Black Women in Activism and Food

Episode 9 May 03, 2022 00:30:07
Black Women in Activism and Food
Setting the Table
Black Women in Activism and Food
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Show Notes

During the civil rights era, Black women to used their skills as chefs and cooks to support social movements in this country. On this episode, Deb is joined by scholar and writer Suzanne Cope to explores the legacies of two such heroes, Aylene Quin, who helped feed and support the Civil Rights movement in Mississippi, and Cleo Silvers, who helped create the Black Panther Party's Free Breakfast for Children program. Deb also checks in with Arley Bell, a millenial baker who believes she can make a difference in food and activism though her beautifully decorated cakes and pastries.

Setting the Table is part of the Whetstone Radio Collective. Learn more about this episode of Setting the Table at www.whetstoneradio.com, on IG and Twitter at @whetstoneradio, and YouTube at /WhetstoneRadio.

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Episode Transcript

Speaker 1 00:00:05 When you think about the civil rights movement, what comes to mind first? I would imagine that most people would talk about Dr. Martin Luther king, Jr. Maker Evers, Rosa parks, and the little a nine, but there were countless others who supported the movement and some names we may never know, but there were some black women that supported the movement in a less obvious way. They weren't necessarily on television, but their culinary skills sustained people in the movement because you can't fight the power on an empty stomach. Speaker 0 00:00:44 Welcome Speaker 1 00:00:44 To setting the table, a podcast about black cuisine and food ways. I'm Deb Freeman. I'm a writer that focuses on African American food ways and the impact those food ways have on how we cook and eat today. Speaker 0 00:01:01 A Speaker 1 00:01:02 Like most people I learned about the civil rights movement in school, but I had a unique educational experience. I went to an all black Catholic school in the south, and one of our classes was black history. I'm grateful for that class because I was fortunate enough to learn about the achievements in history of black people year round. Although I took those classes for years, I never learned about people like Georgia Gilmore and the club from nowhere, mild council or alien Quinn, but they have stories that deserve to be talked about On this episode, we're going to explore just a few of the stories of the relationship between black women food and civil rights. And there's no better place to start than talking to my first guest author, Suzanne cope. Speaker 2 00:01:50 I'm a writer and professor I'm author of the book, power hungry, the women of the black Panther party and freedom summer, and their fight to defeat a movement. Speaker 1 00:01:59 I read her book earlier this year and I learned so much from it. I was curious to know more about her inspiration for writing it. Speaker 2 00:02:07 I became activated like many people probably did around the same time, uh, about four or five years ago. And I was thinking about how to find stories of women who use food for political and social change in part for personal reasons. I just wanted to be inspired for myself. I wanted to be inspired to find out how to act and how people had done more than just fed people. Of course, I found that the answer was so much more complicated, right? Where feeding people I knew was a very useful and transgressive act, but I discovered all the layers of how that could work to create political and social change. Speaker 1 00:02:45 What Suzanne uncovered while writing her book is the close relationship. Food has not only to civil rights, but human rights in general. Speaker 2 00:02:54 Exactly. You know what I mentioned earlier, I was thinking that at first I was like, there's gotta be more that people did with food that wasn't just providing food is kind of how I started looking for these stories. And of course, what I saw too, was a very necessary act that was happening at the time when I began some of this research such as people were protesting. So someone would order a bunch of pizzas and that is of course necessary. And also solidarity, you know, it works on multiple levels. But what I saw too is that first of all, how much the act of feeding people was undermined, tried to be stopped in so many ways. And for reasons that had to do with keeping power with the white supremacist power structure, it was unbelievable to think, wow, you would stop hungry people for, from eating, which is what the law enforcement did both during the voting rights fight. Speaker 2 00:03:44 And also during the black Panther party free breakfast for children program, where they would actually confiscate food. That was meant for hungry people. One story that I came across was the Greenwood food blockade and the Mississippi Delta, the white supremacist power structure at pretty much as retaliation for the voting rights organizing that was happening in the early 1960s. They stopped federal food aid during a very brutal winner. And that prompted so many people from the north and people of course, from around the area as well, to help feed people who were hungry. And they, it was just unbelievable. There was food to go around. Why is food something to be used as leverage? Why is food something that isn't a right? That isn't something that should just be given to people, especially when there is enough. And so that was very powerful to me. And it also went to show in the other direction, how, when you do feed people, when you show that people have a right to be fed and people understand in that they are empowered, and you're also modeling a new power structure, they're modeling a different paradigm saying that people deserve to be fed. Speaker 2 00:04:50 And it's not a matter of whether you have money or