African Food and Black Comediennes

Teranga May 9, 2019

Excellent new West African restaurant in East Harlem housed on the ground floor of a modern building. I loved the food as well as this drink called “Bouye” made with baobab fruit (no idea what it is) and coconut milk.

Some months ago, I went to a festival of black comediennes. One of them asked the audience who have had fufu. I raised my hand thinking that the whole crowd would raise their hands because everyone was black. She then said it’s a shame that the only person who had it is a white guy, to which I shouted, “I’m not!”

In some ways, I’m impressed that they have never tried the iconic African food. After all, why should they? They are not Africans; they are Americans. Just because they have the skin color originating from that continent, doesn’t mean they should be expected to know anything about it. I’m the racist who expected it.

Unfortunately, our physical appearance symbolizes a lot of historical facts and events. By inheriting the appearance, we also inherit those histories, even though they have nothing to do with us.

Imagine being born with a birthmark on your forehead that looks exactly like a swastika. Skin color is just as rich in symbolism but we cannot remove it. We have to carry all the historical meanings associated with that symbol all our lives even though we had nothing to do with those meanings.

The real challenge in combatting racism isn’t knowing the right way to treat the people of color, but freeing others as well as ourselves from these historical burdens for which we played no part, which includes how we treat white people. This is much easier said than done because our conception of the world is composed of symbols. Everything we see is mediated by them. We don’t see a tree; we just identify the word “tree” in the vast network of other words and assume that we understood what it is.

Left on their own without supervision, our thoughts automatically run the associative process: “black” - “Africa” - “fufu” (Well, maybe not fufu for you.) To truly know something/someone, we have to be able to see these reflexive thoughts for what they are: an app installed in our heads by our culture.