“They send me to eat in the kitchen when company comes…”

“The following blog post is dedicated to my paternal granddad. May he rest in peace.”

Ahh, the kitchen, a place filled with delicious smells, warm feelings and saucy conversation. The kitchen is riddled with memories. It carries the nostalgic, aromas of yesteryear. However, this place wasn’t always as inviting as it seems. This room was often used an area for shunning and marginalization.

The above-referenced line in Langston Hughes’ poem, I, Too, reiterated the historical treatment of African Americans as second-class citizens—a visible invisibility, if you will. In the early days, black men and women in domestic roles were to be seen and not heard. Your respect and obedience were required, but your presence was repulsive. You were there for one purpose and one purpose only—service. Once service was accomplished you were shunned to the kitchen to partake in whatever leftover vittles were left. If there wasn’t anything left, you were thought to simply be grateful that you had a job at all (no matter how laboring, demeaning or exploitive). Carry on; just smile and nod.

During the Jim Crow era, things weren’t much better visiting restaurants. No matter your vocation or your education, if you were a black person in America, there was rarely a “seat at the table” for you. Counter space was limited and tables were specifically reserved for “white” paying-customers only. Meanwhile, blacks were to hang out back near the kitchen, or outside if they wanted any sustenance. I’m reminded of a troubling story that my father once told me about my granddad.

One day, he and my father went to a restaurant. My granddad ordered a meal and waited for his meal to be cooked. Once his food was ready, he picked up his bag of food, and he and my dad went to have a seat. Suddenly the cashier hissed,” You can’t eat in here. You have to go eat outside.” Appalled, my granddad exclaimed, “You mean to tell me, I can’t eat here?!” My granddad became visibly upset.

Obviously, he was a customer like everyone else. There were various tables available, but he and his son were relegated to eating outside. (Actually, no one else was sitting in the restaurant at that time because many had taken their food to go during the busy, lunch hour. So there were PLENTY of seats available.) Infuriated by this demeaning practice and the cashier’s insulting words, my granddad slammed the food down on the counter. He said, “Take the food! I’m not buying.” And my then teenage dad voiced his stamp of approval, “You tell ‘em daddy.”

I admire my granddad for taking a stand. He saw the value in himself, even though others refused to see it. I’m sure he taught my dad a valuable lesson on self-worth. He also taught him,

“If you don’t respect my humanity, then surely you don’t deserve my dollars.”

Today, there needn’t be any visible signs expressing the “us vs. them” mentalities similar to those that were found in segregated facilities. No, now we have the microaggressions that insert themselves into our everyday conversations, keeping the “I-don’t-think-I’m-a-racist” people enslaved to their own implicit biases. We have insults veiled in jest. We have sarcasm hidden under the guise of “I don’t mean to be racist but . . .” Times have changed, but the self-centered and lack of awareness culture has remained.

We must free ourselves from the bounds of prejudice. We must think before we speak, and reflect before we act. We must die to selfishness, so that we can live a life filled with love. Maya Angelou once said, “If we lose love and self respect for each other, this is how we finally die.” Rise up and LIVE.

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