whether you are aligned with the political structure that's in power. And I thought, wow. Yeah, just by showing a different way of fee people that really can show people a different way of, of moving in the world. And, and also once you have food, when you're, when you're not searching for something to eat, you have the energy, you have the space in your life to be able to do other things such as organize, such as protests, such as, you know, fight for the things that you think are important. And of the government understood that. And that's so much why they were undermining all of these groups that were trying to feed people who were hungry. Speaker 1 00:05:29 Suzanne's book focuses on the stories of two women in particular. And one of them is Alene Quinn or mama Quinn that she's better known. Quinn is a single mother of four and restaurant owner, a small Mississippi town of McComb. Like many of her contemporaries, her restaurant became a safe space for the local civil rights movement. Speaker 2 00:05:53 Well, you have a place like Ellen Quinn, south of the border. That was a community center. This was a place where people could see each other could gather. And especially when they were under the scrutiny of government surveillance, this was a place where they could be out in the open and be connected to each other without arousing suspicion. And so it was important in that respect. It was important as a way for people to have the space, to organize a place where they could be together sometimes in the back room talking quietly to each other, which I thought was really amazing, but it was also a way that people like El could have financial power where she wasn't beholden to another boss. She could be her own boss. And that was so important because I guess it realize the extent of economic sanctions that were happening during this time where landlords would kick people out because they didn't like that. Speaker 2 00:06:46 They were trying to register to vote and people couldn't get a loan to buy their own home or loan to start their own business, unless that you were playing by the rules of the white supremacist power structure. All of these ways were seeking to keep black Americans from achieving any sort of economic power. And so you had someone like El who owned her own business, who owned her own home. And she didn't really have to play by these roles. She could kind of do, you know, what she wanted in the community without fearing that her children wouldn't eat or that she would be kicked out of her house. And so that became very powerful and the ways too, that she could AMAs a middle class living and then help provide for other people as well. So she is passing this wealth along within her community. She opened up more businesses. She had a hair salon. She eventually opened a hotel. Those were of course serving the black community. But you know, she also was the safe Haven and she was a boss. She provided jobs. She provided food. She provided security, Speaker 1 00:07:49 A was considered to be such a threat that the local KKK even took notice. And on one hot September night in 19 64, 14, 6 of dite were thrown into her home. Fortunately, the family escaped with only minor injuries. And what did mama Quinn do? She went right back to work. One of my favorite stories of alien's exploits in Suzanne's book involves how she used her restaurant workers to feed civil rights, activists who were in jail. Speaker 2 00:08:19 It was these young people who were arrested, uh, in the wake of various movements. So you had some young people who had, uh, walked out of their high school in support of another young person who was one of the first people to, to try to integrate the local bus station. And so this large group of people, they all very peacefully marched to city hall in McComb. And they were met by an angry mob that beat some of them horribly that pulled that young 15 year old girl, Brenda Travis, who was the first to integrate the bus station, pulled her out of her shoes. It was horrific. And these were all teenagers, a few people in their young twenties. And they were thrown into jail with Robert Moses, who was a well known organizer at the time mama Quinn would come in or she'd send one of the people that she worked with. Speaker 2 00:09:11 These elaborate FEAS person who was in jail, said he gained, you know, 15 pounds by eating these wonderful meals. And I remember writing that. I could just imagine that their dinner was better than the jailers, and they were allowed to come in and, and feed them. And it was of course, a show that, Hey, you have an entire community behind these people and mama Quinn, or some of the other woman would stay and chat with them. And, and they were largely ignored because of course they were, people didn't think that women were effective leaders. They didn't think that women were really, you know, organizing at the time I came across that letter from Robert Moses, that just talks so eloquently about the power of this food. And they feel like they are just basically a drift and it's these women bringing this food, but also bringing the solidarity, allowing them to continue their work, letting them know that they are loved showing love through food. Speaker 2 00:10:09 I remember interviewing Curtis Hayes Mohamed, and he was just telling me that they just would wait all day for the some meals to come in. And it was really what he said, sustained him during this time. He had just gotten out of jail for actually a sit-in at Woolworths in McComb, which is not often written about, but he basically went in with someone else and was almost instantly arrested and beaten. And he had just gotten out and then he did another protest that, um, he ended up back else. He said that knowing that there were people on the outside who cared for them this much, really, really helped sustain them and made it all worthwhile. Speaker 1 