Black Men Reading: Chef Omar Tate, PART ONE

“I make actual dishes that parallel the poetry and art. I find it important to use history and literature in my culinary work because for a very long time we black folk were not allowed to read and write. The evolution of black foodways have been passed down generationally, and prior to the 1800’s, written records from black mouths and minds had not been published. A black person bold enough to be literate was committing treason. A very high offense and a bold determination to tell truths. Often black writers and history keepers had to lie. But even those lies are truth. Truth as tools to create the self. Within the pages of novels and history books I find the context of our people. I seek to create food that removes me from being able to be typecast, stereotyped, or mocked. Truth and lies create my food and the holder of information can manipulate either.” – Chef Omar Tate

photo courtesy of Haamza @hed_photonerd

Welcome to the sixth installment of the Black Men Reading Series here at folklore & literacy. I’m super excited to introduce you to Omar Tate, a culinary storyteller and creator of Honeysuckle – a Black Heritage “pop-up” dining experience that brings both food and literature to the table. A native of Philadelphia, Chef Omar Tate is currently based in Brooklyn, New York. By day he is a sous chef at the pan-African restaurant, Henry – in Manhattan.

I didn’t know all of these things about Chef Omar Tate prior to following his instagram account, where he frequently shares content about black culinary events, culture, and history. On occasion he treats us to original poetry that’s been stewed in culinary references and written in longhand. Chef Omar Tate was the first black man to reach out and share his thoughts and encouragement after reading some of the initial Black Men Reading Series conversations that were published during the summer of 2018. I considered posting his remarks as a separate installment of the series, because his perspective was stirring, eloquent, bold. But curiosity got the better of me: I wanted to know more about this practitioner of both the culinary and literary arts.

What follows is Part One of my exchange with Chef Omar Tate, in which he shares his thoughts on why he thinks this series is valuable, and talks about the paradigm he wants to be instrumental in changing.

[Chef Omar Tate]: I’m not certain how I came upon your black men reading series but when I did I immediately fell in love with it.  Here is why….

When I look at the black community especially in the “woke” sector I find that positivity in regards to black males is almost always of black men in service of someone other than themselves. I don’t want you to misunderstand what I am saying so I will explain further.

I am a father, a brother, a boyfriend, and son as well as other things. When I see media or stories about black women they are often about their achievements or self love/care, body positivity, professionalism and many other things. Of course there is the motherhood and wife “duty” narrative but there is a lot of media and content directing us towards the fullness of black womanhood.

That is not the case for black men. If the media is not about our destruction then it is about us being a good father or a good provider or protector and it’s almost as if we don’t have brains and are merely functional – if we’re not dead.

photo courtesy of @ghosttra1n

Your blog and series is the antithesis of that narrative. You are highlighting the minds of black men and that is unusual. I thank you very much for sharing these stories with the world.

[Leslie Reese]: Thank you for taking the time to to respond in such a meaningful way, Omar. One of the humbling and exciting things for me doing this series is ….getting to crack open a door for black men to open up with candor and passion – ostensibly about reading – but getting into so much more.

I have to agree with your observation about the differences in fuller personhood that we see expressed in media portrayals of black men and black women. I’m not sure why that is, although I have some ideas. I always like to ask people about ideas they dislike and paradigms they would like to help change. This seems like a good time to ask you about that.
[COT]: Regarding your paradigm question…
It is important to me to convince young black men to own their emotions. I believe that there is a direct correlation between the toxicity that exists not only in the black male community – but across communities – and the lack of acknowledgement of feelings.

[LR]: Ahh. Emotional literacy. Yes. I think a lot of people struggle with feeling and expressing emotions. But for men, especially, it isn’t considered “manly” to be emotional. In terms of black men being encouraged to own [your] emotions, and healing “the toxicity that exists not only in the black male community but across communities….” I appreciate you bringing to the surface the fact that so many [men] grow up without permission to express the fullness of your interior selves…..and how the box of “manly” expression is sort of prison-like. I wonder how many men will find resonance in your words? How many men have a desire, like you, to disrupt that pattern and don’t know where to begin? Where are the safe places for black men to do this, I wonder?

When I think about the men I grew up with, the men I know….I don’t feel that I have been exposed to “toxic masculinity,” but their emotional lives are still mysterious to me. I’ve known men to cry but I mostly know men who are stoic. I know men to drink a lot, but, because they never become violent or harm anyone, it’s allowed, accepted (especially if they are otherwise “present,” and “a good provider.”) It’s almost as if we have an overall hands-off attitude when it comes to inquiring about the deeper yearnings or emotions of our men. Can I ask if you’ve been encouraged to own your emotions?
[COT]: I did not grow up being encouraged to be fluid in my own emotions. In fact it was the opposite. As the oldest of four by a single mother, I knew that I was supposed to “be strong” for my younger brothers and for my mother. When she left for work, I was “the man of the house,” etcetera. I was told this was my role by men who took advantage of my mother; men who could’ve been filling the very shoes they were asking me to fill.

Crying was not “manly,” so I was often told to “man up.” Outside of home I interacted with boys who were, no doubt, experiencing the same things at home that I was, and so our biggest fear was about “doing things gay.” Anything that wasn’t “manly” was instantaneously deemed “gay.” “Manly” men played sports and cat-called women from across the street. “Manly” men boasted about getting pussy since the age of twelve. “Manly” men “ain’t sorry; ain’t scared of nothing.” So much was about challenging one’s manhood.

