Food as Resistance

In part one of our two part interview, Mia Henry discusses the role that food plays in exploring different cultures and histories with the team. Mia Henry is the founder of Freedom Lifted, an organization that creates learning spaces for youth and adults to grow as social justice leaders. Prior to her work with Freedom Lifted, Mia was the founding director of the Chicago Freedom Schools and the executive director of the Arcus Center. Mia also organizes civil rights tours in the south which creates transformational experiences for people by reconnecting them with the United States History.


Transcript

Rhiki:
Welcome to Radical Futures Now. On this podcast, we connect with social justice leaders around the world to talk about how to organize, how to be in movement, and how to build radical futures now. What’s up, everyone? Welcome back. It’s Rhiki here. And today we have Mia Henry to talk with you all about food and how it can be a form of resistance. So, I am so excited that we have the opportunity to talk with you, Mia. But before we get started, can you tell the audience a little bit about yourself?

Mia Henry:
Sure. My name is Mia Henry, and I am the daughter of Regina Henry, Regina Moore Henry and Booker Terry Henry, both from Alabama. Am the granddaughter of Lorraine Moore Ogletree. Well, I should say [Winborne 00:01:13] Ogletree. She gained her last, last name just a few years ago when she got married at the age of 79. And she and my step-grandfather, my mother, my brother, they’re all living in Alabama now. I consider Alabama, it’s Southern Alabama, the Black Belt, ancestral land for me. I came from people who worked that land, and then later, when they could, they started businesses. They went to school. They highly valued education. They were teachers. They were preachers. They preached the Word of God. So, that’s who I am, and that’s where I come from. And I carry my people and Alabama with me in all my work. I consider myself an educator for freedom and justice.

Mia Henry:
I went to school to be a teacher, and that’s, well, I went to school, actually, to be, I thought, maybe an attorney, or a journalist, or something. And then I found my way into education and then got an advanced degree in education. And I taught high school for several years, but then I found other ways that I wanted to teach. And I’ve been really blessed to be able to do what I call political education and movement education in a lot of different contexts. And higher education, of course, when I had the pleasure and honor of working at Arcus, but also in nonprofits, and one particular nonprofit we started in Chicago, the Chicago Freedom School, which was really there to provide political education and opportunities for young people, teenagers. When I talk about young people, we’re talking about ages 13 to 18. Opportunities to learn how to do community organizing, and organize around the issues that matter most to them, so it was youth led, social change work.

Mia Henry:
And also have an opportunity to gather with people, mostly Black people, but all people who are dedicated to freedom and justice. Gather with them on a regular basis and facilitate ways, new ways of being. So, I’ve been able to do that with several different organizations as well. And now, while I was at the Freedom School and throughout my time at Arcus, I started a small company to provide tours back to my ancestral home of Alabama, and as well as Mississippi, which I’ve adopted, Memphis, Atlanta, taking people on tours on journeys to those areas to learn about the civil rights movement, and to make the connection between the civil rights movement and movement work today. My mom, who I mentioned earlier, desegregated her junior high school. They call it junior high school, it’s ninth grade, in Gadsden, Alabama.

Mia Henry:
She was one of the first seven young people who endured a lot to integrate that school. And then today, we don’t really use the term integration anymore, just desegregation, because they just couldn’t keep us out anymore. But she was also trained in Project C, Project Confrontation. So, she did a lot of sit-ins, she was in marches, her church, Galilee Baptist Church, was part of the SCLC. So, my grandparents, [Matt 00:04:59] King and others who were in SCLC and were a big part of the work that it took to desegregate this country. So, I am really proud of that heritage, and see so many lessons that come out of that, that we can use today. And I do it through how I understand myself as an educator.

Trevor:
Can you tell us a little bit about that? You said you’ve conducted some civil rights tours in the South. How’d you get started doing that? It’s interesting because I have been trying to learn more about my history. I even just asked my mom a few weeks ago where my grandmother was from. I don’t know if you know where Abernant, Alabama is, but that’s where my grandmother’s from. So, just talking a little bit about the civil rights tours, how did you start doing that and what led you to do this?

Mia Henry:
That’s a great question. So, in 2011, I was still working at the Freedom School in Chicago, and we found a tour, 2011 was the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, 1961 Freedom Rides, and ran across a tour that was being led by one of the Freedom Riders, Bernard Lafayette, Dr. Lafayette. And it was going to start in Atlanta, and go through Alabama and Mississippi, come back to Atlanta. And I think it was five days, four nights. And so, we raised the money to take five or six young people on that tour, along with myself and another staff person. It was five young people, in particular. So, we flew down to Atlanta and we got on the bus with a whole bunch of people we didn’t know. I went on this tour with a Freedom Rider, and it was amazing. They were doing tours every once in a while, but it wasn’t something that was offered on a regular basis, so we felt like it was really special, plus it was the 50th anniversary.

