Thanksgiving according to The AJC’s Black culture reporters

Four staff members reflect on family, food and fellowship
A Thanksgiving 2016 photo of AJC Senior Editor Mike Jordan's family, taken inside the home of his late mother, Constance Wilson (far right).

Credit: Mike Jordan

Credit: Mike Jordan

A Thanksgiving 2016 photo of AJC Senior Editor Mike Jordan's family, taken inside the home of his late mother, Constance Wilson (far right).

There is no such thing as a singular Black Thanksgiving experience. The holiday means different things for different people.

As we all prepare to celebrate, several reporters who cover Black culture for The AJC, among other topics, took a moment to consider what Thanksgiving means to them.

Read below as Mirtha Donastorg, Ernie Suggs, DeAsia Paige and Mike Jordan share intimate and personal reflections on celebration, tradition and togetherness.

A time for togetherness

AJC reporter Mirtha Donastorg makes cranberry sauce on Thanksgiving in November 2020.

Credit: Mirtha Donastorg

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Credit: Mirtha Donastorg

For my family, Thanksgiving recipes started at the grocery store checkout line. When my parents moved to the United States from the Dominican Republic in the early ‘90s, Thanksgiving was not a holiday they’d celebrated. The first time my mom ever roasted a turkey, she didn’t realize there were giblets inside before cooking.

It was ruined.

So, me, my parents and my two sisters slowly created our own traditions. As a kid, my sisters and I would get (or rather, we’d make our parents buy) the November issues of Southern Living, Better Homes and Gardens, O Magazine and Country Living. We’d lay all our magazines out on the dining room table, sticky tabs at hand, and scour their pages for enticing recipes. Whatever we agreed on is what we would make that year – and yes, us three would handle the cooking with the occasional assist from my parents.

One year we decided on a turkey recipe that required us to rub it down with smoked paprika 24 hours before cooking (highly recommend, gives you a smoked turkey flavor without having to pull out a Big Green Egg). Another year we decided to try the recipe that told us to cook the turkey with bacon strips laid all over its back (overall was fine, looked more interesting than it tasted).

Eventually, we started to find our favorites. After trying Bobby Flay’s goat cheese, wild rice and chorizo stuffing, it became a staple. And after I made cranberry sauce from scratch one year, it was decided that I would do it again every year (despite my disliking cranberry sauce).

There were also a few Dominican dishes on the table every year like moro de guandules con coco (rice with pigeon peas and coconut milk) and ensalada rusa (potato salad with beets). Some years the house would be filled with cousins, their kids and my aunt, uncle and grandma who had all made the eight-hour drive to Auburn, Alabama, from Florida, where a portion of my family had settled. Other years it was just us five.

While the food cooked, we would start putting up the Christmas tree, with Charlie Brown Christmas and Sufjan Stevens’ “Silver and Gold” album playing in the background. After dinner, we would put all our names in a bowl and choose our family Secret Santa.

Now, my sisters and I are scattered across three corners of the U.S. while my parents are still in Alabama, so laying out a stack of magazines on a dining table to choose recipes isn’t feasible. But every year, we still spend Thanksgiving with each other, whether that means we meet up in New York, Atlanta or Auburn. Togetherness is our main tradition. - Mirtha Donastorg

Optimism endures

My family mostly stretches from Atlanta to Nashville, with a heavy concentration of relatives near the state line between Tennessee and north central Alabama. Growing up in Huntsville, Alabama, my mom and I had to drive just over an hour to be with kin on weekends and during holidays like Thanksgiving.

Our family Thanksgiving gatherings have always been full of Black Southern classics when it comes to food. Roasted and stewed meats were central, as were large pots of vegetables, including a mix of turnip and collard greens, desserts like sweet potato casserole (which always ended up on the same plate as the turkey, dressing, green beans and potato salad), plenty of fresh corn sourced from gardens and small farms in towns like Bridgeport, Alabama, and lots of golden cornbread, some sweet and some savory, cooked and served inside cast iron skillets made at the Lodge factory in South Pittsburg, Tennessee, where my dad’s side of the family hails from.

Roasted turkey and baked ham from Jordan's 2016 family Thanksgiving in Huntsville, Ala.

Credit: Mike Jordan

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Credit: Mike Jordan

For generations I’ve had family members who’ve worked at Lodge. Some years for Christmas my aunt would give us small cast iron skillets and tell us to keep them for when we’d one day realize their cooking value. As children my cousins and I generally tried going upside each other’s heads with them instead.

There are other traditions we’ve adopted over the years for Thanksgiving, including playing the stock-trading board game Pit, and pretending to watch whatever live sporting event was playing (but really drifting off into a food coma on the couch). But my favorite tradition aside from preparing the food was always our pre-Thanksgiving-Dinner family circle.

My mother made a rule for whenever she hosted the dinner at our house. Before someone in the family blessed the food, giving the signal that we could fill our plates and then bellies, we would all stand in a large circle in her living room, hold hands and individually tell the group what we were thankful for since the last Thanksgiving. And you never knew what you were going to get. My aunt Karen would often talk about the difficulties her husband faced waiting for years on a kidney transplant. The year she was able to give thanks for Uncle Larry finally receiving one was a memorable and joyous moment indeed.

My grandmother, who turned 90 this month, would always give thanks not only for the family but her own good health, often advising the rest of us to not let our health troubles worry us or stress us out, but to have faith and do healthy things instead. A few years ago I awkwardly told our family circle that I was most thankful for optimism, and this strangely inherent case of it I was born with. My mother, who generally closes it out for the family, smiled, and gave her all-encompassing gratitude to God, from what was obviously a deeply-rooted sense of spirituality from her Baptist faith.

