The Majesty of VertaMae Smart-Grovesnor, pt. 1

VertaMae Smart-Grovesnor claimed her Gullah heritage when others were running away from it. She fashioned herself a food anthropologist before Southern and African American Studies were widespread. She combined organic and traditional intellectualism, told great stories, produced documentaries, and fed us righteous food to boot!

Picture downloaded from Washington University Center for Humanities. An early copy of Vibration Cooking on the left and a Jet Magazine cover featuring VertaMae Smart-Grovesnor on the right.

Dear Reader, I want to thank you for stopping by. Now, I have to confess something: I don’t know where to start, where to go in the body of this blog post, and how to end it. So, if you want to take your leave, Reader, I understand. If you take a notion, stick around and sit with me for a spell.

And there is a perfectly good reason why I cannot start, stretch out, and end this essay: the woman who is the topic of my essay. There is a majesty to VertaMae Smart Grovesnor. America saw her for years on PBS as a television chef. I came to her through a picture in the Norton Anthology of African American Literature v.2, 3rd edition. There was a picture of her with other Black women writers, and the picture read, “Toni Morrison and Her Writing Circle.”

Now, I downloaded this from somebody’s Pinterest account. But this picture is included in the anthology. I looked at that picture for a full five minutes. It contained all of the women writers whose work I have come to love, know, and teach. However, there was one woman writer, standing in a patterned jacket to the left, who I had never heard of and could not say that I had read any. I read the picture’s of her writing. Her name was included in the caption and I looked for her in the anthology, but she was not there. Well, anybody who knows Morrison knows that she did not pal around with light-weights. This woman, VertaMae Smart-Grovesnor, according to the caption, must have been a dynamic storyteller and writer. I looked her up and saw this beautiful picture.

I cannot remember what website contained this picture, but I remember staring it for a while. It’s beautiful. I discovered that this Black woman of Geechee/Gullah roots had a show on PBS for decades and I never saw it or heard of her. Then, there were pictures of Julie Dash, the film director, that kept popping up in connection with Smart-Grovesnor. What was that all about? Well, I had papers to grade, so I filed this information away in my brain, vowing to come back to it, and got busy with the daily grind.

As life would have it, I did not get back to this writer. I had to take care of an ailing family member, be a good mother and half-way decent wife, secure a job, edit a book (and I did a piss-poor job, by the way), try to find a publisher, teach a million students, and advise several hundred. I forgot about her, honest-to-goodness I did! But then, I was preparing for a class that I absolutely hated: the accursed American literature. I ran from American literature my whole academic career — taking only what was demanded of me by the graduate curriculum designers. But while working at an HBCU, of all places, my white woman paternalistic chair would not believe that a Black woman from Mississippi was intellectually adequate enough to teach British literature, and “downgraded” me to American literature — something clearly outside the parameter of all these specialized courses listed on my transcript. But, a straight lick was hit with a crooked stick that sememster.

As God would have it, and I know it was God, I found something during my class prep. I was reading through the Bedford Anthology of American Literature, v. 2 and ran across Toni Morrison’s only published short story, “Recitatif.” Well, it was in the introductory writing (you know, the italicized writing that none of us actually read), that her short story was part of an anthology of 49 women writers edited by Amiri Baraka and his wife, Amina Baraka. Well, I never knew such an anthology existed. And from Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones)? Now, all through graduate school, I was taught that Amiri Baraka was a brilliant poet, but he came with controversy. Adjectives associated with him are: polarizing, controversial, homophobic, misogynist. Umm, “champion of Black women writers” is nowhere NEAR what people think of when they think of the writer formerly known as LeRoi Jones.

Well, I had to see this for myself. It went against all of the things that I have ever heard about Amiri Baraka. Now, granted, I am no Baraka scholar, but the misogynist who was responsible for killing the Black Arts Movement, according to conventional knowledge, helped pave the way for the feminist backlash of the 1980s co-edited a book of 49 Black women writers? Yeah. Right. I thought, “Let me just see about this.”

After a quick Google search, I discovered that the anthology, Confirmation: An Anthology of African American Women, really did exist.

Downloaded from

At the time, this book was considered rare and it cost a fortune. I could not afford that on my assistant professor’s salary, so I looked for it in the libraries. I found one copy at the J.D. Williams Library of the University of Mississippi, drove one hour to get it, checked it out, and opened the pages.

Reader, what a joy! What. A. Joy. Not only did this book, a book that nobody bothered to mention in all of my years of graduate study, contain Morrison’s only short story, but there was the devastatingly delightful story by Maya Angelou, “The Reunion,” that was turned into an HBO short film. I remember watching that film, which was part of an anthology of films taken from Black writers, as a teenager.

Look, I went through a lot of trouble, Reader, just trying to remember the original title of that anthology of short films. I found this poster on Please go here and read the original summary:

After I recovered from the initial shock of seeing Maya Angelou, Margaret Walker Alexander, Toni Cade Bambara, and Toni Morrison answer the call of a brilliant misogynist (as I have been taught), I thumbed through the pages seeing poets that I had never heard of or read (including Baraka’s wife), and then “found” this story, “Skillet Blond.” I was hooked from the look of the story. First, the author accented almost every letter in her name. It was like she was saying to the reader, “Look at me and I. am. Me. Nobody else!” She included an italicized epigraph that was also full of diacritics. They told me, “Look, dummy. Don’t you dare turn this page!” But I turned the page, and I saw that this short story contained stories within stories properly labeled as, “Story #1,” “Story #2” and so on.

After exploring the worlds within this world, I began to read, and I was hooked from the first line: “You’re a kid and you believe everything they tell you.” Immediately, I mean IMMEDIATELY, I knew that this woman, VertaMae Smart-Grosvenor, was talking to me. She was talking to the small child who grew up in a rural world of old Black folk.

Now, Reader, I don’t want to bore you to death or read your eyeballs out. This is just the first part. Come back when the attention will no longer be on myself, but on the majesty of VertaMae Smart-Grovesnor.



LaToya Jefferson-James has a Ph.D. in literature. Welcome! The professor is in! Come in and stay a spell. Let’s discuss and learn from one another.

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LaToya R Jefferson-James

LaToya Jefferson-James has a Ph.D. in literature. Welcome! The professor is in! Come in and stay a spell. Let’s discuss and learn from one another.