OYSTERS FOR BLACK LIBERATION
Written by Amirio Freeman
Fact: Black people love our food. We cherish it. In fact, we revere it. I mean, what other group of people puts all of their love, skill, and very essence into a meal by preparing it with their “soul” or by “putting their foot” into it?
Such an admiration for food—from “greens,” to mountains of jollof rice, to the glory of oxtail—among Black folk likely comes from food’s almost magical ability to help us feel connected to people, to places, to culture, to memories. For Black people—a people whose history is one of theft (of Black homelands, of Black bodies, of Black lifeways, etc.)—food aids in recovering all that we have lost and protecting all that we hope to keep close. An act as simple as passing down a recipe works to protect our traditions and preserve familial ties; Black kitchens transform into spaces for giving thanks to our ancestors, whose culinary labor sustained those of the past and continues to sustain those of us in the present; and meals deftly prepared by Black hands transmogrify into maps that help us remember all the geographies that Black people have traversed and survived in. Food has a place in the hearts of many Black folks because food helps us to resurrect and safeguard ourselves. Food for us is emotional.
Not to mention, Black people love food because, without a doubt, we do food well. In a world that denies, demonizes, or flat out lacks the ability to imagine Black pleasure and genius, a well-prepared, well-seasoned dish provides a source of cultural pride and a moment of reprieve from constantly living (in the language of Christina Sharpe) in the wake of slavery. Food for us is joyous.
In addition to us having a fierce devotion to food because it allows us to be blissful while Black, I believe that Black people, especially African Americans, also harbor a deep connection to food because it has often been a tool used for achieving our liberation from America’s constantly evolving systems of oppression. Food for us is political.
While spaces such as campuses and churches are oft-cited as spaces of Black revolutionary thought and practice, sites of food production, distribution, and consumption have also functioned as hubs of the conceptualization and actualization of Black freedom in the U.S. During the Civil Rights era, eateries that refused to provide service to Black patrons were sometimes the stages for sit-ins. At the height of the Black Panther Party movement, free breakfast programs fueled young freedom fighters in communities throughout Black America. While popularly known as a voting rights warrior, Fannie Lou Hamer also pushed Black Southerners to consider cultivating food sovereignty as a means for establishing political clout and economic independence. And, in a lesser-known narrative, Thomas Downing, an antebellum-era African-American elite, entrepreneur, and activist, owned an oyster hot spot that fostered both culinary excellence and radical abolitionist activity.
Born to emancipated parents along the shores of the Chesapeake Bay in 1791, Downing grew up learning how to navigate the waterways of Virginia for sustenance and survival. A young Downing became an heir to knowledge regarding how best to dig for clams, catch terrapin, wrangle crabs, and rake oysters from their beds. Following a childhood and adolescence of mastering the craft of harvesting Virginia’s aquatic fauna, Downing, after working a number of jobs (including as an army recruit and a domestic servant), pursued new occupational opportunities in New York. After arriving in the North in 1819, Downing found that his intimate knowledge of oysters could be lucrative.
In a nascent New York City-Hudson River region, oyster beds were massively abundant, spurring the frenzied commercialization of the collection, retail, and purchase of oysters in New York City. Soon, oyster-centric establishments dominated the city, from oyster stands to carts to street vendors to whole restaurants. In the midst of the explosion of New York’s oyster scene, Downing, armed with a modest-sized boat, profited off of the knowledge he gained as a youth by gathering and selling oysters. After accumulating capital as an oysterman (a job taken up by many pre-Civil War freed Blacks, as America’s waterways proved to be somewhat racially equalizing spaces due to the extraneous labor involved), Downing opened up Downing’s Oyster House at 5 Broad Street in 1825.
Around the time of the restaurant’s opening, New York was replete with similar establishments; by the mid-1800s, in fact, almost half of the city’s dining establishments were oyster cellars (or oyster eateries). However, Downing’s enterprise rose in popularity and esteem for a few key reasons.
