Archives for : American History

Free Black Man in France: James Hemings Makes His Culinary Mark in History

Hello Meltingpot Readers,

A portrait of James Hemings.

A portrait of James Hemings.

I had one of those driveway moments the other day when I heard this story on NPR. It’s about Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved chef, James Hemings, yes, the brother of Sally Hemings. James was apparently quite the culinary genius, so much so, that when Jefferson traveled to Paris for a five-year stay, he took James with him so he could learn the art of French cuisine. While there, James lived as a free man, indeed learned the secrets of French cooking and considered a bid for freedom. Check out the story on the NPR site and then tell me if you’re not moved.

I’m so happy people are taking the time to tell individual stories about Black people in antebellum America. This is how we restore our humanity and this is how we encourage young people of all colors to recognize the true diversity of the Black experience in America. For example, by sharing James Hemings’ story, folks realize that our culinary legacy reaches beyond the limited notions of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben. No disrespect to Jemima and Ben, of course, because their contributions to our cultural heritage are significant and dear, but it is high time we expanded the notion of what Black people were doing in America’s kitchens before (and after) the Emancipation Proclamation besides stirring up pots of soul food.

Mind you, I love soul food in all its juicy pork goodness, but I also know that Black chefs weren’t cooking soul food for their masters. How do I know this, because I read and because it doesn’t make sense that White masters were eating slave food. They were eating the delicious creations that their talented, enslaved chefs learned how to make using the fresh, expensive ingredients in the master’s kitchen. Hello, James Hemings! Here’s another NPR story that will continue this argument, because I have to go make lunch. I’m hungry after writing this post.

I bet you are too. You’re welcome.



Passing While Black: Black Man Becomes the Indian Liberace?!

Hi Meltingpot Readers,

panditLast week The New Republic posted this fascinating story about the famous Indian singer Korla Pandit. Known as the “Godfather of Exotica,” he had his own TV show that ran in the 1950s and had an impressive recording career as well. He was rich, married –to a White woman – and accepted in Hollywood as, well, an acceptable exotic. The only thing was, Korla wasn’t what he seemed.

From the New Republic:

Like most everything in Hollywood, it was all smoke and mirrors. His charade wasn’t his stage name—it was his race. Korla Pandit, born John Roland Redd, was a light-skinned black man from St. Louis, Missouri. It was a secret he kept until the day he died.”

So, how did he do it dear readers? How did a Black man from Missouri become The Godfather of Exotica? By playing off the cultural ignorance of the American people, of course. All John Roland Redd had to do was slap on a turban and voila, instant Indian. He also invented a fantastic back story and liked to talk about spirituality and peace. What’s not to love? Considering the fact that there are a grotesque amount of Americans who still believe our president is a Muslim simply because of his name, it really can’t be too hard to fool us as a people. We’ll believe anything if it feeds into cultural stereotypes. The truth is, Redd’s whole act was one big stereotype, including the turban with the shiny gem he always wore. He claimed to be a Hindu, but Hindu’s don’t even wear turbans, that’s a Sikh custom. But why quibble with details, America?

It really is a fascinating story, especially considering how bold Redd was with his deceit. He wasn’t going to quietly pass, he wanted a big life as a musician and this ethnic farce was his way to get it and apparently he played it out until the end. I wonder if he was giving the finger to the world when he drew his last breath? Like, “Suckers, I Got Over!”

There is a new documentary about Korla Pandit, called Korla that I cannot wait to see. I love stories like these because they completely fly in the face of the idea that Black people had no agency in their ability to “beat the system,” plus it is another example of how fluid identity is, largely based on skin color and hair texture. Apparently Redd’s hair was shiny, black and straight. Do you think he could have pulled this off if he had kinky hair and skin a bit darker? Oh, the possibilities.

So, dear readers, what do you think of Korla Pandit? Do you think Black people knew his secret? Apparently he got itchy around other Indians because clearly they’d be able to smell his lies. Will you be watching the film? Check the trailer and I’ll bet you’ll want to. I’d love to hear your thoughts.


Mixie History in Maine: Malaga Island

Hello Meltingpot Readers,

I hope everyone had a colorful Fourth of July, if that’s your thing. I spent a lovely weekend celebrating a whole bunch of family achievements, from engagements to college graduations. We were in Buffalo, New York for the weekend, so we also took a moment to visit Niagara Falls. That was gorgeous.

It’s because we were on the road that this post is coming to you two days late and I apologize. I know many of you show up here on Monday morning looking for tasty new Meltingpot treats so it must be crushing to find last week’s post still hanging around. Shame on me!

A headline from the newspaper detailing the fate of the people from Malaga Island.

A headline from the newspaper detailing the fate of the people from Malaga Island.

