When anyone asks me where I’m from, my tongue hits the front of my teeth in a stutter, always pausing before answering. I know where I’ve lived the longest. I know that my Dad was in the military, and I know where most of my extended family resides. When asked, it feels like these pieces can’t go together. I question whether or not I’ll be understood. My childhood was spread throughout this mess of a country like that softened butter on a flaky biscuit right before church. I’m Southern. The south is just as much a part of me as my fatness is. Black first. Queer next. Woman. Fat. Southern. I’ve never questioned this, not because of my time spent in Florida and Virginia, but because that’s where the maternal side of my family has been rooted for generations. Families attend each other’s funerals without being asked. Shedding tears in communion, like being in Gramma’s kitchen while she is busy chopping sweet onions for the shrimp and gravy dish my mother loves so much. She asks for it every time she comes home. It’s complete when laid over fluffy white rice, with onion gravy drenching the top, begging to be washed down with a tall glass of hand-squeezed lemonade, made from lemons plucked off my late Aunt (pronounced AINT) Kat’s tree.
Blackness is complex. Womxnhood is complex. Sexuality is complex. Somehow, though, we have grown exceedingly comfortable living in these simplistic boxes that were built for us, and shaming those who ask questions about why the walls are so damn flimsy.
You know what does hold up?
The crusts of my Gramma’s sweet potato pie. The helpings of macaroni and cheese at Christmas time, or the cream cheese pound cakes that the White’s have been making for generations.
These ample thighs on their sturdy shoulders.
These locs (reserving the dread only for those who made it so that laws had to be passed for my natural, un-beeswaxed length to be considered “professional”) that I spent so many years burning with lye but praying for length.
“Food and fellowship” have always equated to fried chicken, green beans cooked in bacon, a cold roll on a styrofoam plate, and hands clasped in prayer. If you were lucky, you had some aluminum foil to keep it safe. Otherwise, you laid another plate right on top and held on for dear life while you waited for your Auntie to finish telling your Mama another story right quick.
“You get enough to eat, baby?” It’s a trap — always say yes and look satisfied, but not too full.
The winter season came, and we gathered as we always do, for Christmas is the time of family and laughs and fried fish and religious dogma.
Prayer always comes before the meal, led by the eldest Patriarch after guiding us to hold hands tightly. In order for God to hear you, you have to touch and agree.
A cousin of mine has gained weight over the years, and this year it apparently was enough to warrant several hushed conversations. She used to be the one with the “nice shape.” The one that the family said was “thick” — the acceptable sort of overweight in a Black family. (Nevermind the oddity of the caste system used to validate a minor’s body.) I remember feeling jealous that my booty didn’t look like hers — I was teased for not being proportionate before I’d even known how to spell the word.
After day two of this Christmas gathering, once we’d cleaned the bowl of curried goat and white rice and sliced into cake ⅖ made from Auntie Ann’s kitchen, pants were unbuttoned for comfort and fingers were pointed.
“I don’t know, she’s just gotten so big.”
“She says she wants to lose weight but she still piles a bunch of food on her plate…”
“I don’t know what’s wrong with her.”
I ran the risk of my weaknesses being discovered and offered, “Maybe she’s depressed..?”
My mother took a beat and then sucked her teeth.
“That girl ain’t depressed,” then left to go find someone who would watch my cousin’s belly jiggle with her under the guise of familial care.
I had forgotten that mental health is either the devil, white people shit, or both.
And, that Black women are here to be emotionally available for the men in their lives (whether that be their sons or husbands), care for the entirety of their family with one hand tied behind their backs, work a job that you hate because economic insecurity by way of systemic racism is something you can overcome if your strength and faith in the Lord are strong enough.
And, that if you complain about any of it, clearly you are the issue.
This is where that second prayer comes in. By way of the same kind eyes that had offered you more dressing (not stuffing) this time with a Bless her heart…” and a “Lord, when did Cousin So-and-So get so fat? That’s a big woman right there.”
I told you it was a trap.