00:10:44 I love this story so much that speaks to the intelligence and social awareness necessary to navigate the world as a black woman, in order to get things done. Suzanne uses the term activist mothering in her book, which I thought was incredibly accurate. And I asked her to elaborate more about it, Speaker 2 00:11:04 Dr. Fransa Hamlin coined this term, but she was interestingly also looking at another activist mother like mama Quinn in Mississippi during this time period. And so the parallels and just this metaphor for activism through this feminist lens, I think is just so apt. And it's thinking about how you have a mother who is an activist, right? And she's doing these typical Fize mothering actions, but for so many other people, and it's also highlighting, I believe the feminized skills that are so often underappreciated in leadership, think of the organizing that this requires how many people you need to have doing all these different tasks, having to negotiate your entry into a white run jail, having to organize this education that's happening on the outside, particularly in spaces where you are not taken seriously, as we obviously are discussing and where you don't have a lot of access. Speaker 2 00:12:00 There's so many skills that mama Quinn was using. And of course that all of these women were using that just aren't thought of till today, even today, they're not thought of as being something that makes a great leap leader, but these women were leaders and their names. So rarely come up. When you're thinking about leaders in these movements, Cleo silvers in the black Panther party, she has said, I absolutely thought of the work I was doing as a form of mothering. She said, even though she was young at the time, this was clearly the way that the women in her, her life had cared for her and had taught her to support other people who needed it. And so it's also this generational history, you know, learning from your grandmother, learning from your mother, passing it down, you don't have to be a mother to be an activist. Mother Speaker 1 00:12:48 Cleo silvers is the other woman that Suzanne shines a light on in her book. Cleo was a, a Philadelphia native that moved to New York city in the 1960s, joining the black Panthers party in Harlem. And she became one of the few named women leaders of the black Panthers survival programs. Speaker 2 00:13:08 Well, first of all, black Panther party, I didn't realize how many women were involved. There were so many women and they were Lee, the depth and breadth of the work that they did in the communities they were helping was unbelievable. It blew my mind. Why did people want to stop them from doing this work? It was so effective. And it was serving communities that were unserved and they were doing it through mutual aid and they were doing it just by working incredibly long days. And it was just unbelievable to me that in this short amount of time, how much they got done. And I thought, wow, if they had been given more time or resources, or maybe just not been undermined and worse continually, how much more could they have accomplished? And that's a real refrain that just sticks with me is like, what if, what if Speaker 1 00:13:54 A lifelong advocate for public health? And so social equality, Leo was instrumental in writing the black Panthers, famous free breakfast for children program Speaker 2 00:14:04 At their height. The free breakfast for children programs were serving in all the chapters around the country. They were serving more children breakfast than the state of California was serving on a daily basis. And they were doing it all with mutual aid at different points during the week, they would go out and, and have their different routes where they would talk to local bodega owners, local grocery store owners, and ask them for donations. And most people were very willing because they, they said, Hey, listen, these, this is a community that supports you. And now you need to support them. Some of the, as some Panthers have told me needed a little more convincing, nothing nefarious, but just sometimes they would boycot and say, Hey, they're not supporting this program. Are you gonna support them? I suggest you go to the bodega down the street. And that worked. Speaker 2 00:14:50 They often came around rather quickly and understood that they had to be a member of this community, an active member. So they would gather these donations. Sometimes it was monetary too, to run out and buy the things they needed. They would wake up early every school day, get to community centers and church kitchens. And they would start cooking before Dawn and they would be frying up bacon. They'd be making grits, they'd be making eggs. They wanted to make enough so that everybody could have seconds thirds as much food as they wanted. Cleo was telling me a story. She had children that were living in her building. And so they would meet her downstairs and she'd walk with them to the community center. And so they would feed them these hot breakfast, and then they would do political education. They would teach them about the history of black and brown people that was not taught in schools and really empowering these children, teaching them their history. They would help them with homework. They would teach them how to sit politely at a table, how to use the spoon and fork. And then they would ask them to clean up and then they would walk them to school. So, first of all, you had much better attendance. So many more students were making it. They were doing better in school because they were well fed. So there were so many benefits to having these breakfast programs and the community saw it right away. They understood it. Speaker 2 00:16:06 But another thing that Cleo and others told me about is that they had such an insight into what was happening in the community. During this time, the kids would tell them, oh, you