My Soul Looks Back

The author, a longtime professor at Queens College, lived in the West Village in the 1970’s. There were dinner parties with Maya Angelou and James Baldwin, restaurants that are now forgotten, and a circle of writers and intellectuals, many of whom I’d never heard of. She often mentions a husband-wife team of restauranteurs, both of whom are dead now and forgotten. Then there’s Maya Angelou, a central character in this book, described as being very tall with a commanding presence, though she was also extremely egocentric and seemed to live in her own world. Trips to Europe were commonplace in the author’s life, but she left the West Village in the 1980’s and remained in Brooklyn afterwards.

She begins with her childhood, which was unusual in that it was somewhat “international.” Her parents were involved with the UN, and they sent her to a school that was geographically diverse, where she felt out of place. Not from color, but because she was American! In a class of kids who spoke multiple languages, ate exotic foods, spent summers in Europe and Asia, all she had to offer was her banal American life. Her family eventually spent a summer in Martha’s Vinyard and took a boat trip to Europe, and though she doesn’t say much about it, I wonder how the locals of the time took to having a Black family in their midst. It would be great material for a book.

Interspersed throughout the book are recipes she picked up along the way, and lots of European ones because she’s an obvious Francophile. She mentions a 1970’s PBS show called Soul (also unknown to me) which was hosted by and featured notable Black Americans. Then there was the Upper West Side, home at the time to a sizeable number of Black intellectuals, plus Harry Belafonte, Morgan Freeman (before he got famous) and Marcia Ann Gillespie, living in luxurious apartments like Park West Village, and they all hung out at the Only Child restaurant at 226 West 79th.  There were other restaurants, like The Cellar, Under the Stairs, and Mikell’s, for Black professionals, and they weren’t soul food joints. On the contrary, these were Black Americans with money, and they wanted fancy European menus.

Most of the people she mentions are the ones I’d never heard of. Restauranteurs Mary Painter and George Garin have been dead for years and the restaurant gone too. By the 1980’s, AIDS was killing off a lot of these people, which may be one of the reasons she moved to Brooklyn. I wonder if she missed it? Was there another great circle of luminaries for her to hang out with? It might make a good sequel to this book. I also learn here that Maya Angelou, aside from her eccentricity and strange taste in men, was allergic to fish.

Lots of discussion about food, but a little too much nostalgia.


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