By Ayodele Nzinga
Shells & 7 cheeses
Sweet potato pie
Mustard Greens W smoked Turkey tails
Home Made Ice Cream
Roast and Butter Potatoes
Tossed Prawn Green Salad
I started the day with prayer over John Coltrane, read an essay or two from Marvin X’s new joint, between finishing up the feast. The house is full of the smells of oyster dressing. It is early in the morning. I have been up since 5:00. As time ticks along I move into a little Harold Melvin, The Ojays, James Brown, and some Gil Scott Herron. This early play list is the best of my mother’s music, the stuff that to this day moves me and speaks to the struggle still being waged in the Nation in the Nation. Tell em James, still black, still proud. There is a roast as tender as butter. The smoked turkey is still steaming from the oven. The greens were done last night. The candied yams are just ready and you are right Harold Melvin there ain’t no stopping me now. Best believe in a minute or two we gonna Wake up Everybody.
I remember Thanksgiving at my mother’s house. I remember it in musical clips. Certain songs bring back certain years. There was always the music. These select memories are mostly good memories and they continue to improve with age. These memories are for the most part from before the days I realized the glittery grit American holidays rise from. This was before it dawned on me why Natives, most likely don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, at least not with the same sentiment as Middle America. Wherever that is.
I grew up on the so-called margins in the Nation in the Nation. It was the sixties. The world was changing and we were hopeful and on the edge of something. I was months away from discovering the “movement,” growing in the hothouses of urban centers, I had never thought of. Even Mother was expanding her horizons she had discovered the necessity of politics. She became an A. Phillip Randolph Society member. The music in our house reinforced this time of expansion and recreation in our house and in our conscious awareness. I was in the space before the tipping point. I was just discovering Langston and Baraka. I was just beginning to understand that the world was bigger than Mother’s house and the school library. Tradition was being discovered and created. Dysfunctionality or perceptions of it can be considered a tradition. And so it is we came to the tradition of Thanksgiving in my Mother’s house.
The assembling of the groceries was a primary task that would be started at least a week before the actual preparation. The supplies for the mammoth meal came from a variety of stores my mother was guided by the specialties of particular markets. A turkey ordered at a quality meat market, live shellfish from the Chinese grocer, the newest 45s from the black record store and so forth.
Thanksgiving started the night before fueled by large amounts of Cutty Sark my mother directed her kitchen crew of children with me being the eldest. I picked bunch after bunch of fresh greens, snapped and shelled peas and beans. I was the DJ spinning stacks of 45s or selecting LPs from the huge stack. Music was one of the few things my mother and I shared. We loved it. I drank her music in. She had great taste. She liked a wide variety and a lot of it was what I would have bought myself. Music made the task melodious as well. I remember being the chief chopper—onions, celery, bell peppers were minced within an inch of their lives under a sharp knife. The fragrant piles went from chopping board to bowls for mother’s use as the most succulent meal began to take shape. Chopping completed I would move on to peel things that need to be peeled. After my peeling duties were over I was a masher and occasionally a mixer. I guess it all comes under food prep and I was our food processor.
There was a rhythm in that kitchen that I have learned to appreciate. Mother’s kitchen hummed. She was everywhere. One minute her hands in soapy bleach water washing every dish as it was dirtied. The next she was checking a bird stuffed with oranges, apples, celery, and onions. From there to the pot of greens picked fresh from the garden that morning. Even the garden cooperated with Mother’s rhythm. Peppers and onions ripened on cue. I succumbed to exhaustion only at a point when my help no longer mattered. It would have never occurred to me to fall sooner or to complain. Mother’s rule was law. As I recall the later the hour the older the music Mother played. I would wake in the morning to the sounds of her moving in the kitchen with B.B. King, Bobby Blue Bland, or Jimmy Reid, twanging in the speakers.
I have learned to appreciate the ease of that time with my mother. She taught me to cook without ever writing down a recipe. I still measure my prowess in the kitchen by my mother’s. We talked about things we never talked about at any other time. She let me read poetry to her. She asked questions about the authors and what I thought the poems meant. We did theater improvs with characters that suited our whimsy at the moment. We sang over Aretha Franklin. We were known to argue over the lyrics and dissolve into laughter when we discovered we were both wrong. This was the only time any of these things ever existed between us. The only time I ever remember my mother telling me I was beautiful and that she loved me was in a holiday kitchen. She was relaxed peacefully committed to being in this space for hours doing one of the things she did well and had a passion for. I have noticed that when they are happy in the work of their hands even the most irascible people are approachable.