know, my little brother's sick. And they eventually might link that to lead poisoning, or they might find out who was struggling with addiction. And that was another thing that the black Panthers did a lot of work around was community healthcare and, and addiction services. And so they had this great insight and they had this connection to what the community needed. It was such a theme from the very beginning of my research. And one of the first people I spoke with was Curtis hay, Muhammad, who sadly just passed at the beginning of February. He told me, he said, what he learned from a baker who was a leader in the NAACP. And she was a leader of SNCC. Speaker 2 00:16:50 What she taught them was you go to the people and you do not go in and, and think, you know how to help them. You ask them humbly, how can I help you? And then you listen. And that was something he told me and Cleo told me the same thing. Almost everyone I spoke to told me the same story, that this is how you truly approach community organizing. This is how you help people. And so that really struck me and the breakfast program was born out of that impetus of saying, how can I help the community? Speaker 1 00:17:21 Sometimes it's easy to forget what difference the access to something as simple as breakfast can make. Although the program was heavily attacked by federal authorities while it was in existence, it ultimately led to the us government implementing a national breakfast program of its own. Let's fast forward it from freedom summer to the summer of 2020. Following the murder of George Floyd, the country was once again, embroiled to have fight for the rights of black people to just exist in the midst of all the unrest. A coalition of bakers led by Paola Les banded together to create bakers against racism, which revive the tradition of using food to support and sustain the fight for civil rights. One of the bakers that answer the call is Arley bell. Speaker 3 00:18:13 My name is Arley bell, and I am a baker based in Richmond, Virginia Speaker 1 00:18:20 Arley is a talented baker who currently runs a cottage bakery called Arley cakes in Richmond, Virginia. I caught up with Arley and asked her to share her how she got started baking. Speaker 3 00:18:32 I first started baking in college. I wish I had like a cuter origin story. Like I feel like so many people are like, oh, my grandma taught me to bake. And you know, I was like hanging at her apron and she taught me everything. I know, but I just like really started baking in college. I've all always been like a sort of artistically inclined person. I love to create things. And I felt like after college baking became a creative outlet for me, I was working at a nonprofit where there wasn't really a budget for birthday cakes and people would just get like a cake from food lion. And I'm like, I like my coworkers. And I feel like they deserve better birthday cakes. So that was when I really, really started getting into baking, was making birthday cakes for them. And it just kind of like took off from there. Speaker 1 00:19:25 Arlene makes beautiful cakes and pastries and she's best known for decorating messages like black lives matter and stop a P hate into her creations. Scroll through her Instagram. You'll find case that look just as provocative as they are delicious for Arley being political is just an innate part of who she is. And that feeling came into focus in 2016. Speaker 3 00:19:50 Like I mentioned, my background has been in nonprofit work and when I made the transition to do baking, I still viewed baking as a way to make change in my community. It was the inauguration after the 2016 election. So it was 2017. But when Trump was inaugurated and Obama was leaving office, I had said something on my Instagram about just being sad about the Obama's leaving office. This was like a really beautiful thing that happened in our history and this eras kind of passing and mourn the end of that. And people got really upset with me and they were like, I'm here for cupcakes. Why are you politicizing things? Which was kind of bizarre to me because anybody that knew me in real life, not even people who knew me, like very well knew, like these are the things that I'm about, uh, like issues of social justice are driving the decisions that I make in life. Speaker 3 00:20:52 And they've always been like at the forefront of what's important to me. So I was kind of like surprised what, like, how are people like this mad at me? And like, this is who I am. And then on an day I posted a picture from the women's March in Charlottesville, holding a poster at the March. And I lost like hundreds of followers that day and gained back more than that. But it was again, why are people so mad to see me as a black woman talking about these things? Why is there so much anger towards me talking about this? And I didn't understand that. And in talking to a friend about it, he was like, well, maybe from the jump you need to be like, this is who I am. This is what I'm about. So that no one has questions about why you're here. Speaker 1 00:21:43 To be honest. I think it's such a cop out to ask someone, especially of hear some of color, not to be political, you might as well tell us to stop existing at all. Speaker 3 00:21:55 So that was a little bit of a turning point for me. And then early summer, such late spring was when the Nazi rallies started to happen in Charlottesville. And the tension around the statues came to a big, had the Confederate statue use. So that was a time when a lot of people were mobilizing and having conversations. And I got to get in touch with different people doing different work around Charlottesville while I was also moving to Richmond. So yeah, that was like a weird time to be leaving Charlottesville and feeling very invested in what was going on there. But yeah, I think it was actually for a group organizing around some