(by Seymone Kelly)
My mother’s childhood was way different than mine. She grew up in a small town in North Carolina in the 1950s and ’60s. Her parents had a farm, gardens and land, but she had to walk up the road to see her friends or wait until someone drove her. She had something called “party lines,” with four families on the same phone line, each house with its own special ring so they knew who the call was for. Life was slower, limited, and more personal, but water fountains, bathrooms, and store entrances were labeled “colored” or “white,” and Confederate flags were the Welcome mats at many houses.
Her schools were segregated until she was a senior in high school. In 1971, the civil rights leader Dr. Benjamin Franklin Chavis, Jr., went to North Carolina to help desegregate the public school system and protested with those students who had organized a boycott. (Chavis was part of the Wilmington Ten. During a protest for school desegregation, they were arrested and convicted of arson. All of them were sentenced to prison time and served nearly a decade before they won an appeal.)
At the age of 20, after receiving an associate degree in business, Mom headed to New York, looking for different opportunities than she would be afforded in the South. Two of her brothers had served in two different wars and convinced her that the world outside of North Carolina was better for her. She moved in with one of them and began figuring out the brand-new environment called Harlem. She met and married my dad, a Harlem and Brooklyn man, whose family had come from the Bahamas.
(Mom and me, bookended by my brother and Dad)
Although I wasn’t subjected to the same kind of racism that my mom was, I’ve felt its presence in my life. I attended the Million Man March (Dr. Chavis once served as their national director). I’ve been to workshops where I was the only Black woman in the room. My mother always taught me to hold my head high as a Black woman, to be proud of my race and my heritage.
Many African-Americans are unable to trace their roots because no records were kept. Lucky for me, a family member on my mom’s side was able to do some research on my grandpa’s history. I learned that my ancestors were brought to America by a family named Beatty, which is my mom’s maiden name. That family was from Dublin, Ireland. The Beatty Plantation is still in North Carolina to this day. It is a hard pill to swallow to know that my ancestors were enslaved, torn from their home and brought to a new place called America, not knowing what to expect, not being able to make their own decisions without someone over them. Even their name was taken away. It is so much to unpack. When I think of the many opportunities I have now, I owe it to my family’s history. Their resilience, drive, determination and love has helped throughout the generations.
People connect the word “soul food” with our culture. It is a part of our identity; it reminds us of our roots. During slavery, African Americans had to work with what they were given on plantations, and many food traditions can be traced back to those times; oral records were passed down through generations. Okra is a favorite, although it isn’t native to the United States (it’s said to have made its way here in the slave trade of the 1500s), and in my mother’s hands, it is gourmet food.
When I was younger and went down South with my mom to visit family, I joked about needing WiFi and bug spray, but the older I’ve gotten, the more I appreciate the quietness. The community of people in the small town. The fresh air and the open yard space. The sense of love that I receive from my family is better than material things. Our family embraces each other, and we commune over food.
It's the love of family that is so important to me, all because of my mother. She is love and happiness. My mother’s laugh is so loud, I know the neighbors probably hear it. Everyone she meets feels the warmth that comes from the sound of her voice. She feels like home and smells like it too. She is the best cook I know. It takes time, effort, patience, and execution. She is a master at it, and I never saw her take out a cookbook. Each and every time I eat my mom’s cooking, all five senses respond to her love.
Seymone Kelly is an author, screenwriter, and poet who lives in Harlem, New York. She has published three urban fiction books and the children’s book Joyner and Magical’s Big Dreams. She is the writer and producer of the film HOMI3S and the mini-series Imani. Her latest poetry visual series is #storiesbySey. She can be found on Instagram, YouTube,
3 lb. okra, fresh or frozen
3 T. vegetable oil
6 medium slices of fatback
Cut and discard the tips and ends from the okra, and cut into slices.
In a frying pan, heat oil and fry fatback. Set fatback aside.
Add okra to the pan with a little water.
Cover and cook over medium-low heat for about 20 minutes.
Add seasoning salt and black pepper.
Return fatback to the pan, cover, and cook about 10 more minutes more.