Every dining room table is different. Some are completely clear. Some are always set. Some hold vases, centerpieces or other decorative objects to help personalize the space. Our dining room table is always very generous to us. At any given time you can find it completely clear or crowded with a bunch of items—a three-wick candle, mail, books, my MacBook Pro, my husband’s camera, a stack of money, Chap Stick, a pair of AirPods. Our dining room table is the queen of all spaces in our home. It carries our fears and secrets. It offers us a place to eat our meals, sit, rest, and reflect.
I am conflicted whenever our table is packed with things. Sometimes the crowding symbolizes a thriving life because usually, when it is packed, my husband and I are busy with work, clients, meetings, projects and deadlines. Normally, this means money is being brought in and our creative minds are at work—a good thing. But on the flip side, the crowding can symbolize strain and dog-tired days. When it gets too crowded, I am reminded that we need to slow down, perhaps turn down a project or two. Take a break. And then, I clear the table off. I get paper towels and Windex and wipe off dust, eraser shavings, smudge and cup ring marks. The clear table feels refreshing. It’s as if we’ve opened up a new document in Microsoft Word. We get to start again.
I grew up eating all of my meals at the dining room table. We had one of those hexagon shaped tables with a glass top and four chairs. The backs of the chairs were rattan. A lot of Black homes had this set in the 1980s. The chairs resembled that famous peacock chair Huey Newton sat in when Eldridge Cleaver photographed him in 1967, except our chairs were shaped like a square, not a peacock. My mother would yell at us if she saw my brother or I trying to poke our fingers through the holes of the backs of the chairs. Sometimes I’d visit family or friends and the backs of their chairs would be destroyed. Picture holes in a screen door. My mother would’ve had a fit. She wanted her furniture to look nice and last. She always kept a clear table. At an early age, we were being taught how to respect our things, each other and ultimately, ourselves. Completing chores and taking care of our belongings was not seen as punishment or work. Cleaning and keeping things clean sometimes felt like a celebration in our house. My mother would blast her music, usually something by Anita Baker, and we’d clean and sing and clean and sing.
I always felt proud to have a dining room table. It was the first piece of furniture that I learned to really take care of. Clear it off. Wipe it down. Push in the chairs. “Act right” at it. My brother John and I learned table manners at the dining room table. We couldn’t put our elbows on it. We couldn’t lean back in the chairs. We couldn’t speak with our mouth’s full of food. We couldn’t drink our beverage until most of our food was gone. We couldn’t leave the table until we finished our food. We did not eat until everyone had their food and were ready to eat. We blessed the food before we ate. There was this one time when my cousin Daryl came over and we were trapped at the table because none of us could finish our peas. We were not leaving the table until we finished all of our food. We longed to go back outside to play, but when my mother’s mind was made up, it was made up. Daryl and my brother always ate with their shirts off because we were usually always coming from the swimming pool that was across the street from our townhouse. They started playing with the peas by placing them in their front trapezius muscles. They said they were hiding the peas. We laughed so hard until we got in trouble for playing with our food.
When my grandmother was still alive we always had Sunday dinner at her house. We ate there on holidays as well. She cooked like she went to culinary school. Her cornbread should’ve won awards. Her Thanksgiving should be in somebody’s award-winning soul food cookbook. And she could bake too. Her peach cobbler, sweet potato pie and yellow cake with chocolate frosting were the best part of the occasion. At this time in my life I was too young to sit at the dining room table. The dining room table was for the young adults and grown folk. I sat in the kitchen at the kitchen table until I was about fifteen or sixteen. My grandmother’s dining room table was wooden, long and dark. She used a silky white tablecloth to cover it on holidays, especially Christmas and Thanksgiving. I remember the table always being packed with dishes of food. After dinner, we’d always play Pokeno or Monopoly at the dining room table. Those were some of the best times.
