I still thrill at the memory of the last time I went to Woodland, a two-floor restaurant down the block from Barclays Center, for a sweat-inducing birthday gathering. We’d been seated near DJ Yung Hova, whose bass-heavy mixes of hip-hop, soca, and reggae, all reflecting New York City’s robust West Indian immigrant population, slowly turned the space into a full-blown party.
Neighbors hoisted their sloshing drinks in the air and gyrated their hips as a conga line of happily fed patrons — whose high-heels had shifted impatiently beneath them while waiting to be seated — turned raucous and jubilant to the same songs that power the annual Eastern Parkway Labor Day parade. It wasn’t deep into Friday or Saturday night, though — it was just a normal black brunch, a scene repeated every Sunday afternoon like clockwork.
For the last year, the notion of “self-care” has felt inescapable. It has consumed small talk and organized forums alike; I’ve been hard pressed to go a day without finding blogger tips and testimonies, “me time” travel guides, and self-help articles. Self-care, which has occasionally come unhinged from its original meaning, comes from Audre Lorde’s 1988 book A Burst of Light, in which she wrote that “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” That is, it’s a necessary step for people of color, particularly black women, to maintain sanity when the world seems to lack any semblance of the word.
The blood of unarmed black men and women has been spilled by police around the country. New victims birthed new headlines, popping up across the map like iPhone pin-drops. Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Philando Castile near Saint Paul, Minnesota. Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte, North Carolina. Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Korryn Gaines near Baltimore. Jordan Edwards outside Dallas. Patrick Harmon in Salt Lake City. It’s been hard to shake off the dark cloud of panic.
As an empathetic bystander, the emotional weight never lets up; being sad every other day is exhausting, so it’s not unreasonable to want to pretend it’s not part of my reality, at least for a moment. For some, the work of self-care skews inward, but my preferred form of relief is burrowing into the safe space of breakfast and uninterrupted black and brown kinship.
When I’m in need of a mental or spiritual break, it’s the presence of unfiltered blackness, our culture bursting from the seams with its quirks and nuances, the oasis of black brunch that allows me to eat, dance, sing, and laugh the grim away.
I didn’t really know what brunch was until I’d left Queens for Howard University. I’d heard the word here and there on TV and had assumed it was the sort of luxurious event reserved for women like Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte, and Miranda — monied and manicured women who looked and lived nothing like me. My middle-class upbringing didn’t justify casually shelling out $15 for eggs, especially when bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches were $4 or less at any bodega within a 10-mile radius of my house. Going away for college introduced me to a different, more social way of living and dining.
Howard’s Bison yearbook staff is partially to thank for turning me into a brunching woman. During our junior year, our late advisor Kevin Reed treated our small staff to a daytime meal at Ben’s Next Door, the more relaxed dining annex of D.C.’s famous Ben’s Chili Bowl. Barely glancing at the menu, at least four of my friends opted for the shrimp and cheese grits. I was baffled by the idea of combining seafood with something comparable to breakfast porridge. Amused by my ignorance, the table schooled me, so I ordered the same. The savory grits, paired with spicy shrimp, were a hit. “So this is brunch,” I thought between satiated bites and carefree banter.
As my college friends and I got older and gained the legal freedom to order bottomless mimosas, weekend brunch became the ritualistic gathering of choice. Whether it was for post-church dining, easy birthdays, campus organization outings, dates, long-overdue reunions, hangovers, or just because, we packed into our favorite Chocolate City brunch locales — Busboys and Poets, The Carolina Kitchen, the now-closed Tap & Parlour — to unpack our weeks and recharge our spirits.
When college ended and we moved farther away from each other to settle into our less culturally homogeneous post-grad lives, the desire to reassemble in safe spaces heightened. We sought out these refuges more fervently, craving the company of our own. Black brunch — well known in New York, D.C., Atlanta, Los Angeles, and other major cities new degree-holders flock to — has become a place we can exist both safely outside and proudly within our stereotypes. Yes, a party of seven scheduled for a noon brunch will likely see its last member turn up at 1:30 p.m.
Yes, hot sauce will be used no matter how well the dish is prepared. Yes, the atmosphere will be unnecessarily and unapologetically loud. The waiters and hosts will probably be rapping along to whatever is pouring out the loudspeakers as they top off glasses of bubbly. The likelihood that the whole room will abandon their plates to dance with strangers when Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow” comes on is pretty high, and perfectly acceptable.