No fear, I’m back. And with such an interesting story to share. I can’t take any credit for discovering it, but I am taking it upon myself to spread the word. Last week I mentioned in my post about Mat Johnson’s new book Loving Day, that I learned something new about Mixie History. What I learned was that there was a Mixed Race community that lived in the late 19th and early 20th century on an island off the coast of Maine called Malaga Island. The island was inhabited by Blacks, Whites and Mixed Race people living together despite the rest of the country’s fierce appreciation for segregated living, loving and learning. What happened to the people who lived on Malaga Island and their way of life is a tragedy that would have been forgotten if not for a pair of curious journalists who decided to tell their story in a very public way.

Please check out the website dedicated to telling what happened to the people of Malaga Island and remember that America’s history has never simply been a story of Black and White.

Have any of you ever heard of Malaga Island and what went on there? If so, how’d you hear about it? I’m totally listening.


May is Mixed Experience History Month!

Hello Meltingpot Readers,

Happy Monday! Happy May! Happy Mixed Experience History Month 2015!

May Is Mixed Experience History Month

May Is Mixed Experience History Month

If you’ve been a regular reader of the Meltingpot, then Mixed Experience History Month is nothing new. But if perhaps this is your first time traveling through our cyber world, then you’re probably wondering what we’re talking about. Well, my cool friend and famous Afro-Viking Heidi Durrow, the author of The Girl Who Fell from the Sky and founder of the Mixed Remixed Festival, is the brains behind the whole Mixed Experience History month idea. She launched Mixed Experience History Month way back in 2007 in order to “claim a history” she felt she had been denied as a person of African-American and Danish heritage.

History is full of fascinating characters of Mixed descent, who too often have had their unique ethnic/cultural background erased or overlooked in the telling of their stories. Mixed Experience History Month is the antidote to such erasure, as every day in the month of May, Durrow profiles a historical figure of Mixed heritage on her blog. There are famous faces you might already know – think Alexander Dumas – and people you may have never known were Mixies, like Harlem Renaissance icon, Arturo Schomburg.

I am consistently amazed by the unique individuals Heidi finds to profile, from artists, to scientists to entrepreneurs. As a Black mother of Mixed kids, I am grateful that this treasure trove of resources is being created so my kids can see that the Mixed experience is nothing new in this world, and in fact, it has a deep and significant legacy.

Yes, May is more than halfway over, but that doesn’t mean we can’t all take a moment, or the next 13 days, to marvel in Mixed Experience History Month. Thank you, Heidi!


Black History Month Lite: 5 Black Books That Aren’t About “Black Stuff”

Hello Meltingpot Readers,

Here it is the last week of Black History Month and yours truly is just getting around to acknowledging it. Where are my manners? Hold on, let me get my tongue out of my cheek here. The thing is, I don’t know who Black History Month is really for and I don’t understand why Black American history isn’t the same thing as American history. I mean, historically speaking, Black people have pretty much been here since the beginning so, it’s not clear to me why our contributions – which are far too many to be reviewed in the shortest month of the year – are segregated from the mainstream. But that’s just me. And I don’t want to be perceived as ungrateful for the opportunity to shine a light on some fantastic Black people.

But I have noticed that a lot of non-Black people get kind of uncomfortable when Black History Month comes up. They’re not really sure if they’re supposed to be celebrating with like, a special fried chicken dinner, or they should be feeling extra guilty and force themselves to watch Roots. It’s confusing. I get it. And then of course, there are the folks who really want to get involved with the Black experience during the month of February. And they are willing to go the extra distance and watch a movie or attend an art exhibit or lecture about Black people. Some people even commit to reading an entire book in February written by a Black author.

But here’s the thing about those books by Black authors. Too many times they are really depressing because they’re always about “Black stuff.” I read that on a comment thread once. Really. The complaint was that Black books were too depressing to read because they are always about “black stuff like slavery and the civil rights and discrimination.” Well, who wants to read about that? I don’t. And that’s why I’ve developed this short list (remember we only have six days left of February) of books by Black authors that are not about Black stuff. And please note that all of these books have been vetted and read by me to ensure that “Black stuff” does not appear in a single one of them, just great characters, love, life, humor and a couple of tasty recipes. Enjoy!

1. 32 Candles by Ernessa T. Carter. Call it chick lit or women’s fiction, but this is an excellent novel about an “ugly duckling” who grows into a gorgeous swan and gets the guy. It’s fresh and funny and just too delicious. And when you’re done and dying for more, read the follow-up, The Awesome Girl’s Guide to Dating Extraordinary Men.

Does this book look like it has too much Black Stuff? No worries. It's just a really good book.

Does this book look like it has too much Black Stuff? No worries. It’s just a really good book.

2. Orange Mint & Honey by Carleen Brice, A great mother-daughter story set in Colorado. Now you know a story can’t be too Black if it takes place in Colorado. There’s first love, music and a cookie recipe that makes this a really sweet piece of fiction.

