Catherine Onyemelukwe

Author, Blogger, Speaker

Kitchen Cabinet

The book, The President's Kitchen Cabinet"

The book, The President’s Kitchen Cabinet”

The President’s Kitchen Cabinet

The author Adrian Miller wrote Inside the President’s Kitchen Cabinet, The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, from the Washingtons to the Obamas. 

He spoke at the Westport Historical Society this week. His talk was co-sponsored by my own TEAM Westport.

He entertained us with stories of a few of the 150 people he chronicles in the book.

Adrian Miller also wrote Soul Food.

Adrian Miller also wrote Soul Food.

One of his favorites was about Daisy McAfee Bonner, FDR’s cook  at his Warm Springs retreat. She said the president “was struck down just as his lunchtime cheese soufflé emerged from the oven. Sorrowfully, but with a cook’s pride, she recalled, ‘He never ate that soufflé, but it never fell until the minute he died.’”

Miller took orders for Kitchen Cabinet. He will sign and send mine. It will be a birthday gift. It’s for one of my subscribers so I won’t say who.

Soul Food is also by Miller. He said writing that led to his interest in African American cooks, butlers, servers, and others who helped feed the presidents and their families.

Frame By Frame

The US National Committee for UN Women has a chapter in New York City. The New York chapter presented the documentary film Frame by Frame.

It follows four Afghan photojournalists as they capture their country people in pictures. You can watch the trailer.

Mo Scarpelli was co-director of the film. She and the Head of Admissions at the American University of Afghanistan, Tabasum Wolayat, answered questions after the film.

An audience member asked Tabasum, “We hear that so many educated Afghans are leaving because of the danger and difficulties that we saw in the film. How will Afghan life improve?”

Tabasum said, “I was educated at Middlebury College, but I now live in Afghanistan. Many of my friends are also returning home. In fact, life in the U.S. is actually somewhat boring.”

I understood completely what she meant.

Like Afghanistan, Nigeria is never boring. When you live there, as our sons do, you are constantly challenged. You have to figure out how to live despite the occasional craziness. You can never assume things will go as planned, so you have to be creative.

Beloved Conversations

Friday evening and all day Saturday I was at the Unitarian Church in Westport for “Beloved Conversations.”

Dr. Mark Hicks led "Beloved Conversations"

Dr. Mark Hicks led “Beloved Conversations”

Dr. Mark A. Hicks is the Angus MacLean Professor of Religious Education at Meadville Lombard Theological School and Director of The Fahs Collaborative, A Laboratory for Innovation in Faith Formation.

He has developed the program “Beloved Conversations.” He calls these “healing conversations about race and identity.”

Twenty two of us shared our hopes and fears about race questions and our own identity, with his guidance. We will now have another eight sessions led by facilitators from our congregation and the Ending Racism Team.

We will explore what we can do to address difficult issues of race and identity among ourselves and in the wider world. Can we act toward ending systemic racism? Is this possible? Do we have the courage, the will?

My Own Action

I told you that I was part of the Right Relations Team at the International Unitarian Universalist Women’s Convocation at Asilomar.

A woman of color was unhappy that white women had touched her hair without permission. Someone had also asked if her hair – beautiful braids – was authentic.

I offered to address the issue for the assembled women. I said, “When I first got to Nigeria and visited remote villages, children touched my skin out of curiosity. But today, in our society, we don’t touch other people without permission. We don’t question authenticity of hair.” I didn’t say a Black woman had been offended.

My roommate Shari told me afterwards she didn’t know what I meant! I wrote about this on Feb. 18 and asked your advice. Iyabo, a Nigerian woman who has lived in the US for years, is my colleague on the USNC for UN Women board. She wrote, “I do think you should have mentioned that a Black woman was offended.”

She continued, “What you related occurs everyday. . . In the Nigerian village people would probably intrude in your personal space but that is not cultural here. You don’t touch people’s body including hair without permission or some high level of familiarity.”
She ended by saying, “I think it could have been a powerful moment given the issues of race relations in the country. The UU women would be a receptive audience for such a discussion.”
With that encouragement I thought I would speak up. But I wasn’t sure if the timing was off – it was the last morning of the convocation when the Right Relations Team was asked for our final report.
I was sitting with Sherry and told her my hesitation. She said, “Do it!” So I did.
Janice, our chair, spoke first. Then I said, “I need to clarify something I said the other day.”
“Hair is a sensitive topic for Black women. A Black woman here had white women touch her hair without permission. They also asked her if her hair was authentic. These are unacceptable behaviors. We, especially we white women, may not touch a Black woman’s hair or question whether it is real.”

Greenwich Connecticut Presentation

On March 15 I will speak to the Retired Men’s Association of Greenwich. The topic is “Nigeria, Past and Present.” The event is open to the public. Come!

Author: Catherine Onyemelukwe

Author, blogger, speaker. Born in New York, grew up in mid west United States, lived in Nigeria for 24 years, back in U.S. since 1986. Advocate for racial justice.

2 Comments

  1. Glad you clarified your meaning, Catherine. It will only be okay to touch my hair – which happens frequently enough here for me to remember it – when it’s okay for me to touch yours. The gesture implies that I am some kind of exotic creature somewhere between a human being and a pet monkey. And no one has ever asked permission to touch it, they just do it. If asked, what would I say? Maybe, “Why do you want to?”

    • Thanks! I hoped you would approve of what I said. I was thinking of you, as well as the offended woman, as I framed my statement. And thanks for noticing the kola nuts and liking my astronomy stories. When I started the blog nearly 3 years ago, I wondered if I would have enough to write about. Now there is almost always more than I can include, with the personal notes, the UU church, UN Women, TEAM Westport and racial justice. And of course I didn’t even mention Nigeria which I try to include nearly every time!