Sharing the Table: A Grade School Black History Month Celebration

BHM1So another Black History Month has come and gone, and grade schools everywhere are taking down their Martin Luther King posters and putting up shamrocks, and lions and lambs.

Our school on the south side takes Black History Month pretty seriously, and to generally good effect.  At our house, though, we have certainly also experienced what I call the ugly underbelly of Black History Month.

That's when a girl who's so young she's never even noticed race hears about slavery for the first time and her tiny mind starts to worry if the girls in her class are safe.  That's when the teacher who feels that children as young as six need to be exposed to terrible images in the interest of truth, and the scars in the memory haunt for weeks.  That's when children learn to parrot mindless things about our American heroes of color because they think it's what adults want to hear.  That's when cliches abound.

Sure.  There are limitations to any adult-imposed historical and cultural investigations when you're a little kid.  But until "Black History" becomes fully integrated into "American History," it's still better to pay attention to it in February than not at all.

We may keep it ghettoized, but still it works on us.

Still they make their imprint, these heroes.  What they said, how they lived.  People who gave up everything, in some cases their lives, because they actually believed the promises of the Declaration of Independence and the plan of governance laid out in the Constitution.  It is not solely the stuff of coloring pages, of posters in hallways.  These stories are the narratives of true heroes in our country's history whose contributions must never be trivialized.  That their lives resonate with us still is evident even in elementary schools going through their public education paces.

I could see it, last week, in all the glorious parts of an elementary school Black History Month grand finale. What else are we to call it, a luminous evening celebrating classroom projects, traditional family recipes, and children's efforts to capture their feelings, experience, joy, and judgment in poems read aloud to an audience of 100, maybe 200?

This was Black History Month night at my daughter's school last week.

Here, ladies and gentlemen, is what Black History Month ought to look like.  What it is.

I got there early to set up the potluck, which in years past was referred to as the soul food potluck, but nobody called it that this year.  The contributors didn't get the memo.  It was a soul food potluck, replete with home-fried chicken and fish, corn bread muffins, rice and gravy, barbecued chicken, macaroni salads, macaroni and cheese.

Our school, William H. Ray in Hyde Park, is extremely multicultural, I guess because of its proximity to the University of Chicago.  I love its wild diversity.  As we were setting up, the organizer fretted a little.  "No one RSVP'd," she told me, "I don't think we're getting much food tonight."  She needn't have worried.  We got so much that though three tables were set up to receive dishes, another table had to be dragged over for the surplus.  And the amazing thing was, every last bite of everything was eaten because the crowd was so large.

"Even though the weather was scary, this is one of the biggest turnouts for anything this year," observed the principal, Dr. Tatia Beckwith, new this year to Ray and just learning some of our traditions.

Something about this potluck brings out the cooks, every year.  And the historians.  The first person I found who would talk to me about her dish right away explained it was her husband's creation, a great big bowl of greens.  "Greens are traditional Southern food, of course," she told me, "but their origin goes all the way back to ancient Greece."  Now I didn't know this, but it made sense to me since I have often eaten the Greek version of greens, horta.  Greeks have been eating those forever.

Historian that I am, or was in a former life, I had to dig into this.  According to a wonderfully informative website called "Vegetarians in Paradise," greens migrated into Europe from the Mediterranean around the end of the Roman Empire, travelled with early explorers to the New World, and turned up in the west Indies in the mid-16th century.  Collards were thriving in Virginia when the first slave ships landed there in 1619.   And that's about when African slaves began to cook them, adding in meats discarded by plantation owners and later incorporating New World crops such as beans, tomatoes, corn, and squash.  The greens brought by third-grade parent Rori Hill Knox were made by her husband Victor Knox, who uses some unusual ingredients in his dish.

The potluck also brought out childhood staples, such as "Spaghetti that Stretches," the creation of Cherie Turner, mom of a kindergartener.  Cherie grew up eating spaghetti prepared this way, and makes it now when she needs to feed a crowd.  Indeed it was the last dish standing at the potluck, so big and full was her pot.  It, too, eventually was scoured out by the crowd.  The secret to this dish, she told me, is to make a really good thick sauce, cooked down a long time before mixing it together with the noodles.

Holiday food also made an appearance, such as the traditional candied yams brought by former PTA president and third-grade parent Dana Roby.  "This is my special dish for holidays," she told me.  It also works when she needs to feed a crowd.  Glistening sweet potatoes, not too sweet, with a nice touch of nutmeg.

While we were setting up the potluck, parents toured all the classrooms to see what kids had created during the month.  These projects were amazing, a credit to all the teachers for dreaming them up, and the kids, for really delivering.  "I teared up a few times" over the work the students created, admitted the principal.  The same thing happened to me.

The entire 6th grade's project for the month was a play presented earlier in February, "I Have A Dream."   If that wasn't enough work they also created the backdrop--a mind-bogglingly enormous quilt of an early American flag for which each child created two squares, one with a quote of their choosing from an African American hero, and one with their own idea, their dream.  The overall impact was breathtaking.  Quite literally, like getting the wind knocked out of you.

The facilitator of this project was Leslie Travis, National-Board Certified librarian and official school seamstress.  I can't imagine sewing this thing together, but it is a gorgeous piece.  Now too huge and heavy to hang at school, it is calling out for a great public space for display.

The rest of the school did classroom projects.  My daughter's class also used quilts as a springboard for their art.  They created bright paper quilts modeled after the underground railroad message quilts.  The children designed three squares and came up with a message for each, as in, "This house is safe." Or, "get in the boat and sail downriver." Strung together the quilts form a bright banner with long explanations of their designs stapled to each.