counter protests with the August 12th rally. I think that was the first time that I put black lives matter on a cake. I feel like that was like a, oh, like, I can put whatever I want on a cake. So I'm gonna put black lives matter. And I also started that summer to put names of people who had been killed by police brutality on cakes. Yeah. So that was my transition. Speaker 1 00:23:02 It was hard for a young professional, like Arley to put so much of a personal beliefs front and center, but seeing people take to the streets and her baking peers band together under bakers against racism that offered her some reassurance Speaker 3 00:23:17 That was summer of 2020. And I had been pretty explicitly tying issues of social justice and race into my baking since 2017. So it was for relief that like, okay, this is a little more normal to people. And people are like joining around this. Cause you know, it is therapeutic for me to intertwine baking and these things. It also is exhausting just like being a black person in America. So to have like so many different people be like, oh yeah, like this is something that I need to talk about and that I need to act on. And I can't just be like passive and silent after years of black people. <laugh> saying that it was definitely an exciting moment and a bit of a relief too Speaker 1 00:24:10 Fine for equality is about more than reminding folks that black lives matter. It's also about celebrating our wins recently, Arley designed a beautiful cake to commemorate the confirmation of judge Kaji brown Jackson onto this Supreme court. The kick is white with beautiful purple flowers with a famous Maya Angelo quote that Senator Corey Booker used, but still light dust all rise. Speaker 3 00:24:37 Yeah. It's very, very amazing that Kon brown Jackson was nominated to the Supreme court. And I knew that I wanted to honor it and speak to it in some way through Kate and Corey Booker had quote Maya Angelou when he was like, quote unquote, questioning her <laugh>. But not really. He was just like so excited, like the rest of us. So I just saw that her poems still like dust arise. I just thought that it it'd speak perfectly to the process that we watched her go through in the last like month, but also just the journey of black people in America and black women in America. I just really wanted to share that on a cake. I, and sometimes <laugh>, I feel like when I say black lives matter, sometimes I think that it can just be interpreted as like black death matters and it's not like black lives mattering. Isn't only about like grief and injustice. It's also about joy and these amazing accomplishments. So yeah, it was important for me to take some time to celebrate a win. Speaker 1 00:25:56 That is something I really relate to. We all know about the tragedies and the injustices, and it's important to know those things and hopefully we can grow and somehow get to a place of equality, but it's just as important to talk about the victories and the joy. There's so much for us as black people to be proud of. We've accomplished so much, not because of, but in spite of, and that deserves to be talked about, it's inspiring to see the younger generation of bakers, like a Arley who are thinking about how they can carry on the legacy of the aling Quinns and Cleo silvers, while also figuring out their own path. Speaker 3 00:26:37 I don't know if I call myself an activist that feels like a big title <laugh> to give myself. But sometimes I do think about how do I balance just like taking care of myself and supporting myself. I mean, I'm baking as a business to make money and to be able to pay my bills. And also outside of a grind of capitalism, I want to find joy and beauty in my life and not just be about sadness all the time and giving of myself all the time. I guess that is something that I'm still figuring out. I just hope that black women are supported. I kind of feel like black women have been doing a lot. And for the future, I would love for them to get a little bit of break. Speaker 1 00:27:32 Black women do deserve a break just existing in this world can sometimes feel exhausting. I mean, Malcolm X once said that the most disrespected, unprotected and elected woman in America is the black woman. And I'm not sure that still isn't true, But even if that is still true, we continue to make a way, even when there is no way often without any credit. But like I said before, we need to make sure to celebrate our wins both big and small because we deserve it. This has been saying the table. I like to thank my guests, Suzanne cope and Arley bell, follow Suzanne on Instagram at Suzanne cope, underscore PhD and find her book, power, hungry women of the black Panther party and freedom summer and their fight TOFI movement at book sellers everywhere. You can check out Harley's beautiful cake designs on her Instagram at Arley cakes. And if you're lucky enough to be in the Richmond area, you can order a cake from Arley on her website, Arley cakes.com Speaker 1 00:28:41 Saying the table is part of Wetstone radio co elective. Thank you to the setting, the table team producer, Marvin ya audio editor, Evan Lindsay researcher, H an intern K stone. I'd also like to thank west stone founder, Steven Saterfield west stone radio collective head of podcast, Celine Glazer sound engineer, max Chu, associate producer, Quentin Liau production assistant I'm Lisa TKO and sound intern Simon lavender cover our created by west stone art director, Alexandra Bowman. Our theme music is who's back in town by Sammy Miller and the congregation. You can learn more about this podcast at west stone, radio.com on Instagram and Twitter at Westone radio and subscribe to our YouTube channel Wetstone radio collective. For more podcast, video content, you can learn more about all things [email protected] until next time I'm Deb Freeman.

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