Whenever another story breaks of the police murdering a Black person I bake two sweet potato pies. This ritual developed slowly and I’m still not quite sure when it became a habit. My first time baking pies in an exercise in grief happened more as a result of circumstance than anything else.
During the fall semester of my junior year of college I was waiting with heavy anticipation for news on the indictment of police officer Darren Wilson for Michael Brown’s murderer. As I waited, life kept moving: classes, extracurriculars, my on-campus job. I had promised my supervisor that I would make a pie before heading off campus for Thanksgiving break; I always talk about food and my love of cooking. At the beginning of junior year I was particularly excited because my roommates and I had our own kitchen in upperclassmen housing. So on the weekend before break, I bought all the necessary ingredients and planned to bake the pie Monday night so I could take it to work Tuesday, our last day of classes.
That night, as I was wrapping up my homework and looking forward to my baking session, I got word that news about the indictment would break that evening. My itinerary quickly changed. A lengthy town hall to discuss and view the news with other black students, collective grief, and the largest protest our campus had seen in years, later filled my night. When I finally made it back to my room in the wee hours of the morning– physically, mentally, and spiritually exhausted– I remembered I still needed to make the pie. So I got to work. I would not have been able to sleep anyway.
As I went through the familiar process of making the pies I sang and listened to music. See, I grew up cooking. Everyone in my family cooks; we bond over food. I learned how to cook mostly from my grandmothers, but also from my parents and extended family. The kitchen, for me, is a space of love. In the kitchens of my childhood and adolescence I got to taste test dishes before they were presented to the rest of the family. I learned family histories and life lessons. And I began to understand what it meant to cook a meal with love. Whenever I went to either of my grandmothers’ homes, my first stop was the kitchen, to see what was cooking. These kitchens were the center of activity, laughter, joy. They were always filled with noise, smiles, and hugs. They saw cousins and “play cousins” just stopping by. In the kitchen of my young adulthood, I reminisce on all of this and play music to remind me of the sounds of love. In that space I create a source of physical sustenance that can double as spiritual and emotional comfort.
That night, or rather, early morning, I needed all the comfort provided by this familiar process. I boiled the potatoes– peeled them, mashed them. Mixed in butter, milk, eggs, vanilla, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, and sugar. Poured the batter into the crust. Licked the remnants from the bowl and spoon. Baked until done- golden brown crust and dark orange filling that a toothpick can slide through cleanly. I don’t typically measure anything, but it’s the same ingredients and general procedure each time. Of course there’s nuance and variation. That’s part of what it means to season and cook to taste, but the result is always the same: sweet pies. And I always make at least 2 pies. I’ve never been good at making small portions.
So that night I baked, mostly to fulfill the promise I made. But I realized the process itself was cathartic. I was creating something sweet in a moment when all I felt was despair. I was doing what I loved, and about to share the product with people I love. Because really, I didn’t know how I was going to make it through classes and everything the next day. I didn’t know how the campus would respond to our protests. I didn’t know how the nation would respond. But I did know how to make sweet potato pies.
Actually, I thought I didn’t know how the campus and nation would respond. But I knew all too well. In this nation there is an awful ritual in response to the state sanctioned murders of Black people and any accompanying display of outrage. The black body is made a spectacle, the murderers escape justice, anyone who speaks out faces backlash, and another Black person is murdered. This is just a brief summary, but this is the cycle Ida B. Wells reported on at the turn of the 20th century. It’s the same cycleof our contemporary moment. Same basic ingredients, and while there’s variation and nuance, the result is still the same: no justice.
I’m not sure at what point making sweet potato pies became my personal ritual response to Black Death. Perhaps, it’s because I cook all the time, either because I have a taste for something, or promised to cook for someone, or just because. But I do remember the moment when I recognized my ritual as such. After hearing about the police murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille I couldn’t process my feelings. I felt numb. Beyond numb: hollow, enraged, and heartbroken, all at the same time. Over time, after reflecting (and making countless pies), I’ve come to realize my emotions are like a recursive cycle of grief, rage, and despair all wrapped up in the hope that the police will stop murdering Black people, the reality that they have never faced justice in the past, the wish that maybe this time will be different, and the resignation that it probably won’t.
But as I first began processing the news of Alton Sterling and Philando Castiles’ murders I did not even recognize quite what I was feeling nor did I have the language to express it. So as I sat with all of these unknown, unrecognized, and unarticulated thoughts and emotions, I began to feel like making pies. In that moment, making pies was the only thing that made sense. It was the only thought I could acknowledge and articulate. And in my despair, making pies was the only actionable idea that, once executed, would result in something sweet. Because I knew the other ritual response all to well: people shared the video extensively, the 24 hour news media kept the video and story in rotation, people blamed the victims with the usual dismissals of “they should respect authority” and “we need the whole story.” And of course, folks who expressed outrage were met with critiques. In that moment I declined to bare witness to this ritual again. My heart couldn’t, and still can’t, take it.
Between Mike Brown and Philando Castile, I’ve lost track of how many pies I’ve made, partly because I’m always cooking and partly because there’s just been too many murders. So, now, after hearing about Tyre King and Terrence Crutcher, I’ll be making two more sweet potato pies.
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During the 48 hours after I first drafted this piece I made 2 sweet potato pies. In that same 48 hours a police officer killed Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte, North Carolina. My family and I hadn’t yet finished eating those 2 pies.
I took a break from the news for the past week. I still haven’t made it back to the store to buy more sweet potatoes, piecrusts, eggs, milk, and butter to make more pies. We tend to keep enough sugar and spices in the pantry to last a while so I shouldn’t need to buy any more.
The night I completed final edits on this piece I came across a headline about police shooting and killing Alfred Olango in El Cajon, California. Maybe I’ll go ahead and stock up on the sugar, allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla too. I can get more piecrusts and keep them in the freezer. And sweet potatoes can last a while. I can get a gallon of milk and 2-dozen eggs and a couple pounds of butter. That should be enough.
Cameron K. Bell ’16 hails from Newport News, VA. She majored in History, earned a certificate in African American Studies, and is a Teacher Prep student.