For one, Downing’s Oyster House distinguished itself from its competitors because it was designed with New York’s most elite in mind. Typically, oyster cellars were cheap eating spots that, because of their accessibility, attracted “undesirables”: drunks, criminals, prostitutes, and other groups considered to be social jetsam. Imagining an alternative blueprint for the oyster-cellar model, Downing crafted a dining experience that indulged high-end tastes. As described in Jessica B. Harris’ High on the Hog, the cellar was outfitted with decadent decor such as “mirrored arcades, damask curtains, dine carpet and chandelier.” The restaurant’s menu offered exclusive dishes, including scalloped oysters, fish with oyster sauce, and poached turkey stuffed with oysters. Downing hand-selected each oyster prepared for consumption. Such an atmosphere transformed Downing’s Oyster House into a space populated by New York’s upper class. Socialites, bankers, brokers, politicians, and the like all gathered at Downing’s space to socialize, conduct business, make deals, and, of course, enjoy the many wondrous variations of an oyster. Soon, Downing’s cellar became a New York staple, a reputation undergirded by clientele such Charles Dickens. Downing even shipped products to locations as disparate as Europe and the West Indies.
By elevating oyster-cellar culture, Downing participated in an impressive act of world-making: by way of oysters, a Black man in the antebellum era conjured a world where it was possible for him to accrue a rare amount of wealth and social capital, affording him as much liberation as capitalism, social mobility, and catering to white elites can offer a Black body. Also in the world he created, Downing was able to contribute to the project of Black liberation in substantive, material ways.
Around the 1830s, Downing’s Oyster House expanded into two neighboring buildings due to the eatery’s wild success. As the cellar’s infrastructure expanded in size, its functions also expanded. Away from the eyes of bounty hunters and amidst the prepping of oysters and the servicing of mostly white patrons, Downing’s cellar served as a safe haven and hiding spot for fugitive slaves. With the help of his family, Downing positioned himself as an ardent abolitionist who used the resources he amassed to aid slaves along their route to freedom, safety, and security. As both an elite oyster cellar and a stop on the Underground Railroad, Downing’s Oyster House became implicated in manifesting a sort of liberating spatial signifyin’.
The origin of the word “restaurant” is related to the idea of restoration, suggesting that restaurants, usually imagined as just sites of taking comfort and pleasure in food, can be politicized spaces that restore individuals, communities, and even societies. In the case of Downing’s Oyster House, the cellar became a restaurant that both perpetuated a world ran by privileged, powerful whites and that also crafted a new, restorative world where white supremacist realities were becoming more and more disrupted.
Outside of his oyster eatery, Downing continued to fight against the oppression of Black bodies in other venues. Capitalizing off his social clout brought to him by way of his enterprise, Downing helped to found an all-Black anti-slavery society in the 1930s; he was a part of the New York African Society for Mutual Relief; he petitioned for voting rights for the Black population; and he also worked to promote the education of African-American communities as a member of the New York Society for the Promotion of Education Among Colored Children. Throughout his life, up until his death in 1866, Downing used food, in this case, oysters, in indirect and direct ways to establish Black futures of freedom.
Downing’s story is a part of an entire genealogy of narratives that inform us on how food has often been there to help realize the dream of Black emancipation from white supremacist oppression. Those narratives involving food’s political life among Black people not only invite Black folk to think about the many layers of the dishes we prep, but the narratives also beckon us to consider how food can play a role today in the ever-continuing fight to dismantle white supremacy’s chokehold on Black persons: how do Black people in our modern food industry (Black farmers, gardeners, fishermen, nutritionists, restaurateurs, food writers, etc.) factor into the Black Lives Matter movement? Can present-day Black-owned restaurants become re-imagined as integral locations of radical, freedom-based activity? What food-centric programs can we build that address mass incarceration, police brutality, inaccessible healthcare, and the like? Can we think of new models of activism that center some of the most intimate activities in our lives—eating and cooking? What new narratives can we support and build today that emphasize food in the project of achieving Black liberation? In other words, can an oyster bring Black liberation?