Mom passed away last October, somewhat suddenly, from a rare form of cancer. Two months later, during the December cold snap that burst water pipes all around the Southeast, her big, beautiful house in Huntsville flooded. Contractors completed the mitigation and repairs only a week ago, and we plan to sell the house soon.

There will be no more family circles in Mom’s house. But I’ll be cooking for some number of family who decide to visit us in East Point, and I’ve got lots of cast iron to work with. I’m sure there’ll be a crew of us willing to play Pit together, trading fake commodities loudly across my kitchen table. We’ll have a circle and give gratitude, carrying on tradition.

One thing I’ll be grateful for is my mother’s memory, especially a year after the Thanksgiving when I said I was thankful for optimism, of all the weird things to say. The very next year, as her statement of gratitude, she called out that moment, saying she was thankful that her only child sees the world as a place of hope. She said it inspired her to invest in her own optimism, and was thankful for that.

I’m hoping for a happy Thanksgiving to all who celebrate. Pessimism is understandable in today’s world, to say the least. But even though I won’t see Mom or hold her hand, I’m still thankful and optimistic as ever for great friends and family, and some really good food. - Mike Jordan

A holiday spent alone

Lately, the start of the holiday season for me always induces a deafening sense of loneliness that’s often too loud to ignore. I wish it didn’t. I’m an only child with no cousins my age. No grandparents. No uncles. So, growing up, family gatherings were already sparse. And when a family member dies, those gatherings often cease to exist. I can’t remember the last time I spent Thanksgiving with family.

Because of its dark history for Native Americans, Thanksgiving was a holiday that I never really cared much about. However, some Black families have reframed the holiday as a grandiose moment to share with loved ones and eat the best food you’ve ever had in your life. And it’s that aspect of the holiday that makes me yearn to have those same experiences with my own family. For at least three years, I’ve spent Thanksgiving and Christmas working, being alone or with a family that I met for the first time.

Last Thanksgiving, I unexpectedly landed at the home of Tupac Shakur’s family. They were so warm and welcoming. Their family is huge. Jasmine Guy even made an appearance - making a younger version of myself feel seen (Ok, the season finale of “A Different World” aired long before I was born, but I religiously watched reruns of the show on TV One and fell in love with it and Guy’s popular character, the one and only Whitley Gilbert).

Jasmine Guy is directing 'For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf' for True Colors Theatre Company. Brant Sanderlin

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But even while I was there, I couldn’t help but desire to have my own community of people to share the day with.

Sometimes, the start of the holidays signifies yet another time that I mourn the baby I almost had at 21. Maybe I’d feel less alone. Because, for once, I’d have someone who’s a part of me who could make me feel like I belong. This Thanksgiving, I don’t have plans to go anywhere. I’ve realized that I’d rather be alone than intrude on someone else’s family gathering.

I’ll likely watch “Friday After Next,” order takeout and adorn my apartment with Christmas decorations. Boyz II Men’s Christmas album (my favorite Christmas album of all-time) will ring in the background. There will be some Mariah Carey. Whitney Houston, too. Those are things that bring me joy on that day. But I long for the day when I can have my own family gatherings and create our own traditions that’ll last for generations. - DeAsia Paige

Of sweet potatoes

Thelma Suggs, the mother of AJC reporter Ernie Suggs, with her youngest son, Eric outside of their home in Brooklyn in the 1970s.

Credit: Ernie Suggs

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Credit: Ernie Suggs

I just need the sweet potato pie and sweet potato jacks.

You see, Thanksgiving doesn’t really excite me. Don’t get me wrong, I suppose it’s a great holiday. I get it – minus the whole exploitation of Native Americans thing.

But it was never a huge deal in my family.

Too much food for too few people.

My mom’s roots are Southern, having been raised in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. But in the 1960s, she moved to Brooklyn, New York, where she raised me and my brother as a single mother.

The move changed her from a country girl to a savvy New Yorker, attuned to cultural uplift and community building. And while she kept some of her Southern ways, cooking was not something she brought with her from North Carolina.

Those giant Southern spreads that Black families have to celebrate the holiday? Something out of the movie, “Soul Food?”

We never did that.

I don’t remember ever going to anyone’s house for Thanksgiving or anyone coming to ours. It was just the three of us.

And three people can’t eat a whole turkey.

For Thanksgiving, we would usually sit around the table and pray and give thanks for all of the good things that had happened to us that year. Then, at the most, she would cook up a few Cornish hens – one for each of us -- to pick at all week.

There would be some sides, but not bowls upon bowls of steaming hot vegetables and fresh cranberries. Nothing to distinguish it from any other Sunday dinner. Maybe some sweet tea, but more likely Kool-Aid after my brother and I would fight for what seemed like hours about what flavor to have.

Depending on what time we ate, we might even have Thanksgiving in front of the television watching Charlie Brown.

But then there was dessert. I have traveled all over the world and had some of the finest desserts known to mankind.

Nothing beats my mom’s sweet potato pie.

Like the Cornish hens, she would make each of us our own. With any leftover filling, or if she simply had an abundance of sweet potatoes, she would also fry a batch of sweet potato jacks.

Some call them hand pies, but I remember the smell and sound of her carefully placing a ladle-full of filling into the dough, folding it into a semi-circle, crimping it shut and dropping it into the hot grease.

That first hot bite, sweet and buttery, was all I needed. When I was in college, I would always get a bag full to take back to school.

My mom died in 2021 and I don’t think I have even thought about Thanksgiving hence.

I don’t even think I have had any sweet potato pie or sweet potato jacks since.

I miss them both. - Ernie Suggs