Soul Food For The Next Generation

I'm a Northern black woman who grew up in a family whose idea of a traditional meal was spaghetti with meat sauce. No soul food savvy matriarchs have graced either side of my family tree since the great migration. So when my own kids were born, I was determined to raise them as part of a clan that ate traditional African American food throughout the year, not just on holidays.

The exploration of my culinary heritage began with a simple weeknight dinner of collard greens, yams and black-eyed peas. I was feeling rather pleased with myself when my four year old appeared at the kitchen door.

"Mommy? What is that...smell?" she stood in the doorway frozen, face shielded by her sleeves.

"Black eyed peas, honey. Mommy's making black eyed peas tonight."

She clamped her angelic face tighter. "They smell horrible."

My husband glanced up from his computer. "It's black people food, honey."

Did we really want her to associate our culture with what she described as "a horrible smell?" I tried not to roll my eyes and began setting the table. "It's what we're having for dinner tonight."

The meal got off to a good start until we asked her to actually start eating. There were tears, followed by threats of timeout. There was squealing, followed by threats of slightly more severe forms of punishment. In between plea bargains, my husband helped himself to seconds and I fought back tears of frustration. My fifteen month old twins sat contentedly in their highchairs, licking fingers and smacking lips at the first taste of their culinary birthright. How could my eldest child possibly grow into a strong African American woman without ever having tasted black eyed peas? I was nauseated the mere thought of my firstborn daughter making a quicker mental association with
BEP's Fergie than the cuisine of her very own culture.

Maybe I just needed to accept the fact that my child had a somewhat eclectic, international palate. After all, she tried risotto at nine months and enjoyed it. Other international foods like hummus and (cooked) sushi are regular requests. At least she was an equal-opportunity eater. I picked up the dish she'd just poked at, the black eyed peas stared back at me forlornly. It burned me up that if those poor legumes had been edamame, she probably would have cleaned her plate.

It wasn't until my beloved was in bed for the night that I stepped down off my pedestal and realized where I might be falling short. Even broken down to a preschooler's level, there was really no clear reason why an African American four year old should be obligated to eat black eyed peas (aside from nutritional value). If slaves were forced to eat what we now know as soul food because they just didn't have another choice, does that mean their free descendants should have to? Grown-ups do it all the time. Nobody (at least nobody I know) starts salivating at the thought of boiled pigs' feet. But sweet potato pie is a whole different story altogether. And I'm the first one to turn my nose up at chitterlings before taking a second helping of baked macaroni.

Maybe it's time I let her celebrate the right to pick and choose from the rich diversity within our cultural palate. Maybe it's less about the food, than our freedom.


Black Hair Basics for Brangelina

Sisters are miffed about about Angelina Jolie's upcoming starring role in a film about part Afro-Cuban journalist Marianne Pearl. Many resent that a white girl would even attempt to use self-tanner to portray a woman of color. Don't get me wrong, I'm not down with the neo black-face, either. But it's hard for me to completely blame the actress when I find it highly conceivable that within the multi-cultural, Jolie-Pitt clan, love has become color-blind. With a beloved brood that resembles a mini model U.N., it's quite possible that racial differences are the furthest thing from the Brangelina radar.

What I do find problematic is the couple's clear lack of clues about styling their daughter Zahara's hair. Recently, the beautiful Ethiopian toddler has been spotted sporting a slightly matted, slightly uneven twa. Other photos feature the Jolie-Pitt Princess riding regally atop her proud papa's shoulders...dressed like a mini Aunt Jemima. Not entirely, she was wearing pants, not a hoop skirt. But that kerchief was the clincher. I'm sure the styling move wasn't intentional, but no Hollywood child can keep their spot on the toddler a-list without being appropriately coiffed.

Even if peace and love has eliminated race from the family's equation, that still doesn't mean it's not there. Zahara Jolie-Pitt is almost two years old now. It's high time for her hipper-than-thou humanitarian parents to sit her down and learn how to make a straight part. So before I jump on the “See, that’s what happens when white people adopt black babies...” bandwagon, here's a primer for Angie, Brad, the nanny or whoever is responsible for that child’s hair. At least they can't say they weren't told.

Nobody wants to see their child suffering, let alone be the one to cause it. But shedding tears while getting hair done is just a rite of passage that all little black girls must endure. From Harlem to Hollywood and beyond, tenderheadedness is just a part of life.

It's not your fault that the Ethiopian orphanage failed to provide Angelina with hair instructions and a goodie bag of Blue Magic, plastic balls and barettes when she signed that last adoption paper. Accept the learning curve by investing in one of those giant Barbie heads and teach yourself to cornrow.

It can be pretty lonely being the only black child, even within one’s own family. So it might be wise to have a few "aunties" of African descent on speed-dial for Zahara to look up to. Halle Berry would make a decent option, provided she's herself, not in character for an upcoming role. Queen Latifah is a worthy choice too. Steer clear of Naomi Campbell, unless you plan to teach Zahara how to fight.

Effortlessly cool, the afro puff is perfect for meeting the paprazzi or just grabbing a plain slice of pizza. Zahara could rock one, two or three puffs, but four or more and you may get criticized for dressing her like a pickanniny. I wouldn’t go there if I were you.

Cutting hair is completely off limits for a little black girl for reasons I’m not even fully aware of. But no matter what, don’t do it. Yes, the Mohawk looks cool on Maddox, but a ‘frohawk on Zahara will not.

It may not seem important now, but Z will need some friends of color as she matures. Please don't let her grow up thinking she looks just like Shiloh Nouvel. Iman and David Bowie have a little girl, and Eddie Murphy has a bunch to choose from. Have your people call theirs and set up a play date.

Big ups to Brad for the huge shout out to sister-owned Carol's Daughter in Esquire Magazine. Just don't get over zealous with those - or any - hair products. The daily shampoo schedule used for Maddox and Shiloh Nouvel won't work for your brown baby girl. Once a week is fine.

There's really no such thing as too much.