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Black, White, and The Grey

Black, White, and The Grey: A Story of an Unexpected Friendship and a Beloved Restaurant. Mashama Bailey and John O. Morisano. Ten Speed Press/Lorena Jones Books. 2021.


What could happen if a White, working class, Italian American, male entrepreneur decided to buy a dilapidated, abandoned, formerly segregated Greyhound bus station, built in 1938 in Savannah, Georgia? What could happen if his vision was to turn the building into an upscale restaurant, having no experience running a restaurant but loving food? What if he was determined to have a Black chef as his business partner, although he knew no Black chefs? What if part of his goal was to unite this Southern city through exceptional food?
What happened is remarkable and was marked by a tremendous load of uncomfortableness. In the words of John Morisano, known to his friends and family as Johno, "Together we set out on this journey to learn from each other and live a life that I could have never dreamed would be so fulfilling while simultaneously being so damned uncomfortable: uncomfortable running a business I knew nothing about; uncomfortable in my relationship to race, class, and culture; uncomfortable learning so much about myself and human decency from the most unsuspecting people and places; uncomfortable in our successes; uncomfortable with our failings, my failings."
Mashama Bailey, the Black woman, who became Johno's business partner and co-author of this heartful food memoir, was a chef but had never been an executive chef. She also embarked on a steep learning curve—learning to trust herself as the executive and a full partner, and particularly in partnership with a White man. She writes, "Something I needed to figure out was whether I distrusted Johno because he is White. And whether history had conditioned me to automatically distrust White people. The answer is, yes, my suspicion is an inherent bias. My distrust subsided when I began to exercise my voice, my power."
This book is not a theoretical treatise on solving race problems in America or even a practical how-to guide. It is real, as if it is all happening in the nitty-gritty dirt of the dish pit (I had to look up what a dish pit is, even though I read a lot of food memoirs). What comes out of the dish pit, hopefully, is sparkling glasses and plates, clean pots and pans. Bailey describes what comes out of this tough, courageous, committed partnership: "Once we began to use our combined voice to not only build a business but to create a self-sustaining business culture, my suspicion resolved. We had to have each other's backs first before I began to believe him and before our team would ever begin to trust us."
The book's format is unique, making clear whose voice we are reading: Mashama's words are in bold, dark print, and Johno's in regular font, hence lighter. I'm sure that was a conscious choice. Their writing process was also fascinating to this writer, but no spoilers on that.
Black, White, and The Grey is a story about the boldness, honesty and triumph of a consciously chosen intercultural, interethnic friendship that has created a culture that impacts a Southern city with a history of enforced segregation and present-day de facto segregation. I refer to an "interethnic friendship" because it is a scientific fact that there is only one race—the human one. And yet, this is a book that is very much about an everyday, deeply personal grappling with race relations in the United States. The Grey, incidentally, is the name of the restaurant, which comes from its location in the former Greyhound depot.
Food memoirs, at least the ones I'm drawn to, are always about more than food, and they're often about healing. As Johno says, "Food can cure many ills." And Mashama writes, "Restaurants play a big part in changing people's perspectives. Eating together humanizes. When you are sitting across the table from someone it's easier to see your similarities than your differences." This story could be an intimidating example of what we all should be doing—taking on racism in our everyday lives, and we most definitely should be finding ways to do that actively. I found encouragement in some final words from Johno, "Quite simply, the Grey is our work in progress." It helps me recognize that we are all, individually and collectively, a work in progress.

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Nearly thirty years after Germany rolled over Poland and conducted some of the worst damage of the Holocaust, the German chancellor, Willy Brandt, visited a memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto. Politicians, dignitaries and journalists stood by as he placed a wreath at the memorial and then, apparently spontaneously, he dropped to his knees.

It was 1970, and 41% of Germans polled were against what Brandt did. They found it humiliating, and many were outraged. Most of the rest of the world thought it was the right thing to do. When he was asked in interview why he did it, he said that just before he did it, he thought, "Just laying a wreath is not enough."

