An Interview with Audrey Petty

by Ari Weinzweig

I first met Audrey Petty at the Southern Foodways Symposium in Oxford, Mississippi. We got on well from the get go. I LOVED the essay she wrote on “Chitlins”—I actually read it to the audience at our first annual African American foodways dinner back in 2005. I’m really excited to have her hear to speak to us this year at our 7th annual dinner!

Ari: I’m thinking it’s about eight years now since we first met at Southern Foodways. I know that you and I both grew up in Chicago, we’re both fascinated with food, culture and history and we both like to write. But maybe you could give folks a sense of your background?

Audrey: Well, I’m a writer. I’m a Southsider by birth. Born in Chicago and, after living all over for most of my adult life, I’m back living there again. I grew up in Chatham, on the far South Side, off 83rd and Cottage Grove on a little street called Langley. When I was 7 we moved up to Hyde Park. My mom was a career music teacher. We all made music as kids. My dad was a chemist. My dad grew up in a coal mining town Alabama. My mom grew up in southern Arkansas. They met in college in Alabama, got married in Texarkana, and then they moved here.

I went to Knox College and that’s where I gave myself permission to really write more seriously. They had (and still have) a great creative writing program and I tried out writing stories and kept going. Decided I wanted to go to France. So I spent a year in Besancon in the Franche-Comte, and that cemented my interest in writing. Living in France made me a lot more conscious of language and what it took to come to a different fluency by living in that culture.

I came back to Knox and waited tables and worked as a teaching assistant. I already knew that I wanted to teach. My mom came from a long line of teachers. Teaching was always in the air as a great way to live and to connect. I knew it was for me. I knew I wanted to teach. So I did go on to grad school at U Mass where I worked with John Wideman. He’s an African American writer from Pittsburgh who writes a lot about place, a lot about memory of place. He grew up in a neighborhood in Pittsburgh called Homewood. His writing and his mentorship really inspired me.

From grad school, I went back to Knox and taught a creative writing classes, literature classes, and an interdisciplinary seminar on slavery in America that took me to the slave coast and got me very interested in studying how the West African folkways were carried into African American traditions. At Knox I taught with (poet) Beth Ann Fennelly and that’s how I learned about the Southern Foodways Alliance. It was like no other community I’d been part of before. All these connections became really electric. It got me thinking about things I’d never really thought about it and it made me look at my personal history really differently. It got me to taste food really differently. (SFA director) John T. Edge asked me if I wanted to do something at the Symposium the year that the topic was “Race and Food.”

Ari: I remember that year really vividly. It was hugely powerful for me. There were great speakers—Bernard Lafayette (who’d worked with Dr. King) spoke about the Civil Rights movement and food. Jazz musician Olu Dara and the Reverend Will Campbell both came back to Mississippi for that conference and it was the first either had been back for decades since leaving under duress during the Civil Rights Movement. There was also a panel called “Mammy and Ole Miss: Domestic Relations”—and that was long before the book, “The Help” came out.

Audrey: That’s where I read my piece on chitlins. When John T. was telling me about the symposium, I thought to myself, “I gotta write about chitlins.” I felt drawn to it because it was such an important food in my household but also because it was something you weren’t supposed to talk about. Writing that piece… it was really a pleasure to write. It became an opportunity to have a different relationship with my parents and the work received a really great response. That essay which led to all these great conversations. I figured there was more memory to revisit, and that I needed to follow the plate and follow what my parents had brought with them when they came up from the South. It got me to reframe some old questions and raised some new ones. I try to follow the questions. My mom passed last February and… it’s kind of like a whole new life without her here, but the things that I want to capture and record are a way of rediscovering her.

Ari: What are the questions that you’ve followed?

Audrey: I’ve been thinking about my dad… I wanted to know and sit with him and learn more about his boyhood and his coming of age. He’s a very modest man. Very soft spoken and a good listener. My mom was the singer and the performer and larger than life. And my dad was mostly in the background, observing. But the piece I wrote that ended up in Southern Review—”In Search of My Father’s Kitchen” was a lot about that. I wanted to ask him about where he came from. I wanted to know what it felt like for him when he first experienced the North after he moved up to Chicago from Alabama. And what it felt like to be serving people (in diners, restaurants and country clubs) during Jim Crow in his hometown and in the South-at-large. Having traveled to my parents’ hometowns and also to Oxford (so many times for Southern Foodways), I’ve realized that I eventually want to live in the South. And I tried to figure out what it was that was drawing me there; I think that in coming to closer term with my parents’ mortality, I know there’s something nourishing me about being back down there. I finally became clearer that this was a way for me to be with them even when the time comes that I can’t be with them physically. And also to give that tradition to my daughter. Writing about place and where we grew up, has made me think a lot more about what I want to pass on.

