(by Thylias Moss)
A matter of timing, as most things are. To be “the little black one,” as my mother was called by her family, born in Alabama, growing up in Tennessee in the 1930s, at the height of discrimination. Overt racism, all those taunts and epithets, with mirrors making the situation clear: Don’t be black—it’s an insult to be called that, with never a chance to feel pretty.
Fortunately, there are skin creams meant to lighten the face, and hair preparations to change the texture. The little black one can’t have a black child. She can’t be responsible for delivering more trouble into the world. Her world was so puny, so black—oxtails cooking in the kitchen, wearing flour sacks for dresses. Being pushed into mud, the poverty itself reason for shame. Her ancestors didn’t come to America willingly. They arrived in shackles and chains. No choice, no enjoyable passage, stacked to fill all available space, stripped even of language as well as garments. Her whole life, she never learned to say it loud: black and proud. But then: the chance to be part of a family who decide to come to America, the barely browns of the best sunsets.
They come to her tiny insular town from India. Go with masala, chicken masala, much better than fried chicken made from the leftover gizzards. Get to know them, a ticket to better. They arrived, my father’s father and his family, on a ship. It was his choice to come here, standing proudly on the deck, sunshine infused into hair that could look golden, depending on time of day. Eat what he eats.
My father always had different food, basmati rice like tips of cresting surf, or the tops of white picket fence delineating their property. And when my mother met him, she started to cook curry.
Indeed, she preferred the relative freedom my father’s family had over everything
else. Theirs was a family of education and books. She preferred their traditions over her own. They enlarged the world, and in that enlargement, dreams also became wider, each cloud a bit of chapatti or naan bread. Her own origins were a source of trouble with which she could not compete. She wanted all evidence removed. All of it. More than anything, her countrified middle name, “Missouri.” She died feeling that way, that whatever my paternity had was better than hers. That is why she wanted to marry into it, so as to claim it for herself. And for me, especially. Anything to avoid being black. Anything that reminded her of her ancestry was verboten. She tried to expunge any trace of Africa from her life. She did not want to be black, and that family was her way out, and her child’s.
She never recovered; her passion in life was not to be black. Yes; we often discussed how my grandfather chose to come here, while her ancestors were in chains. The freedom my father’s family had just to go to the store, and she couldn’t. While my father went in, she had to hide in the car with the groceries to make the food that proved belonging and membership, while her shame seethed.
Thylias Moss is Professor Emerita of English Language and Literature and of Art and Design at the University of Michigan. She can be found at https://thyliasmoss-writer.com and https://shawsheenmemorialbroomsociety.blog.
1/2 c. Greek yogurt
2 t. garam masala
1 T. kosher salt, divided
1/4 t. black pepper
1 1/2 lb. chicken breast or thigh, cut into 1-inch cubes
4 T. butter
1 onion diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 T. fresh ginger, grated
14 oz. can crushed tomatoes
1/4 t. cayenne pepper
1/2 c. heavy cream
cooked basmati rice
Mix yogurt, garam masala, 1 t. kosher salt, and black pepper.
Marinate chicken in the mixture at least 20 minutes or overnight.
Heat 2 T. butter in a large deep skillet over medium heat.
Raise the heat, and brown marinated chicken on both sides over very high heat, about 2 - 3 minutes on each side. (It shouldn’t be fully cooked; you’re just trying to get some color on it.) Remove from pan and set aside.
Add garlic and ginger, and sauté for about 1 minute until fragrant—your nose will tell you.
Add tomatoes and the browned chicken.
Bring to a simmer, cover, and cook over low heat for about 15 minutes or until chicken is fully cooked.
Stir in heavy cream. Taste and adjust seasoning until your tongue is happy.
Garnish with cilantro and jalapeños, and serve over rice with naan bread.