It is New Year’s Eve and so I am doing what everyone in my own family and many other African American families who I know do: I have started slow-cooking black-eye peas in a crockpot for my first meal on January 1, 2013 to bring in good luck. Various scholars have traced multiple Diasporic histories related to black-eye peas: a pre-travel fattening process for the enslaved Africans who left Goree Island to ensure their physical and psychic survival; the legume’s symbol of abundance in places like Senegal because they grow even in drought conditions and refertilize the soil with their nitrogen; and their role as a medium of exchange for the Orisha in Brazilian Candomble. The beautifully illustrated children’s book, Heart and Soul, by Kadir Nelson, also introduces this New Year’s tradition to children. These days, I think about how these kinds of rituals in my family marked us as working class rather than today’s media-overdetermination that black folk who grew up poor look like the pathological sensations we see on “reality TV” (which seem to represent the imaginations of a white media “reality”, 21st century Moynihans, really, more than anyone else.)
I no longer eat red meat (I am still making a slow turn to vegetarianism) and so, today, I look to Bryant Terry’s Vegan Soul Kitchen to understand the spices and meat alternatives that will give the peas that flavor that I remember from my youth. Terry’s book was a gift from a vegan friend who was working/cooking through the entire book. Terry’s recipe for Baked BBQ Black-Eye Peas/Boppin John (pages 143-144…and, yes, Boppin John is the remix of Hoppin John) comes with a listing of the necessary culinary ingredients, of course, but the recipe also comes with other emotional/psychic ingredients: suggestions for reading, seeing, and listening. Terry’s soundtrack for Baked BBQ Black-Eyes Peas is none other than “Harlem” by Bill Withers:
The visual encounter with this dish is “Portrait of James Baldwin” by Brett Cook-Dizney. This Portrait is part of “The Models of Accountability series” which Cook-Dizney describes as his study of people who have been avatars for social change including people such as Nelson Mandela, James Baldwin, Angela Davis, Thich Nhat Hahn, Caesar Chavez. Cook-Dizney represents these avatars in spray paint on mirror with their written words and published texts attached to mirrored shelves at the base of each piece. The art, therefore, shifts and refracts through the mirroring of the viewer who is literally moving about and amongst the pieces. He wants us to see these avatars not as distant, abstract icons but as refractions of our ourselves.
The reading selection that Terry offers us is Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin. As he himself attests in his introduction, Terry makes these suggestions in his cookbook as part of his intention to bring the culture back to agriculture, a sure connection to the cooking and foodways of my grandmother’s generation in the rural south. I have enjoyed this book and Terry’s recipes since I received this gift. Given the history of black-eye peas for the African Diaspora and the fact that everyone in my own family has eaten them on New Year’s Day as far back as anyone can remember, it is only fitting that Terry’s black-eye peas come with a soundtrack, reading nourishment from James Baldwin, and a visual arts system where the avatars that have gotten us here are ones that we should see in ourselves. It feels like the right way for Native Sons and Daughters, to remix Baldwin’s coinage, to start off the new year.