My dining room table stories lessened the older I got. One clear memory sticks out from college. It was 2000 and Erykah Badu had just released her second album, Mama’s Gun. My friend Bena was going through a bad breakup. She had been dating the starting running back and things didn’t work out between the two of them. It was a bitter breakup. We sat at her dining room table and listened to all of Mama’s Gun in one sitting. When we came to the last song on the album, “Green Eyes,” we were frozen. It felt like we were listening to a Billie Holiday song. We knew we were about to feel something enduring. The 10-minute song about Badu’s break-up with Outkast’s Andre “3000” Benjamin made Bena cry so hard and long we forgot we were even listening to music. It’s one of those moments we’ll never forget and every time we reminisce about it we always mention the table.
Never buy a cheap dining room table. The chairs will begin to shift and wobble. Consider your guests. Everyone ain’t small. Buy something sturdy and durable. My roommates and I could only afford cheap sets while we were in college. This was problematic. Football players were our friends. We cooked a lot of dinners and invited them over to eat. I’m willing to bet their two hundred pound bodies are the reason why our chairs weakened over time.
When I lived alone I never sat at the dining room table to eat. Something about sitting at the dining room table alone felt like too much of a lonely act. But, I always purchased dining room tables for my apartments. The one I loved the most was from Target. It was small and wooden, a four-piece set. I decorated it with a small table runner and four blue place mats. I never set it with dishes. Sometimes I’d have friends over and we’d sit at the table and talk for hours. This was during the time I had quit my job to record a spoken word album and go on tour. Ain’t no telling how many dreams I fantasized about at that table.
My aunt Rosa has one of the prettiest dining room tables I’ve ever seen. It’s a carved eight-piece set. Every so often we get together for Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner at her house. Mostly everything in her home is white. Her table is always set with fine china. She usually has some kind of white floral centerpiece with two tall candles at its sides. The candles are never lit. The dinners at her house are always bittersweet because so many of our relatives are typically absent from them. They are absent because many of them have passed on. I often wonder how my mother would act at her big sister’s dining room table. I picture them reminiscing, eating green olives from an olive tray and laughing at everything and nothing like two teenaged girls.
I was thirty-five years old the first time I had a formal dinner at a dining room table. One of my husband’s clients invited us over for Passover. The table was lavishly set for ten guests. There were name cards at each place setting. First, I was a bit in shock because I had never seen place cards at a table, and secondly, I could not believe my name wasn’t next to my husband’s name. The night was kind of wild and strange. They served brisket, gefilte fish, matzo ball soup and Brussels sprouts. At one point during the dinner we each had to read from the Haggadah, a book that is read that tells the story of Passover. I had never read aloud during dinner at the dinner table.
The next day, I looked up seating etiquette for formal dinners. I learned the following:
- Formal dinners have a host and hostess.
- A female guest of honor sits to the right of the host.
- A male guest of honor sits to the right of the hostess.
- Husband and wife do not sit next to each other.
- Guests of the same gender do not sit next to each other.
- You can’t change your place card.
So, according to these rules, my husband and I were the guests of honor that night. We had no idea.
Now I sit at my dining room table every day. It is a four-piece set with a round glass tabletop. The actual table is a hand-me-down from my husband’s brother, Foy. When Foy moved to California he left the table behind. I bought a set of four chairs from Wayfair to match it. You would never guess that it’s put together in this way. The chairs are a perfect match. So much happens at this table—conversing, eating, drawing, smoking, drinking, writing, reading, hair twisting and braiding, and game playing.
A little while ago, Donald and I had one of the realest and most honest conversations we’ve ever had at our dining room table. I had been drinking white wine so I was sort of all in my feelings. We were talking about raising a child. We sat at the table for hours and hours. I wanted to know how raw and transparent we planned on being once we began raising a child. What will we tell our child about sex? When are we going to talk to our child about racism and what they will be up against in the world? How will we handle those rough conversations about generational trauma, illness, poverty and oppression?
