CHARLESTON, S.C. — On a recent balmy Saturday morning at the Charleston Wine and Food Festival, a man bearing an eerie resemblance to the rapper E-40 stood at the front of a tour trolley preparing to captain the Soul Stroll. For five hours, Michael “KJ” Kearney Jr. would lead 20 people on a tour to sample signature dishes at four Black-owned eateries.
The 38-year-old Kearney, a community organizer and former elementary school teacher, is a natural and engaging storyteller, dropping “Black food facts” about gentrification, economics, demography, migration patterns, nutrition and food deserts into a larger narrative about Charleston’s culinary and racial history. He charms the audience, following his data dumps with jokes about his micro-celebrity and budding online fame, in hopes of expanding minds and palates.
But Kearney, who launched the website Black Food Fridays in 2020 to encourage people to patronize Black-owned products and restaurants during the coronavirus pandemic (“Think Taco Tuesday, but for Black people food”), says he also wants to “work my way out of a job.”
“I don’t want to have to keep telling people to support Black people,” he said while his tour group gobbled “boneless” cauliflower wings at a vegan soul food spot. “I shouldn’t have to, especially with all the stuff that we’ve done for this country.”
Kearney is a key part of the more-than-decade-old Charleston festival’s attempt to address criticism that its overwhelmingly White programming ignored the contributions of Black food creators responsible for much of the Southern cuisine that brings visitors to the "Holy City” each year.
Charleston attracts affluent snowbirds who journey south for the city’s weather, cuisine and beachfront property. (Kearney calls Charleston the “White Atlanta.”) Five years ago, Realtor.com named it America’s “most rapidly gentrifying city,” based on the recent explosion in home values. Black residents make up about 26 percent of the city’s population, down from 41.6 percent in 1990, according to the Census Bureau.
“To me, Charleston is more segregated now than ever before,” said Carol Washington, 52, a Charleston native and festival volunteer. She’s since moved away but comes back often to visit family. “There’s a huge separation between the classes. … And the look of Charleston has changed from a historic area to a major metropolitan city. So it kind of has lost the charm.”
It’s also a city still grappling with its history. Long before Confederate rebels kicked off the Civil War by firing on Charleston Harbor, it was the busiest slave port city in America. At one point, enslaved people outnumbered Whites.
In 2015, a white supremacist gunned down nine Black worshipers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church during Bible study, leading state officials to accommodate demands that they remove the Confederate flag from State House grounds. That same year, Walter Scott, a Black man, was shot five times in the back and killed by Michael Slager, a police officer in North Charleston, sparking protests when the officer’s first trial resulted in a mistrial. (Slager was eventually found guilty of second-degree murder.)
In Charleston, like much of the South, conversation around race tends to simmer on the back burner. But Kearney wants to turn the flame up and bring it to the forefront.
“Anytime you can get a group of people to intentionally change where they spend their money, that is a political act,” he said as the tour’s trolley wove through his hometown of North Charleston.
Creating a relaxing, judgment-free atmosphere requires a careful balancing act, he said. “If all I said was ‘White people suck, White people suck,’ we would not have the family that we have in here today,” he said of the group, which paid $115 each for their Soul Stroll. "You grow and change with love. And with love comes grace, but grace without accountability, you create entitlement.”
Two months after the launch of Black Food Fridays came what Kearney calls the “June boom,” and a greater urgency to address systemic racism.
“We were all at home, and we essentially watched a snuff film of George Floyd lose his life,” said Kearney. His Instagram account following skyrocketed as people searched for ways to channel sympathy and sadness into tangible action.
Following Floyd’s murder, festival organizers promised to fight to end systemic racism, called for the removal of a proslavery statue from a downtown square and banned the use of plantations to host its events.
This was the first festival since the pandemic began, and efforts to embrace the city’s culinary history were abundant. At one event, “The Communion: Reclamation Through Madeira,” attendees plopped down $350 for a three-hour wine tasting at the restaurant Husk, while sommelier Cha McCoy told stories of the wine’s transatlantic journey aboard slave ships.
At another, “Fire, Smoke and Soul,” festivalgoers gathered around open flames to taste jollof rice, pigs’ feet, goat pepper soup and other food from across the African diaspora, while learning about the cultures responsible for the cuisine.
In 2020, Black, Indigenous or other people of color made up 16 percent of the festival’s chefs, beverage professionals, winemakers and musicians. This year they account for about 34 percent, according to spokeswoman Alyssa Maute Smith.
Could this annual food festival, launched in 2006, facilitate real conversations about race, while acknowledging painful Southern history? Or would people just want to eat and have a good time, unburdened by history?
For some White people who attended the festival this year, the learning process has been awkward.
