There is a moment in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God which tells of how Janie, the story’s narrator, comes to recognize herself as colored. “Ah was wid dem white chillun so much till Ah didn’t know Ah wuzn’t white till Ah was round six years old,” she says.
But one day a photographer comes around taking pictures.
“So when we looked at de picture and everybody got pointed out there wasn’t nobody left except a real dark little girl with long hair standing by Eleanor. Dat’s where Ah wuz s’posed to be, but Ah couldn’t recognize dat dark chile as me. So Ah ast, ‘where is me? Ah don’t see me.’
“Everybody laughed, even Mr. Washburn. Miss Nellie, de Mama of de chillun who come back home after her husband dead, she pointed to de dark one and said, ‘Dat’s you, Alphabet, don’t you know yo’ ownself?’
“Dey all useter call me Alphabet ’cause so many people had done named me different names. Ah looked at de picture a long time and seen it was mah dress and mah hair so Ah said:
“ ‘Aw, aw! Ah’m colored!’ ”
The passage has stuck with me since my first reading in graduate school. Speed ahead to the present, and there’s a very different sort of book by Karen Joy Fowler, We Were all Beside Ourselves–whose narrator, Rose, asks also about the moment when we come to recognize ourselves, as human, as non-chimpanzee. She describes a “mirror test” which psychologists use to determine whether non-humans, or animals, possesses the ability of self-recognition. And it struck me again: the mirror was a lot like Janie’s photograph, in that it held a likeness of herself.
It got me thinking about other objects that act as mirrors. At what point, and through what objects, do we gain this ability to see a reflection and see ourselves in that reflection? What does that moment of recognition do to our valuation of our selves? Or say about our very capacity for humanness?
For years and years, my parents’ generation seemed to find this moment, or seek it anyway, in the validations of western Science and Reason. Our beliefs weren’t random; they weren’t just superstitions. Our yogasanas were a form of exercise and health-making. Our mathematical insights, written in esoteric Sanskrit verse, made beautiful sense. Our taboos existed for material reasons. Our use of turmeric was medicinal in ways that are only now being discovered. And if western countries were turning politically toward multiculturalism? Well, we had been multicultural of course for hundreds of years.
This sort of “we-knew-it-first” assertion had only limited resonance for me. While I have no qualms about telling my children about just how advanced ancient Indian surgical techniques were, or the tremendous significance of the concept of shunya or zero, or sharing the two-line shloka that gives the value of π via music theory–and while I refuse to mock the impulse to re-value the insights of our own literatures–it is incredibly hard to identify with claims that we were pioneers in everything.
Lately, there have been a new set of mirrors held up for us to find ourselves within. I’ll name three: coconut water, coconut oil, and now moringa.
At first, how much we laughed. How completely silly it was to be evaluating coconut water–against gatorade. Calling it smart water or worse, a sports drink. Creating myths about coconut water. Debunking myths about coconut water. Reducing it to its nutritional components per FDA guidelines. Creating guides on the best packaged coconut water. (which I’d not touch with a 10-foot pole, not the guide and certainly not the water).
Something similar seems to have happened with coconut oil. We thought it was bad, but now we think it’s great because the problem wasn’t with the oil, it was with the refinement of the oil. Ah, ok! Now that we have that sorted, Huff Po can cull a list of recipes for this new and versatile ingredient and a list of some 50-odd uses of coconut oil (from curing toe fungus to HIV to Alzheimers) was doing viral rounds for a while there. Ok, still somewhat amusing, if also increasingly ridiculous.
Why are these mirrors? Well, because those of us who’ve grown up in the South of India have quite literally grown up with coconut in all its forms–on trees which often grew in our backyards, harvested green and sold on streets for water (and vazhuku, or the young coconut flesh inside), fresh for ceremonial use or in the kitchen, dry pressed into oil (yup, that’s extra virgin for ya) or used in masala mixes and powders, and the oil massaged on our bodies and into our hair, particularly in the hotter months of the year.
We’d recognize ourselves in the coconut any day.
And now, moringa–which I learned last night is an “African superfood” with an arm’s length list of nutritional equivalences. A little bit like Janie, or Rose, I did a double take.
“ ‘Aw, aw! Ah’m colored!’ ”
That newly anointed superfood is me–my diet, my taste, my childhood memories of the fragrances from my mother’s kitchen, my hunger, my history. And I recognize myself now as something I never thought I was: a powdered form of a leaf.
“Moringa” that’s all the rage is none other than the murunga-elai, or leaves of the murunga or murungya maram (tree), whose fruits are commonly known as drumsticks for their resemblance to those very instruments of percussion. Yes, the name “moringa” was derived from the Tamil/Malayalam.
That’s the tree that grows in my garden–not flowering just now.
We all have memories of murunga:
I used to love drumsticks so much I once fished each piece out of the dal my mother had made with them, and then had to sit all afternoon polishing my plate. For years after, I’d not touch them. But the distaste born of one lunch overkill didn’t last. It couldn’t.
My point here is not that we knew what white folks are just discovering, though I suppose I’d be dishonest not to admit the pleasure that snide little statement brings. It’s not even that food fads and the search for the “next acai, the next coconut water, the next goji berry, the next chia seed, and the ever-elusive next quinoa” are offensive–although the exploitation of indigenous knowledge and resources, often to their own detriment, for the fad-crazed superfood-obsessed United States, is certainly that.
My point is that this western “discovery” of foods we always ate and places we already inhabited is getting a wee bit tiresome. What, did Columbus go hunting for India and find Africa this time?
Oh but wait, it gets better. You can get “moringa” in capsules and energy bars, and moringa can help people in “famine prone parts of the world improve their own nutrition.” Really? That story I told about overdoing it on drumsticks as a child–that happened in Maiduguri, which is in Nigeria, which is in west Africa. You think that folks there who brush their teeth with neem sticks won’t know at least something about the value of the “moringa”–leaf and curious fruit–that’s native to those lands?
Another double take. Deja vu; we’ve been there before. Like when the British prevented Indians from mining their own salt so that they could import the stuff with a nice fat tax slapped on. Or when raw cotton from here was exported to the weaving towns of industrializing England and loomed with designs from here–and sold back here with “paisleys” on top, if you please.
I have nothing left to say about Kuli Kuli and these strange new moringa energy bars and the leveraging of “world hunger” to rationalize and fund another superfood madness. Each move distances us from the sources and realities of our own foods and foodways–which we share freely, seeds, leaves, recipes and all–and returns them to us with FDA sanction and possibly some patents attached. Coconut water in a box. The delicate bitterness of tender murunga leaves in powders or smothered with chocolate, so that we don’t have to really figure out how to cook them or like them at all, as long as they work their superfood magic on us. “Will the price of coconut oil in Bangalore increase now that it’s been declared a valuable new ingredient?” asked a friend. I think the question is its own statement.
And something to ponder before you buy your next smart coconut water, or order your batch of moringa bars.