Mother was known in our neighborhood for the table she set. Her salmon croquettes were legendary. My father was never at a lost for a fishing buddy. Mother’s croquettes sealed the deal. She made jams, jellies, canned fruit, and homemade ice cream. Coconut cake or German chocolate take your choice they were made from scratch and melted in your mouth. Her candied yams and sweet potato pie game was sharper than my grandmother’s and that’s saying something. She made hogshead cheese form the whole head of a hog with the glazed eyes staring. She would scramble the brains into eggs and savor the delicacy that not one of her disgusted albeit astonished kids showed any curiosity about. She excelled at holiday meals and she had a record collection a DJ or beat maker would kill to own. On holidays we dove into the stack and the music is forever connected to my holiday memories.
Our dinner table groaned with excess that did not seem like excess with Ray Charles as a soundtrack. Two meats and at least six sides above and beyond the traditional necessities and a choice of at least three deserts were the foundation of a holiday feast. There are some differences in Mother’s table and mine. Both households full of children, debt, and with an eye on the same struggle but in different points in time. We are of a line but we are in different perspectives.
The machinery in the kitchen is and is not the same. I am still chief chopper and I have not been able to establish the holiday rapport in the kitchen my mother invoked. The relationship with my children is different. There is no pork on my table. Cutty is not what fuels the party. We collectively have created for ourselves a different kind of baggage and out of this baggage arises another kind of tradition. The music once the oldies walk us though memory has changed as well. It describes our place in the struggle as clearly as the music of my mother’s Thanksgiving did.
Hairdoo, Hi-Beats, Dead Prez, Common, Marley, TuPac, and some Talaam Acey will be a part of the soundtrack today. A little Ise Lyfe some Amir Suleman and some of that Boots and the Coup along with some Askari X balanced against some Franti will set the tone for our “Blessings are Due Day.” This is the mental food I will serve up along with the macaroni shells and seven cheeses and my own version of candied yams with Saigon cinnamon. I am famous in my own way for my holiday table. There will also be room for some of that Turf Starz and The Pack, the Hypfy sound, my kids are recreating themselves to. This ain’t my mother’s Thanksgiving. But we got here via mothers house. If she were here I don’t know if she would approve of the music or the table. But things change and the times have kept suit.
Led by the music and the times that make the music we are the same and different. Mother’s music said the time; it was a product of the place, politics, and the people’s relationship to these things that shaped the lyric and the rhythms they rode upon. We are closer to the bone when we stop to examine place, politics, the times, and the people’s relationship to these things. The history in between has taken us at least in lyric to the grit of the streets. Made us more graphic in our pathology and in our effort to be free of it. I submit there has always been sex and violence in popular music it is the degree and lack of veneer I believe shocks.
But again I say it relates to how we live. It is connected to our perceived potential and a reaction to the American dream’s evolution into crass commodity that drives commercial/corporate rap. As TuPac said Rap can do what it has to in order to survive, to make money, but Hip Hop has a responsibility to the streets. I’m a hip-hop head, sometimes, as out of step in my house as my mother would be. I’m not into the disposable music that will only be a novelty if anything at all in 10 years. I see a commonality in my taste and my mother’s. While eclectic our taste runs towards that which inspires, uplifts.
Today I am happy to be aware there is still music being created to ignite the consciousness and reveal us standing in the storm, still black, and still proud. There is still a counter-dialogue. I’d like to think if my mother was still alive she might find some point of recognition in the new dialogues in music, might find the message familiar. We are in the belly, we need to be awake and aware, and understand that we are powerful.
The house is alive as friends come and go and the children float in and out. The politics fly as good-natured jabs are traded and sweet potato pie disappears. Memories are shifted as we stuff our selves on the food and each others thoughts surrounded by the soundtrack of the times. Franti says everyone deserves music and I believe it was June Jordan who said no one has the right to choose the next generation’s freedom song.
Years from now this family in some configuration will meet on the day my mother called “Thanksgiving” and I call “Blessings are Due Day.” They will feast. I can’t predict the menu or the conversation but I know it will come from being in this house and listening to this music. It will be recycled to recreate my times, and me, my notch on the struggle tree. The music that lives will remind them of the times in which it was created and without doubt these will be remembered as the good times and what is written here and remembered will be passed on like a fine recipe. I wonder what the music of those times will sound like.
Living like blessings are due, here in the belly . . .
Ayodele Nzinga is a dramatist, arts lecturer and performance poet living in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is the Artistic Director of The Lower Bottom Playaz and founding director of the now defunct Sister Thea Bowman Memorial Theater in West Oakland. She is a force to be reckoned with on the West Coast spoken word circuit. Well known for her take no prisoners style as the WordSlanger she is loved by vets and admired by young poets. She is affiliated with Marvin X’s Recovery Theater. She holds an MA and an MFA in Writing and Consciousness and a PhD in Transformative Education and Change. Contact Nzinga at firstname.lastname@example.org
Previously published by ChickenBones, A Literary Journal, 25 November 2006
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