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A Seat at the Table

(by LaToya Powell)

I can’t remember how old I was when I was finally able to sit at the table. Seems like I was at least ten years old. We had moved to our own home in the suburbs of Omaha, Nebraska, a middle-class neighborhood of working professionals, after living in and near the projects. We had made it. Our next-door neighbors seemed to be an exception. Not because they talked with heavy Southern accents, but because they kept chickens in their backyard. From my bedroom window, I would see them grab one of the chickens by their feet and drop them into a tall kitchen trash can with their wings still flapping. Later, the smell of fried chicken drifted on the air between our houses. They were the only family in our neighborhood who knew how to process a live chicken for dinner. The rest of us bought chickens from the grocery store, which seemed more modern and sensible. But they were holding on to their values and subculture in the suburbs, and the neighborhood accepted that they were different.

I know it was either Thanksgiving or Christmas when I sat at the table. That was the only time my mother made greens for the entire family. She had to make enough for us (my brother and me), but also her six brothers and sisters, nieces, nephews, and cousins, so many cousins. Bags of mustard and collard greens covered the kitchen table. There were more bags on the floor. Before the greens could be cooked, they had to be cleaned, one batch at a time. The center stems were removed, then the greens were soaked in the sink, swirled with the hands as if in a washing machine, with any dirt or sand falling to the bottom. Once they were clean, the greens were put in an empty pot or bowl. The cycle would start again with the next batch until all the bags on the table and the floor were empty.

Before we started cleaning the greens, my mother placed a large stock pot on the stove. In it, she added water and smoked ham hocks. She would bring the water to a boil and let it simmer to release the smoky flavor. Then she’d add the cleaned greens in batches. Fill the stock pot up to the top with greens, add a little water, let greens cook down, and add more greens on top until all the bags, bowls, and pots were empty. With each batch, she would add salt and pepper to taste.

There were so many bags, my mother had to call in reinforcements. Aunties came over to help—and I was deemed ready at an early age. We all sat around the table with a pile of greens in front of us. One at a time, take a leaf, fold in half, the outside of leaf facing toward you, pinch at the top of the stem, the thinnest part, break, then unzip the stem from the leaf. Repeat. The aunties and my mom made it look so easy. They pinched and unzipped without looking as they talked and laughed.

Me: “Mama, is this right?”

Mama: “Take a little bit more. Pinch a little higher. See, like this.”

She joined the conversation and laughter again. I unzipped a few more stems, still not feeling sure.

Me: “Mama, like this?”

Mama (looking over to me and at the leaf): “Yes.”

She began talking with the aunties again. There was often a little gossip about family and friends, but most of the conversation centered around politics, education, and activism. They discussed phone banking to get someone elected, going to low-income neighborhoods to pass out fliers, and driving people to polling places. They talked about a fish fry to raise money for minority scholarships, which would eventually lead to remembering how Grandma and Grandpa couldn’t go to college due to racism. At the table, I learned the importance of being of service to others, giving back to community, and making your voice heard through voting.

I removed the stems from more of the leaves. Feeling more confident. Still, I wanted to be certain.

Me: “Mama, look at this one.”

Mama (looking at the leaf, then looking at me): “Yes, it looks good.”

I’m not sure how many more times I did this, asking her if what I was doing was okay. Regardless of the number of times, she never became frustrated, never raised her voice, or asked me not to interrupt the conversation. Every time, she stopped what she was doing and gave me guidance and support. She made me feel comfortable at the table. She made me feel as if I belonged beside her and the aunties at the table.


LaToya Powell is a higher-education administrator at Stanford University in California.

Mixed Greens

3 parts mustard greens to 1 part collard greens

smoked ham hocks

salt and pepper to taste

Remove and discard stems from greens, and roughly chop the leaves.

Placed smoked ham hocks in 2 qts. water over medium heat.

Bring to a boil.

Reduce to simmer for approximately 1 hour. As water evaporates, add a little more.

Increase heat to medium and add cleaned greens in batches.

Cook for 1 hour or until greens are tender.


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