Harold Smith on the Art of Blackness: More than Sustenance, Soul Food Speaks to the Power of the Human Spirit

A Smith family Thanksgiving photograph from 1955 (My parents are in the upper right of the photograph.)

This Black art form, like rap and the blues, was born from the economic limitations created by racial oppression

This article is the second in a series titled “The Art of Blackness.” Says author Harold Smith, “Like assemblage created from found objects, many iconic cultural elements in the Black experience — notably in areas of music, food, hair, clothing — lie at the intersection of both African and American cultures. Like the ‘Big Bang,’ this collision of African creativity and American captivity resulted in an explosion of new ways of personal expression that still reverberates in Black American life.

“As a result, simply experiencing life as a Black American is an artistic endeavor.”

You just workin’ with the scraps you was given
And Mama made miracles every Thanksgivin

Tupac Amaru Shakur (from the song “Dear Mama”)

Some of my fondest memories of my childhood are of Christmas, Mother’s Day and occasional Thanksgiving dinners at the home of my Uncle Henry and Aunt Mabel Burrell. Their large home, located right off Prospect on Victor, would be filled with laughter, joy and the unforgettable smells of freshly cooked soul food.

The day before, my mother would spend the entire day there with her sisters Mabel Burrell and Irene Williams, preparing the dishes that would grace our plates the next day. It wasn’t until much later in life that I realized that this time of preparation was, in itself, a ritual of bonding between siblings.

The next day, the adults would eat at the big table with the high back chairs while we children would be in an adjacent room, sitting on folding chairs and dining at card tables.

After dinner, the men would move to the living room, where they watched football games and smoked cigars; the ladies would clear the table, wash the dishes, and gossip while we would play Monopoly or try the dances we saw on Soul Train.

That was a long time ago. My mother, along with Aunt Mabel and Aunt Irene, have long ago passed on. So have all those who were adults at that time. The large home, listed on a historic registry, is no longer in the family. And, as in a lot of Black families, the large extended family dinners died along with the matriarchs and patriarchs.

When I think of the food, however, I smile. The generous helpings of fried chicken and fish, mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, peach cobbler, pound cake and other delights still make my mouth water. All made from scratch and seasoned to perfection, these culinary masterpieces adorn the walls of the museum of my childhood memories. It was art, plain and simple.

Good art captures experiences in ways that can’t be put into words. It captures feelings, emotional nuances, and those moments in the human soul that impact us for life. Soul food is no exception.

Dan Hogan, culinary arts instructor at the Manual Career Technical Center, states, “For me soul food nourishes my body, mind, and soul. It brings back amazing memories of simpler times, loved ones that have passed on and times when families sit down and eat dinner together. Memories of me and my siblings sitting in the living room on newspapers picking green beans or cleaning greens. Soul food is what kept us fed and brought us together as a family.”

Like other Black art forms such as the blues and even hip-hop music, the art of soul food was born from the necessity of navigating the economic limitations created by racial oppression.

Wilma Hooks-Gibson, known locally for her tasty cobblers and cakes (and mother of renowned poet and curator Natasha Ria El-Scari), recalled, “In my early years we did not have a refrigerator, gas stove, or washer/dryer. We basically ate the same meal five days a week for dinner — white or pinto beans and cornbread.”

Four generations of soul food creators From left to right Natasha Ria El-Scari, Beauty Hooks, Wilma Hooks-Gibson, Rolanda Gibson, Naeema El-Scari
Soul food cooked by Wilma Hooks-Gibson. A true artisan, Wilma cooks from memory and instinct, not a recipe.

Like other Black forms of artistic expression, soul food captures the experience of finding cause and method of celebration in the darkest of times. “Sunday was our ‘Soul Food Dinner’! Hooks-Gibson added. “It was fried chicken, greens, mashed potatoes, and a cake, and if we were having company, perhaps a lemon meringue pie.”

During slavery, and long after, Black Americans were forced to find sustenance in portions of meat and vegetables that were considered inedible by whites. Like early rap artists who, in the absence of musical instruments, created beats using trash cans and even their own mouths and bodies, economically oppressed Black Americans were forced to find a way to create tasty and appealing meals from what they had. Like blues musicians who manipulated sound into something not before heard, these culinary artisans used heat, water, seasonings and herbs to sculpt these discarded meats and vegetables into flavors and textures that had not existed before.

