Mapping the Beaches of Black America

The Changemaker Authors Cohort, a partnership with the Unicorn Authors Club, is a new, yearlong intensive coaching program supporting full-time movement activists and social justice practitioners to complete books that create deep, durable narrative change, restructuring the way people feel, think, and respond to the world. This interview series features participants in the inaugural cohort.

Devon Hamilton is a chef and food justice advocate. The owner of Grillin’ For The People, a heritage barbecue and gardening organization, Devon also serves as the coordinator of the National Healthy Soils Policy Network, a nationwide network of farmer based nonprofits that focus on healthy soil and climate-related policies at the state level. With a deeply intersectional perspective on community organizing, sustainable agriculture, and the culinary arts, Devon’s book project, The Inkwell Beach Series, combines the historical narratives of Black beaches in America with their cultural foodways. He hopes to shed light on particular Black experiences in the outdoors and the lasting relationships Black communities have with the land today. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Narrative Initiative: So tell me about your book project, the Inkwell Beach Series. Is that the current title?

Devon Hamilton: That’s the title for now. It’s based around different historically Black beach sites across the country and understanding their histories. There’s two tracks to it. So, the first is understanding the history and current state of some of these beaches across the country, because some still exist today, in various capacities. Some are really thriving and are around in kind of an informal way. [But] many no longer exist. So it’s a bit of storytelling through the current and past histories of what those beaches are, what they look like, and what they represented for black people. 

There’s a culinary piece to it as well. So the book, a large chunk of it, is actually going to be a cookbook, because that’s my background. That’s also the kind of the lens that I chose to view this work. The histories of these sites, like many public sites, have a kind of food component to it. So, in talking about some of the food cultures and traditions around a lot of these Black beach sites, the book will essentially explore what would some of the food culture look like if Black people were allowed to thrive in these spaces. If Black people were still the majority in these spaces.

And so the format of that cookbook will be in the form of street tacos. It’s a nod to indigenous and, you know, American cuisine here as well. If you’re talking about Black folks’ outdoors cooking in beach settings, you have to talk about barbecue. And so it’s exploring all the different kinds of street and barbecue cultures in the sights across the country and actively reimagining what somebody might be cooking and eating today. 

Then the last little piece of it is also just kind of exploring our relationship with the outdoors and why the beach is so kind of significant.

Narrative Initiative: Okay, so I’m based in Florida, Jacksonville, Florida, specifically, and there’s a very famous Black beach just to the north of us, American Beach. And then there’s also Paradise Park to the south of me. It’s not necessarily a beach, but it’s like a Black water park comparable to Silver Springs. But the most familiar [Black beach] for a lot of people would be the story of Bruce Beach out on the West Coast that was recently returned to the descendants. What is it about Black beach culture and Black foodways that made you want to just look at that intersection in your series?

Devon Hamilton: It really is my own lens and journey into both food, equity work, and justice work. A lot of my background is in food systems and food justice. And my own family and personal story is also connected. 

Devon Hamilton

I did a tour where I drove across the country, and visited a lot of these sites and also visited family. . . When I was trying to reimagine what these spaces looked like, because food is my background, I couldn’t imagine them without the inclusion of food. I feel like that’s such a big communal piece for the Black outdoor experience; and barbecue is a piece of that. 

On my trip, I attended Dr. Howard Conyers “Roots of Barbecue” workshop in North Carolina, and that helped solidify the significance of barbecue culture, in Black economics and in the Black community. 

As I was reading about a lot of these different spaces, whether it’s New Orleans, New Jersey, or even getting up to Chicago and the Great Lakes, food often was a piece of it, or businesses surrounding these beach sites were food-oriented, and people came for those reasons and enjoyed the beach as well. And so, that’s just the lens that I tend to view a lot of my work through. It’s not to say that these beaches are necessarily just food-focused or food-oriented, but they all had a piece of that tied to it.

Narrative Initiative: So, as a food justice advocate, I can’t help but think about how the language has been shifted away from saying that more marginalized, Black, urban communities are not necessarily food deserts, but they experience food apartheid, because it is a systematic and political divestment of food producers and grocers from those communities, which make them as such, which also translates to beaches that were segregated. And so since you can’t draw a line down the middle of the water [Black people] just couldn’t go to the beach. So Black people had to actively buy their own beaches. 

And so there is the real, tangible effects of lack of access to food in Black communities, that is also tied to lack of access to other more pleasurable parts of life, including going to the beach. So how does the cuisine of Black people outdoors, express, or illustrate the hardship and the joy of access?

Devon Hamilton: I’m not a researcher and each of these sites has so many overlying themes and stories and similarities, but they’re not the same by any means. Even talking about different regional food systems and what that looked like back in the day is very different. So, I think it helps paint a picture of things that we already know and [illustrates that] beach culture isn’t necessarily something that is a mainstream topic or something that’s been really considered or looked into before.  

Before, all that stuff was in the news [about Bruce Beach], people didn’t know that that was a Black Beach site. There’s another one in Santa Monica as well. And one that is no longer there anymore in Huntington Beach. And I think there’s connection to what’s happened [in the past] and the larger systemic failures that we see. In Black folks, just accessing, again, whether it’s spaces or just having joy and health, and all of those things. 

Chicken Bone Beach, for example is a beach in New Jersey [with a] very derogative name, but some folks have accepted it and kind of flipped it, while some others haven’t. But that beach in particular was called Chicken Bone Beach because Black folks ate chicken on the sand out there. And one of the stories is that folks would find bones in the sand sometimes. The reason why people brought [chicken] is because Black folks couldn’t go to the restaurants and had to bring non perishable food for the long bus rides that they would take out there and to have food that could withstand the heat in the summertime as well. So that’s a food systems issue right there. That is an issue of access. One that obviously looks different today, but has a very similar tone and thread to it that you could easily trace. 