I wasn’t taught to lean this way
to ride along with the waves calmly
I was taught to throw bows
live with palms spread towards the sun
and dare anyone to try and fold me over
I have a distinct memory of sitting in the living room with my Gramma, helping her snap fresh green beans she’d brought in from the garden. We sat together on the couch in the back living room, and tossed the snapped beans into a big bowl while watching General Hospital. I remember her coming back through the house, hearing the screen door close and her telling me to come back ‘round there and help. I’m used to my Gramma’s love showing up as unwavering directness — it felt familiar, and ultimately I was glad to be able to help. That wasn’t the first dish I’d helped her prepare when I was young, or the last time I’d make a size alteration because someone else asked me to.
Collard greens were a staple in my home during the holidays. My Gramma made a blend of turnip, collard, and mustard greens. My mother was vocal about her disdain for anything other than collard, so that is what I learned to prepare. This past Thankstaking, I made dinner for my partner and I. I added kale.
Simmerin’ Collards and Kale
3 bunches of deep, green collards
3 bunches of curly kale
½ sweet onion
A pinch of red pepper flakes
A hefty scoop of minced garlic
½ cup of apple cider vinegar
A few splashes of liquid smoke
Step one: Rinse greens thoroughly in cold water.
I wash the greens in cool water, dunking them in the sink that has been bleached and sanitized three times over. “Wash them at least 3 times, or at least until you don’t feel any grit at the bottom of the sink plus one more time,” she says.
Once is never enough, whether it’s for cleaning your sink, holding your stomach in, or questions about your soul salvation.
Step two: After greens are rinsed thoroughly, lay flat on top of one another (usually 5 at a time) and roll tightly. Take a sharp knife and make slices down the leaf roll, creating equal ribbons.
It was with my mother’s aid that I learned how to chiffonade before I even knew that’s what it was called. She hoped my skills in the kitchen would aid in my apparently very important quest for a husband. She taught me to fold myself up neatly, not letting any excess spill out from the sides. I learned quickly how to hold the dull knife at whichever angle necessary to appear uniform.
Chemically straighten your hair, every 6-8 weeks.
Wax your eyebrows, every 2-3 weeks.
Don’t you want to put some makeup on?
Hold your stomach in, every time you leave the house.
Smile when boys look in your direction, otherwise pretend not to see them.
Step three: Place ribboned greens in a crockpot on high with chicken stock, 2 cups of water, sliced onions, seasonings and spices. Forget about it for a day.
While I’m watching white crystals of refined white sugar poured into a glass mixing bowl full of whipped butter and cream cheese, I internally practice taking a pause before answering when Mom asks us if we want to lick the spoon. I was forced to hide my love of sweets and present dessert wasn’t laced in joy as a child, but she’s also how I know a little extra sugar whipped into your butter and cream cheese makes a difference.
the question of aged earth remains how long does it take
for rock edges to smooth?
for the perceived imperfections
how many years before the chastising
of the water proves
before the warm and well-meaning winds
lead to crumbling
and buckling, dwindling the chunks of earth to nothing?
mists of soil, through air, between fingers
one could wonder what else in nature acts this
and so capable of forcing
its way, unsure
of the ultimate cost
resulting in alleged exhale
in palms spread, open
control and waiting to feel a difference
to accept blame
for the lost and unrecognizable
of the lasting effect
we call the rocks bones
holding all ages and history deep
within have we treated both the aged and lucid the same?
“perspective” and “devil’s advocate” and textbook rewrites,
and Heritage Not
Hate and confederate flags and “the war was actually
about agriculture” and “you’re so
well spoken” and the harm is still
our fault and reverse racism and
the nonprofit industrial complex and mass
incarceration and bans on the way my hair
grows out of my head and Black maternal mortality and still
being afraid to drive through Alabama
at night and and and
as the river beating, thrashing and trying to change
our shapes until we’re gone, nothing
but mists of soil, floating past what resembles memories
on heavily edited pages
weighed, tested in strength
to tell their truth
of their beginning with the wind
their endless and unjust
trials ending with the water
left with smoothed edges all the same
I wrote quietly in my diary — before she snatched it from my hands to read out loud to my Dad and brother —
I know she only cares about how much I eat because I’m fat. I bet she’d be happier if I was skinny, and she wouldn’t yell at me. I’m still hungry, but I can’t ask for another roll because she’ll make fun of me, so I went to bed still hungry last night.