While brunch — birthed in 19th-century England, adopted by America in the 1930s — is hard to, historically, pin down within the black community, the cultural phenomenon surrounding black people at brunch has boomed since the early 2010s, when social media became the default way our generation communicates. A quick Google search will pull up numerous blogs dedicated to the black brunch experience, thematic and philanthropic meet-ups, and even movement-based spin-offs like #BlackBrunchNYC in 2015, in which individuals protested black death at the hands of police by disrupting “white” brunch spots in Oakland, California and New York City.
A number of restaurants wind up becoming our brunch hot spots simply because they are black-owned. The wiser we get about the way the world works and how systematically shut-out people of color are when it comes to ownership, we want to put our dollars back into our communities. There is a growing movement to support black-owned restaurants in cities across the country; while the U.S. Census Bureau’s Survey of Business Owners reported that the number of African-American or black-owned restaurants in the U.S. rose by 34.5 percent between 2007 and 2012, they remain a mere 9.4 percent of the overall total. (In 2015, just 2.05 percent of all businesses with at least one employee were black-owned, according to the Census Bureau’s recently launched Annual Survey of Entrepreneurs.)
Other times, it just winds up being that spot in the hood where we can afford to take that dollar when the paycheck is spread a little thin — and where we can actually afford to live. I’ve never traveled to the Upper West Side for brunch. In my experience, however, the biggest pull has always been the music: A DJ (or even a poppin’ Pandora station) equipped with a solid rotation of hip-hop, rap, trap, reggae, soca, reggaeton, or house is the foundation for us to move, whether by body or by spirit.
Partying isn’t the only pull of black brunch, though. Food is a slight factor, too. It levels the geographical playing field, allowing people to see the commonalities in our culturally specific cuisines. It is at these tables that I was encouraged to diversify my Jamaican-American palate — fried breadfruit, green banana, bammy, fried dumpling, and ackee and saltfish are my family’s norm — to include foods from across the black diaspora, like the aforementioned grits, blackened catfish, fried green tomatoes, and okra, soul food staples of the Deep South.
Until I had the dish as an adult, I literally thought “chicken and waffles” was a joke, a mere caricature of a meal that sounded trendy in conversation. Now, when I dine at SoCo, a Southern fusion restaurant in Clinton Hill, hearty helpings of lobster, shrimp, and grits, smoked pepper jelly “F-que” wings, and red velvet waffles with buttermilk fried chicken keep me coming back.
Most importantly, whenever I walk into a restaurant known to attract dense crowds of brown bodies, particularly between the weekend hours of noon and 4 p.m. — times that no longer belong to employers and coworkers who differ in ethnicity, ideology, or socioeconomic status — I feel like I’m coming back to family. And for those with addresses different from where they were raised, these culturally rich settings can, if even for a moment, feel like a home away from home.
Like the family dinner table, the brunch table flaunts how our knack for a good time can coexist with our thirst for knowledge and meaningful dialogue about the intricacies of systemic racism and oppression, how long it’ll take before trigger-happy cops are indicted for their crimes, the ticking time bomb that is America’s 45th president, why bold white concertgoers still itch to say the n-word in shared company, the right ensembles to wear to Marvel’s Black Panther premiere, and the financially sound decision to purchase back-line costumes for Trinidad and Tobago Carnival.
Any tension of opposing views eventually fizzles out and gives way to the fact that for those few hours, we are within sacred territory — a slice of public space that serves as a semi-private safe house for our humanity, away from the eyes of gentrifiers eager to capitalize on the aesthetic of urban culture without actually understanding it (need I say anything about Summerhill?).
In places like these, the uninterrupted beauty of black joy — an obligatory electric slide in my seat to Frankie Beverly and Maze’s “Before I Let Go,” the spontaneous outburst of song (often Stevie Wonder’s soulful rendition of “Happy Birthday,” originally penned as an ode to Martin Luther King, Jr.), or heads thrown back in full-bellied laughter, hands slapping on laps and tabletops like a Caribbean game of dominoes, with no trace of a shhhh! in sight — is a sensory overload. It’s an emotional salve we depend on when we feel like granules of sand in a world that either looks at us through the stretched distortion of a magnifying glass or not at all.
Hand propped under my chin, I looked up from what was left of my fried chicken breast and half a waffle wet with chipotle maple syrup, the satisfied haze of day drinking in my eyes, and smiled at my table of tipsy friends. Half of them had gotten up to Snapchat themselves mouthing along to the hot song of the moment; the other half sat behind their plates, fighting that good “itis” sleep. I can tell that, like my own, their focus wasn’t on whatever unpaid bills, discouraging comments, deflating news reports, or stressful predicaments waited for them beyond the restaurant’s front door. All I could see and feel was the lightness and love of my people, and there’s nothing more satisfying than that.