As I finished watching the Netflix series “High on the Hog” I feel strangely satisfied and upset at the same time. It is the ambivalent feeling that I commonly feel about all black inspired projects that have so much excellence attached to them: there’s not enough here because there’s so much where our black history and culture have been left out, there’s not enough time or space to include it all.
The series merged our culture together like a stew: music, dance, art, crafts, gardening and agriculture, fishing and the untold stories about how integral our legacy in starting almost everything we think of as American, like the cowboy. I saw my childhood dinner table literally flash before my eyes in Benin and in South Carolina, where my family is from. To see in Benin all of the foods I grew up eating, corn meal(grits) mixed with tomatoes, fried fish and okra stew (my favorite was just okra, tomatoes and corn stewed together) was revelatory even though I already knew the tie existed. The understanding that our macaroni and cheese was perfected and literally brought to America from France by Sally Hemings brother, the first American to be trained in French cuisine….to watch it and say to myself, “that’s almost exactly how my mother and aunt make macaroni and cheese…baked, like custard, with layers, in a pot in the oven.”
The anger and pride is spoken by the last Texan black chef when he said that we [black people] are the innovators of most everything that is beautiful and in pop culture in America right now and it has been taken, monetized and whitewashed, and exported out TO THE WORLD. It is the same anger and pride I feel as I watch white music educators teach jazz, divorcing the drum and the cultural experience from the music while still being appreciative that the music is being passed down, but just not to us. Jazz is all about putting some grease in it, sing like you eatin’ some chicken. You move your entire body after eating a bbqed rib, and seeing your family dance with anticipation when the sweet potato pie and peach cobbler is unveiled. Give me a pig foot…and a bottle of beer…
This series puts back together the seamless connections of our lifestyle. Food is not separate from our work, music, culture and day to day experiences. Blacks in America are descended from Africa, and we expressed ourselves in the same ways. Though that statement seems obvious, we were taught not to value that simple truth. We are still fighting to be taken seriously so we don’t value the things that the world spends all their time learning about and recreating.
From this series, I understand our righteous and comedic anger about no raisins in the potato salad and blueberries in the Mac and cheese. Our mothers literally fed white America with the milk from their breasts and cooked all of their meals. As a cookbook author in the series says, our faces were used to sell food products because our blackness projected food quality and comfort. And to casually change a food with perky valley girl-like excitement feels disrespectful. There is no understanding of the weight of our contribution to what you put in your mouth! We created entire ways of cooking that was excised from history at the same time as it is celebrated. We profit off of none of it, while others literally consume our souls.
High on the Hog is a visual representation of black people in America’s experience: take the worst of every situation and make things so powerful, everyone must have it, use it, create it, or eat it. I was listening to a story about a Japanese girl band that was called revolutionary. They were amazing! I really liked their music, but it sounded like Japanese women singing over and electronic version of a D’Angelo song. But it’s revolutionary! KFC is us, monetized, and sold to the world. Revolutionary! Kpop is the Jackson 5, in Korean, sold to the world. Revolutionary! Boxers braids? Amazing! Collards and kale? Who knew?!
We are proud. We are angry. We are disrespected and lionized, divas and dirt…originators who until now have been invisible.