My mom dying made me rethink Chicago. She lived here for nearly fifty years. Except for returning for her father’s funeral (shortly after she’d graduated college), sShe never went back to Arkansas to the town of Eldorado where she grew up until we told her we wanted to go back there with her a few years ago (and we made the arrangements to make the trip as a family) I think there’s some part of me that still feels some sense of appreciation of Chicago as her chosen home, but there’s still this mystery about that small town in Arkansas, El Dorado, and I want to be able to spend time in the places that she mentioned to me.

Ari: What about the African American migrations from the South?

Audrey: My parents always presented the move to the North as matter of fact. My dad had a brother who’d relocated to Chicago to the west side and he ventured up a summer before he finished at Talladega College (founded in central Alabama in 1867, it’s the oldest black liberal arts college in the state). When he came up here he worked at a factory where they made cabinets. Eventually he’d work in the dining hall at Kraft Foods. He always described the decision to move as about his brother being in Chicago. He skipped over some about the part about being suddenly in this place where the all “codes” were different. It was certainly a segregated city back then but there were still a lot of freedoms he and my mother would have experienced that were significant and novel.

Traveling South with him over the past ten years or so has been a trip. Really, wonderful and emotional. We went to his hometown in Alabama and while we were there I could see him struggling with piecing it all together. Having this muscle memory of what it was like to be a boy in that place. There was a lot of stuff that they just swallowed. My mom would occasionally say more than my dad. She said “Mississippi was the worst of ’em all.” As for relations with white people in the South, they were close with several teachers there who’d immigrated to the States having fled the Nazis. So they had in their history they had a real affection for a few folks who weren’t black. But Chicago was still a big leap for them in their deepening friendships with whites. They joined a multiracial Unitarian Church on the South Side and they had a white minister there whom they adored. Martin Luther King came to speak at Soldier Field and the congregation joined in the audience. They had this opportunity that they seized. Later on when pressed, my mom would tell me about ways that her dad was mistreated routinely while walking down the street in Eldorado. He was the school principal but he would be insulted by random white people as he ran errands around town. She talked about her sadness and her anger about that. But they didn’t really talk about it. I can count on one hand the times they talked about the brutalities of that system. The Jim Crow that they and thousands and thousands of other black folks fled.

Ari: Do you know some of the statistics on the migrations?

Audrey: Over 500,000 African Americans migrated to Chicago along between approximately 1916 and 1970. In 1910, Chicago’s black population was at 2 percent. By 1970, the population had increased to 33 percent of the city’s residents. The first big wave of the great migration hit in the 1940s and 1950s. My parents were definitely part of the second wave.

When I was first working on my novel I went and talked to my dad’s younger brother in Montgomery. He was able to trace my great, great-great-grandfather who was a slave in Virginia. After Emancipation, he made enough money to buy a parcel of land in Mississippi. That place is still in our family. My Uncle Andrew told me about a great uncle who was lynched. He carries a lot of our story.

Ari: What things would you want people to understand about African American experience of that era?

Audrey: From my own experience, looking at my parents, one thing I know more than ever is that it really matters to show interest and to ask people to talk about things that are difficult and important. It’s really worth it. It’s worth going back there to the South to experience the place (as it is now) in person. I think that another thing that I’m constantly interested in are the fingerprints of the migrations. The way the South is in Chicago. Hybridized, for sure, but the South was present in Chicago as I was coming up, whether it was what was on the table in my parents’ house, or in being able to sneak into blues clubs to hear music that my parents probably had ambivalent relationships to because it came from the place (and experience) that they wanted to make some distance with. I remember going to the Checkerboard Lounge (on Chicago’s Southside) and my parents being kind of bemused and bewildered about why I would seek out that sort of music in “that sort of place..” But I knew in some deep way that I was finding something there. I think I had a hunger for a deeper knowledge and understanding of where they had come from. So I’d say that there was a way that this Northern city informed me about where my parents had come from.