This story is part of an ongoing partnership between Black Food Folks and Resy.
Yvonne Maxwell is a documentary photographer and writer based in London. She can be found on Instagram at @passthedutchpot. Her words follow.
As you exit Peckham Rye station, the sheer number of people that would never cross the invisible partition separating Rye Lane and Blenheim Grove feels remarkable – a partition that separates us from them. These people partake in the everyday segregation that exists in the food world, as they seldom question why their curiosities never seem to steer them to the many West African restaurants and eateries in a predominantly Black area.
It’s a trend that repeats itself in Brixton, an area historically known for being the epicentre for Black communities within the UK. The neighbourhood is soundtracked by evangelists and Black Hebrew Israelites with megaphones, incense sellers and buskers hoping for their big break, and Black aunties haggling at various stalls along Brixton Market as they try to negotiate a more acceptable price for the yam, chocho, and sweet potato they intend on using in their Saturday soup.
The paved roads of Electric Avenue tell the stories of so many Black people. Take a right at the Healthy Eaters, and pray that you catch a whiff of their famous Jamaican patties and hard dough bread as you turn left into Brixton Village – Market Row. A short walk down the concrete walkway and you arrive at Chishuru, a West African-influenced restaurant headed up by Nigerian chef and owner, Adejoké ‘Joké’ Bakare.
I was first introduced to Joké when she wrote a newsletter on yaji for Vittles, shortly before opening Chishuru in Brixton Market. Joké builds on the foundations of West African ingredients such as iru, egusi, banga, Grains of Selim and yaji; transporting them into new forms and introducing diners to the variety of West African produce. The constantly evolving menu is a testament to the breadth of food from this region, a source of inspiration for her.
There is something culturally beautiful and significant about Chishuru and Joké’s comfort in the execution of her craft. When translated from Hausa to English, “chishuru” literally means “eat silent”, and Joké delivers on this promise, giving diners moments of pause and reflection with each dish. Joké’s space showcases the value of West African produce and creativity, and looks to communicate this first to fellow Africans, and secondarily to the wider world.
Having dined at Chishuru myself on several occasions, I have observed a type of hesitancy among white and non-Black visitors that frequent Brixton more increasingly due to the aggressive level of gentrification in the area.
Non-Black visitors approach the menu board outside of the restaurant and as they skim through, trailing down a list of unfamiliar words and ingredients; they slowly back away, faces plastered with an uncomfortable expression. There is a ‘this is for us…and that is for them’ attitude that walks through Brixton Village and accompanies would-be diners. The hierarchy of experiences and cultures, be it unspoken, is always looming in the back of the mind.
The lack of curiosity is a cloak for the discomfort some non-Black people feel when put in a space that is not 100% focused on them or playing their favourite standards. The reality is that when you are used to dictating what is valuable, seeing someone assert and possess value in something outside of your set parameters can be jarring to one’s worldview. Choosing where to eat is no exception, as comfort plays a huge role in the continued segregation on display when an establishment is Black owned, Black fronted, and Black facing.
In metropolitan London and its gentrified spaces, it would be easy to hold onto the idea of the city being a rich cultural melting pot. Many people draw comfort in the thought that they are part of a multicultural safe haven; and while this may seem true to some degree (and for some people), there is still an unseen segregation behind this facade. It’s a segregation that lives in the minds of every person, from the commuter to the diner.
At the root of this segregation is the evolution of an anti-Blackness in the UK that has led to apathy and inaction, and which forms the basis of the value system that everything has been built upon. It is a point-blank rejection or refusal to engage with Blackness, Black spaces and Black culture, and, aside from when it is being appropriated, the Black experience is often unseen. In discussing the idea of value, we need to unpack the hierarchy of global cuisine, and address the fact that Black foodways are often overlooked and undervalued, an attitude that is ultimately steeped in a place of distrust and intolerance – and one that Black people who have called the UK home for centuries are all too familiar with.
Simultaneously, for decades, Black food spaces have been a part of Black resistance movements in the UK, evidenced by the prominence of The Mangrove in Notting Hill, which served as a hub for Black civil rights activists, radicals and social justice leaders in the late 1960s. These spaces have always existed to cater to the needs of their community, providing a place for expression, communion and enjoyment in the face of existing in an anti-Black society – the joy provided is in itself an act of resistance.
Through servicing their varied diasporic customers, the Black food establishment engenders a feeling of familiarity and connects these Black people to the idea of belonging. There is safety in belonging. These spaces have been curated to look, feel and sound like ‘back home’.
Yvonne Maxwell is a documentary photographer and writer based in London. Follow her on Instagram.