When families had toured the school they returned for the potluck, and after everyone in the long winding line had finally been fed, it was time to settle down and listen to the poetry slam.  Child after child, from every grade, several from each class, stepped forward and recited a poem.  They spoke slowly, straining to be understood, to be heard.  They spoke loud and clear into the microphone with quite surprising poise.  They spoke of their heroes, their dreams, their perspective on historical events so far removed from their experience they must sound like fairy tales of wicked kingdoms.

One poem grabbed me.   The poet, a 6th grader in traditional Indian dress, invoked an image close to my heart, that of the shared table.  It was not the subject of her poem.  It was off-handed, sideways, unmeant.  But in her poem about Rosa Parks, she connected the images of bus seating and restaurant seating.

Go, Go To The Back of The Bus
by Reshma Zadda

Go to the back of the bus
Go to the back of the bus--
“No I won’t, I think that’s unfair
And I’m just too tired today."

But everyone knows the rules
Everyone knows if you’re black
You can’t eat at white restaurants
And on buses, you sit in the back.

So now it’s time to move--
“No I am not moving at all
I’ve got a voice and I am going to use it
And thousands will hear the call."

“We’re coming to sit with you--”
People black and white did say.
“We’re coming to change America
And bring peace here to stay."

We're coming to sit with you.  We will sit with you.  We will sit together.  Here in our little corner of American public education, we, the diverse people of William H. Ray Elementary School, we will sit together, and we will share our dishes, we will share art and poetry, we will share the small nervous smiles of children performing for a crowd, for us, together.


Black History Month Potluck Recipes

Knox Family African-Style Greens
Victor Knox is a serious and confident cook, as evidenced by the dish itself, and the directions he sent me with his recipe--or rather, his "familial collaboration in kitchen experimentation and quest for new and interesting tastes."  This recipe calls for both lamb and ginger, two interesting twists on your standard greens.  He doesn't measure his ingredients, so you will need to access that confident cook within yourself and taste it as you go.  I offer my recommendations to start with in parentheses.  Cooking the dish to suit your tastes would be making it the way Victor would like you to, I think.

Collard greens finely sliced or chopped, about 3 lbs.
Lamb (1 lb. diced)
Garlic (two cloves, crushed)
Olive oil (enough to saute in, maybe 1 T)
Onion (1 large, finely chopped)
Sweet/bell pepper (1green, finely chopped)
1-2 thai hot peppers (finely diced, seeds removed, wear gloves for this)
Sea or kosher salt
Black pepper
Ginger root grated (a 1- to 2-inch length, peeled)
Balsamic and white or cider vinegar
3-4 cups water

In a large pot, heat olive oil,  and add finely chopped onions, peppers, garlic and lamb.  Simmer until brown.  Add chopped or sliced greens.  Add salt, pepper, cumin, paprika (1/2 to 1 t. of each except the pepper, 1/4 t.).  Drizzle balsamic and white/cider vinegar on greens.  Add grated ginger root.  Pour 3-4 cups of water into pot and cover with lid.  Cook down greens at medium heat for about 45 min. to 1 hour, stirring occasionally.  We usually serve them as a side with rice (basmati or saffron).  Enjoy!


The Spaghetti That Stretches
This will make quite a lot.  You can half, or double, as you wish.

2 lbs. ground beef or turkey
1 chopped onion
2 T chopped garlic
2 small cans tomato paste
2 jars Ragu or other pasta sauce
2-3 small cans of chopped black olives
1 lb. mushrooms, chopped
2 lbs. spaghetti

Cook ground meat, drain, and set aside.  Saute onions and garlic in olive oil, then add tomato paste, pasta sauce, olives, and mushrooms.  Simmer the sauce for 45 minutes to an hour.  Stir in ground meat.  Boil the noodles and add.


Candied Yams
This delicious and not-too-sweet dish is actually made with sweet potatoes.

6-8 sweet potatoes
1/2 pound (2 sticks) butter
1 pound dark brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon rum flavoring
1/2 cup water

In a large pot, cover potatoes with water and boil until cooked, about 1 hour.  Drain water and let potatoes cool down.  Peel and slice potatoes into about 1/4 to 1/2 inch slices.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a large sauce pan, melt 1 stick of butter and about 3/4 pound of dark brown sugar. Add the water as the butter and brown sugar melt. Stir. When the butter has melted, add the rum flavoring and stir. Turn off the heat. Slice the remaining stick of butter into approximately1/8 inch slices. In a baking dish, create a layer of sliced potatoes, add a few slices of butter around and sprinkle the entire layer with nutmeg. Repeat to create multiple layers. Pour the saucepan mixture over the potatoes. The mixture does not need to cover the potatoes completely. Bake at 350 for 1 hour. Let it cool down a bit and enjoy!

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  • Great post, Julie! We never would have gotten all of that food set up without you. If you ever want my recipe for macaroni and cheese with asphalt and broken glass, just let me know.

  • Mmmmmm.
    Thanks for the big laugh this morning Chris. I'm still sad about that macaroni and cheese disaster, particularly because I know everything you make is good. I may devote an entire post to such catastrophes, then I'll ask you for the recipe, and I want detailed directions on how much glass and asphalt to use.

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    yet another exhibit A for why i am julie V's biggest, most raucous fan. she brings it all together, every time, on the plate, at the potluck, at the pie contest. you name the place where people gather to fill their mouths and stuff their souls. she is global, our scribe with the spot-on eye and the pen and legal pad that soak it all up......

  • bammy, thanks for your raucousness. These places I go, they just hand me stories. I can't believe you just said right here in public that I write with a pen on a legal pad.

  • Loved this post! You are a very talented and skillful storyteller Julie! Thanks for sharing your experience.

  • Thanks Kay. I wish everyone could've been there sharing my experience, but photos and stories have to suffice. Thanks for stopping by!

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