Over time, like soul musicians building upon the foundations of blues, Black Americans have built soul food into an internationally known art form.

Phillip Griffin at Niecie’s Restaurant serves up breakfast. (photograph by Paula Griffin)

The Spirit of Soul Food

As with other Black-originated art forms, cultural appropriation is making inroads into the world of soul food. White authors, publishers and manufacturers are using Black faces and deceptive marketing to promote their faux soul food books, videos, processed foods, and even restaurants. Veterans of true soul food can taste, maybe even smell, the difference within seconds.

Nonetheless, the artistic spirit of soul food is still indelibly tied to the unique nature of human relationships in Black America. “I started cooking at two and a half years old with my great aunt over an open fire in the back of the little convenience store,” said Kansas City food writer Danielle Jean-Francois. “Whether it was a chicken, a goat, or a pig that she was cooking, she would give the organs to my twin sister and I to clean, season and cook as we listened and watched her. There, at her feet we learned.”

The same way that authentic blues is created by those who lived the blues, authentic soul food is created by those who truly have soul. Those who have soul live and operate from a place of pure intentions, even while conducting business. “For over 30 years, it has been an honor to be a part of our customers’ most important moments, be it joyful celebrations like weddings or somber occasions like funerals,” states Denise Ward, owner of Niecie’s Restaurant at 6441 Troost. “We understand that food has a unique way of bringing people together and creating lasting memories. Each dish we serve is prepared with love, care, and a deep-rooted commitment to preserving the rich culinary heritage of soul food.”

As an art form, soul food is both temporary and permanent. While the food is eventually consumed, tables are cleared and dishes are washed, the memories are sowed into our permanent consciousness. “I grew up watching the women I loved and who loved me present their soul food like art, says Natasha Ria El-Scari, who recently added director of UMKC’s Women’s Center to her distinguished resume. “The laborious process of making something disgusting edible, like chitterlings, and watching people go crazy over the delicacy of the process, texture and taste. Soul food, making the recipes of our immediate ancestors and nailing it for all to praise you and remember them.”

There is an undeniable sensuality to soul food. Like sex, soul food appeals to all five senses. The succulent taste of well-prepared fried catfish is as unforgettable as the sounds made when one bites into the spicy, crunchy breading. Who can forget the aroma of homemade macaroni and cheese or a freshly baked cobbler? The vision of steaming green beans laced with red strips of tender pork provokes aesthetic delight. Just thinking about the texture of fried chicken between my fingers brings to mind the sounds of it being fried in a cast-iron skillet.

The resulting complexity is, to be honest, artistic genius that is often imitated but never truly duplicated. “The dishes possess a character, history, value and an unfuckablewithness that is exclusive to the contributions and genius of Black existence…despite every attempt to win from it and lose it when it’s time to credit and compensate,” says performance artist Stephonne Singleton.

Soul food also has another impact on Black American culture. Scientifically known as postprandial somnolence, “the itis” is Black vernacular for the sluggishness that often sets in as the large amounts of starches in soul food are processed by the body.

The genius of soul food transcends the food itself. It speaks to who we are as human beings. “When I think of soul food I think of comfort, peace, ease and warmth,” says painter Kwanza Humphrey. “I’m not thinking of calories, proteins, fat or nutrients. Honestly, I’m not even thinking about satiating my hunger. Typically, I’m thinking of seeing my dad and family, as that’s the most common place I get it.”

Not only does the art of soul food speak to our humanity, it speaks to the power of the human spirit. Not just any human spirit, but the Black human spirit.

“My grandmother could wring a chicken’s neck
at noon, use the blood that sprayed from his
headless body to teach a lesson about Jesus
and have it plucked, breaded, and fried before
Granddaddy walked through the door at five.”

— excerpt from a poem by Glenn North

Harold Smith

Harold Smith is an educator and multimedia artist who lives and works in the Kansas City area. Most of his work is focused on his experience within the American black experience.

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