Growing up in a small town where I was almost always the only black kid in class, I can remember shrinking into my chair whenever we reached that dark stain in American history called “Slavery”. At the start of the year I would thumb through my recently distributed history text book to find the first mention of slaves and dread the moment when we flipped to that page. I was never ashamed of being black but there was some level of embarrassment in knowing that I was descended from the miserable looking people in the pictures wearing chains and no one else in the class was. As I grew older, that shame began to change into a certain level of pride knowing the struggle my ancestors overcame and how their contributions added to the birth of this nation, even if it was done in chains. It is no coincidence that my change in feelings came with my own personal learning process and discovery of what these influences have meant to the United States and my own existence.
Last weekend my learning continued under the direction of culinary historian Michael Twitty at Historic Stagville Plantation where 900 enslaved people, worked, lived and cooked. The dinner was prepared using 19th century techniques aimed at shining a light on the true roots of southern cuisine. Twitty and his assistants gathered wood and cooked over open flame pits in the shadows of dwellings once inhabited by enslaved families. Eating the fried chicken which was prepared in a cast iron skillet over an open flame got me to thinking… Why is the stereotype of African-Americans and fried chicken such a hurtful one? Chickens were one of the few animals that slaves were allowed to raise for themselves on a plantation. I remember as a kid, if we were taking a long road trip, my grandparents would fry a bunch of chicken the night before for the ride. I recently read, that because fried chicken traveled well in the heat, southern blacks often took it on long trips knowing they were limited in options on interstate highways that would allow them to stop and eat due to segregation. Its very eye opening to connect those two seemingly unrelated actions. Chicken was a key element of survival for African-Americans not only during slavery but also through times of segregation, it’s engraved in our culture to be celebrated not ridiculed.
After we all were seated for dinner, Mr. Twitty invited the attendees to be a part of the revealing of his African Ancestry via DNA testing. Coming from someone who knows very little about his ancestry, it was extraordinary to watch Michael find out what tribes in Africa he descended from. Many of my friends of European descent can tell where they are from down to a village simply from their last name. I am confident there were no villages in Africa bearing the name Fredericks. It never bothered me much as a kid but as a man gets older he wants to know where he came from and now I know its possible for me to find out. I thank Michael for sharing that moment with his family, friends and strangers.
I put together a slide show so you can see and hear the voices of Michael Twitty and Gina Paige from African Ancestry during the reveal and express the evening in a way I know my words cannot. I put voices to my slide show because I didn’t feel the pictures alone did justice to what an intimate event it was. Serena and I thank Michael Twitty, Historic Stagville, and everyone that helped put this event together.
I walked away from that evening at Stagville with one main thought, “keep learning”. Keep learning about my personal family past, keep learning about African American history and keep learning about how food connects with that history. I have come across some African Americans who wont mutter the word “plantation” let alone go visit one. We all have our own personal reasons and feelings but if you don’t go learn yourself you leave it to others to show you what they think you should know and there is no better place to learn about the past than where it happened.