Body/s in Question – first edition

Some places are born into us
When we come into the world
They have already shaped us
Laid foundations in our DNA

This map has always been there

Other places make their way onto us
We may choose these places
But we can’t choose how they stain us
Imprinting themselves
Sinking through our skin
Drop by drop
So that the music.
The accent
The food
Becomes a part of us

Permanently inked and carved
Becoming a part of the cells that make the cells

So even as we replace ourselves, shedding layers of old for new skin
These places remain

These maps float down
To meet the cartography of our DNA
To dance and chuckle together
To map out the particular world

That only we know


Body/s in Question is a multi-pronged research and performance project that charts chart the fault lines of race and identity that live in the multiracial body in the Caribbean and the U.S.A.

Cuba (rough cut)

I’ve gone south/(re)turning/stretching borders /with my/hips//in–rhythm

As I write, I’m driving through the countryside of Cuba, passing  fields of caña and palm trees and shaded mountains with coffee, through what were some of the first plantations in this “New” World that already very much existed before the ships arrived, but is also made new each day.

This is a return. Una vuelta.

I am halfway through my time here. I spent the first week on a program organized with PlazaCuba immersed in popular and folkloric dance traditions with some of the leading companies in Havana, including Ban Rarrá and Raizes Profundas. I am thankful that my experience in Cuba began with and through the body. In the turning and listening and following of salsa, rumba, and son. In the rhythms of the Orishas and the diversity and connection of traditions created in through the exchanges between Yoruba, Congo, Dahomey, Voudou as African, Spanish and later Haitians and Jamaicans found there way in this world of islands.

I am now beginning the second part of my journey, heading to Esmeralda, Camaguey, the town where my grandfather was born, as I explore migration and multiracial identity in  the America’s via my family’s story in Jamaica, Cuba and the USA. I am carrying questions and wishes from the generations that came from this land but have never seen it and from my grandfather who left at 14 and carried Cuba in his heart, giving it to his children and grandchildren through his stories. 

I continue to follow and weave the strings of ancestry, migration, racial identity and cultural heritage that have guided me thus far. I continue to dance because I have to. I continue to be caught by the arms of the universe in the form of friends who guide my next step.

I am halfway through my trip and my head, heart, body and soul are full. I have no complete thoughts or thorough reflections so for now I offer some rough cuts from my time thus far.

Besos y abrazos

-Alison





















It’s in the Porridge

“Then we would cook cornmeal porridge,
Of which I’ll share with you…”
-“No Woman No Cry” – Bob Marley


“Porridge is such a subjective thing.”

Subjective, certainly. This article, in “The Salt,” NPR’s Foodways blog suggests porridge is a traditional Scottish food eaten during cold winters. Multiple truths exist. For me, porridge is Jamaican breakfast. It has cousins as Brazilian São João street food (mingu,curau, canjica, and mungunzá) and Haitian late night snack (laboyi). I’m sure it is connected to Akamu, Ogi and Pap in Nigeria. It is grits in North Carolina. Perhaps it is polenta.

It has many names.

It is eaten in the constant year round heat that radiates from the equator.

But I don’t see these words in this article. So I will write them.

We must make the colonies visible.

Those far away islands that are at the heart of the identity, economy, and politics of those metropolitan British isles. Those places that seem to be easily ignored when talking about the roots of British and Scottishness. When talking about “changing the course of history.” When writing about how we came to be.

This article reminds me  that I have a lot to learn about my history, personal and collective. About my ancestors before they came to Jamaica, Cuba and the United States, by will and by force. About Jamaican colonial and plantation society. About my African ancestry. About my Scottish and British ancestry. About Vikings. About the knots, contradictions and tensions that are my family tree. How love and violence, evil and good, power and oppression, wealth-building and poverty-making bumped up against each other to make us.

There is so much I do not know.