Donald and I grew up very differently. I was sheltered. My parents were very protective when it came to exposing me to the harsh realities of life. We never talked about sex. No one told me about white supremacy. My mother didn’t have a conversation with me about the alcohol abuse that runs in my family. We did not know the reason behind everyone’s cigarette smoking addiction. If something was bothering my mother, she never shared it with us. Often times, my mother would be talking on the phone with a friend or family member and if I walked into the room she would stop talking mid sentence and look at me with eyes that said, you are too young to hear this. She did not have to tell me to leave the room. Her eyes said it all. I’d walk away longing for whatever story or gossip she was about to share. And my parents rarely argued in front of us. We never knew what was going on with them financially or emotionally. I can’t even recall a time when I witnessed either one of them crying. John and I had the ultimate experience of just being kids.
It was the opposite for Donald. He had to grow up fast. He was exposed to it all—violence, poverty, and crime. But, Donald was not exposed to alcohol or cigarette abuse. His mother and all of his aunts did not smoke or drink. And unlike myself, Donald was the older sibling. He was responsible for taking care and watching out for Foy. He has stories about the responsibility of having to cook at the age of nine. He can tell you stories about how it felt and what it meant to be a latchkey kid. He witnessed his mother and father physically fighting. His mother talked to him about sex. “A baby changes everything,” she told him at fourteen.
As a child, I was spoiled. Donald was an independent soldier. I grew up in Euclid, a suburb of Cleveland. He grew up in Cleveland on the southeast side, far from the suburbs. I was familiar with white classmates and teachers. Donald was not. My family only moved four times from the time I was born until I was eighteen. Donald moved at least thirty times in this timeframe. So what happens when these backgrounds marry and make plans to raise a child? Will I instinctively want to shelter our child? Will Donald want to expose our child to all truths? Which topics will we hesitate to discuss early on? These were my questions and this was our conversation:
When I ask Donald about timing and hard topics, he suggests we interact with our child the same way we interact with the young people we currently work with. “You tell them when it’s appropriate,” he offers. I think about my parents and imagine a moment when our child recognizes that my parents are absent while Donald’s are present. The moment is almost too much for me to handle. But, Donald and I agree that we will tell our child the truth about my parents—they are no longer living. The dining room table holds all of this.
And what to do when the child asks us about who we are in addition to mommy and daddy? “We usually underestimate how much people really learn from how we behave and how we move,” Donald replies. Put it this way: a child repeats some of the same bad habits of their parents because the parents are unaware of the bad cycles they are in. We will share with our child who we are simply because we are aware of who we are.
The conversation shifts. We begin talking about being in tune with the realities that come with being black. I had just finished reading Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit by Aisha Sabatini Sloan and I recalled the last essay in the book, “Caldera.” Sloan was in Oregon at a writing retreat and decided to take a solo hike. While hiking, she heard gunshots. She was afraid. Eventually she ran into a family who was hunting, which explained the gunshots. Sloan said she felt foolish for thinking she was ever safe. See. I don’t want my child to EVER FORGET that they don’t have the same level of safety, protection and freedom as everyone else. I want them to always remember that because they are Black, safety begins to vanish the second they leave the house. “Your child is going to be in tune,” my husband reminds me, settling my nerves. Then, I correct him: “our child.”
Donald recalls a similar story to Sloan’s. He tells me about a time when he was in Athens, Ohio out in the woods trying to photograph the sunset. When he laid out all of his photography equipment on the hood of his trunk, a white boy driving a pick-up truck rolled by. “And when the pick-up truck rolled by, I packed all my shit up.” He says when he got back in the car the pick-up truck rolled past him again. He was nineteen. We reverse the situation and I tell him that I don’t think I would’ve left at nineteen. I wouldn’t have left because I would’ve thought everything was fine. “I’m NEVER thinking ANYTHING is fine!” he exclaims. We pause. I tell him I’ve learned and realized, in many cases because of him, that I have to be alert and aware of danger at all times. “Exactly, which means, ‘lil shorty’ gon’ be good.” We laugh.
“But, I don’t want our child to be afraid,” I explain to Donald. He tells me that being afraid doesn’t matter. “I’ve been walking around afraid my whole life,” he says. We pause until Donald laughs. Being afraid is a real feeling. Our child will know this.