Freshman year of college, I trudge my way through this Central Virginia city, weighed down by relentless expectation, but no longer the number on the scale. After a dinner of beef meatballs and you guessed it — white rice, I told my mother I was fine with my body the way it was. She scrunched up her nose, and told me it wouldn’t last if I really wanted to be happy.
They showed up at the alum talk I gave. My stomach fluttered when their broad shoulders darkened the door. Locking eyes with me immediately after, they offered to buy me a glass of wine for a job well done.
I remember the salt of the almonds coupled with the sweetness of the apricot preserves on our first date. We parsed through topics until closing, polishing off the charcuterie,, and two glasses of white wine in, I leaned into the butterflies that I felt. I spent hours watching their lips spread across their straight teeth into a huge smile that melted me like clover honey. I wondered what it would take for them to make me spread just as wide.
The very first night that we kissed, we sat at a park in their sleek, silver sedan. Old school R&B played softly through the speakers, and my heart quickened when they asked if they could kiss me. I said yes, and held their face in my hands. There was this sweetness from their lips pressed against mine that cut the tang from my earlier cranberry vodka.
We came up for air, dewy like the grass we’d parked on top of.
How could I have known that this would be the first time of many that they’d unfold me in this car, hitting high notes in songs I didn’t realize I knew the words to?
“Did that count as a good appetizer?”
I thought back to measly portions I had become accustomed to. Believing both quality and quantity were hard to come by, when in reality — I wasn’t even looking at the right menu.
I had never experienced such softness coupled with a delectable grip on my thigh — this session solidified exactly what I had been denying my body of, and I was done with the portion control.
“Yes, but I was promised a full meal.”
Garlicky Kale Hoppin’ John
1 package of thick center cut bacon
2 cans of black-eyed peas
2 bunches of kale
¼ sliced sweet onion
3 tsps of minced garlic
Steps one through four:
Chop bacon in chunks, Chiffonade kale, and dice onion – but don’t cry.
Fry bacon until crispy.
I watch the bacon sizzle in the pan, and I’m snapped back to reality when a fleck of hot oil lands on my arm. I’m reminded of the familiar sting on mornings before church – which was always nonnegotiable. Complaining about not wanting to get up for a 9am service obviously meant I was a heathen.
I’m left thinking about traditions, and how families are rooted in ones that are so varied. My partner (the HBCU graduate raised by Baptist preachers, educators, and Eyes On The Prize) felt almost as strongly about black-eyed peas on New Years’ Day as they did about voting and being on-time actually meaning you’re late.
In my family of origin, greasy breakfast with a side of potatoes was a tradition.
Judgement packaged as care was a tradition.
Forced collective worship was a tradition.
Where were the traditions rooted in my Blackness? Why was the only concern centered on my soul, my weight, or my relationship status?
Once I turned 24, I leaned into the tradition that had been kept from me, and made the dish myself. I stood in the kitchen and weighed the cans in both hands, wondering what luck the dotted beans would bring me next year.
Toss in onions and garlic to saute in bacon grease.
Add kale to wilt.
Add black-eyed peas and toss for 10 minutes to heat thoroughly.
Top with crisped bacon.
Finally, I’d begun to undo the forced shrinking I’d done over the years.
My legs wrapped around their sturdy waist, unsure of how much more I could take, squeezing the strong forearms of my beloved. Their eyes set on my full lips, only parted to let out approval. Immediately following the final release, I felt warm tears form behind my eyes. Our eyes were still locked, and their full brows furrowed in concern.
From the moment our lips touched that first time, there was this warmth in my belly that I realized
I couldn’t do without.
Soft, brown bodies twirled ‘round each other, with limbs, tongues
and fingers, surpassing al dente, Ready
I’d feared how long it would last when what it took for me
to be full was shown
There was no pause or deliberation, it was just given
They lifted me up onto their lap, and whispered in my ear while I arched my back —
This is where I learned I can always ask for seconds