My Big Mama Influences, Part I: Alma Jewell Harris

My maternal grandmother taught me an important lesson about slavery that I passed on to my children. You can do the same.

I had three Big Mamas in my life; matriarchs from both sides of my family. Over the next three posts, I will share the lessons they taught me as a child, that I was able to use in the rearing of my own children. As with all of my posts, I will offer up some practical advice on how to apply these lessons today.

Today I would like to introduce you to my grandmother, Alma Harris. She was born in 1914. My mother always said I was a very old soul as a child. I loved spending time with my elders, and was often found sitting with my grandparents.

I spent most of the time with my grandmother Alma because she used to pick me up after school. I went to school across the street from her house until forced-bussing started when I was in the fifth grade. I remember my reluctance in admitting my lineage to slavery.  I would mask my embarrassment by using the absurdity, “I have Indian in my family”. Does that sound familiar? Like many of us who are descendants of the enslaved, I had some serious identity issues.

I eventually gained pride in my lineage from the stories my grandmother shared about our family’s legacy. I began to recognize the resiliency of my ancestors that provided the foundation of the strength on which I stand today.

One day grandmother sat me down and shared  a memory that she had of her grandmother. She said that her grandmother always had a bent, crooked finger because it was broken when she was beaten during slavery. The bone was never set back right so it didn’t heal properly and therefore, was bent for the rest of her life.

This was an a ha moment for me. I remember asking her, “Was your grandmother a slave?” In my mind, slavery was this abstract concept that I didn’t feel any real connection to until my grandmother shared that story. I hugged her tight as if I was sending the hug back four generations to my great great grandmother. I finally understood how I was connected to my family’s history, and how that history was connected to slavery. This is just one story. But she told me many more about our family and their struggles through the Civil Rights movement.

Because of those stories and the connection with my grandmother, I now understand a corollary of the African principle of Ubuntu: I Am Because You Are. When I think of my grandmother and my great great grandmother I can’t help but  think that I Am. Because They Were.

I never wanted my children to feel the reluctance or shame that I had felt about my own connection to slavery. So, I made sure to read them stories from Black history books, historical fiction, and African short stories and proverbs. and tell them stories about our amazing ancestors.

I had a proud moment when we lived in Jersey City. My son Wynton was 7 years old. His school, P.S. 16 decided to have a cultural feast instead of a Thanksgiving celebration. The school had over 30 different nationalities represented in its student body. They asked each child to bring in a dish that came from their culture. Wynton was so excited. He ran to the front of the line and wrote down that he was bringing Hot Water Cornbread!

He came home and told me that he wanted me to make the dish for the cultural feast. He also told me that he told the class how his ancestors were slaves and how they did not always have access to food, so they used what they had.  They had to be creative with whatever they had available to them. One of their food staples was cornbread, and one variation of cornbread was hot water cornbread. They boiled water, poured it on cornmeal and made a batter and fried it like pancakes.

This was one of Wynton’s favorite foods. His teacher said that after he told this story, everyone in the class could not wait to try the hot water cornbread! It was the first dish to become empty at the table. I knew right then and there that I had done my job with Wynton! Not only was he not ashamed of his connection to slavery, but he was proud of it. He truly understood the resilient spirit of his ancestors. This was a grateful mommy moment.

I asked Wynton, who is now 27, if he remembered that time. He did indeed.

“As a kid, I was always fascinated with hot water cornbread”, he said. “Being historically minded, I was fixed on the idea that this dish came down to us from the days of slavery. I had always heard stories and tales of that time period, especially from my mother who went to great lengths to make sure me and my sisters knew our roots without being ashamed of them. From that perspective, I wanted a deeper level of insight into what it was like to be alive then; to be able to identify and connect the people and time that existed in the abstract in these stories, to a living breathing experience of human beings. It is said that the best way to get to know a culture is to experience their cuisine. As a kid, hot water cornbread was a way for me to connect with the culture of my ancestors.”

Thank you Big Mama Alma Harris!

The first time I made hot water cornbread for my kids was a few months before the cultural feast. My cousin, Dana Peterson was staying with us in Jersey City for a few weeks and he had a hankering for some hot water cornbread and asked me to make some for him. I called our Aunt Charlotte, my father’s sister and asked her for a recipe. When we had dinner that night I used it as a teachable moment for our children. I took the opportunity to connect the food of our ancestors to the stories and lessons that I had been reading to them, and telling them since they were born.

Wynton connected the dots and gave a lesson of his own to his class.

Big Mama’s Lessons:

To help prevent or remove the stigma that our culture has placed on slavery and the descendants of the enslaved, try doing the following one evening with your child(ren):

  1. Find an age appropriate book or story about slavery to read to your child(ren) and discuss. Discuss not only the hardships that the enslaved faced, but also the resiliency and spirit of overcoming adversity that was within them. Discuss how their tenacity made it possible for them to pass on their genes, as well as their legacies to us today.

  2. Make a dish that has been passed down to us from our ancestors who were enslaved. Do some research on the internet with your children. Work with them to find a recipe that you can make together. As you prepare the dish together, talk about what it must have been like being enslaved. Talk about the good times they must’ve had preparing meals and eating together.

  3. Sit down as a family and share the meal together. Share ideas of how blessed you are to be a descendant of the enslaved. If you’re not a descendant, talk about how blessed we are as Americans to have those descendants as a part of our country’s legacy and foundation.

  4. If you’re interested in my hot water cornbread recipe, here is a link to a recipe that is almost exactly like the one I’ve used in the past. Try adding your own flavor to it to liven it up! Dana likes green onions and chopped jalapeños.

If you have any questions, you can email me at

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