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Kinky Gazpacho: Life, Love & Spain

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Excerpt

Kinky Gazpacho

1: International Day

Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 1980.

Third grade.

Right before dismissal.

We were sitting on the rug at the end of the day listening to Mrs. Fletcher explain about International Day. It was going to be something new and exciting and we were all going to participate. The gymnasium would be transformed into an international bazaar and there was going to be food and games and decorations from all over the world. I looked around at my classmates to see if anyone else thought this sounded exciting. Blank stares all around. Mrs. Fletcher continued, undeterred by our collective lack of enthusiasm. “So regular classes will be suspended for the entire day…,” she started, and then of course everyone perked up. “And we will spend the afternoon at the bazaar learning about different cultures. And the best part is you don’t have to wear your uniforms.” Some of the kids whooped and hollered at that. I didn’t really care. I actually liked my Black Watch plaid jumper with the gold buttons on the shoulders. It made me feel official. And my regular play clothes were not that cute anyway, thanks to having a mom who swore she could find the same designer clothing at the JCPenney warehouse that the other kids got from the Polo store and Laura Ashley.

Still, this bazaar thing had potential. I liked learning about different cultures and anything involving food and eating made me happy. My best friend was Japanese and I had already discovered a great love of tofu drenched in soy sauce. And thin, salty, crispy strips of seaweed made an excellent snack food. Thanks to Miko, I even knew how to say “grandma,” “grandpa,” and “soy sauce” in Japanese. And I could eat rice with chopsticks. Nobody else in my class could do that. I was about to raise my hand and offer up this bit of information to Mrs. Fletcher and the rest of my classmates when I remembered that Mrs. Fletcher had recently commented to my parents that I asked too many questions in class and needed to exercise some self-control. My mother, believing there was no such thing as too many questions, suggested I simply wait until the teacher was done talking before I shot my hand up in the air. “Just don’t interrupt her so much,” is what my mother told me, so I willed my hand still and waited for her to finish her instructions so I could share my wealth of information about Japanese culture.

“So,” Mrs. Fletcher was saying, “instead of your uniforms you are all supposed to come to school dressed in the clothing of your ancestors. So if your family is German you can wear lederhosen or one of those cute dresses with the white pinafore.” This being Milwaukee, the majority of my white classmates claimed German heritage and got it right away. Melissa Konig raised her hand, a look of concern wrinkling her lightly freckled face. “What if you’re German on one side and French on the other?” she asked. Mrs. Fletcher laughed. “You can pick whichever part of your heritage you want to display.” Another kid raised his hand. “What if we don’t know our heritage?” Again laughter from the teacher. “Your parents know exactly where they came from,” she assured us. “And that’s part of the reason for this day. We want you to investigate where you come from and share it with the school community. You can bring in decorations or foods or pictures or anything. The entire lower school will be involved.”

Suddenly Japanese culture wasn’t important anymore. I felt my cheeks burn. If they hadn’t been brown, everyone would have noticed that they were red. I tried not to make eye contact with anyone, in case they noticed my discomfort or figured out my shame. My ancestors were slaves! I was the descendant of a group of people kept as chattel, who lived in shacks, worked themselves to death, and, if luck was on their side, fled up north with Harriet Tubman and disappeared. What was I supposed to do? Come to school dressed in rags with a handkerchief tied around my head? And food? Slaves didn’t get to eat good food. Maybe my mom could bring in some table scraps for everyone to sample. I could feel my heart beating loudly in my chest and my skin went cold. How was I going to deal with this? And me being the only Black child in my class, my shame was my own.

“Are there any other questions?” Mrs. Fletcher asked, looking directly at me. I quickly averted my gaze and shook my head no. I didn’t want her to bring up my predicament in front of everyone. Maybe she’d tell me I didn’t have to come to school on Friday, seeing as I didn’t have a “real” heritage like everyone else. Luckily the boys in my class, unable to sit still any longer, freed me from my dilemma by jumping up and heading to the coatroom, effectively ending the discussion.