Porridge is tied up in slavery, growth, expansion, and capitalism. The British Isles and the Caribbean Sea are intimately related, in economy, identity, and genetics. For those on and descended from the Jamaican side of the relationship, it is impossible to make invisible the Scottish-ness, the Britishness, the Irish-ness of what we are. It’s in the skin, the food, the talk, the names. Sometimes, we choose to celebrate it. To simplify it. We do not have the choice of forgetting.  We also don’t always have the choice of knowing.

When I think about Porridge I think about my Grandma, daughter of Lena Hall, from whom I get my middle name. I know that surnames in my Jamaican family – Hall, Robertson – have Scottish origins. I do not know how we got them, except for in vague terms that describe the violent and coercive ways that power, race, and gender collided in the colonies. I do not know the names that we lost, that we had before we were forced onto boats and crossed oceans.

I ask about my name. I learn that Hall is a name with origins to lands that border England and Scotland, and prior to that Norman Vikings. I ponder connections between my mother and my father’s family. My father’s family – Kibbe –  is also potentially descended from Vikings that landed in England.

It’s in the porridge. It’s hot, and mushy, and mixed up.

Porridge references the class and identity divides amongst those in in both the metropolitan isles and the colonial islands. The type, consistency, and level of sweetness is code for wealth, status, prosperity and struggle – past and present.

I learn about identity constructed in contrast. About blurred lines of slave, free, white, black, ownership and immigration.

I ask about whiteness in Jamaica. I learn about the trade of Irish people as slaves.

I learn that a large number of Scotsmen (literally, male bodied people) voluntarily went to Jamaica, many as a way to increase their lot in life, and via their lives in the colony shed their marginal “Scottish” identity, replacing it with the more powerful “British”. By going “away” and into the contact zone of the colony plantations they built wealth and a new identity. Once color was constructed as the ultimate differential, these ancestors national difference from the British became relatively less important compared to my ancestors who were forcibly brought to the Caribbean island from Africa. Scotsmen were then able to re-enter metropolitan society as “British.”

I learn about spiritual forces that support us. About Brigid, the triple deity of fire, poetry, and inspiration. About Yemanja, the goddess of and mother of the ocean. About the meaning of corn, celebration of harvest, and how to celebrate and honor the earth.

I learn I have a lot more to learn. I learn to have more questions.


Porridge


Porridge is sweet and creamy
So sweet and hot
It fills me up
I am overheating from the inside out
So hot
It is too much

 

I can’t finish it Grandma
I’m full

 

Porridge is cornmeal, water, milk, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla.
Porridge is oats, water, milk, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla.
Porridge is green bananas, water, milk, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla.
Porridge is wheatena, water, milk, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla.
Porridge is cream of wheat, water, milk, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla.
Porridge is green plantain, water, milk, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla.
Porridge is hominy, water, milk, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla.
Porridge is peanuts, water, milk, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla.

Each ingredients holds so much
Tells stories of trade of people, spices, sugar, rum
Lives and labor stolen, resources pillaged, people pushed to periphery
To create a metro center

Cream of wheat needs to have lumps
The strawberry jam was never in a spiral in my bowl, like in the commercial
My mother was not entertaining that kind of whimsy on weekday mornings

 

How do you eat porridge in the Caribbean?
It is so hot!
I’m overheating from the inside out

 

Sprinkle sugar on top
Stir in milk to cool it down
then
butter
It forms a glossy film on top.
I don’t stir it in
I like how it forms lakes and rivers

 

I can’t finish it,
Grandma
I just can’t

It is the only thing I can’t finish
I am a dumpling child
Round and soft
I love food
I even love porridge
But a whole bowl!?
I can’t take it all in

It’s too much

It contains the story of sugar
Of cheap grains to feed forced laborers
Of food stretched too far

Eat the outside edges first
It cools faster on the edges
You won’t get burned that way


The richness of my porridge – the fresh milk, the butter – is a privilege
My grandma cannot comprehend my inability to finish
Like she cannot understand my identity crisis and anxiety about my light-white skin and how I fit into the world I live in
The Triangle,
of North Carolina,
circa 2003

It is a privilege

“Eat your porridge”
“Enjoy your lightness”
“You are who you are,
why ask questions?”

