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My Top 5 Black Poets on Food By Sylvia Wong Lewis

Poet Nikki Giovanni: Food for Thought: It has been said of  Nikki Giovanni that in her work, poems become food.  In her words, poems are “as necessary / to life / as salt is to stew / as garlic is to pasta.” 

As we head into May yearning for morsels of hope, remnants of peace, writer Sylvia Wong Lewis offers a nod to the month of April. And a salute to her favorite poets for the gifts of spiritual nourishment they share with us. (BG)

It’s still April and National Poetry Month! For hungry, quarantined readers who are stuck at home sheltering from COVID-19, it’s time to look deeper into your kitchen. That’s where you will find food poems by top African-American and Caribbean writers who can satisfy your cravings. Food is their metaphor and main ingredient.

“I think poems return us to that place of mud and dirt and earth, sun, and rain,” said Kevin Young, poet and director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, on National Public Radio’s ‘The Salt’ program. “And that’s where food comes from, and so there’s this common link,” said Young, editor of multicultural anthology called Hungry Ear: Poems of Food and Drink.

The writers that I chose here cover all of the ‘essentials’ that we need, from collard greens, kitchen grease, berry picking, to other important topics. Each of the following poems are as unique as the poets who cooked them up. One poet seduced you with chocolate. Another wondered why you eat health food. All of them reflect our culture with nuanced politics, humor, and love.

Rita Dove won the 1987 Pulitzer-Prize for poetry for her work “Thomas and Beulah” and was U.S. Poet Laureate (1993 to 1995), National Medal of Arts honoree (2012) and an English professor at the University of Virginia. Dove is known for her lyrical style and historical edge. She also writes about music in “Sonata Mulattica” and dance in “American Smooth.” I acquired an addiction to chocolate during menopause. So naturally, I was drawn to Dove’s ode to the confection called “Chocolate.” Here’s an excerpt of it, taken from the “American Smooth” collection.

Chocolate
“Velvet fruit, exquisite square
I hold up to sniff
between finger and thumb –
how you numb me
with your rich attentions!”

Maya Angelou – When I lived in the Bay Area, I had the honor of enjoying Dr. Angelou’s food several times at the home of Jessica Mitford and Robert Treuhaft, her dear friends in Berkeley, California where she camped out to write and cook. We still grieve the 2014 loss of our beloved storyteller, writer, activist and author of the 1969 autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Dr. Angelou was also an extraordinary chef, host, and humorist. Her poem “The Health-Food Diner,” published in “The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou,” is a hilarious poke at vegetarians. When you read the whole thing, her razor-sharp humor will get to you. She begins with raw veggies and ends fantasizing about meat. She builds her plant-based crescendo to a frenzy of pork loins, chicken thighs and Irish stew. Here’s how her poem opens.

The Health Food Diner
“No sprouted wheat and soya shoots
And brussels in a cake,
Carrot straw and spinach raw,
(Today, I need a steak).” *

Elizabeth Alexander –I met the distinguished poet, essayist, playwright, and president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, in the NYC subways during the launch of her poems in Metropolitan Transportation Authority/NYC Transit’s Poetry in Motion. You may remember Dr. Alexander as the poet who delivered President Barack Obama’s inauguration poem in 2009. Her “Butter,” included in “The Hungry Ear,” is a vivid tribute to her Caribbean mother and the many delectable ways one can cook with butter. Her British West Indian menu includes Yorkshire puddings in the first half of the poem. Here are some opening lines.

Butter
“My mother loves butter more
than I do, more than anyone.
She pulls chunks off
the stick and eats it plain, explaining
cream spun around into butter!”

Nikki Giovanni – Dr. Giovanni is best known as a Civil Rights poet activist and co-founder of the Black Arts Movement. She writes about food as memory, sustenance and aphrodisiac. A humorous and serious poet-foodie, Dr. Giovanni is known for sharing stories about her grandmother, aunts and mother’s cooking at poetry readings. Her book, Chasing Utopia-A Hybrid, describes how she went from being the “baby in the family to becoming an elder.” So, while this book is mostly about mourning her loved ones, she spins lovely stories about them through food. This is a must-read for food poetry fans. As she searches for “Utopia” beer to toast her mother’s memory, she explained the correct way to cook grits.

The Right Way
“My Grandmother’s grits
Are so much better than mine
Mine tend to be lumpy
And a bit disoriented”

Langston Hughes – He is probably one of the most celebrated literary figures from the Harlem Renaissance. His poem entitled “Harlem” is best known as “A Raisin in the Sun,” the title of Lorraine Hansberry’s acclaimed Broadway play. This was the top poem mentioned when I asked colleagues to name their top five Black poets who told stories through the lens of food. Most everyone in my generation can recite this powerful poem by heart. Here are his most famous lines.

Harlem
“What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
      like a raisin in the sun?
      Or fester like a sore—
And then run?”

Kevin Young writes from the kitchen table. Covering race and culture he sings praises for our home life, survival and resilience. In his recent book “Brown,” he writes about everything literally brown from us brown people, James Brown, church pews to everyday life. Here’s an excerpt from Brown.

[Hospitality Blues]
Welcome. Have a seat-
The audience sits.
I insist. I’m your host.
Your money is no
Good here, no good

I hope these excerpts leave you hungry for more. Who are your ‘essential’ food authors who can help us survive the current pandemic?

Sylvia Wong Lewis is a journalist, genealogist, and chef. She also specializes in Caribbean and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) history and culture. Follow her on Instagram @Silvera88 and www.1619Brooklyn.com.

Publisher’s note: A version of Ms. Lewis’ story originally posted at Narrative Network.
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