I dragged myself out the door and to the front circle to wait for the school bus. The ride to our house in Shorewood, a suburb of Milwaukee that felt like city living with more trees, lasted an hour. Usually Vivian Cole and I sat in the very back seats and sang classic rock songs at the top of our lungs to pass the time, but this day, I sat alone in an anonymous middle seat and tried not to cry. Life was so unfair. It had never really bothered me before that I was the only Black girl in my class and one of only a handful in my entire private school. In fact, I barely even noticed. And as far as I could tell, nobody else noticed, either. Nobody ever referred to me as “that Black girl” or called me names. I was just Lori. Now everyone was going to know I was different. They’d realize my history made me something less than they were. I went from sad to angry. By the time Vince the bus driver called me out of my funk to let me know I was home, I felt royally cheated that I wasn’t from a legitimate country like Germany or England. Or someplace exotic like Greece, which is where Kristopher Stavros was from. For every birthday since the first grade, Kristopher’s mother had brought in homemade sticky-sweet baklava, which, she was always careful to explain in her heavily accented English, took hours to make. But little Kristopher was worth it. Which I always questioned, since in class little Kristopher was a major pain in the butt, but that’s not really important.

“What’s the matter with you?” my mother asked when I came shuffling through the front door. She was always home to get me off the bus, having worked the early shift at the hospital. I told her about International Day and my embarrassing predicament.

“Oh, don’t be so dramatic,” she said, pooh-poohing my self-inflicted trauma. “You can wear whatever you want. In fact, you can wear my red beret, and I saw this perfect blue dress the other day that looks just like Madeline’s from the book. You can be French,” my mother said.

“But we’re not French,” I squeaked, wanting to believe my mother had the right idea, imagining myself in an adorable French outfit to rival Melissa Konig’s. And I did look good in a beret. I’d tried on my mother’s when she was taking a nap.

“We might be,” my mother said. “I’ve always felt very drawn to French culture,” she added.

But this wasn’t ethnic Halloween. I could just imagine showing up at school all Frenchied up and then having to explain to people how a Black person could possibly be French. We’d all seen the same history books, and not once did I ever recall a single Black person in France. People would just laugh at me—or worse, call me a liar.

“Forget it,” I said to my mother. “I just won’t wear anything. I’ll just say we couldn’t find anything.”

“Lori, you’re being silly,” my mother tried again. “You could wear something Dutch. I know for sure that on your father’s side someone was Dutch. We could find some wooden clogs and—”

“Mom, Dutch people have blond hair and blue eyes. Like that boy on the paint can,” I interrupted. “Who is going to believe me when I say I’m Dutch?”

“Well you are partially Dutch,” my mother sniffed. This conversation was making her uncomfortable, which was making me uncomfortable. I wanted a solution from her that not only made sense, but would also put me back on equal footing with my friends. I wanted to wear a costume like everyone else and be like everyone else, but in this instance I couldn’t. And I couldn’t bear the thought of wearing an outfit that belonged to the slave-owning part of my heritage and then having to explain how we were connected. I didn’t feel as if I had permission to claim the master’s culture. It wasn’t ours for the taking. And I certainly wasn’t going to explain all this to the kids at my school on International Day.

My mother gave it one last effort. “Would you prefer to go dressed as an Indian? I know for a fact that my grandmother on my mother’s side was half Cherokee Indian.”

I left the room without answering.

It was true that my mother’s people had some real Native American blood in them. But who didn’t? My mother was born in Egypt, Mississippi, one of ten girls and one boy. Her family moved to Milwaukee when she was four and she never left, except for the two years in Cincinnati while my father got his MBA at Xavier University. On my dad’s side of the family, everyone always talked about an Indian relative on my grandmother’s side that was responsible for their high yellow skin color and almost indigo eyes. Like my dad’s. But no one had ever been able to tell me much about this phantom relative whenever I pressed for details. In fact, they couldn’t even confirm whether he was an Indian from India or a Native American.

As I lay across my bed, racking my brain trying to come up with some exotic element in my family tree, I realized how very little I actually did know. My mother’s family seemed to start and stop with my aunties and cousins. They were my family, my history, and my ancestors. Each auntie had her own “thing” that made her special. Mary was the cook. Minerva was the beauty expert. Linda Sue, the baby of the girls still living in Milwaukee, was the one you went to for laughs. I thought I had parts of them all in my body. My dad’s family all lived in Baltimore and we only saw them on holidays and sometimes in the summer. I never even bothered to ask my grandmother anything about where she came from. I figured if we descended from something special, then I’d have heard about it by now. I fell asleep on my bed dreaming of slave shacks and Harriet Tubman.

• • •

On Friday morning I put my uniform on. I considered pretending to be sick, but my parents didn’t allow that. My father had actually divided our tuition by the hours we were in school to calculate how much each class was worth, so he could say things like “If you miss an entire day of school, that’s thirty dollars down the drain. One class, you’re talking five bucks.” Plus, as uncomfortable as I was, I was still really interested in tasting all that international food. Miko’s family had recently taken my sister and me to a real German restaurant in Chicago and made us try snails dripping with butter and garlic. I was hoping that with all the Germans in my school, there’d be some of those at International Day.