The sugar is not a privilege
Quick calories
Paid for in blood and burns and bodies
Eat eat
Quick energy
Eat eat
Diabetes
Eat eat
To spend/to invest in expansion
Of capitalist economies
Built on colonial foreign lands and metropolitan factories
Small islands fueling those slightly larger ones across the Atlantic

I do have questions about my ancestors
About their names.
Who came from Africa? From where?
Who came from Scotland? Why?
How did we get our names?
What names did we lose?

Porridge is creole
Is transplant/immigrant/planter/owner/enslaved
porridge is that-thing-we-do-now-that-we-don’t-remember-when-we-didn’t-do-so-perhaps-we’ve-done-it-forever
porridge is pap
is sweetness is the face of bitter

Porridge is grandma visiting
I find her in the kitchen
Stirring a hot pot
for me
my cousins
my sister
my brother

– – –

Ways with Food is a place to stir up, marinate and serve up our questions, reflections  and stories about food.

New Models: North Carolina Women in Food

In 2015, every 5th Wednesday of the month we’ll be serving up a “Ways with Food” piece. Today, it comes to us via the New York Times and Kim Severson’s article, “The North Carolina Way: A Food Sisterhood Flourishes in North Carolina.”

It seems that all eyes are on NC at the moment, for reasons of both celebration and struggle. As a North Carolina native, it is important to me that writing, images, and portraits that honor and reflect the complexity of the state I call home.

In this piece, Severson amplifies some amazing women voices and makes some interesting points on why this unique women-powered food scene has emerged in North Carolina, including:

  • NC’s food ecology and economy
  • the role of creativity and inventiveness
  • the reshaping the identity of “Southern” food
  • the gender dynamics of the food world, and
  • shifts from competition to models of collaboration, connection, and community.

I am ALL ABOUT celebrating these women powerhouses. YES! AND ALSO this article also leaves me hanging. Food is connected to everything, so even when we’re talking about a high-end niche market (as this article is), we cannot pretend it doesn’t impact every part of the network. How can there be no discussion about race and class when we are talking about shifts in power, particularly those related to agriculture, land, food justice, and cultural traditions? Also, where is the voice of Mama Dip a black woman who put NC on the food map almost 40 years ago? Women who are cooking in NC have not emerged out of an empty void, they are walking in the footsteps of women like Mildred “Mama Dip” Cotton Council and many others! And I just have to say it – the rich food tradition and scene in NC is not dependent on NYC transplants.

That said, this article has me mulling how we can take some of the lesson’s that have emerged from this sphere, into broader conversations on social justice, alternative models for leadership, and collaborative economies. My big question is:

How can we take advantage of gaps and opportunities to invent more just models for our businesses, our economies, our communities, and our livelihoods? And how can we ensure that as these new models grow, they don’t fall into the old power dynamics?

Rather than write and article about an article, below are a few highlights. What are your thoughts? Please share!

– – – –

“They are not beleaguered by how they will move up through
the system because they are the ones who are inventing it.”

– Marcie Cohen Ferris, professor of Southern and food studies at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and author of “The Edible South,” which chronicles in part the role of women and feminism in Southern food

“We definitely don’t adhere to any rules about what Southern food should look like,”

– Vivian Howard, chef and owner of the Chef and the Farmer – Kinston, NC

“There are more high-quality farmers per capita in these
50 square miles than maybe anywhere else but
Northern California. If you cook here,
you are automatically part of that network.”

Andrea Reusing, Lantern – Chapel Hill, NC

“As women have moved into positions of leadership and ownership, we began learning more about
community and how to take better care of
each other and our staff”

– Ashley Christensen, Poole’s Downtown Diner – Raleigh, NC

“This is an oddly progressive state that speaks of possibility.
We as women here embrace that naturally.”

– Eliza MacLean, Cane Creek Farm – Snow Camp, NC

“The women who cook there just own it, and they live so much better than us.”

