My mad obsession with old cookbooks taught me that Black people are not monolithic.

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I have a confession: I LOVE COOKBOOKS! Whenever I can get my hands on an old cookbook, I simply cannot pass it up! For me, the older the better. Let me see an African American cookbook from the late 1800s and I get all giddy on the inside. I quickly grab it, flip through the pages, cruise all of the recipes, laugh at the little folk sayings, and find secret joy after secret joy. Words like “teacup full” or “whip batter 30 times” gives me a school girl’s pleasure beyond my ability to measure. The cookbook that you see is a beautifully laid-out annotated bibliography by Toni Tipton-Martin. It is now available on amazon.com. I do not know the author personally, but I want to thank her for putting this together, for creating an annotated bibliography, and for delivering a piece of artwork all at the same time! If you have a cookbook fanatic in your family, please do not hesitate to order this book! She has a second publication, too! If Tipton-Martin runs across my humble little blog, I want to say “thank you, thank you, and thank you a million times over for your scholarship and artistic sensibility!”

With my gratitude said, let me delve back into my madness. The cookbooks that I find have to come from different areas of the country. I have one by Edna Lewis, VertaMae Smart-Grovesnor, and I had one by Rufus Estes that I have to repurchase. I lost it in a tropical storm when water got into my mother’s house.

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Anybody who loves to cook knows that each cook does things to his/her specifications, no matter how good a recipe may be. I also learned this one thing: every region of the South cooks a little differently. Black folk in Arkansas do not cook the same as those from Florida who do not cook the same as those in Mississippi who do not cook the same as those in Louisiana who do not cook the same as those in Georgia who do not cook the same as those in the Carolinas. Each region of the South has distinct flavors, ingredients, and preparations.

When I broadened my love of cooking to include the entire nation, I learned that Black folk are as varied as the nation. Black folk in New Jersey are not the same as those in Connecticut. No, we are different. And that is not necessarily a bad thing. It taught me this one thing: Black folk ain’t bland.

That makes this next statement difficult: I am sometimes VERY offended at the synonyms that the media -and sometimes Black people — use to describe “the” Black community. First of all, there is not “the” Black community. To say “the” implies that we are all one. That is a fabrication if ever there was one. We would like to believe that about ourselves, but it simply isn’t true. There are many Black communities scattered across America. Black people in Baltimore share some commonalities with Black people in Los Angeles, but they do not face the same daily circumstances, and those daily interactions have produced tangible differences that need to be acknowledged.

Second, according to America at large, Black has become synonymous with “poor.” Black Americans recognize and try to enforce class differences within ourselves. Sometimes, this is pitifully comical. One of the most comical scenes in all of literature is in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man when the unnamed protagonist tries to discard some garbage. Ellison clearly mocks Black folks’ attempt to establish class boundaries. Since Black folk typically do not experience the vast economic stratification of our white counterparts, we establish class demarcation by ostracizing one another’s mannerism, dress, and speech. For Black folk, being called “country” or “ghetto” is about class and less about geographical location. Due to racial discrimination, at one point, no matter how much money Black folk made, we are all still living in the same neighborhood. The middle class teacher may have lived next door to the lower class janitor. So, the only way to separate one from another was to mock the neighbor’s mannerisms and dress.

Third, though it is Sunday and though we worship a man who was born in a poor area and was step-son to a carpenter, America has a history of poverty-shaming. African Americans are no different from other Americans in that we are often ashamed of impoverished backgrounds. We have tried to shirk off our agrarian background since the 1920s. One of the words that has become synonymous with Black is “urban.” As an agrarian African American who is unashamed of that, I feel that word renders me invisible. I sometimes laugh at people who are as “country” as I try to put on the mannerism of their more urban counterparts. Not every Black person in America lives in a city. I am from a small town that is no bigger than a postage stamp. And guess what? I am not ashamed of that in any way shape or form. In fact, I do not care who does not like it. Many African American academics are ashamed of me and I do not care how they feel. I REFUSE to buy into a narrative that has been set for me outside of me. I cringe when I hear people say “acting Black” and try to enforce some kind of Black rule. What is “acting Black”?

Differences in African Americans do not have to be flattened out and ignored. We are not bland. We are spice and any good cook can tell you that dishes without spice are not worth eating. Our differences do not weaken Black Americans. Acknowledging and meeting local needs where people are, then talking on a national platform, and carrying this selflessness to an international platform can only strengthen Black people. But when we have an attitude of “Your Black got to be my Black” or “My Black is THE Black,” we get nowhere. Those are arguments of essentialism and they lead to nowhere. There is no one way to be Black. Everybody’s got soul when they are doing what they do when they are doing it with everything they got. Arguments of essentialism are null and void as far as I’m concerned, because jollof rice and jambalaya are equally delicious.

Normally, I present something from one of my teaching binders, but this is from my cooking obsession. I am about to go and cook up a big batch of homemade chili right now. Now, I need to lose a few pounds, because I have gotten a little fluffier during this time of COVID-19, but that would require me to stop cooking, and well…

LaToya Jefferson-James has a Ph.D. in literature. She specializes in literature of the African Diaspora and cultural criticism.

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