I, too, ____________ America…

Blog Post by Phil Jones
Blog Post by Phil Jones

I keep trying to tell folks that we are more alike than different, and I usually have to fight when I proffer this idea, at first.

However, when I break it down to our most common daily activities, it becomes acceptable, clear and simple. We live. We eat. We breathe, and, sometimes, we do these things well. We all share these common activities, and eating is arguably the most apt to be pleasure driven among those activities. We never send back crappy air.

With that said, most of us have some common food memories, while the details may vary, I, like most, have childhood favorites, like the spicy meat patties I sold on the beaches of St. Croix. Okay, most kids don’t aspire to foodservice greatness at such a young age, but it’s my story…

Like most, I have a first recipe cooked, and the related heart-warming, failure story about getting back up to try again. I have a couple favorite places to eat, and eat, and eat… My story should be told. It’s not that different than yours, but completely different.

I, too, eat, America.

As I look to food, as a black man, who, by chance, cooks for a living, I am struck by the feeling that my food doesn’t matter. I am sure that I am not alone in this feeling, so I want to take a look at this as a part of my personal food work. My daily efforts are focused on telling a food story that rebuilds the system in an equitable, fair and sustainable manner, so I am sensitive to the fact that we have a food system that consumes rather nourishes by the many stories I am honored to have shared with me.

I work in a system that uses me and doesn’t celebrate me or people that look like me, because people of color make up much of the food system workforce, while being noticeably absent in management and ownership. I look back at the many women who headed the kitchens I worked in being relegated to lesser roles and lower pay.

We have a burgeoning food scene here in Detroit that doesn’t see that people of color and our mothers, wives, friends and daughters have voices that are important and soul satisfying, because they do and they are. We, they, you, the underrepresented and underserved are a major part of everyone’s food story, but we are hidden from this significance for far too many reasons.

That’s why these words are so important…

I, Too
BY LANGSTON HUGHES

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

Tomorrow,
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
Then.

Besides,
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

This brilliant and haunting poem will serve as the backdrop for an on-going discussion around the intersection of food and race as viewed through the eyes of a Black community activist, chef and foodie.  I’ll be talking about where my food came from, where it is and where it’s going through an honest and probing racial lens.

My story has value, and I have an understanding about how it feels to be left out.  I know what it feels like to watch media faun over the newest, hot chef and wonder why they never look like me.  I know what it is to see young women with an intense passion and talent for food to be labeled and tagged from their Easy Bake ovens and beyond.

I, cook, too, America.

I know what it means to plant, nurture and grow food for the survival of my family, friends, community and world.  I know what it means to create industry through the ingredients of my family and my creativity.

I, too, grow, America.

I know what it feels like to hear of great cuisines that influence the world, but never about mine.  This is where this blog probably finds its first gasps of life.  I am hurt, and I need to express the hurt through food, as I always have done.  

I feel betrayed, because I brought the food in from the field with no pay off of conviviality or community, both of which were a part of a shared day and existence.  It was a twisted, but normal part of our shared day that could easily disappear with the normalcy of a day lived.  The real nature of our relationship became apparent when the fruits of our labor were to be celebrated as one, but couldn’t

My work is centered on redefining the food system narrative to be more diverse and inclusive, which are really two greatly different things.  Diversity suggests the face of food, and inclusion suggests the institution of food.  Both of these areas are sorely lacking adequate representation by persons of color and women, in general.

Good food suggests that this can’t be.

I, too, am America.

Biodiversity has to be at the center of all food system contributors’ values, because our very survival is dependent on that.  Survival, is pretty important, in my humble opinion, so that’s why I am suggesting that we need to be assured that our human existence is secure by taking some very needed and tasty steps.

These words speak of a divide, and our food system embodies this divide.  How do you celebrate a food story with only half of the cast of characters?  You can’t.  That makes for an incomplete story.  The New York Times would never consider you for that list.  Justifiable acceptance on this list is admirable, but just a start.  I am emboldened by Shaka Senghor’s recent inclusion in the New York Times best seller list with his work, “Writing My Wrongs,” which examines his life from detention to redemption.

The mission for Slow Food is one of joy and justice, and this blog will examine both of these things by looking at what people eat and why.  I hope that it will speak of meals enjoyed and the deeper stories of those meals with all their associated trials, tribulations and triumphs.

When faced with the decision on what I would submit as my contribution to the chapter’s blog series, I was torn as to its nature and focus.  I soon came to this poem that felt like a great starting point for a conversation around food, but tackling food from a position of consciousness.

As you should know, by now, I am referring to “I, Too, Sing America,” which has come to be known as one of, poet, Langston Hughes’ most important works and a fitting poetic frame for this blog.

I look forward to future conversations…