When I got to school, all the kids in my class were wearing the expected lederhosen and cutesy pinafore dresses, berets, and knickers, and one kid had on a pair of wooden shoes. The one Indian boy in my class, Vikas, wore something made of silk that looked like a dress and had a funny name. Mrs. Fletcher didn’t even ask me where my costume was. She probably assumed I wouldn’t want to come dressed like a slave. I was relieved she didn’t ask me to explain myself.

The activities started at lunchtime. Our usual family-style meal was a smorgasbord of international flavors. We had bratwurst and apple turnovers, Swedish meatballs and some sort of Chinese stir-fry with crunchy noodles. No snails, though. After lunch we headed to the gym and were met with a riot of color and noise and information. We went around as a class first, visiting the different booths. Each booth represented a different country and was manned by volunteer parents in costumes. And then we were free to roam around, playing games, sampling sweets, and reading about distant lands. As I meandered around the gym, I completely forgot about my lack of heritage and just enjoyed all the activities with my friends. And then it was time for the parade of costumes, and I moved to the edge of the floor. I wasn’t the only one without a costume, though. Other kids had forgotten or couldn’t find anything to wear. I tried to act like I belonged with them.

By the time International Day was over, I felt like I had been holding my breath and I could finally let it go. All day long I had been praying nobody would ask me where I came from and why I wasn’t wearing a costume. The fact that they didn’t ask made me realize that they all probably knew and didn’t want to make me feel bad. Everybody knew that Black people came from nothing.

What Our Readers Are Saying

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Average customer rating based on 2 comments:

kymp322, June 7, 2009 (view all comments by kymp322)
This was a fantastic read! I found myself unable to put the book down, because I didn't want to miss a thing. I was overwhelmed with emotions...I laughed, cried, dropped my jaw in shock, and was filled with admiration for the woman's strength and perseverance. Kinky Gazpacho leads you to a place you didn't know existed. She teaches you that things are not always what they seem on the surface, and you need to look to the past in order to appreciate and comprehend the present.
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hollyord, June 1, 2009 (view all comments by hollyord)
I absolutely loved this memoir; it was a simple and lightweight read that packed a punch of reality that is undeniable. I devoured her memoir in utter anticipation of what her next move in life would be and was overjoyed over her boldness and determination to uncover a black past in a country where most of its citizen were unaware of the world that had come before and still revolved around them. The only flaw with the book is that it leaves you wanting to know and experience more of her life and general thoughts. Kinky Gazpacho will bring you on a journey that is so much more than merely a life led by a woman who dares to open her mouth and question her surroundings.
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Product Details

ISBN:
9780743296489
Author:
Tharps, Lori
Publisher:
Washington Square Press
Author:
Tharps, Lori L.
Subject:
General
Subject:
Women
Subject:
Historical - General
Subject:
General Travel
Subject:
Personal Memoirs
Subject:
Americans -- Spain.
Subject:
Milwaukee (wis.)
Subject:
Biography-Historical
Edition Description:
Trade Paperback
Series:
Wsp Readers Club
Publication Date:
20090531
Binding:
TRADE PAPER
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Pages:
240
Dimensions:
8.25 x 5.31 in 7.385 oz

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Related Subjects

Biography » General
Biography » Historical
Biography » Women
Travel » Travel Writing » Europe
Travel » Travel Writing » General

Kinky Gazpacho: Life, Love & Spain Used Trade Paper
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Product details 240 pages Washington Square Press - English 9780743296489 Reviews:
"Review" by , "Joining the ranks of such fine books as Frances Mayes's Under the Tuscan Sun and Sarah Turnbull's Almost French, Lori Tharps takes us on an adventure of love, language, and travel. In her capable hands, it's not a small world after all — but rather a big one, with much to discover and a great deal of fun to be had."
"Review" by , "With flawless agility, Tharps...juggles a coming-of-age story, a portrait of the writer as a young woman, a travel book and a detective story along with a memoir about learning to love oneself and one's world."
"Synopsis" by , Growing up and outsider in a white suburb, Lori Tharps dreamed of finding a place where race didn't matter. As an optimistic college student, she looked for that place in Spain. But her innocent dream was shattered when she discovered that racism is everywhere. Except, perhaps, in the heart of the Spaniard she unexpectedly falls for and marries — and that's where the adventure really begins.
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