Cinnamon and rayon. Jet and coconut eyes,
Mary Lulu Jackson Smooths the skirt At her thighs.
Mama, portly oven,
Brings remainders from the kitchen Where the people all are icebergs
Wrapped in checks and wealthy.
DIPLOMA in its new frame;
Mary Lulu Jackson,
Tells her mama she’s a typist
And the clicking of the keys
Will spell the name
Of a job in a fine office
Far removed from basic oven,
And iceberg’s kitchen.
Mama says. Praise Jesus!
I’ll bring home chicken.
The DIPLOMA bursts its frame
To scatter star-dust in their eyes.
Mama says, Praise Jesus!
The colored race will rise!
Because she’s tired.
Poem: “Graduation” by Langston Hughes from The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (1995)
Image: from “An Economy of Grace” by Kehinde Wiley; Model: Dacia Carter (2012)
Known for his vibrant, larger-than-life reinterpretations of classical portraits featuring young African American men, New York-based visual artist Kehinde Wiley has turned the practice of portraiture on its head — and in the process, has taken the art world by storm.
Wiley recently embarked on an exciting new project: a series of classical portraits of African-American women — something he’s never done before. PBS Arts documentary Kehinde Wiley: An Economy of Grace captures the project as it unfolds, tracking Wiley’s process from concept to canvas, and coming to know the women whom he selects to paint.
“This group of paintings represents a significant departure from Wiley’s previous subject matter by depicting African-American women, his first-ever series dedicated to female subjects. The models for the paintings were cast on the streets of New York City. Chosen by Wiley at the Louvre, Their poses are based on historical portraits of society women by Jacques-Louis David, Thomas Gainsborough and John Singer Sargent, among others. For the first time, custom-made couture gowns were created specifically for each of the models by Riccardo Tisci of Givenchy. The resulting paintings to be shown in An Economy of Grace are a celebration of black women, creating a rightful place for them within art history, which has to date been an almost exclusively white domain.”
“We have this whole idea that to be anti-materialist is somehow to be reverent, and to be materialist is to be fallen. Meanwhile, if we were just genuinely materialist, that would make us reverent. I guess that’s why I like cooking. That is reverence, as far as I can tell. So is how you treat people; it’s all the same stuff.” —T.A.
I am a tremendous fan of the writing of Tamar Adler—in particular, her 2011 book, An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace, which speaks about eating and cooking in a way I have never encountered before—as if she is only writing about food as a way of speaking about other things: how to live, our relationship to each other, to what might be called God—to the very most important things about life and living. Her prose is exquisite and her tone is humorous, helpful and calm. She has cooked at Chez Panisse, among other restaurants, and counts among her supporters Michael Pollan, Michael Ruhlman and Alice Waters, who wrote the introduction to her book. I met with her near her home in Brooklyn at a little restaurant she chose, where we recorded this interview amidst the steadily increasing chatter around us in the early evening in fall. —Sheila Heti
I. I JUST WROTE A BOOK AND I WANT TO WRITE ANOTHER BOOK
THE BELIEVER: I wonder what your experience of time is.
TAMAR ADLER: Not space?
BLVR: No. [laughs] I’m not interested in that. But time—it seems like the way you explain to people what to do with food—it necessitates so much patience. And when you’re doing these things so lovingly to the food and paying so much attention to your ingredients, I wonder if readers don’t think, as I did, “I don’t have the time to do that.”
TA: I’ve noticed that I’m really deliberate. I like to be deliberate about things, and if I don’t do things in that way… I think this is something about myself, but if I’m not deliberate, things can go badly, and then you have to spend more time in the long run. Do you know the Long Now society? I think I take more of a long now perspective.
BLVR: I know them, yes, they’re fascinating. So what kind of book did you think you wanted to write when you set out?
TA: You know how literature is transformative, but instructions and recipes aren’t? I had this idea of something that could—it would not be a device to convey a message. I didn’t feel like I had a message, exactly. But I felt like I had a way of thinking about specific things that I wanted to tell people, but that in order for these ways of thinking to exist, they had to be attached to a certain thing—so it was food. I think I just wanted to write something transformative.
BLVR: That’s exactly what you did. For me, I feel like not only am I cooking differently, but I’m thinking about how to do everything differently. Your book is so exciting to me. I do think it works like literature. And I agree that instructions don’t change anything. Self-help is interesting, but it’s generally not well-written, but it’s also instructional, but it doesn’t have that thing that literature has, where it changes you. Your book is the perfect synthesis of literature and self-help. I really think it’s a profound book. And I think it’s a new genre, which I want there to be more of. Like, I want people to imitate your book, because I feel like—not only in terms of food, but in every area of my life—I’m affected by your idea of the endless meal, the idea that there are not separate meals but there is one long meal throughout your whole life. That seems so Platonic and beautiful and… I always feeling like I’m starting over every day, so I love this idea of the continuity of everything through one’s life.
TA: Yeah. I guess the main thing I was thinking was—I was just reading The Road to Wigan Pier, which Orwell wrote at thirty-three, which is amazing, it’s so exquisite. And Let Us Now Praise Famous Men—I was thinking about both these books in terms of the genesis of the projects and the literary weight of them relative to the assignments. Because in both instances, the writer was assigned to do something, and it was definitely documentary. And they wrote some of the most beautiful prose, not because they were trying to make anything amazing, but because Agee and Orwell write in beautiful prose which is inseparable from their observations as writers. There’s no way that anybody who had one of those assignments now would write anything like those two did, never mind people who are trying to write non-fiction books. I was at a dinner at my mom’s house two or three weeks ago, and one of her friends asked me if I was ever going to write a book. And I was like, “Well I just wrote a book. And I want to write another book.” And she said, “No, a real book.” And she meant a novel. Which I didn’t get for a while. I think people don’t think we’re writers. This is all a way of saying that we’re just not really doing the language thing very well right now.