Life's Gumbo: Black Religious Experience and Culinary Culture

Published: March 23, 2016

In just reading the title of the course, Black Religious Experience and Culinary Culture, I immediately began singing Jill Scott’s Fatback Taffy and thought of those massive dinners served after a revival Homecoming Sunday service. And, if you’re not from the South, you don’t know what you are missing. Admittedly, I’ve never actually had fatback taffy much less a serving of chitterlings. But this weekend course turned out to be much more than just a talk about grandma’s homemade recipes or shared stories among the professor’s and students’ simple culinary culture. Through the selected texts, a short film, discussions, and a surprise guest, it offered a space to discuss the imagery and stereotypical sexist and racist tropes that are often prescribed to and among persons of color in America.

Skype Session with Author Psyche Williams-Forson

Skype Session with Author Psyche Williams-Forson

With interjections of songs in his soulful melodious voice, Dr. Hicks built the framework and set the stage for the course by sharing the story of his grandmother and the ways in which cooking and its process were a foundational piece of their relationship. In this space of time travel, we watched a documentary film titled, Ethnic Notions. ‘See the strange fruit does not look quite strange anymore… Black faces painted on by racists. Mama, why won’t this soap get my skin any whiter? I just want to play my own roles in this movie called Life.’ This was a part of a short poem I wrote while watching the film. Not giving any spoilers, but the sad reality of the documentary, which was filmed almost 30 years ago, is that several of the media-encouraged stereotypes of “freed” Blacks in America still holds true – violent, barbaric, whoremonging-uncontrollable brutes.

‘Daddy, pass me more lye, please. No – no, not just for my hair but because I don’t even think “they” think my soul is white enough for heaven’ – politics of respectability. One of the texts we read in this course was Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920 by Evelyn B. Higginbotham. This text offered a healthy discussion around the works of black Baptist women and their fight to excel in the society in which they lived. For the text, Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power, we had the amazing opportunity to be graced for discussion via Skype by the book’s author, Dr. Psyche Williams-Forson. The last book we read, Black Hunger: Soul Food and America by Doris Witt, spoke of the perceptions of soul food, black women, and the Mammy character; which has been portrayed in cartoons and even on commercial items such as Aunt Jemima pancakes.

Life and healthy conversations of discernment and learning are like a good gumbo. We all bring our different ingredients to the pot but we all have a presence and can be enjoyed just the same. If you do nothing else, I invite you to watch Ethnic Notions and have those healthy conversations of discernment and learning.

headshot Sophia opt 2

Sophia Russell
First-Year Student

Sophia Russell is a first year Divinity student. She is teacher by profession, but a poet at heart. So, keep in mind, she’s an artist and is sensitive about her work.