– Alex Raij,  El Quinto Pino, Txikito & La Vara – New York, NY

– – –

Ways with Food is a place to stir up, marinate and serve up our questions, reflections  and stories about food.

2015 New Years Resolution: Be Myself at 5

Happy New Year!

This post came out of me a bit unexpectedly. It is an invitation.  I offer it to you to hold myself accountable to our vision of Broadly Speaking as space for authentic story telling, which requires that I regularly make myself vulnerable. And I offer it so that maybe you will also offer your story. Let’s show-and-tell a bit.

First a question,

How is person you want to be the child you have already been?

Like many, during the holiday season and New Year I reflect and look forward. My birthday is at the end of December, so around this time I have a very strong sense of the completion of a cycle and the beginning of the next one.

I have a number of rituals and methods to guide this season of reflecting and visioning. They happen in varied and haphazard ways, and sometimes include:

  • Naming my year – A few years ago my friends and I started naming our years, choosing themes we want to embody and live out over specific resolutions. We gather in person or virtually to share and help each other name our years.
  • Reading my horoscope. Multiple times. From multiple different sites. (Chani Nicholas is my favorite!)
  • Sometimes a beautiful friend holds space for a ceremony of release and embrace. (Thanks Laurel!)
  • Journaling and putting my visions into writing, naming what I want to see manifested.
  • Making a wish and blowing out my birthday candles

Ultimately, through all of these practices, I ask myself the question, “Who do I want to be?” I think about the ways I am being that person and the ways I want to get closer to it.

Usually, the focus is on being more than what I am – braver, bolder, more creative, more compassionate, etc.

This year, I unintentionally added a new element to my New Year ritual. While I was home in North Carolina I decided it was time to really deal with the massive amount of papers and stuff I have collected over my 25 years. I carry my family’s hoarding gene, so I have a hard time getting rid of things. And then suddenly I’ll decide I want to purge EVERYTHING in a fit of anxiety about my future life trapped beneath piles of papers and clothing that I don’t like/doesn’t fit but that might come back in style/has a lot of sentimental value/reminds me of that one time we were all together in that place/etc….

A mixture of that panic and a desire to dig into my personal archive propelled me to get organized. I let go of unnecessary papers and notes and carefully filed and organized the ones I want to keep. This meant I got to spend a good amount of time reviewing reports, notes, school projects, etc. from kindergarten through college and the present.

I want to offer this practice of digging into our childhood archive during times of visioning and intention setting because I found it incredibly helpful.

These days, I spend a lot of time thinking about where I come from (as this blog is evidence), and often I think of the forces that shape and make me as being external factors that such as my ancestors, my home town, my culture, my family. I also spend a good deal of timing thinking about who and how I want to be in the world. This can also manifest in a sense of what-I-am-not-yet.

During the past few years I have begun to think about “asset mapping” in relation to personal development and awareness. The term is a principle of community development and organizing. It means that all work in a community begins by naming and celebrating the resources – historical, spiritual, social, people, natural, economic, etc – that a community already has. I think it’s important, especially for those of us invested in community work, to remember to apply this tool in our personal lives.

My autobiographical archive dive helped me realize that the person I want to be in 2015, is really the person I was at 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 ….. (also probably 1, 2, and 3 but I honestly don’t remember her so I can’t say I know her – a concept I am very interesting in exploring more in another post…)

Around 13 was when things got a bit sticky. I started hearing a voice inside my head that told me I wasn’t good enough. And I listened to it.

Before that, I was AWESOME!

I created and made. In my end of year report, my 3rd grade teacher wrote, “Alison has amassed a substantial body of written work, one characterized by imagination and flights of fancy, but also a firm grasp on reality.” I want to hang out with that author! (And find that “body of work”….. do we think I could use it now as part of my artistic portfolio?)

I danced on the regular. I disappeared into the woods.  I listened because I knew I had so much to learn. I trusted what I knew “for sure.”I didn’t hide from pain or hurt. I felt a LOT. Feelings were serious business. I understood their power and the need to *pause* and feel them fully. .

