Workin’ Roots: On The Importance of a Shared Oral History

Over a glass of wine, Dr. Jessica B. Harris discusses the sharing of agricultural knowledge and the complicated culinary implications of the African Diaspora

By Gabrielle Eitienne

Published on March 23, 2018

A friend of mine who was born and raised on Sapelo Island, in a lush and self-sufficient Gullah community they call “Hog Hammock,” once shared something with me I will never forget. He said the old folks used to say: “You don’t plant anything in the ground until you see the pecan trees bloom.” I asked why the pecan tree, and his response was, “it’s one of the oldest and wisest, and it knows when the season’s last frost has hit.”

This wasn’t something he learned in school; it was something he learned from his father, and his father from his father, all by word of mouth. When I think back to the fullness of their citrus trees, weighed down and overflowing with fruit, or to their ability to not only maintain their abundant crops, but to share them with others, I started to consider this as fact over folklore.

Jessica B. Harris at her home in Brooklyn

This all makes me wonder how many other things go unwritten and are eventually lost. Recipes, traditions, names, and full histories can be at risk of becoming null and void until someone takes notice and gives them life for another generation. In Mali, the Griots were the storytellers that shared the land’s history. They were advisors to the king, and they memorized all of a village's significant events—births, death, marriages, seasons, wars—ensuring that the collective culture and lineage of each clan continued. This oral inheritance has been a way of life throughout the African Diaspora for centuries, but who are the storytellers now?

I recently sat down Dr. Jessica B. Harris, one of these modern storytellers, to discuss our vast, interesting, and colorful history. But that rich color isn’t without pain too, and we also discussed some of the stigmas caught in the misunderstanding of our history. Over a glass of wine, I gifted her some okra seeds in a small silk pouch collected from my family’s garden and soon-to-be homestead in North Carolina. We both took a sip and deep breathed into my first question:

You made the statement once that African-Americans might be the only people that demonize their own food. What exactly did you mean by that?

Our traditional food comes out of our history, and when I say "our," I'm talking about "up from the south" African-Americans, who are here not as immigrants but as a result of enslavement. It's not all of us that demonize our food (I don't think you do, that's why you gave me those okra seeds, and I don't think I do, which is why I've got okra on the front of my business card and watermelon on the back) but we often demonize our food, I think, because ours is such a difficult and torturous history. Because it involves unspeakable pain. Because it involves us making the best of stuff that was not even given to us, but thrown at us. It's an easy thing to say, "that's not my food, I don't eat pig's feet." But the reality is if somebody hadn't eaten that then, we wouldn't be here today. So, we at least need to honor the journey that they had to take, and acknowledge that we stand on their shoulders. I am not here to be an advocate for chitlins, but we do have to acknowledge that that's the food that enabled survival then. That food enabled me to be here and eat lamb chops, or for someone to be vegan. That's the stuff that allowed it to happen, and we should not demonize it.

Gabrielle Eitienne's grandfather, Mayfield Woodard, picks okra in his garden in North Carolina.

I feel connected to my rich ancestral legacy when I’m in the garden, especially knowing that agriculture was a major part of our lives both pre- and post-slavery, and we were skilled at cultivating various cereals and plants that surpassed mere sustenance. The act of growing food almost activates this part of you that feels dormant until you’re in the soil. Do you feel like growing our own food is an important part of our culture as African-Americans?

Oh, God, yes. If we hadn't gardened, if we hadn't foraged, if we hadn't then passed on a knowledge of plants … A friend of mine told me a story about "break it and taste it." You don't wanna put something in your mouth ‘cause it could kill you. But you can put it on the tip of your tongue, you think about it, experiment and see if this is the thing you think it is. That's knowledge. All those folks we talk about “workin' roots,” what are they doing? They're working with plants—the root itself, the leaves, the fruit, the blossom—”workin' roots” ain't nothing but agriculture. And so when you think about all of those knowledges, and how they were transmitted, it was strictly oral. Ain't nobody written no book.

We are profoundly, literally rooted in the soul, wherever we are. It can be an old tomato juice can on a fire escape in the Bronx—it's a seed, we're growin it, and we are connected. We are just beginning to know how intensely and absolutely connected we are, and we are just beginning to unbraid to see what some of those connections may be.

I can see in your book some of these moments where people have taken you into their yards and homes, and shared with you what might have only been a memory had you not recorded it. Now that you’ve been all over Africa, how would you describe your Africa?

The continent is sort of like black Americans, or just like people in general; it is so multifaceted, so kaleidoscopically rich, that we have no complete understanding of it. And, I mean, it's not like I took a deep dive; I have not been in the peace corps, I did not live out somewhere in a hut. I was in major cities. I did make extraordinary friends, though they were mainly, probably, friends out of the elite. But they took me into their homes and I got to know who they were—and in some cases, the people that cooked for them.

OK, and one last thing: Jollof … Nigerian or Ghanaian?

They all lead back to Senegal (the Senegambian region), where the Djoloff Empire ruled from 1350 to 1549. I won't choose!

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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