Mia Henry:
And we had Dr. Lafayette with us the whole time, introducing us to other veterans in the movement. I think that was the first time I met Catherine Burks-Brooks, who was another Freedom Rider. And I say that the first time, because almost every group I take to Birmingham, we try to meet up with Ms. Catherine. But we covered a lot of ground on a short period of time. And I thought, “Wow, I wish everybody had this opportunity.” And if they take this opportunity, I really hope they get some better home cooked meals, because we were eating, and this is no slight to the people who ran the tour. They did the best they could, and we really did do a lot in a short period of time. But the food was an afterthought. We ended up at IHOP. I’ll never forget this, We ended up at an IHOP in Montgomery at 11:00 at night eating dinner.

Mia Henry:
We had lunch at a Subway at a gas station. I mean, it was just, the agenda was so packed. The itinerary was so packed that I think we missed out on an opportunity to connect with local people outside of who was already on the schedule, as well as really get some good food. And I believe, I like travel in general. I think food is a good part of travel. You get to know where you are because of the food. I’ll never forget being in Charleston, South Carolina, and we, my partner and I go travel, before the pandemic, of course, a lot, and we always like going on food tours, if we can. And we did one in Charleston, South Carolina, and the guide said, “Food is history you can eat.” And I thought, that is so true. that is so accurate.”

Mia Henry:
You can trace the history of a people through the food that we eat. So, I thought it was really important that we make opportunities for people not only to journey down South and learn the history through the markers and through the museums, but also through meeting with elders and eating together, food that was not only local to the area, but prepared by local people. So, that’s how I started it in 2011. On that bus, with that tour, I was typing up on my iPad back then. Oh, and another thing I did, I just grabbed some books out of the Freedom School office last minute before we went on tour. I was like, “Let me just take a few books about some of this history put in my backpack, so in case we get bored or something.” And sure enough, on the bus, the young people were all into the books that I brought.

Mia Henry:
And then we ended up passing them around to the other people who were on that tour too. So, I thought, “Oh, it’d be great if we had a mobile library.”, and so I said, “Okay, we’re going to start doing these tours. We’re going to have some good food. We’re going to have a mobile library.” And that’s literally how it got started. I started with Underground Railroad tours, actually, coming out of Chicago, going to Indiana and Ohio, just two day tours. A lot of phenomenal people that do work with me, or that had done work with me before, and are still close friends of mine, went on that tour. Mariame Kaba, who is an incredible abolitionist leader. She started the Freedom School and we were, did work on the Freedom School together. So, she was one of the first people who signed up for the tour. Tasha Downey, who’s this phenomenal educator in Memphis, she was on that tour, that very first tour.

Mia Henry:
And Nakisha, who started Village Leadership Academy, we all went together, and they trusted me to take them on this Underground Railroad tour, and really gave me the confidence to be able to take longer tours with even bigger groups. So, we did that in 2012, and in 2013 were some of my first major, multi-day tours to multiple cities in the South. And those first tours were all teachers, teachers of school districts. And then later, I started being able to take more students, which became my pure joy. And up until the pandemic, I had a couple of schools who I was their eighth grade trip.

Trevor:
Oh, wow.

Mia Henry:
Instead of going to DC, they go to Alabama with me, which is, it’s amazing to have that kind of relationship with the school, because they are preparing the young people throughout the year to take this trip, and then they’re trusting me to hold that group for several days and really be responsible for every aspect. It’s learning of the history, but it’s also the sleeping, the eating, all the things. But it’s so great, because I was able to take them to the restaurants, Black-owned restaurants, making our dinners. I have a couple people who cater, who would bring, who created, made the dinners for us. And they were always introducing them and eating with them, always part of the experience. And of course, we get the chance to meet elders and everything as well. So, yeah, that’s how I got started. I’ve taken over 700, they’re always intimate, small trips. I don’t take hundreds of people in multiple buses. We always all can fit on one bus. So, I’ve taken over 700 people.

