[INTERVIEW] Michael Twitty Searches For His Roots on "Southern Discomfort Tour"

Michael Twitty is on a mission.  From May to July 2012, he will be touring 50 locations in the South -- from Maryland to Louisiana -- embarking on what he is calling a “Southern Discomfort Tour.” As a culinary historian and historic interpreter, Michael will be cooking and having dinner and dialogue with the extended family members he has been able to trace back through slavery -- both White and Black.  Michael sat down with EBONY to talk about why there can’t be peace, for our ancestors or ourselves, until we get uncomfortable. 

EBONY:  How did you decide to become a culinary historian?

MICHAEL TWITTY:  Slowly! Culinary history is not bound by academia yet. There’s a lot of flexibility for independent scholars to come into this field who have a passion for history and a passion for cooking.  But I just love learning about history and the human journey through food.  You can learn so much about our history based off of the food our ancestors ate:  how they worked, how they loved, and even how they died. There are not many African American food history interpreters, I think, because digging into our past in this country is a cultural place a lot of us are not willing to go. There’s a lot of shame and politics involved in that.

EBONY: Why do you think some Blacks feel shame when looking back on our ancestry and enslavement in this country?

MT:  There are psychic dangers to doing this work. No one likes to feel inferior or weak or even angry.  We already have a culture where talking about slavery is supposed to make you angry, frustrated, or bitter, but I take a different approach.  My goal is to highlight our ancestors’ contribution to this country and to the food we all eat. 

I want people to really appreciate where we come from and what we went through.  When I do my presentations and reenactments from that time period, my clothes are never polished.  Those slaves in the field working 16 hour days weren’t clean and presentable.  They were doing hard labor, so it’s important to be true to that. 

This October, I’m going to pick cotton.  I’ve gone before with people and we pick cotton or tobacco for 16 hours so we can understand better what they went through and honor that.  If you’re out there for 5 minutes, you’re going to understand what the blues is and why the field holler came into existence.  It is mind numbing work. You have to stay bent over and the sweat gets in your eyes and by the 10th hour you’re ready to die. That’s scary for a lot of people to get into. The idea [after slavery] was to get out of the South, go North and get beyond the rural walls of our past, but at the same time, we got away from the land too. I want us to get back to the land and growing our own food and doing things for ourselves. 

[PICS] Michael Twitty's "Southern Discomfort Tour"

[PICS ] Michael Twitty's "Southern Discomfort Tour"

Maya Angelou has a beautiful poem that says, “Because we have forgotten our ancestors, our children no longer give us honor. It’s deep and it’s real. And I know that when I do these things the ancestors have peace. I may have an idea of what it means to re-present your history, but a lot of people have not progressed to that point.

EBONY: That reminds me of the debate a lot of us were having about the book and the movie, The Help; On the one hand, many Blacks were upset by the idea of the story of Black domestic workers being old through the lens of a White woman. On the other, many were upset that in 2012, the only Oscar-worthy roles that Blacks had were still those of domestic workers.

MT:  Exactly, but the real issue is the question of agency and voice and owning our stories.  When we’re perceived as passive and receptors of history, like in The Help, it’s not a good look.

When I was giving a presentation about my Tour and The Cooking Gene at a plantation in Virginia, someone told me, “Why don’t you just cook for them? You don’t have to go on and on about history.” At a food writers’ conference in New York a couple of weeks ago, you would not believe how many times I was told, it’d be better if I didn’t do this project through the lens of my ancestors, but I should model it after The Help, or tell the stories from more of a worldview so more people could relate to it. Would anyone even consider telling Elie Wiesel that he should’ve tried telling his story, Night, from the worldview of Goebbels?!  But it happens to us all the time.  So this Tour is a