Publication Note: This column was first published in the February 16, 2017 edition of the Lonoke County Democrat weekly newspaper, linked HERE in its original format. It is the 5th installment of the “Look at Lonoke” column.
For the eighth year in a row, Lonoke celebrated Black History Month by sharing a meal together and enjoying the company of friends old and new. This year’s banquet took place at Lonoke Primary School Cafeteria on Friday evening, February 3, and featured a meaningful word from keynote speaker Dr. Laurence B. Alexander. In what has become a vibrant local tradition, our community gathered to share memories and honor enduring achievements with a forward-looking eye toward the next generation.
Dr. Alexander spoke to the crowd of over 200 with the compassion of an educator, the vision of an administrator, and the certainty of a preacher. As he is no stranger to any of these environments, the Chancellor of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff opened with a pointed observation, “Our Nation needs healing, and Lonoke has a head start.”
That statement by Dr. Alexander stirs me. It strikes me that we are uniquely blessed to live in a place that has opened its heart to seek understanding and to learn from one another. Part of healing is acknowledging our past struggles. However, we can’t acknowledge what we don’t take time to learn about and experience through the eyes of others whose background may be different than our own.
Community is created in shared space, shared time, and shared experiences. This is where we recall old memories, and create new ones. When we combine the power of memory with the power of food, we create a moment of life-sustaining connection. Sharing a table invites the possibility of learning more about another’s story- their day, their week, or their life. In listening, we learn. In listening to the voices of generations past sharing memories of their personal struggle, we gain a precious window onto the depth and richness of our neighbor’s story. Sometimes the most cherished memories are from our hardest times. Perhaps this is true because a struggle is where our character is forged and where our life perspective earns a layer of maturity and wisdom.
Author and professor of journalism at Ole Miss, Alysia Burton Steele, undertook a special project to document oral histories of church mothers in the Delta. In this powerful work, women such as Mrs. Myrlie Evers, widow of Medgar Evers, share deeply personal accounts of their memories of a time and a struggle that has impacted their entire life. Woven throughout the accounts in Steele’s book is a narrative of the wisdom of generations past conveyed over meals, in the kitchen, and through the powerful association of memories attached to family recipes. Steele notes that, in spite of the socioeconomic realities of the region, “[The Delta] is also a very rich area- there is a lot of pride, dignity, and integrity.” Her work is collected in the book Delta Jewels: In Search of My Grandmother’s Wisdom, and is a powerful tribute to the lives of women who knew immense hardship and opposition during the Jim Crow era.
During his talk in Lonoke, Chancellor Alexander spoke of this reality, describing a time when men and women were “facing constant, ordinary, everyday reminders of this second-class citizenship.” Prior to the integration of our schools in 1970, African American students in Lonoke attended George Washington Carver High School. For the alumni and supporters of Carver High, the legacy of education and leadership established by Frank T. Bunton, M.O. Livingston, and numerous other mentors and teachers, is a powerful one. It is a legacy Carver Alumni believe must be upheld and passed on to the next generation of learners and leaders in Lonoke. Alexander echoed that conviction, methodically noting the impact of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff as a land grant institution serving our region, and impacting Lonoke specifically. The Chancellor powerfully challenged the assembled crowd, observing, “The future is in ALL of our hands- we are one. And if we aren’t, we have to become one.”
There is a power in a meal shared with others. The very act of enjoying fellowship over food, together in the presence of family and friends as close as family, is an act of openness, of sharing, and of welcoming. That’s where we become one. Preparing and sharing food is a powerful act – an act of generosity with one’s time, resources, and talents. That spirit of generosity can exist no matter one’s wealth or ability. When someone cooks and shares a meal, they are sharing their very life with you.
Today, Lonoke is a community that has made room at the table for all friends and neighbors. Don’t let this event in February be the last time, or the only time this year that you choose to share a meal with someone of a different generation or a different background than yourself. Be willing to give an invitation- and to accept an invitation.
Come to the table, make sure others have a place set for them. That’s how we do things around here.
Ryan Biles is local architect and a volunteer member of the George Washington Carver High School Alumni Association Board of Directors. Please join in sharing your memories of family, food, and locally-grown wisdom using the hashtag #LookAtLonoke on social media.