Of most German politicians who had lived through World War II, it could be said that Brandt had the least reason to apologize. He had fled Germany in 1933 to avoid Nazi persecution, was later stripped of his German citizenship, became a Norwegian citizen for a time, and worked against the war in various capacities. He was always opposed to Nazism and the war. And yet, or perhaps because of this, he felt the need to make a bodily apology, not for anything he had done, but for what his country had done.

There are thoughts on both sides of the question as to whether there is value in apologizing for oppressive actions committed by our ancestors. There is a meme going around that says, "White people, no one is asking you to apologize for your ancestors. We are asking you to dismantle the systems they built and you maintain and benefit from." To my thinking, apologizing does not preclude action; in fact, it is one step of an action. An apology signals that we are aware that things must change. It is a message of empathy. It can be a recognition that we are all connected, all in this together. It says, Because my people caused and continue to cause damage, often horrific damage, I have a great responsibility to do something to redress the system.

I don't know if Brandt's 1970 action was indirectly or even directly, responsible for changes in Germany's systemic racism that was at the root of the Holocaust, but later in the 70s German schools began teaching about the Holocaust. However, it wasn't until 1992 that education about the Holocaust became a federal law.

Some cultures honor the ancestors more than others do. In those cultures the connection with the ancestors creates strong, living ties. Perhaps if we felt our relatedness to the ones who went before us, the ones who committed both literal and cultural genocide, we wouldn't question whether we should apologize.

But action must follow apology; otherwise, an apology becomes an easy way out. As pervasive as racism is, it isn't easy to figure out what I can do to dismantle the system that benefits me and oppresses others. In fact, it feels overwhelming and almost hopeless. Then I think about how overwhelming it feels every day to those who live with a knee on their necks.

In my book club of two, we recently read The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together by Heather McGhee. I'd known that the only way I, as an individual, can be part of dismantling the systems is to choose one area where work is being done and then join others who are doing it, but I didn't know where to start. Each of five chapters in The Sum of Us showed me clear, actionable and effective choices: labor movements, voting rights, abolishment of the Electoral College, neighborhood redlining, and ecological racism. I highly recommend this clear-headed, hopeful book. My essay, "The Obligation," published in Dove Tales by Writing for Peace, also shows paths to action.



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Three Monkeys above the arroyo

The arroyo was the best place in all the world. It was a short trot from the Teec Nos Pos mission to the edge of the arroyo––across the dirt road and the field, which, except for four mulberry trees, a long asparagus bed, and the apple tree at the far end, was a barren patch of gray-brown earth. On the near side, where we slid down, the arroyo wall was sandy. On the far side, rose a round-edged sandstone ledge. Above that, we were always watched over by the great rock guardians atop the Three Monkeys. Willow stands lined the edges of the bed, and they turned a shiny scarlet in winter, offered green shade in spring and summer. The arroyo bed was cream-colored sand, damp beneath the surface; there must've been an underground stream, because much farther up there was a spring-fed pool where our father once took us on a Sunday afternoon walk, and I saw a magical clump of transparent frog eggs floating there, never to be forgotten.

Throughout the arroyo bed there were great gnarled cottonwoods that lifted their golden crowns above the arroyo rim in October. Some curved along the floor of the arroyo and were easy to climb and ride like wide-backed horses.


But it was the bed of the arroyo that gave us hours of play. With my brothers and sister, the daughters of the matron at the stone-and-pine government school, and sometimes the trader's children from downstream, we made Diné homesteads in the damp sand. We patted the earth into small hogans, poked twigs into the ground in circle formation and dropped tiny pebbles into the round corrals for sheep. We made summer shelters of more twigs laid across forked uprights, and that took patience, as they fell apart again and again under the weight of the roof twigs. We visited each other's homes and talked for the little people we imagined living in them.


Other times we dug shallow square rooms that were our size and lay down in the cool dampness, out of the brilliant sunlight. When we left the arroyo, we might climb up into that apple tree, stunted by scarce water. Each of us claimed a branch and named it, then negotiated property trades. "You can have Big Buttermilk if you give me, Little Texas."