This year, I want to continue to remember that part of where I come from is the previous versions of myself who still live in me. Now, at 25, there are extra layers of baggage and blockage as well as wisdom, lessons and maturity gained. I don’t want to “revert” back nor offer an uncritical romanticization of my personal or our collective past (unfortunately, the South offers many examples of the dangers of doing that).

Part of collective and personal healing means acknowledging our demons and difficult histories. The past is not all butterflies, fairy homes, and sweet tea.  But I also want to critique the idea of progress as always being forward motion and improvement always coming from the outside.

Simply, I want to remember that being my best me does always not require striving to be someone new. A big part of it means giving the child who I have already been the chance to come into the present with me. The child who’s waiting to come out and play.

As a practice of inviting this child into today, I will be a bit more like the younger Alison who would proudly say,

Here is a poem I wrote and I want to share it with you. And I would love if you shared with me. How could you as a child be a part of your life today?

5 and three quarters

I can do anything

I am a poet, a dancer, an author
I start writing novels
I create everyday
I write without fear
(or cares about spelling)

Moss is fascinating
Creeks are worlds to explore

I listen to folktales
I know they are important

I live in possibility
In power
In the constant unfolding of the world
And me unfolding and stretching with it

I say “Yes!” more than “No.”
I live in questions
I love the search for answers

I revel in attention from others – in conversation and performance
I feel it is deserved, because I am in fact, the most interesting thing I have ever encountered
I give my attention to ants and dogs and horses – real and imaginary

I put my foot down when I want to
And ask to be carried when I need to

I read and read and read and read
I get lost in books
I have no to do list
I read and read and read and read. And I love it. And I am praised for it.
I do it more

I sing.
In the shower, alone, with others
I imitate songs I know.
I make up my own
I sing even when it might bother others

I know I am good

Sometimes, I want to be a boy, and that is ok
I wear no shirts and have my hair cut short
The hairdresser sometimes buzzes the hair on my neck, the finishing touch to my bowl cut, and I feel so cool
Others confuse me for a boy
Some people are worried
I am not

I run and sweat and get dirty

I start to realize pain happens and I want to hold it for everyone
And I want someone to hold mine
I cry when I am sad
I cuddle with my parents
I trust they will protect me

They talk to me like I have something important to say

I imagine.


* Giving credit where credit is due, I want to shine some light on an awesome woman who helped me through this process.  Through my work with Elizabeth Traina as a coach and at meditation I was able to access and process this inner child experience. Check her out!
Elizabeth Traina is a working artist, award winning muralist, life-coach and energy healer. She has lived and contributed to programs in the San Francisco Bay Area, New Orleans and Brooklyn. Early in Elizabeth’s career she rooted in a civic-engaged public practice, utilizing art as a vehicle to support movements for social change. As an art-educator and community leader, Elizabeth’s curriculum and facilitation is grounded in the belief that all people are inherently creative – to be an artist is to discover, cultivate and share your unique gifts with yourself and others. This core-value is a cornerstone of her work; communicated throughout her community oriented public art projects, art workshops and trainings to hundreds of participants nation wide. In addition to her formal art training in New York, Vermont and Italy, over the past fifteen years, Elizabeth has worked closely with master healers, attended various workshop and trainings in the healing arts. This commitment to education and self-betterment has informed and seasoned her natural talents and integrated into her community based endeavors, current private healing practice and personal art making. In 2011 Elizabeth returned home to NYC and currently resides in Brooklyn, NY where she maintains an active studio practice, works as a consultant for Education community-based programs.  In addition, Elizabeth engages private clients and groups an integrated life-coach and energy healer. www.elizabethtraina.com and www.elizabethtrainacoach.com

Ways with Food

We are what we eat.
What we eat makes us who we are.
We make ourselves through what we eat.
The food we make, makes us.

