February is Black History Month. This is something that I have been aware of during my adult life but, frankly, it never meant much to me. I am very white and as much as I would love to make the claim that “I have a lot of black friends,” I don’t. I grew up in a close-knit, white neighborhood of Italian and Irish descent in Staten Island, New York. My professional career also was not one big on integration – the white collars in the world in which I have spent most of my adulthood primarily adorned the necks of other white people.
That said, race and culture have always fascinated me. I am sure it has something to do with the fact that the sum total of my personal exposure to black people during my formative years always took place on a New York City basketball court. I was adequate at the game in my teens and I attended a high school strong on City-wide athletics. I learned on those courts the language of commonality. I learned that while we all looked different and very much played the game differently, we were, all of us, just playing that same game for the love of it. We, regardless of color or station, beat the hell out of each other on the court and then hugged with respect when it was all over.
I struggled to reconcile my on-the-court-experiences with the rest of my existence. Cops and firemen made up the family and world from which I came and their institutional experience with communities of color in NYC was often far from collegial. As my friends and I matured, many of us began to adopt the views of our insulated communities – that different, whether applied to food, music, culture, race, etc., equals bad. This was certainly one of the many factors in my choosing to explore the world outside of my childhood home as soon as I possibly could.
By twenty-five I was working in Paris. Los Angeles came next followed by a home base in Manhattan and twenty years heavy on travel. Now I call Savannah home. I am a first-time restaurateur and I help to operate The Grey in a formerly segregated Greyhound bus terminal with my friend, business partner and Executive Chef Mashama Bailey, a black woman who is also from New York City. Black history is, quite literally, palpable in our space, our food and our ethos. The month of February has taken on new meaning for me. Our relationship and circumstance is somewhat unique, particularly in the current world order. But, that language of commonality I learned as a teen has come in handy.
Mashama and I primarily focus on providing our guests with a complete experience; no easy task, I assure you. But we also spend our time thinking about the larger community. We consider how what we have created here at The Grey and the history of this space in which we operate, now overseen by this talented and humble black Executive Chef, contributes to our community’s overall progress. Think about it – it was not long ago that Mashama would not have been allowed to use the front door of our space.
With this as context, we contemplate the idea that the whole may be much greater than the sum of the parts. And while we do not aspire to changing the world we do hope that together we might positively impact a life, or two, or, God willing, three through our work here at The Grey. We tap into the community as employers of people but more importantly we do strive to be an example of what results from strong work ethic combined with open mindedness. We strive to be part of an ever-evolving history.
I still do not have a lot of black friends but I do have a few more than I used to and I call that progress as well.