There’s something about going back down South for Thanksgiving that makes the holiday seem right. I was born and raised in Queens, New York but my heart is truly in the South.
Every year I say I’m going travel back down south and celebrate Thanksgiving in South Carolina, yet I haven’t done so in over 5 years.
The crisp autumn air (or possible 70-degree weather, because, hey, it is the South), the smell of ham hocks or fatback, harvesting pecans, and the annual Thanksgiving parade down the country roads— just seem right!
But, I’ll probably be home in New York City running to corner store because I ran out of milk for the cornbread, the air will be damp and cold because it’s November in NYC, and the liquor store will be packed because everyone needs a bottle to either enhance or survive their family’s Thanksgiving celebration. I, like many other Black American northerners, will be paying homage to our Southern roots or finding a way to connect with our family and culture back in the South on Thanksgiving Day.
My mother was born and raised in Horry County, South Carolina. In the 80’s she married my father (a native New Yorker) and made the move from her hometown in Bucksville, SC to St. Albans, NY, a neighborhood in the borough of Queens.
During the Great Migration, the phenomenon that spanned over 60 years from 1910- 1970s, close to 6 million African Americans left the US South for Northern and Western cities. During the migration, migrants used food as a tool for success and survival in their new destinations either by selling southern produce, cooking down-home meals, or growing produce in their small urban gardens. Food was one of the most accessible ways to keep their ties to the south and to pass on the traditions and culture of back home. On special occasions and major holidays celebrated by Black Christians (such as Christmas and Easter), our southern and Soul Food was present. And, of all the holidays and special occasions, Thanksgiving is the holiday where you show up and show out! Menus are prepared ahead of time and the prep work can begin as early as mid-November.
Growing up, my siblings and I anticipated Thanksgiving eve just as much as Christmas Eve. The house would be filled with music courtesy of my father who was a music producer and pioneering NYC hip hop DJ, and the house would be unusually warm because the oven had been running all day. The smell of ham hocks, celery and onions, and alcohol filled the air and I soaked in every minute of it, usually in or near the kitchen peeling boiled eggs for the goblet gravy or mixing the cornbread for the dressing as my mother prepared dinner throughout the day. Some years my paternal grandmother (a participant in the Great Migration by way of Fairfield, AL) would assist in the kitchen, usually with the potato salad.
On the years we celebrated Thanksgiving in the South, we’d all pile into my Dad’s brown Cadillac or van and make the journey down I-95. Too excited to fall asleep, we’d anxiously calculate the hours it took to cross every state, usually dreading Virginia and North Carolina because those states were the longest to pass through. Our car rides were filled with Newport smoke, hip-hop, and R&B music, and the loud cheers from us in the back seat when my father would drive over 75mph on the highway while my mother begged him to slow down. Once we hit South of the Border we knew it was on! We were finally in South Carolina and only a couple of hours away from playing with our many cousins, seeing my grandmother, and eating the special occasion food we had prepared. To this day, the smell of smoked pork cooking in the kitchen brings me back to the glorious days of my youth celebrating Thanksgiving in Bucksville or Queens.
As an adult, I try to recreate the sight, sound, and smell of South and Thanksgiving in my home. Some years it’s not quite the same but some years it’s spot on.
I welcome you all to join me on this journey as I explore the history, culture, and experiences of African Americans in this country through the lenses of food and migration. This is the Great Plate Migration!
Porscha Williams is creating The Great Plate Migration series for Fabulize Mag to explore the historical meaning and tradition value with soul food and Black Americans
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