Jessica B. Harris: You Say Potato, I Say Yam

[Jessica B. Harris, an English professor at Queens College and a contributing writer for the Web site Zester Daily, is the author of the forthcoming “High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey From Africa to America.”]

ON Oct. 3, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared the final Thursday of November to be a national holiday of Thanksgiving. That came just over a year after Lincoln made another more historic proclamation, one that directly concerned my family and their future: the Emancipation Proclamation, which had freed the enslaved in any territory “in rebellion.”

These two proclamations are visually conjoined in a stereograph made about the same time that is familiar to students of the American South. Taken by Henry P. Moore, it shows African-Americans at work on a plantation on Edisto Island, off South Carolina. They are captured in attitudes of deep concentration, posed with hoes in hands or seated around a large basket, preparing to plant. They are described as new freemen or escaped slaves — and the tubers that they are planting are alternately labeled sweet potatoes or yams.

The image is a potent one. The men and women work intently, unsmilingly and with none of the joyful conviviality that characterizes the popular plantation images of the period — it’s as if, though they have been freed from bondage, they can foresee the decades of sharecropping and disenfranchisement that will follow. The people depicted would have had much to be thankful for in 1863, but they were also doing the menial agricultural work that has been the lot of people of color in this country for centuries.

For the culinarily astute, however, the photo reaches back even further into the African-American past, because the crop being readied was and still is emblematic of African-American foodways...

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