We did not know we were weaving together different cultures. We were living our child-lives. The making of miniature homes may be a near universal children's game, or perhaps it once was––before screen time came into being. I heard my father once tell a Diné coworker that he and his siblings had made miniature communities on their farm in Michigan. It's just that our version was Diné. I didn't know that doing this thing that my adult Navajo friends also did when they were children was one of the things that made me like them, despite how different I also was. I didn't know it was one of the things that was making me who I am today. We don't know these things as children.



Did you have a favorite place, a favorite play, as a child? I'd love to read about it.


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Rehoboth Mission Hospital where the doctor gave his advice

I want to introduce you to my friend Alice. Alice Whitegoat. That's not her real name because she asked me not to use her real one in these stories. "Name me Alice," she said. "After Alice Walker." I wanted to give her a surname, too. I've known people with the last name Blackgoat or Many Goats, but no one called Whitegoat, which doesn't mean there aren't any. I decided to name my friend Alice Whitegoat to hold onto Alice Walker's initials.
Alice is one of my close friends. She is a wise woman, a painter, a poet, a storyteller, a joker, an activist, an educator, and a consummate networker. She knows famous people—indigenous and not—like Francis Ford Coppola and the late Diné artist and writer Carl Gorman and his even more famous son, the late RC Gorman. She brings a contemporary woman's sensibilities to traditional images in her visual and written art.
Alice is also a survivor of boarding schools—both personally and generationally. In fact, she and her mother attended the same mission school that I did, but Alice is ten years older than I am, and though she might have been a student at the high school when I arrived in fourth grade, I didn't meet her then. Nevertheless, the Rehoboth Mission experience is something we talk about sometimes, often with dark humor.
Alice also exemplifies heritage language reclamation. When she was three, her parents brought her to the hospital at the same mission where she would eventually go to school. They were concerned because she still wasn't talking. This can happen for lots of reasons, including sometimes when a child is acquiring language for the first time while being exposed to more than one language. That's a perfect setting for them to become bilingual, even though the process may be slower than usual. But the doctor who saw Alice, told her parents to use one language at home. It didn't matter which one. They chose English, thinking it would ultimately make Alice's life easier.
And it did. In some ways. Her native brilliance and her facility with English meant that she gobbled up books when she worked as the student librarian at Rehoboth. She eventually got a master's degree from the Harvard School of Education. She was awarded prestigious fellowships and directed several indigenous programs that made a difference in the Navajo Nation. That's how I got to know her. She was my boss in a Native education publishing house. And what a time that was; we were at the forefront of an exciting bilingual education movement. I told Alice once that I feel like the publishing house is where I grew up. She said she feels that too, which surprised me.
After working together, we lost touch for a good many years, as I sought to find and establish an identity apart from my roots within the Nation, which I've begun to realize may not be possible. We reconnected at a reunion of the publishing house staff. We've grown closer as friends over the years, visiting in one another's homes, working on projects together, sharing our writing now and then, taking short trips to visit mutual friends, attending her art shows, me having a reading in her home, and phone calls full of laughter.
Alice Whitegoat will show up now and then in these posts, so I wanted to introduce her early on. The advice from that missionary doctor made her life easier in one world but more difficult and painful in another. When we worked together back in the 1970s, I saw how painful it was for this ebullient, creative, cutting-edge thinker not to own her own language. She had a high profile in both worlds, but there was always this loss, which she says affected her credibility in the world that was most important to her.
Then a while back, I witnessed something that seemed almost miraculous to me. Alice and I had met up with an elderly cousin of hers, who spoke English but not so fluently or easily. I heard Alice speak Diné with her, more Diné than I'd ever heard from Alice. Some of the time it clearly wasn't necessary for her cousin's comprehension, but it was essential for something else. Something we might call meta-communication. Not words or even meaning, but feeling. Something bigger and deeper. Alice had reclaimed her lost language. Later she told me the story of how that began, which isn't my story to tell.
In a sort of aside, or perhaps it's a central question, I wonder how the two worlds
Alice had to negotiate––the two worlds even I have had to negotiate––how it may be possible to join them while retaining their distinctiveness.



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