By Lindsay Michko
This February, poet Harryette Mullen visited Naropa as Allen Ginsberg Visiting Fellow and offered a lecture on the poetics of soul food, exploring what kind of hunger soul food is meant to satisfy, and its relations to African Americans' experiences of slavery, oppression, and discrimination. Mullen observed that much of the earliest African American literature, aside from slave narratives, are cookbooks. She highlighted for us the culture of survival implied in soul food, consisting of the traditional foods eaten by slaves, slave descendants, and still impoverished African Americans.
Citing the work of Paul Laurence Dunbar, Yusef Komunyakaa, Lucille Clifton, Elizabeth Alexander, and others, Mullen brought to life the intertwinement of food and cultural memory, as well as the heavy influence of economic class. She reminded us that many "soul foods" are not of African descent, but are more often than not a combination of foods from varying traditions, representative of the cultural mixing and assimilation that occurred during the times of the slave trade. Mullen also noted that "soul foods" often arose from the necessities of poverty— eating the parts of the animal the slave masters discarded, foraging for whatever could be found, creating recipes with few simple, cheap ingredients. Throughout the works that Mullen cited, one can see a personification of these foods, and that by embracing these foods that carry so much cultural memory, the poet can also come to terms with the self—in particular, the parts one finds to be shameful.