3. The Taste of Salt by Martha Southgate. This is a quiet novel about family, relationships and addiction in a middle class family. Martha Southgate is an amazing writer and this book, her latest doesn’t disappoint.

4. Waiting in Vain by Colin Channer. If anyone thinks Fifty Shades of Grey is a romance then they should have their head examined. On the other hand, Waiting in Vain is a story that redefines romance and passion between two beautiful, three dimensional characters with unique back stories. The action zigzags across the globe from Jamaica to London to Brooklyn and will leave any reader panting for more.

5. The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson. Yes, I have to add a YA book here because, kids want to read Black books that aren’t too Black too. Here’s a great one about a multi-culti group of middle school kids who have plans to rig the student council elections. It’s a clever, funny, underdog tale with a main character, Jackson Greene, who happens to be a Black teen.

There you have it. What books would you add to this list? Leave your suggestions in the comments. Let’s see how long this list can be. And sure, I could have added my own novel, Substitute Me but that would be kind of obvious. (wink, wink).


In Honor of MLK: Do Something!

Martin-Luther-King-Day-Quotes-10Hi Meltingpot Readers,

Happy MLK Day! I hope those of you with the day off, enjoyed a break from your regular routine, however you spent it, even if that meant catching up on your laundry.

Since I’ve been sick and missed an entire week’s worth of work, I spent the majority of my day at my office playing catch up. But that doesn’t mean I can’t find a way to honor Dr. King’s Legacy today, and every day for that matter, because I think that’s what this day is really about. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t wait for one day in January to do some great service project, instead we’d look at Dr. King’s life of protest and service as an example of what we are all capable of because at the end of the day, Martin was just a man. A man who looked around and said, enough. Enough of the injustice, enough of the poverty. Enough of the violence. And then he decided to do something. And he didn’t stop until somebody stopped him.

So, we all have busy lives and families. Most of us have to work to keep food on the table and a roof on our heads. And many people are already doing for others on the regular. But just in case, here are some things anybody can do to help Dr. King’s dreams come true. And none of them have a January 19 expiration date.

1. Go see the movie Selma to get inspired and understand that regular people make a movement, not miracle workers. And take a teenager with you if you know one. After the movie discuss over hot chocolate.

2. Educate yourself and read a good book about social justice, racism and/or poverty.

3. Volunteer at any organization that promotes social justice, even if it’s just once or twice.

4. Write a check for an organization that is doing good work. If you don’t have the time to do the work, your dollars can support those who do.

5. Sign my petition on to capitalize the B in Black when referring to Black people. And while you’re over there, sign some other petitions. Lending your voice to a cause is the easiest and yet potentially most powerful thing you can do.

What other things can be added to this list? Tell us how you celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. on this day and any day. I’m totally listening.


Giving Credit Where Credit is Due: A Call to Change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day

Hello Meltingpot Readers,

Did you ever stop to think why you get a day off for Columbus Day? What exactly is it we are celebrating? Some of us didn’t really celebrate anything at all today and reported in for work, but that’s beside the point. The real point is that celebrating the man who accidentally bumped into the American continent, thought it was India, and then tried to lay claim to the land for his European employers, despite the fact that the land was already inhabited, is kind of insane. I mean really, insane. As I saw on somebody’s Facebook page today, we should celebrate Columbus Day by breaking into someone’s house and then telling them that the house is now ours. Yeah, that would be more appropriate.

On national level, a lot of people think it would be more appropriate to honor the indigenous people of the United States on October 12 instead of Columbus. One such person, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, is a professor, activist and author with a new book out called, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (Beacon Press). She has created a petition to send to President Obama to have the holiday officially changed. Two cities, Minneapolis and Seattle have already made the change, but Ortiz wants the entire country to come correct. I signed her petition. If you want to as well, follow this link to It’s quick and easy and every single signature makes a difference.

What do you think about this issue? Should we change the focus of the federal holiday? I’m so listening.


Passing (is) Strange … And Makes for Fascinating Reading

Hello Meltingpot Readers,

Hobbs' "A Chosen Exile" looks really good.

Hobbs’ “A Chosen Exile” looks really good.

There’s probably nothing revolutionary or even that revelatory in a new book out on passing called, A Chosen Exile by Stanford professor of American History, Allyson Hobbs, but still, I’m dying to read it. Why, because the very concept of passing, of leaving behind a life and family, shedding one’s cultural history and starting over with a new racial identity is just so fascinating. Really, it seems like the plot of a great mystery series, but in fact, as Hobbs suggests, it was so commonplace that the White man sitting next to you on the bus, just might be Black. Whoa!

For more information about the book and some sneak peeks into the lives of the people profiled therein, check out the story on NPR’s Codeswitch. And for some added fun, check the 150+ comments that come after the story.

Do you find the concept of passing as fascinating as I? You wanna tell me why? I’m so listening.