TELLING STORIES, CHANGING THE CONVERSATION

How holiday gatherings sparked a hunger for food and knowledge

in Arts & Culture/Family & Parenthood by

I vividly recall my maternal grandmother’s holiday meals, with the men in the living room watching the game, and the women scurrying around cooking food and preparing the table.

My aunt made beans and rice, as well as potato salad with boiled eggs sliced on top that I stealthily picked out, while her husband sometimes made nacatamales, a treasured Central American street food made from steamed corncake stuffed with meat and vegetables.

Nacatamales

Luckily, his always had more meat in it than vegetables. Usually, Granny fried plantains, and my mom always baked her specialty, pernil, a slow-roasted marinated pork.

Each year was her final year making it, as she complained about the prep work that went into it; each year I told her that the pernil melted in my mouth and tasted better and better than the year before (which was my clumsy way of guilting her into cooking it).

The smell of Goya mixed with paprika, cilantro, basil, oregano, and other delicious seasonings, to provide a savory blend of my holidays growing up: Hondurans celebrating the distinctly American winter holidays, in the “melting pot” of New York City. After stuffing ourselves with food from our homeland at Thanksgiving, we repeated the ritual a month later for Christmas dinner.

Pernil. Photo credit: Yvonne Lee Harijanto

At our holiday gatherings, family members would bring a dish to the home of the person designated to host dinner that year. My mom never hosted because our tiny apartment was barely enough for two of us, let alone several hungry Hondurans.

Again, my mom would complain about slaving over the pernil for hours, and again I would scrape the eggs off my salad without my aunt noticing. For Christmas though, I would sometimes get an extra slice of chocolate cake, which was worth more than anything Santa brought down our invisible chimney.

READ ABOUT A LOUISIANA HOLIDAY – BOUCHERIE CELEBRATION

While growing up, I did not think critically about food; all I knew is that my mother sacrificed so I never went to school or to bed hungry.

Like Afeni Shakur lovingly sacrificed for hip hop artist, Tupac Amaru, Muffy, my pet name for mom, “was always in the kitchen fixin’ a hot plate.”

During our holiday meals, we always blessed the food by giving thanks to everything we had while remaining hopeful for what we lacked.

It was during these meals that I grew keenly aware of my intelligence: female relatives would grill me over my academic progress and wonder when I would begin college (even at 13 years old) while male relatives would question my lack of progress with the ladies (especially at 13 years old!)

At the end of these meals, I would sometimes ask my mom why relatives inquired about school: “It’s the holiday, I just wanna eat!” But she reminded me of the privilege of being in an American school.

She explained, “In Honduras, school was for the people who were really rich or really smart…I had to stop going to school early so I can go help Granny sell food and goods.”

Afro-Hondurans in traditional clothes. Photo credit: Kwekudee

My mother was the first born and a girl, so she was obligated to help Granny uphold the household financially.

While others in the United States were in middle school, my mother sold foodstuffs on Utila, often hawking my Granny’s mouthwatering cakes—the same sweets I indulged during holiday dinners.

Perhaps this explains why, hovering over Granny’s dining room table in Harlem, were two copies of the acrostic poem “Utila,” which spelled out to, Unite This Island Lord Almighty.

I assumed she needed duplicates to represent her diasporic experience: one copy for her apartment in NYC and another for her house on her native island.

Most folk never left Utila, and rarely traveled to the Honduran mainland; however, the close-knit group of Afro-Hondurans stayed together, similar to our family gatherings.

School children in Utila Island, Honduras. Photo credit: Kwekudee

Utila is small island off the coast of Honduras. During my mother’s rearing, the population was mostly darker complexioned people who are descendants of Africans brought to Central America by the Spanish to work in various aspects of agriculture as enslaved laborers.

It baffled my young mind that my mom, who is still the smartest person I know, could not continue her education. I always thought that her critical thinking skills would serve her very well in any profession.

But this disconnect became clearer to me in the summer I turned eighteen, when I received two letters in the mail: one with the details of freshman orientation at Hunter College, and the other with a warning from the New York State welfare office.

This latter one said that once I turned eighteen, if I decided to attend college full time and not work for meager welfare benefits, I would lose my benefits.

They asked me to make a painful choice that my mother did not have: to choose between attaining knowledge and attaining food.

To break my family’s dependence on public assistance, I chose the former…and never looked back.

I am incredibly thankful that my hunger for knowledge exceeded my hunger for food at that juncture in my life.

Through my college studies, I discovered parallels between my own diasporic narrative and that of African-Americans. Two prominent black men stood out in many stories I learned: Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois. Theywere among the first African-American scholars I read, and for some reason, their lives stay with me.

    • This bread I used to bestow upon the hungry little urchins, who, in return, would give me that more valuable bread of knowledge (Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, 1845).

We shall hardly induce black men to believe that if their stomachs be full, it matters little about their brains (W.E. B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk, 1903).

In the narratives of African-Americans, attaining both food and knowledge at one point was extremely difficult; resulting in using stealth to get either or both.

Frederick Douglass was lucky in this regard – he writes that when he was a slave for Mr. and Mrs. Auld, they permitted him to take the abundant bread in the house. He used it to bribe white boys to teach him how to read, an endeavor at which he succeeded. Douglass saw no problem giving them bread, since it allowed him to attain “the more valuable bread of knowledge.”

Another stalwart man, W.E.B. DuBois, would agree with this notion: he uses the image of food throughout his essay “Of the Training of Black Men” from The Souls of Black Folk. In it, he asserts that it is incumbent upon us to ensure that African-Americans do not get only food, but also an education.

Satisfy my Soul

    Cora had savored this fact in a multitude of ways over the months, but the provision for colored education was among the most nourishing (Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad, 2016).

Colson Whitehead’s critically acclaimed novel The Underground Railroad, is also peppered with references to food and knowledge.

In the quote above, the narrator uses the words “savored,” “provision,” and “nourishing” to describe Cora’s take on education. For this enslaved protagonist, the ability to become educated is as essential as getting food; her growth is contingent on attaining both.

Although these examples come from texts that were published in different centuries (19th, 20th, and 21st centuries) and in vastly different genres (an autobiography, a collection of essays, a contemporary novel), they share similar images of food and knowledge.

The historical juxtaposition of food and education for African-Americans suggests that, just as important as food is for Blacks to survive, so is the need to learn. Nourishment for the body is as essential as nourishment for the brain.

African-Americans have had an arduous time being educated, due to slavery, Jim Crow, and now a mediocre public school system that fails to adequately educate Black students.

As I celebrate this year’s holiday season, I intend to give thanks to all the people responsible for my growth. In doing so, I will remember the Hondurans and African-Americans whose sacrifices allowed me to not only get an education, but to become an educator myself. I am privileged to instill a hunger for knowledge in my students today.

Dr. Donavan Ramon is a professor at Kentucky State University. A scholar of African American literature, he focuses on fatherhood, family and literature.

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