Mia Henry:
And the last time I checked, it was 28 total tours. That’s including those Underground Railroad tours. And I’ve been so blessed, because again, I’ve been working full time the whole time I was doing those tours. Until I left Arcus, I was always doing those on the side. But I was very supported at K College with, they understood that was part of my purposeful work in the world, and so they always gave me that space to take people on those tours in the spring. But after the equal justice initiative, Brian Stevenson’s organization in Montgomery opened the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which is honoring the over 4,000 documented victims of lynching between reconstruction and the mid- fifties. After they opened that memorial, and they also have a museum, the Legacy Museum, which has not gotten as much press, I think because you can’t take take cameras in there. But they are complimentary sites that really connect the history of slavery. Well, the way they lay it out is this, Black people in this country were enslaved. Well, were kidnapped, enslaved, terrorized, segregated, and now incarcerated.

Trevor:
Wow.

Mia Henry:
And so, these sites that they built in the heart of Dixie, Montgomery, which had probably the largest slave trade in the deep South, they built these sites. And what ended up being my last year working at the Arcus Center, I got so many requests for people wanting to go on these trips, and wanting to make sure that these sites were part of the trips. So, I made a difficult but necessary decision to start doing that full time. I went to those sites by myself, first. I went with my partner, and then afterwards decided I think every American should go to those sites.

Trevor:
Yeah.

Mia Henry:
That should be like, or even more important than going to DC, because that’s the story of our country, right there in Montgomery. So, that’s why I finally moved into doing the tours full time. And then the pandemic happened, so I did get a chance to take several people, and then I did nothing. I wasn’t able to take anybody anywhere. So, I just, I have been working most recently on developing an online course that includes some images from my tours, but also puts this understanding identity, power, oppression, and liberation, using historical examples, all online so people can walk through. So, it’s almost like the tours and the trainings that I do blended together in this online course. So, people are able to do that from home and asynchronously. I do hope we get back on the road again soon, but.

Trevor:
Yeah. I mean, that’s amazing, first of all, and you brought up a couple of interesting points. Me being from the West coast, and then coming to the Midwest, I never really had that connection to the South or the Black history that was in the South. I’ve been to Atlanta a couple of times. I’d done road trips over to family reunions in the South, but I never really had that deep connection. And then you probably know this as being the BSO advisor for years of your time at K, how we used to do the spring break trip to all these different places. And I remember the last trip that we did. So, for those who don’t know on the podcast, BSO, we would usually do a spring break trip down to different historical places that are significant to Black folk, and Black history, and the country.

Trevor:
So, I know that year that, before I got there, they had gone to DC, and then we had gone to Memphis, and then most recently, New Orleans, but one of the best things about these trips was the food. And I just remember, because being in Memphis, their main thing is barbecue, and how important barbecue is to the culture there. And then, of course, seeing the Lorraine Hotel, and then there’s a restaurant right across the street. So, just having the connections to food, I feel like that’s so important. I mean, you go to New Orleans, and that’s the food capital of the world. But having that Creole food, and that soul food, and just feeling how close that is to the people and to the history. So, I never knew that you started these trips, and how important the food aspect was on these trips.

Trevor:
I know that you have done these trips down South, but I never knew that the food was the most important part, or one of the most important parts of that trip. And it makes sense, because I know as Black folk, food is one of the most important things. Food is how we come together, whether that be Sundays after church eating in the chapel, eating all the food after service, or having my grandmother cook. Just food is such an important part of how we connect and how we come together as a people. So, yeah, I never knew that food was the main aspect of that. And that’s so cool that that’s what led you to do this, along with all the other things that you mentioned, but that food part just really, really stood out to me, because it really is one of the most important things, to me, in our culture.

Mia Henry:
Yeah. Well, absolutely, and it’s, you mentioned New Orleans. When we were in Charleston, I love going to New Orleans too, and of course you have, the food is absolutely the center of the trip. Not just part of the trip, the center of the trip to New Orleans. But the guide in Charleston also said that for the United States, that there’s really only two. This is his opinion. I couldn’t really [rebute 00:26:51] it, or rebut it. That there’s only two cuisines that are American cuisines, that were created here and thrive here, and are truly American. And that is Charleston, not Charleston alone, but South [inaudible 00:19:30] Low Country.

Mia Henry:
So, it was Savannah and Charleston, along the coast. And the New Orleans cuisine, which is Creole, Cajun, soul soul-food mix. And both of those cuisines come out of Black survival and Black resistance. And that is part of, it’s part, if not central to this country’s story and creation. The oppression of Black people and Black people’s ability to survive, and resist, and even thrive in some cases, in a country that tried so many ways to kill us. So, to me, when we’re eating that food, it’s just like, it’s remembrance, it’s resistance, it’s celebration that people were able to make, not just eat to survive, but make deliciousness from what they had available to them, after band denied so much.

