Soul Food by Terry D. Samuel
"He explained that, for many educated Blacks, they could no longer associate with family and old friends—they felt they no longer shared anything in common."
I was very hungry, but I knew I couldn’t stand to eat another bad meal in that high-priced hotel that I was staying at for the Affirmative Action Conference. I was in the South, and I just knew Birmingham had to have some good “Soul Food” restaurants. All I had to do was find one and figure out how to get there.
So I did what any good “brother” would do, I asked another brother. He was the limo driver for the hotel . . . “hey man where can I find some good soul food in this town?” “You mean ribs,” he replied? “Naw’ —I’m talk’n about smothered fried chicken, short ribs, catfish, greens, sweet potato pie. That stuff!” “Oh, they’re all over on the south side. Why don’t you try Fife’s? The food is good and it’s only a few blocks from here. I’ll take you by there if you want.” “So you say the food is good? They got soul food?” “Yeah, the food is alright,” he persisted.
He drove me to a place about seven blocks from the hotel. As we pulled up in front I tried to read the partially burned out neon sign above the door . . . “Fife’s Restaurant - Home Style Cooking.” Close enough, and the ride didn’t cost me anything. “I gotta come back to pick up some other ladies that are eat’n in there. The place closes at seven.” Which translated meant . . . you got thirty minutes to eat or you can walk back to the hotel.
As I approached the door, I saw an elderly black man standing nearby. He was dressed in an old brown suit coat, dark pants and shoes that collapsed around his feet. He wore a dusty brown felt hat, the kind my dad used to wear. It looked well traveled. I noticed that look on his toothless face that told me he was sizing me up . . . “Can you spare a dollar?” he asked. I dug in my pocket for change. I gave him fifty cents—a dollar indeed! He thanked me and said “God Bless you.” I quickly ducked inside.
A white guy in a soiled apron stood behind the steam table. “What’cha go’in t’a have?” he asked. I scanned the disappointing selection and placed my order. I chose the only items that I could recognize. It was thirty minutes before closing and the dishes were deteriorating fast. I chose some meat loaf, cabbage, and overcooked butter beans. Everything else was either submerged in brown gravy or unrecognizable as food. I paid the gum-chewing gal at the cash register. She kind of reminded me of the counter waitress who had a brief encounter with Robert Redford in The Sting. I began to focus on finding some place to sit. A black gal swept my tray away and walked towards one of the empty booths in the next room. She turned to me as she removed my plate and silverware, and asked, “is this OK?” I replied, “yes thank you,” and sat down.
I slathered hot sauce over everything to help kill any resistant bacteria or enhance the flavor—take your pick—then I scanned the headlines of the Birmingham paper I purchased earlier. I started to read. My mind wandered back to that old man that I left outside. For me, he epitomized the pathos, and the ignominy of the Black soul—stereotypical characteristics I tried so hard to ignore and deny. A wave of guilt washed over me. Guilt for feeling that way. For being that way! At that moment, I knew I had a duty—no, more than that—I felt bound to do what I could. I rose from my seat and headed for the door.
Before I could walk the twenty steps or so, I saw the old man being helped through the door by another black man dressed in faded denim overalls. He was instructing him, “get what ever you want to eat.” I told the man that I intended to do the same and that I wanted to help too. He looked at me, sort of sizing me up like the old man had done and said, “I got it covered, thanks just the same.” I went back to my meal dejected. I quickly finished, left a generous tip, and began to leave when the old man called out to me from one of the booths in back. “Can you spare a dollar,” he asked, with no hesitation. I pulled a dollar from my pocket and gave it to him without a second thought.
It was a few days later, while on the plane returning home that I experienced a moment of illuminating clarity. My in(ner)sight took me back to that old man. I had almost dismissed him from my consciousness. I was enmeshed in a book that I bought at the Civil Rights Museum Bookstore in Birmingham. My fascination with the historical portrayal of Black advancement, by mostly white historians, was aroused when I read "Lies My Teacher Told Me" by James W. Loewen, a historian. His book examines historical omissions and misrepresentations, including Black history in American high school textbooks. While reading The Destruction of Black Civilization; 4500 BC-950 AD, by Chancellor Williams, I was struck by his preface observation: “In both France and England I found that the system of education fostered a new kind of aristocracy [among Blacks]—an aristocracy of the ‘educated’.” He explained that, for many educated Blacks, they could no longer associate with family and old friends—they felt they no longer shared anything in common.
For me, the question was this; as an educated Black, did I no longer have anything in common with that old man? Had I become an aristocrat? Was I prejudiced? Webster’s Dictionary defines prejudice as “Preconceived judgement or opinion; an adverse opinion or leaning formed without just grounds or before sufficient knowledge.”
I remembered a point that was made in one of my conference workshops on White Male Issues. The presenter said that we (non-white males) had to find compassion for threatened white males. He explained that modeling compassion could help overcome barriers to under-standing white male anxieties about their future. I thought—isn’t that sardonic? Where was my compassion for that old black man? What about his future? Had my education transformed me spiritually? Filled me with disdain? Was I compassionless? I realized at once that I must change, or suffer my eternal soul.
Funny how life provides us moments to adjust our ways and to acquire wisdom, if we only examine what’s there right in front of us. When I asked for “soul food,” I thought I would find it on my plate. Instead, I found it served up by an old man in a battered felt hat. What better “Soul Food” could I have found that evening in Birmingham? There was no better meal to be found, anywhere!
Terrence (Terry) D. Samuel is a resident of Salem, Oregon. He is employed with the State of Oregon as a Diversity Coordinator/Affirmative Action Officer and is active in local community affairs. He is a former President of the Oregon Black Networking Association, and Blacks In Government, Tri County Chapter.