Food is central to identity, both individual and collective. Psychic and political. Emotional and economic. That is why there is a field of inquiry dedicated to food, Foodways. It refers to the the cultural, social and economic practices relating to the production and consumption of food. The field of intersections that spiral out from food.

Often we encounter the South through food (like this chef in the Bronx ). Southern food travels throughout the world as southerners migrate, and similarly Southern cuisine is born out of a contact zone of culinary heritages which has continued to transform with the influx of travelers and migrants who now call the South home.

Southern food carves out spaces in new geographies and new cuisines carve out space within Southern foodways.

The links between land, food, race, economics, politics, culture and identity are tightly woven in the South. We can’t talk about food in the south without talking about the political and economic implications of food and agriculture – the plantation and the slave trade, migrant labor and immigration policies – intimately linking the South to the Caribbean, West Africa, Europe and Latin America.

This is why I’m excited to build out a series dedicated to food. Ways with Food is a place to stir up, marinate and serve up our questions, reflections and stories about food.

to cook.conjure.create

When we cook, we nurture. We feed ourselves, our souls, our families, our communities, our histories. We re-member our ancestors. They come to us scents and tastes. Guide our hands as we stir. We travel to new places. We make ourselves full. We make ourselves whole.

Cooking is conjuring. It is transforming. Making something from nothing. It is alchemy. The transmutation of properties in complex spiritual and chemical reactions that serve to sustain life.

Cooking is time travel. It takes me back to the kitchen of my childhood. To the roots of where I come from. To places that bring me comfort and joy. To places I might never physically go.

Cooking is community. As I chop, my mother and grandmother’s hands guide me (as well as the various cooking show hosts I learned from on the Food Network during ages 8-16 years old). They join me in my New York apartment thousands of miles away from where they are. Their warmth fills the kitchen as the oven heats up.

Cooking is soothingly satisfying. It is tangible. Tasks are completed, ingredients combined, and something is made. We live in a time where I can work a full day without producing one physical thing. I need to get my hands into the elements. In water and fire. Feel heat and wet. Hot cold gooey sticky sharp rough. The motions put me at ease and always result in a tangible thing that I can touch, look at, share, and consume.

I’ve recently had a very strong desire to cook. An urge to get in the kitchen. I couldn’t really put a finger on what exactly I had such a strong desire to bake an apple pie. To make pumpkin bread from scratch. This was particularly curious because I was in the midst of a period of general lethargy and lack of motivation about everything else in my life. And then I of course decided that I “wasn’t allowed” to make an apple pie, because I “should” be doing all of these other “productive” – professional, artistic, etc – things.

It took me a while to recognize that I was craving healing. Healing through my own hands.


Ways with Food is a place to stir up, marinate and serve up our questions, reflections and stories about food.

Shout out to “Bitter Southerner”

The South, and southerners depictions of the South are getting a lot of attention right now.

Here’s an interview with Chuck Reece, editor of The Bitter Southerner, an online magazine dedicated to telling the complex, multi-faceted, layered stories of the South from every angle.

This quote from the City Lab interview especially hits home for this Southern lady currently living outside the south.

“Anyone who feels that the South is misrepresented … everyone feels a bit bitter about that,” Reece explains. “They also feel a bit bitter about that moment when you move away from the South, and all of your friends are like, ‘Gee, I bet you’re glad to get out of there.'”

Come Fall

Here in NYC fall has officially come. It is no longer safe to leave the house without a legitimate jacket, multiple layers, and a scarf. Wind rushes off the Hudson and in response I hunch my shoulders up and brace myself. My southern-raised, Caribbean-bred body and soul do not take kindly to the cold (I somehow didn’t inherit that midwestern trait from my dad’s side). But despite my fear of the cold, I do honor and appreciate the changing of the seasons. So recognition of this time transition, here is a poem I wrote about my feet. My feet today and my feet in childhood and my feet in the future.

********

Come fall
summer feet
do not like to be bound
in thick socks
and boots.
They are used to
S P R E A D I N G out WIDE
on thick calluses
earned by
tromping
barefoot
on
gravel
and
hot
sand