Trevor:
I mean, it really is amazing. It is amazing. I, one more thing. I was talking to my coach. He’s White and he’s from Arkansas. And it was New Year’s Eve, I think I had gone over to his house. I think it was last year before the pandemic, I had gone over to his house, and he was making black-eyed peas. And that’s a tradition as you go into the new year to have black-eyed peas for good luck. And I was sitting there and I was like, my family had done this for every single year, and I would always have black-eyed peas, and I’m like, “I’m over at this White guy’s house from Arkansas, and he’s making black-eyed peas,” and I just, I was just astonished. I was like, so this, our culture, Black food is American food.

Mia Henry:
Yeah. Soul food, yeah.

Trevor:
That’s us. We created that. So, it was just a culture shock for me. I was just sitting, I was eating the black-eyed peas, of course. I wanted my good luck, so I was eating the black-eyed peas, but I’m just sitting there and it’s like, this is amazing that the stuff that, and the stuff that they gave us, they gave us scraps. They didn’t give us anything good, but we were just able to create from the scraps that they gave us. And like you said, we created deliciousness. It’s just so amazing how food, the food that we have really just infiltrated in American culture now for the longest time, Southern food is Black food. It’s Black food first before it’s Southern food. Before it’s Southern cuisine, it was Black food first. So, yeah, I mean, the food that we have, the food that we eat is just like, man, talking about this is making me hungry. [crosstalk 00:22:36]

Mia Henry:
Yeah. And then with the Low Country, because I never really spent a lot of time down there, that’s, they use a lot of shrimp, shrimp and grits, and then the succotash. And succotash, in particular, is actually Native, Indigenous folks, and Black folks together. Because succotash has the corn, beans. I have to look at it, but the three crops, the way they’re grown together, actually helped the, they feed the land and they feed each other the way they grow. And so, you grow those things together, and the Indigenous people taught folks that agricultural trick, if you will, that. And out of those three crops come this delicious succotash. So, I don’t know all the details. I don’t want to, [inaudible 00:23:34]. But it’s so important, and to add it comes from ingenuity, and intelligence, and knowing the land, and working the land, and being able to, again, create this way out of no way. And those black-eyed peas, yeah, black-eyed peas, I’d always heard that they represent coins, and greens represent cash. So, you’re supposed to have black-eyed peas and greens [crosstalk 00:24:06] to have, yeah.

Trevor:
No wonder I was only getting quarters in 2010. No wonder.

Mia Henry:
You didn’t get your greens.

Trevor:
[crosstalk 00:24:21].

Mia Henry:
[crosstalk 00:24:21] didn’t know about the greens, though.

Trevor:
All right. I know we have other things we’ll talk about, but I got to ask you one more question on the food. And I feel like this is the most important question here. All right. Mia, do you put sugar on your grits, or you do salt and butter? Are you a savory grit person, or are you a sweet grit person? I know there’s some controversy.

Mia Henry:
I’m a savory grit person.

Trevor:
Thank you.

Rhiki:
Thank you. Oh, my God. Yes. Savory.

Trevor:
Okay. I just have to ask that question. I personally am also savory, but I know there’s some sweet grit folk out there. And more power to you, but.

Mia Henry:
Yeah, no. That’s a different thing.

Rhiki:
So, Trevor, what is something that you really took away from this conversation?

Trevor:
One thing I’m going to be thinking about for a minute is Mia, she said something along the lines, it was food is history you can eat. And for me, that’s just something that really resonates with me, because when we were talking about the BSO trip and going down to Memphis, New Orleans, and just eating all those food that was down there, I really felt connected to the culture by eating the food, especially in New Orleans. Going to Cafe Du Monde and eating the beignets, or having all this Creole food, and just really getting filled up, and just, I felt the history of the food. I felt the history of New Orleans just by eating that food, so I, that’s just a quote I’m going to be thinking about for a minute, because it really is true.

Trevor:
Food is definitely history we can eat, and that we just constantly see it all the time. So, that’s something I’m going to be thinking about for a minute. What about you? What’d you think about today’s episode?

Rhiki:
I think just like you, the thing that I’m going to take away from this conversation is food is history you can eat. And I really paid a lot of attention to the part of the conversation where she was talking about how the way in which we survived through food is a form of resistance. Taking the scraps, the things that people didn’t want, and making it into something that was delicious is a form of resistance. It’s a form of not only survival, but it just shows the masterfulness in Black people to be able to do something like that. So, I really will be thinking about that after today.

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