My Soul Looks Back: A Memoir by Jessica B. Harris
James Baldwin has recently seen a resurgence in popularity thanks to young folks like Yara Shahidi who openly tout their love for him and his works as well as the most recent documentary about him called I Am Not Your Negro (10/10 would recommend, btw). Jessica B. Harris was a part of Baldwin’s New York circle in the 1970s, and while this book is about her life as a part (and outsider) of that circle, I was initially intrigued by the opportunity to gain another perspective on the great James Baldwin — and from a Black woman at that. Harris offers much more.
At the center of this book is friends and food. Harris shapes the text by following her relationship with Sam Clemens Floyd III, Baldwin’s best friend and, in many ways, the secondary centrifugal force that drives the group. As Harris finds herself enveloped in this group of friends that includes forces such as Maya Angelou and Nina Simone, she seems also to be navigating her own growth and transition into adulthood. She was quite young when she met Sam Floyd, and he was several years her senior. She was also several years junior to almost all the members of the friend group, and in some ways, her youth distanced her from the others. They doubted her naiveté and how she got to be there. Clemens was popular among the ladies both in and out of their circle (and SPOILER ALERT — men, it comes to later be revealed), so Harris also found herself having the parse the competitive nature of being involved with him.
This is also a story of place. Harris describes New York City of the 70s as “the hub-over-the-universe city” (pg. 3). She goes on, “…the vitality of the friendships, the commitment to activism, and the joie de vivre of those heady days remain as palpable as the intertwined connective tissue of the lives that were lived then” (pg. 4). Of course this is a world traveling crew, so Harris’ story takes us to Paris and Haiti and throughout America, but she always lands back in New York. The city is central to the way that Harris and her friends exist — they have bars and restaurants that they frequent, expectations for weekend events, certain homes that often host dinner parties. The city is truly their oyster, and I can only imagine how exciting it must have been to be in James Baldwin and Maya Angelou’s court in the midst of thier heyday. She experienced a live reading of what would become If Beale Street Could Talk in a little cottage in the South of France with Jimmy, as she called him, and Sam, and once had a chance encounter with the already legendary Nina Simone.
Jessica Harris has gone on to become an accomplished chef and writer in her own rite, and at the conclusion of every chapter is a recipe for a dish that was either talked about or actually made in the story that Harris lays out. Food, what they ate where and when, and the atmosphere of the location serve as one of the driving factors of the text. She talks about how cooking brought her and Sam together, and the times that Maya Angelou cooked for huge dinner parties, and once, more intimately, just for her, at her home. In many ways the recipes tell a story as well, of the foods that remind Harris of her childhood home and their traditions; of the flavor of her young, complicated relationship with Sam; the taste of loss once the AIDS epidemic lay wreckage among her friends; of the fullness of coming into yourself; of the familiarity of returning home or to an old friend. I imagine if you cooked your way through them all as you read the book, you would have the most complete understanding and experience of this glimpse into Harris’ life.
I deeply enjoyed My Soul Looks Back because it remembers a time of Black life and imagination that gave us some of our greatest thinkers, artists and leaders. Jessica Harris is one of those; don’t let James Baldwin or Maya Angelou overshadow her. She deserves to be recognized and stand on her own merit. She has published twelve cookbooks that highlight the food and breadth of the African diaspora, and has numerous awards and accolades for her work in food history. You should read this book if you want to see a side of the life of Black New York’s finest and most esteemed that you’ve never seen before, and if you want to check out some amazing recipes that were cooked and enjoyed by those same folks.
Have you read My Soul Looks Back? What did you think? Let me know in the comments below!