Every site is different. Every site has a different kind of food history and story. [Oak Bluffs in] Martha’s Vineyard is an example of a really beautiful, vibrant, excellent Black Beach community where folks have the mountains. The stories vary. Not every story is going to have that access component to it, but many of them do. And when they do it’s just a really clear and relevant connection to a lot of the things that we’re still seeing today.

Narrative Initiative: You said that the book will also include recipes, because that’s your background. What kind of recipes are you looking to include?

Devon Hamilton: When I say taco, I mean, a very loose definition—pushing the imagination of what that beach food culture could look like. Each site would have a different recipe and that recipe would be based on the regional food and local food cultures, as well as the beaches themselves. 

I’m still working on the recipes. They’re not complete. But, you know, talking about beaches in the Carolinas, I’m going to be talking about whole hog. Maybe somebody brings out a bunch of meat from a whole hog they cooked, which is Carolina barbecue, like hands down, and you make a taco out of that somehow. You can also talk about the inclusion of oysters as well over there. In Lincoln Beach in New Orleans there were stories about it being just a reptile-infested area, and so talking about what are some of the meats that kind of fit into— 

Narrative Initiative: An atchafalaya taco?

Devon Hamilton: Exactly. That’s also a piece of the story of New Orleans as well. And so each of these recipes will reflect bits of those histories, and will kind of have a storytelling component to why each of those ingredients were picked up and chosen. That’s all still in the works, lots of recipe development and taste testing, because I mean, I’m talking about oyster aiolis and things like that. Things you wouldn’t really think would go together, but trying to make it into a really beautiful story that you can kind of fit in your mouth.

Narrative Initiative: I recently read a book and there was an essay by Bryant Terry, the editor of Black Food. In his essay, he says that he learned from famed Black culinary chefs from the late 1800s, early 1900s, to write cookbooks as memoirs, because food is a sign of memory. That said, what memories and stories about food ways and Black beach culture do you want to surface in your book?

Devon Hamilton: Firstly, I want it to be a reflection of first hand accounts of what [Black beach culture] was like. I talked to researchers about some of these sites, folks who have written about them, or are the directors of cultural programs that includes them as well. Some of the folks I spoke with have firsthand or [secondhand] relative experience with the sites themselves, whether that’s speaking to the experience back in the day, or what’s going on today. 

Ideally, I would love to write about them in the way that they were and not shy away from the harsh realities that exist around that experience. And also really focus on the joy–what that space meant to folks and why access to a space like that was so important for them. 

But, the intention behind the project is to reconnect Black folks to spaces in the outdoors, to talk about, Yeah, we would fish, we would swim, we would go get dirty, we would get sand all up in our toes and stuff like that–and not to say that Black people don’t do that. But there is a gap in that outdoors experience. Being able to show and speak on what it looked like back in the day—not that long ago—and then also say, “Hey, these are where some of these sites still exist, you should go check them out,” and also connecting [people to] other resources around exploring the outdoors and just re-engaging with the natural world. I would love for this project to both connect folks to where they can get involved and engage themselves, as well as uplift the people who are already doing this work and this research and who hold that knowledge. 

Narrative Initiative: What of your own memories do you want to share in your book?

Devon Hamilton: I grew up in Leimert Park in Los Angeles. It’s in like the Crenshaw area. I didn’t know any natural anything. . .I got a scholarship to go to school in Wisconsin, my senior year [of high school], and that’s where everything really changed for me–being able to see the outdoors, being able to see agricultural systems and where the food system started. And I was doing my work on my own background around that same time. My mom was adopted. And my dad wasn’t super connected to his family. So our family has always been pretty small. But as I’m kind of getting this natural world awakening, I was also discovering a lot about my family at the same time. My mom found her mom’s side of the family–they still live in LA–and we were able to meet them. And just a couple of years ago, she actually met her biological dad who lives out in Cincinnati, Ohio, and a huge part of the family that lives out that way, as well. 

On my dad’s side, [I’m part Italian] and a previous partner of mine was studying abroad in London and I helped her move some of her stuff and we made a trip out of it. And I was like, “Let’s checkout Italy. I have my dad’s old last name, let me just see if, in the town that he’s from, we can find somebody, and eventually [I] found my entire family in a small town in Italy. I met with them and they have a farm and their own crops and pork and sausages that they make and everything and——

Narrative Initiative: Doing food is in your blood, basically. 

Devon Hamilton: Exactly. Yeah. And then after we found that part of the family, we found the rest of the family that lives in Pennsylvania, who I got to meet for the first time on this tour. And a lot of them come from agricultural backgrounds as well. 

And you know, seeing the food culture and the agricultural systems and the significance of that relationship with the natural world—all of those experiences are kind of coming full circle. Not that they were all around this project, but when reflecting about my own family history, when reflecting about my own connection to land and food and its relation to this project, it’s absolutely interwoven in my family and my pursuit to kind of understand my own roots as well. 

This project has helped put a lot of those things in perspective and strengthen my relationship with wanting to stay and remain kind of rooted in that experience. And I want to encourage others to trace [their lineage] as well. One of the interviewees for the project is a woman who connects Black people to their ancestors who were homesteaders way back in the day, and owned land. Sometimes those families still own land. And sometimes there were really wild ways in which they lost it. So encouraging that type of exploration, that’s what I’ve learned from this project, and what I hope folks will take from it.


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