At that moment, I share a story about feeling as if I was at an advantage because I haven’t experienced the same types of encounters with the police as my husband. I tell Donald about my car ride home from earlier that day. I was on my phone looking at a house that was for sale. “I saw at least four cops.” I tell him that my natural reaction was no reaction. I did not feel afraid. I did not feel nervous. I was not uncomfortable at the sight of the cops. I even stayed on my phone. But then, something clicked inside of me and I became very afraid. I started thinking about my reality. I am a Black woman. If one of the cops pulls me over I know there is a possibility my life could end. I tell Donald how stupid I felt by NOT thinking that I am always in danger. “But, it isn’t stupid. You’re conditioning is different,” Donald explains.
I confess again. I mention the time when the police were at our house because some kids had broken into our shed and garage and stolen eight-hundred-dollar bikes from us. “I felt like you were safe because I was present,” I say to him. We pause. I ask him if I was being naïve. He says that my thinking was not naïve. In many ways, I was right. “I’m triggered when I see the lights,” Donald admits. He tells me how he was aware that if he went outside and startled the cops that night, he knew he could’ve been killed. So, he proceeded with caution. “It took a lot of concentration. I didn’t need the police to accidentally see me when I came outside to find out what was going on because that’s how I get shot,” he says. I tell Donald that I was upset he went outside that night to talk to the police. I was so afraid they would mistaken him for a criminal and shoot him. He tells me I didn’t need to be afraid because “the motherfucka running from them ain’t the motherfucka talkin’ to them.” He cracks up laughing. I don’t laugh, but I recognize that he has a point. A criminal is less likely to approach a cop and spark up a conversation. “I was your shield that night,” I say.
We begin to talk about our interactions with white people growing up. Everything was a competition and we both knew we had to work twice as hard to get ahead. I start to reminisce about the first time I got my “nigga check.” It’s interesting because it was not my experience, but it was my brother’s experience. However, I felt everything he felt growing up, so it felt like it was my experience too. If John got in trouble, I felt like I was in trouble. If John was sad, I was sad. If John was in a bad mood it rubbed off on me.
John decided to play AAU summer basketball with his black team instead of playing with his white baseball team. He was punished for it. By the time the school basketball season came around, my brother got sat. He was on the bench and rarely played. The basketball coach, who was also the baseball coach, replaced my brother’s starting point guard position with a white boy. A different white boy made the same choice my brother made over his summer and he still had a starting spot on the team. Straight bullshit.
I tell Donald about the second time I really remember feeling treated unfairly because I was young and black. I was twenty-five years old and working at a nonprofit arts organization. I had just been hired. When they offered me the job they told me I would have my own office. I was excited and proud of myself. I felt official. On my first day of work my supervisor greeted me and led me to the receptionist area. She also introduced me to another white woman, Anne, who also had just been hired. It was the first day of work for both of us. When we reached the receptionist area, my supervisor said, “This is where you’ll be sitting.” I was puzzled. “What happened to my office?” I asked her. “You’re going to sit out here for now,” she said. They had given my office to Anne.
Donald listens like a student. I begin to get upset as I recall these memories. I fidget with the Chapstick in front of me, readjust my body in the chair. We talk for another hour or so. I admire the table’s hospitality.
In the days since our conversation, I think about the significance of our dining room table. I remember the first few times we sat at it. We were relieved when we finally transitioned from eating our meals on TV trays to an actual table. Convenience. That same sense of pride I felt as a little girl returned once Donald and I began spending time at our table. I mean, I know it’s part hand-me-down, but there is pride even in that. Our table has a story. I’ll have to ask Foy about its origins.
The wildest thing about all of this is that our dining room table does not sit in our dining room. It’s in our living room. It sounds weird, but it works. We keep one of the chairs is in the basement. A tall, silver lamp replaces it at the table. There is no real specific reason for this type of positioning—it just happened this way. Funky. I know.
Our table never weakens. It is sturdy. It holds all we have to share. I love how consistent it remains. How it prepares for us each day. How it connects us. How it is a place of habit. Donald has his chair. I have mine. Very rarely do we change our seats. If I sit in his seat it feels strange, as if the room has shifted. So much of his body and energy is present on his side of the table. I can feel it. And whenever I get a hint of his scent, I smile.