Tunde Wey is using the food of his native Nigeria to start conversations about America and race. He tells Von Diaz about his own immigrant experiences and what he thinks his Blackness in America dinners can accomplish.
Von Diaz: Tunde, you were picked up by immigration enforcement some years ago. Can you tell me what happened?
Tunde Wey: In January 2015, I was heading to Los Angeles for dinner. At that time, I was traveling to different cities and cooking Nigerian food, so that was going be one of my stops. I was taking the Greyhound bus in New Mexico. It was an immigration checkpoint, so they stop the bus. The border patrol fellow came on the bus and started asking people for their papers. They asked me if I was an American and I said, “No.” Then I was detained.
VD: For how long?
TW: About 20 days.
VD: Ultimately, your family helped you get out of detention, right?
TW: Yes, yes. Everybody rallied.
VD: Then you went back to cooking?
VD: You were doing these pop-up Nigerian dinners all over the country when you were detained. You ended up in New Orleans, and then it seems like the goal of your pop-ups shifted. Can you tell me how you started doing the Blackness in America dinners?
TW: I wish I knew the moment, but I don’t. I had always felt it necessary, I don’t know why, to separate my overt political positions and feelings from my work. I just wanted to cook and drink and enjoy myself. In my non-work life, as with most other people, I was concerned and interested in politics and social justice. This was the time when the reports of black folks being killed by police started reaching a crescendo. It’s still at a crescendo right now, a sustained crescendo, but all of this was happening around that time.
There’s a general awareness or shift in the national conversation around the issues of identity, race, and blackness, and I was responding to that. When I started cooking, I felt like my work was to prick and challenge the dominant food culture, and that quickly became frivolous in the face of what this food culture represents, which is a larger system of power.
VD: Tell me about your dinners. What are they like?
TW: Basically it’s a conversation between myself and a special guest, and that special guest is black. They live in the city where the dinner is being held. We’re having this conversation over a meal with other diners. This conversation expands to include everybody, and we talk about, quote unquote, “blackness.”
VD: Who comes to these dinners?
TW: Mostly people come to these dinners (laughs). If you’re looking for a demographic profile, what I do is I make the room majority black. It’s a majority minority room, mostly people of color. It’s America.
VD: What do you typically serve?
TW: Nigerian food exclusively. Stuff like jollof rice, fried plantains, moi moi, which is a steamed bean cake, and stewed vegetables like egusi, which is a ground melon seed stew.
VD: What do you want from the dinner?
TW: I want many things from the dinner. What I want is what everyone wants: for discrimination to stop and racism to end. Personally, I don’t think that is possible, at least not in my lifetime, so I think it’s important not to conflate action with absolution, because it implies that somehow this 400-year-old problem is solvable with a couple of administrative strokes. That’s not true.
The dinner is an action. As I do more of these dinners, I want to connect the action that happens in the room to action that happens on the ground, and see how we could create tangible responses to things that happen in those communities. Those are parallel actions that need to happen, but we also need a space to accommodate the reality that this problem isn’t quite solvable, at least not in the framework that we understand solutions. A lot of times solutions just masquerade an inability to be uncomfortable.
I don’t know if that answers your question. I just want people to be happy and not be discriminated against, especially black folks. The dinner obviously doesn’t do that because there is no one thing that can do that, but the aspiration for the dinner is that.