about the pandemic and how it has so horrifically, extraordinarily, outrageously and disproportionately affected Black people, and yet we don’t always extrapolate. What are the comorbidities? Let’s just take the three main ones: asthma, diabetes and high blood pressure.
“The stress—the simple, organized, day-to-day stress of being African American in the 21st century—is enough to give everybody high blood pressure. You are always on the razor’s edge, and that’s a reality.”
Asthma: Substandard housing, lead paint, bad breathing conditions, no air circulating, windows that are painted shut for generations and can’t open, air conditioning and heating vents with improper filters, and the list goes on and on ]of factors that worsen the health of asthma sufferers]. You’ve got that as a comorbidity by virtue of other societal things.
Diabetes: Well, we’ve learned the term food deserts, and we’ve now got the term food apartheid. What it boils down to is, ain’t no appropriate food in so many areas. Where are farmers markets, supermarkets, places where fresh vegetables and things that don’t come in a box or a can or a jar can be had? This is playing out not just in rural Mississippi, but also in Brooklyn and Brownsville and other places where a lot of urban people are all over the country. Those kinds of things give you diseases like diabetes because you’re eating overly processed food, and the cases of diabetes among African Americans are through the roof.
And the final one: high blood pressure. The stress — the simple, organized, day-to-day stress of being African American in the 21st century — is enough to give everybody high blood pressure, no matter who or what or where you are. You are always on the razor’s edge, and that’s a reality.
Just those three comorbidities make the pandemic so much more fatal and disastrous for the Black community. And they’re hiding in plain sight.
On the performative aspect of activism
I was class of 1968 getting out of college, which means that in a very, very real way, the past is prologue. Age, in its own way, provides another lens for looking at things. I think that there is perhaps an ingrained optimism of youth. I don’t know if the corollary is an ingrained pessimism of age; I’m certainly not pessimistic. I mean, this iteration seems to be bringing international awareness, not just a developing and, I hope, deepening national awareness. That’s not something that was happening necessarily in the ’60s or after Rodney King (the 1992 protests sparked by the not guilty verdicts for the Los Angeles police officers who beat the Black motorist). This is new air that we’re breathing, and that’s definitely a cause for optimism.
“It’s almost as though God ... hit the reset button, and it’s like, ‘Y’all go home now. Behave yourselves and think about it.’ It’s like when your momma sent you to the corner as a child. The world has been sent to the corner to think about it, and ... we actually have thought about it.”
I am thrilled and delighted at the activism. But I am equally cautious about how everybody now in their bio has, you know, ‘cookbook author, chef, blah blah, activist.’ I think activism is powerful, compelling, deeply rooted and is not something to be bandied about lightly. People are activists in different ways. I think that we are living in a time of extraordinary activism on so many levels and by so many people, and there are folks who are surprising themselves by becoming activists, or by becoming active, which may be more to the point—but not necessarily by putting it in their bios.
But I think that this is obviously a moment. Long before the current incidents, I was calling this whole pandemic a cosmic reset. You know, it’s almost as though God, or the forces or whatever you wanna call them, hit the reset button, and it’s like, ‘Y’all go home now. Behave yourselves and think about it.’ It’s like when your momma sent you to the corner as a child. The world has been sent to the corner to think about it, and I think one of the things that’s emerging from that ‘think about it’ is, we actually have thought about it. We have gone to the corner and are coming out of the corner with what I hope are some different and changing ideas, and things that will hopefully move us forward in positive and necessary ways.
On the necessary steps to move forward
There are several things that I hope will come out of this. As they used to say, put some gratitude in your attitude. I hope we have learned the need to be grateful, and, in some ways, to whom we should be grateful. There is, in my mind, a parallel between all of the workers that we have now dubbed essential to whom many of us never said, ‘Thank you,’ and the enslaved, who were never acknowledged. They certainly never got thanked.
“This is new air that we’re breathing, and that’s definitely a cause for optimism.”
I think that the whole notion of the need to revisit things with gratitude — thank the postman, waiter, nurse, orderly, garbageman, the people in the shops —because without them, we have just an inkling of who we might be. We’ve gotten our hand slapped big time. And in a larger and perhaps broader sense, take that understanding and gratitude back generations. And that’s me as the culinary historian and the descendant of enslaved African Americans saying, ‘Well, take that back and say thank you to some of those folks, too.’ Cause without those folks, we would not have this country as we have it, and for that matter, this hemisphere as we have it.
I think we are learning that this is an American issue in a hemispheric sense, not just in the United States. Civil unrest and civic disobedience exist in places like Brazil tenfold with fair impunity. So we’re learning that some of these things are not just national, but international; this whole hemisphere has the same ugly original sin. And it is the enormous elephant under the rug about which we do not talk, but about which we are now beginning, perhaps, to have a dialogue. But this conversation has to be among equals. Everybody has to come to and be at the table. Everybody has to be at the table. That’s important, that’s crucial.
I mean, these are birth pangs, if you will. Let’s hope it’s not false labor.