21 August 2010


I recently had a conversation with one of my best friends about the hegemonic infrastructure of Western culture, particularly, American culture, where capitalism reigns supreme. We were talking about how when poor people living in ghettos are able to move "up and out" that oftentimes they leave family (familial, kin, or otherwise) behind.

We sadly recognized that this "letting go" might be necessary so that folks can live and actualize their "American Dream." We thought about the Irish, Jewish, and Italian immigrants of yesteryear, who predominantly populated inner city neighborhoods, and are for the most part, now gone - moved "up and out". We thought about the African American, Hispanic American and Asian immigrant groups that predominantly populate ghetto communities today. We also talked about our Appalachian brothers and sisters and their struggles.

Then I said to my friend, "People move up and out, like crabs in a barrel, and then all you have left in the barrel is us, swimming in the potlikker."

There was a pregnant pause in the conversation; we were both fascinated at the illustrated metaphor that had cultural significance for both of us. We were struck by the metaphorical truth of what it means to be potlikker, and quite animatedly continued our conversation unpacking this invocation.

For those who aren't familiar, potlikker (or "pot liquor") comes from Soul Food and Appalachian cooking traditions where the seasoned broth left in the pot after you cook down collard greens (or any other kind of greens), is used to cook and season other dishes. Pot liquor is where all the spices and cooking goodness are preserved when the dish is taken out of the pot and garnished to be eaten. Potlikker is known to be rich in nutritional value.

In many cultural cuisine traditions, nothing is wasted, everything has its purpose and value, and is thus utilized ... in this vein, potlikker is often saved, and used as broth or made into gravy to flavor other dishes ..... this makes me think of Hip Hop lyrics and Street Lit stories as the potlikker of the contemporary ghetto experience. Ghetto stories are preserved as text - as "broth" to flavor (as in "inform") American music, American literature, American culture and beyond (e.g. Hip Hop is international, Street Lit is in the UK). Ghetto stories are not left behind or tossed out of our discourse, they are re-purposed to add flavor and texture (as in "context") to what it means to be American, to live as an American, to live as working class or poor American city dwellers in the 21st century ...

In American culture, everyday life in the hood is a socio-political potlikker with a socio-cultural physics that is reflective of the so-called top-end of a hegemonic society. It is universal law, that the means equals the ends, the bottom is reflective of the top (following the adage, "as above so below"). Case in point, a soul food dish isn't alive without its "spirit", it's "pot liquor" that flavors the cookery from the top to the bottom of the pot, so that the cuisine itself rises to the top and out of the pot. In kind, American culture is hood at the socio-economic bottom, but it is also hood at the top and beyond (See: Ghetto Physics). Like the soul group War said back in the day, "The World Is A Ghetto."

This is why it is important that we accept the fact that we need all of our stories in the proverbial pot - all of US - ALL of our experiences - high brow and higher brow, so that we recognize and appreciate the full spectrum of our collective humanity as a cultural collective. Case in point, someone on Twitter recently tweeted, "Sometimes ghetto is not necessarily bias but a recognition of dysfunctional behavior." I dare say that this is true for all aspects of any cultural family. You can be rich and be "ghetto" too.

I know for a fact that without potlikker, many Soul Food dishes would be lacking in that rich, signature flavor - period. For example, after you take those collard greens out of the pot, and then cook some rice in with the pot liquor that's simmering at the bottom? You get nice, moist rice that's sheer bliss. The same can be regarded for ghetto stories ... where would we be without them? Who would we be without them?

There's a Buddhist adage that fits with the concept of potlikker very well, in short the adage is,"turning poison into medicine." Potlikker is like that .... it is essentially water that has been seasoned to add flavor to whatever food that boils in it. Potlikker turns uncooked, inedible food (poison) , into cooked, flavored, deliciously edible meals (medicine).

Indeed, this is what Street Lit, the literary form of Hip Hop, does .... Street Lit turns the struggles of ghetto living (poison) into a medicinal stance of reflection, contemplation, and validation. People still living in the boiling pot of the ghetto re-experience spicey lives lived, at a pace that is contemplative and un-chaotic ... with the slowed pace of reading, one is able to sit and think about what works, what makes sense, what is, and what is not, in one's life. You can't really do that when you're in the thick of survivalist living, like in the hood, because you have to "keep it moving" from one moment to the next, one block to the next, one paycheck to the next ...

Such are the lived lives that Street Lit chronicles - that's why the stories are often fast paced and action oriented, because hood life is fast paced and action oriented. Thus it does a world of good when we are able to sit down, exhale, and read a book or nod our heads to a song that reflects the lives we lead - reading the reflection in our own personal mirror, we can think gently about ourselves and our lives, and gracefully reclaim our own purpose as to what other spice(s) we want to add to our "life pot" (the container of our lived stories) to improve our living to the level of ... gourmet.


  1. It's been awhile since I heard the term potlikker. My association with this word is in childhood and through an old aunt that babysat us as kids. Quite often she'd refer to this term when describing food or medicine and quite often, we would look at one another and think,"What in the world is she talking about?" Consequently, our young minds deducted that auntie had retrieved somehow to her past or merely was talking that old folks stuff again.

    Way after her passing and into our young adulthood auntie's term "potlikker" became a reminsce of time of her, our childhood home, and our past city neighborhood. We still reminsce about it in the present as older adults and somehow have successfully managed to pass it on to the younger members of the family. The story telling continues thus creating a cultural connection to auntie to our childhood and neighborhood to the "move up and out".

    Yes, I am able to see how Street Lit's is functional in this same matter in which good old auntie's restorative and enjoyable potlikker stories is to us. Now, we are happy for the connection tying us to that neighborhood left behind. In your words, "... we can think gently about ourselves and our lives, and gracefully reclaim our own purpose as to what other spice(s) we want to add to our "life pot"." Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Yet again you have taken the various strands of cultures, conversations, and memories & times to weave a beautiful, strong, cohesive strand that will become an integral thread in this amazing tapestry you are creating.

    Thank You for sharing your conversation with us! :o)