Kid in a brain-candy store

I had seen him often on PBS programs and certainly read all about last summer’s dustup with the Cambridge police. But sitting in Henry Louis Gates‘ Introduction to African American studies course today reminded me again why Gates is so special — and why this country can’t seem to get over race. “There are 35 million African-Americans in the United States and 35 million different ways to be black. That’s the point of this class.”

The course, co-taught with Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, is a thought-provoking examination of race, including how to talk about slavery today, urban poverty, hiphop, beauty conundrums and why Frederick Douglass changed the identity of his father in each of his three autobiographies. Among Gates’ opening salvos:

• “That whole notion of ‘You’re aren’t black enough’ — that debate’s been going on since the first black got off the boat on the James River in 1619.”

• Gates asked how many in the packed room had taken a steam bath. “Imagine that, in chains, for six weeks,” the length of the Middle Passage. Of the 10.8 million Africans shipped out in the slave trade, only 450,000 came to the United States. Most of the rest went to the Caribean and South America. In 1808, when the importation of slaves was banned, “Our ancestors became baby machines.”

• Gates gave a plug for his new PBS documentary, African American Lives 2, for which he tested the DNA of several African-American luminaries. Chris Rock, it turned out, is 20 percent white. Don Cheadle is 19 percent white — a fact that caused the comedian to rib Cheadle and Cheadle to respond: “You can tell Chris Rock to kiss my black ass!”

• “The black middle class has quadrupled since we were in college, but at the same time, the percentage of black children below the poverty line is the same. Is the cause the system or behavioral, or both?”

• “If you’re black at Harvard, how do you represent? That’s a big question here.” When Gates left his West Virginia hometown for Yale University in 1969, his father gave him a brand-new Mustang and three pieces of parting advice — all of which he promptly ignored: He told him not to get a black roommate, not to sit at the blacks’ lunch table and “for Christ’s sake, don’t go up there and study black studies because your ass been black for 18 years and you know enough.”

Gates presented a slideshow of famous art history images featuring black people, some of which dated back to 1000 B.C. He showed a map from a book published in 50 A.D. that was a kind of travel guide to commerce in Africa and the far east during that time. “They used to say Africans were too dumb to sail anywhere; like they were just waiting for Europeans to come discover them. . . . This is a classic example of Western racism that our ancestors are represented as to be too benighted to even get on a damn boat and go across the ocean. That makes me mad.”

This being Harvard’s “course-shopping period,” I was all set to sample New Yorker book critic James Woods’ course on women writers from Austen to Wolff this afternoon. But after a fantastic slice of Oggi’s pizza with my favorite Cambridge foodie, Audra Ang, I asked to join her sitting in on Ted Bestor’s anthropology course, Food and Culture, instead. That class was equally up-my-alley. It examines cultural comfort foods, food taboos and prohibitions, and the many ways in which societies turn food into social and cultural objects. (Made me happy that I had just finished reading the new essay collection, “Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant,” which was reminiscent of my favorite-ever food book, Laurie Colwin’s “Home Cooking.” Also, watched “Julie & Julia” — AGAIN — the other night.)

When Bestor asked students to share the the foods that best represent their backgrounds, I got to give my Midwestern ode to mashed potatoes, an expanded version of which follows below.

Pinch me. I still can’t believe I’m getting paid to hang out at this place. Even if it is just for five more months. Except for the weather, being here is like getting a massage: It’s incredible, but there’s always this nagging feeling that reality is around the corner and this too, alas, shall pass.

Ode to Mashed Potatoes

I have something new, and old, to be grateful for this Thanksgiving: potatoes. Specifically, potatoes like my mom made almost daily growing up – because there wasn’t money for much else. Potatoes, mashed into a massive pile with milk, salt, pepper and lots of butter (oleo, actually).


Not long ago, it was just the kind of thing I took for granted. It was sustenance of the loyal, though not lackluster, variety. When paired with chicken pan pie at the local K&W Cafeteria, it provided the ultimate monochromatic starch plate: creamy, comforting, tan-colored food. And best of all – it was cheap.

During the height of fall colors last month, my son, Max, spotted the brilliant crimson leaves on a winding Bedford County road and reverently sighed: “These trees are so beautiful, they hurt my eyes.” I took it as a statement on the perils of excess from a 3-year-old (who, incidentally, has never met a spud he didn’t love).

Three months ago, I took a hiatus from a job some people would give their last slice of sweet potato pie for and ventured out on my own – minus the safety net of affordable health insurance.

I spend more days with my kid now, and three nights a week I try to teach college students that, not only can they write beautiful sentences, they also have a lot to say. I rarely go out to eat.

But I consume a lot of mashed potatoes – because they are cheap, and because I love them, and because they remind me both of the modest world I come from and what is most important to me now.

– published Thanksgiving 1997, The Roanoke Times

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