So, no. I did not grow up with the idea that a man should be owning any emotions other than fear and love, and that love was primarily for family members and especially the mother. A crazy duality of fear and love.

Regarding safe spaces for men to be emotive– I am fortunate enough to have a core group of long term friendships where I am able to discuss my inner feelings and not feel shame. I can not say that I can do that everywhere and with anyone, but I have that outlet.

I think of my son. As much as I would like to tell him that it’s ok to cry whenever he feels the need to, as a black man I don’t think that I can honestly and safely tell him that. The world is dangerous in many ways. We are ridiculed for being emotional, for being too tough, for being withdrawn, for being too forward, etc etc etc. It’s a difficult landscape to traverse.

We didn’t talk about this book but I thought I would include an image of it, anyway (photo by Leslie Reese)

I encourage my son to manage his feelings. I tell him that it’s ok to be sad, it’s ok to be upset, and it’s also ok to smile and be overjoyed and express elation. I also tell him to be confident in owning those emotions. No one ever told me that. I tell him that he is whole and beautiful in and of himself. In telling him that, I hope that he can create a circle of friendships – whether with family or others – where he can be a full self. I also hope that the confidence instilled in him makes him unafraid and ready to defend himself from anything that comes his way.

I know that I am stoic and I had to work very hard to get to the point where I am able to share as much as I do with my loved ones about my mental health. I was taught that stoicism was manliness. I am glad that you were not exposed to any toxicity within your male familial relationships.

[LR]: All that stuff you’ve listed about what ’s considered “manly” with everything opposite of that being deemed as “gay” is just so…..it leaves me sputtering adjectives like: stupid, frustrating, limiting….Nevertheless, these ideas persist! In my Black Men Reading Series conversation with Travis Prince, we touched on how – in the black community – being interested in reading and philosophical questions and intellectual pursuits is often conflated with being “gay” or lacking in “manliness.” We’ve been allowed to lack knowledge and understanding of everyone who doesn’t identify as white, male, and straight. We are in dire need of new definitions of what it means to be a person and a man.
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Let this conversation marinate overnight and return tomorrow for Part Two of my Black Men Reading Series conversation with Chef Omar Tate. We’re going to chop it up about Honeysuckle, his Black Heritage “pop-up” dining experience, and get into how reading and books fit into his artistic practices.  He’s also going to consider the literary figures he would like to cook for.

You can follow Chef Omar Tate:
on instagram.
on twitter.

You can follow Honeysuckle – a Black Heritage “pop-up”
on instagram.
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Read “Our Reactions to Seeing Black Men Embracing in Public Highlight Black Masculinitiy’s Dehumanizing Expectations” by Daniel Johnson.

Check out Darkowaa’s review of bell hooks’ We Real Cool on her blog, African Book Addict!

14 Comments

  1. This is probably my favorite interview out of this series, Leslie. “When I see media or stories about black women they are often about their achievements or self love/care, body positivity, professionalism and many other things… That is not the case for black men. If the media is not about our destruction then it is about us being a good father or a good provider or protector and it’s almost as if we don’t have brains and are merely functional – if we’re not dead.”
    That gave me chills. FACTS!
    (ps: thanks for linking the review for We Real Cool by bell hooks! I wonder if Chef has read that book, because he is really speaking hooks’s language in this interview)

    1. Daniel – Thank you for returning to read more of the series, and believing there are more people who would connect with what’s happening here! Your well-wishes are so appreciated🙏🏾.

  2. Leslie, you leave me awestruck. I cannot tell you how amazing it is to read your interviews with these men, talking about these amazing topics that perhaps they had never been fully allowed to speak of before. Sadly I think toxic manhood is across the spectrum and it makes me so happy to see you talking with people in such an open and beautiful and loving way. I can’t wait for the 2nd segment. My hat is off to you and you have my undying respect. You are amazing. And I cannot wait to read more about the chef!!!

    1. Vanessa, I don’t know how awesome I am….you know, I have to take my hat off to the men who have been willing to explore growing our conversations and this series with me. I am so glad you are enjoying the series, and thank you for adding to it with your own testimonials and commentary. xo

  3. The creative cuisine sounds fascinating Leslie, I’m looking forward to hearing more about that, combining history and literature through food and to hearing the inspiration behind that. And thank you for sharing such a personal conversation in your space here, I think we can all learn something from listening, some universal truths here.

    1. Hi Claire! I’ve really been enjoying learning about Chef Omar Tate’s fusion of culinary and literary things. His perspective is a great addition to the Black Men Reading Series🖤 voices; and I hope to be able to share more of his culinary journey with readers in the future.

  4. A very interesting conversation on masculinity. I would love to have a very long conversation about this topic because, while I don’t buy into the whole “toxic masculinity” narrative (which seems to only be coming from white females), I do believe that our men should be allowed to express themselves without being judged for it. Great post and I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s continuation.

    1. Hi Audra – Yeah, notice how these reading and literacy conversations with black men inspire us to want to have very long conversations about other things?! I’m not well-read around the topic of “toxic masculinity” and your mention of who it’s coming from makes me curious. I hope you enjoy Part Two of this convo with Chef Omar!

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