The Family Dinner Is Back, But the Tradition Looks a Little Different for Black Families These Days

Sunday dinners have been a source of connection for Black families since slavery, and though they've evolved, they still bring us together.

Cessily Thomas has many fond memories of the spontaneous and fun-filled Sunday dinners she used to have with her family. "We just showed up at my grandma's house," says Thomas, a teacher and mom of three from Champaign, Illinois, recalling moments where she, her mother, and siblings would head over after church with aunts and a bunch of cousins. "We'd play cards, laugh, and eat. It was always so much fun."

Now that she and her cousins are adults with kids of their own, the dynamic has changed and Sunday dinners face new challenges. "It's harder because now that my grandma is gone, there's no matriarch and no homebase," she says. "Her door was always open for all of us. She was our home."

The family and gatherings have changed for Thomas, like they have for many families. A version of this tradition continues as her daughter's friends and her two young boys have replaced the cousins and aunties around the table. But every once in a while, she's able to pull off a bigger family dinner. "We just had one a couple of weeks ago and nobody wanted to leave," she says. "It was past 10 before my house was cleared!"

Yolande Clark-Jackson of Orlando, Florida, remembers her mother going all out to prepare big family dinners as she grew up. Each meal had cornbread and a dessert, usually her mother's pineapple upside-down cake.

Though many factors, like loved ones moving away, make family dinners more of a fond memory than a weekly tradition, people like Keenan White are waiting for them to return. He remembers Sunday family meals, being surrounded by aunts and cousins and comfort food, and misses them. Sunday meals are pretty rare now, he says. "They consisted of comfort food like fried chicken, meatloaf or pot roast, a few sides, and a dessert—there was lots of family around."

Sunday family dinners don't have to follow a specific format to matter. Sometimes it is a big multi-generational gathering of family, around the dinner table, passing food to put on "the good china." But a single parent and their children cooking together before eating a meal in front of a TV is just as valid. However these dinners look, they reflect an essential aspect of Black culture with deep historical roots.

In Black American families, the tradition of Sunday family dinner was a lifeline during enslavement. Sunday was one of limited occasions enslaved people had any level of control over how they spent their day. Enslaved people had to use creativity to eat—hunting, fishing, borrowing, bartering and, generally, doing whatever was necessary to ensure families were fed. Sunday was when enslavers provided inadequate rations—typically 1-quart cornmeal and 5 to 8 ounces of salted fish, like shad or herring, and our ancestors chose to spend those moments with family. Post-emancipation, the practice continued and evolved, with many families eating Sunday meals with their "church family."

Black communities are persistently subjected to the stressors that come with living in a racist, anti-Black society that is determined to invalidate our humanity at every opportunity. Sunday family dinners, and other similar gatherings, presented an opportunity for Black families to be in community with those they loved most with meals that nourished them physically and emotionally. The classic comfort foods—fried chicken, collard greens, mac and cheese, rice and beans or peas, and lamb and goat for some —were a feel-good reset button. Dinner was the time to vent about the overwhelm of the week, connect, and maintain the bonds by sharing life stories with family, and eat a good meal to start your week from a place of optimism and hope.

Though these meals look different between households, it cannot be overstated that this Sunday gathering is sacred for many Black families. Every stage has a purpose: the power of loved ones gathered together to thank the creator for an opportunity to connect and nurture the body during grace, the order people are fed, starting from the oldest member of the family, and even the dishes and utensils used to eat the food. (Though many of us have shifted to plastic plates and utensils.)

Today, there are also unique barriers to Sunday dinners—time, money, and distance from family make it hard for many to continue this well-loved tradition.

Alicia Barnes, who lives in Chicago, Illinois, says her family tries to have Sunday dinner, but found having them during the week helps fill in the gaps. "I've learned to incorporate dinner more during the week just to have catch up moments, check-in evenings, and how is life for you," she says. "Life can become so complex with everyone's working schedules. I just try my best to keep [my] family intact. What better way to do it, let's eat at the table."

Still, not all Black families have memories of these gatherings. "Sometimes we didn't have a meal or money," says Vonnice Boone from Arkansas, who says that for many, financial insecurities were a factor that made it hard for many families to observe regular big meals. Boone and her husband have intentionally created a "beautiful spread" for these meals in adulthood. Others are reimagining how Sunday dinners need to shift to meet a changing world, often with expanding family networks composed of chosen, fictive kin.

Like other aspects of Black culture, the Sunday meal model is adaptable. Kimberly H in Denver believes her model of family dinners provides a chance to spread love and nurture others despite having a challenging upbringing. Though her family unit is her and her partner, she still spreads the love.

"I cook for whoever is experiencing food insecurities. I usually will do a big meal: whole chicken, baked mac and cheese, greens, candied yams, rolls, and if I'm up to it, peach cobbler," she says, recalling a recent batch of beef stew and cornbread to ensure folks in her community were well fed despite regular episodes of intense snowfall.

Her efforts make it clear that Black families continue finding creative ways to connect with loved ones, passing knowledge and recipes despite barriers and the pandemic. They also remind that above all, Black folks will never forget the healing power of a good meal.

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