JoAnne Kennedy, 72, had just attended the event “Exploring Black Spirituality Through Food,” which featured young chefs incorporating recipes passed down through generations. “The beauty of this is that you are dining with us as a family and you are with our family as well,” said chef Cybille St. Aude-Tate. They decorated a table with family heirlooms, including a shovel recovered from a plantation where one of the chef’s ancestors lived as enslaved people. The menu included plates of corn pudding, rice, coconut cake, fish, beans and beef.
Kennedy, a White woman from New Canaan, Conn., wasn’t sure exactly what the night would entail.
“Is it going to be a dinner of fried chicken and okra?” she said she asked her husband, Bill. “Other than that, I had no idea what to expect, but I was thinking it was going to be a lot of fattening foods, and I guess in retrospect I was kind of shocked at how unsophisticated my expectations were.”
The event wasn’t a typical outing for the couple, but “it was something we wanted to do to expose ourselves to a broader Charleston.”
“It just had a very warm, welcoming feeling,” she said. “And I think I’d been maybe a little intimidated.”
Breaking bread with someone, sharing a table, telling stories over a meal are some of the oldest ways to try to build and strengthen social bonds. Kearney hopes people will find that fellowship on his tour.
On Sunday morning, festivalgoers gathered under a large tent for mimosas and spirituals. It was the Gospel Brunch, a popular event on the last day of the festival. The audience was mostly White, draped in sundresses and wide-brimmed Sunday hats. A group of middle-aged women stood just off the stage, bouncing and losing themselves to the gospel band’s hymns.
The event took place in Gadsdenboro Park, just across the street from the site of the new International African American Museum, which is scheduled to open in 2023. Organizers used the brunch to solicit museum donations and recruit board members between gospel sets.
There were two long serving lines, offering bacon, fried chicken, quiche, collard greens, lobster mac and cheese. And booze. Some people were hammered. Impatient attendees hectored burdened catering staff as they rushed to refill empty pots and trays. “If I don’t get some fried chicken, I’m going to ... lose it,” one woman declared to no one in particular.
As the event wound down, several inebriated people hopped behind the bar and poured themselves drinks. “It’s the entitlement for me,” said one of the volunteers watching the spectacle.
At the Charleston Visitor Center, chef Rashaunda Grant is leading the Gullah Girls cooking class. “First you peel back the onion carefully, layer by layer,” she tells her assembled students. The event, making its festival debut, attracted 40 students learning how to make a traditional Gullah gumbo. “It doesn’t have to be precise. It doesn’t have to be perfect. You just have to do your best.”
The Gullah Geechee are descendants of the African enslaved people brought over to work the rice, indigo and cotton plantations off the coasts of South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia and Florida. The Gullah were able to retain a distinct culture of food, language and arts because of the isolation of island enslavement.
The smell of shrimp, okra and onions filled the room as Grant encouraged the attendees.
Shellene Johnson, 50, has been to the festival more than 10 times and said this is the Blackest it’s ever been. For years, her friends teased her for being among a small group of Black attendees. But after the programming changed, she was able to convince three girlfriends to come with her this time.
“How are you going to have an event in this area, in this part of the country, and not celebrate the history and the foods and cuisines of this area?” she said over the sound of steel knives slicing through onions and pots boiling with broth. “There’s so much rich history here for everybody, but specifically for the Gullah people.”
In a low-slung building next to an abandoned hotel sits Ma Gloria’s. The Trinidadian spot is one of Kearney’s favorites in North Charleston and is featured in his Soul Stroll. Inside, the walls are painted red, over which customers have scribbled signatures and sayings in white permanent marker. My belly is always happy here! someone wrote. Best Trini food in da world, said another.
For this day, the owner has prepared a dish of jerk chicken and rice to be eaten from a hollowed-out pineapple. It is tangy, spicy and sweet.
Most of the strollers were stuffed but devoured the chicken anyway.
As Kearney described some of his favorite dishes from Ma Gloria’s, one of the attendees, a White woman from New York, told him she was pleasantly surprised by the offerings.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” she said. “I thought it would be fried chicken and collard greens.”
Kearney doesn’t flinch at what has become a common refrain, patiently explaining that Black culture is responsible for many types of cuisines, and that he wants people to understand that history.
He is clear-eyed about whether cultural exposure will be enough to change minds, and that not everyone wants to hear what he has to say.
But his goal is modest: “Eat good food and tell the good stuff and also talk about the bad stuff,” he said. “Sometimes we do these things and people are like, ‘You know what, I’ve never thought about food apartheid, or I’ve never even heard that phrase. What does that mean? What do you mean that people don’t put grocery stores in [poor] areas on purpose?’
"If you feel uncomfortable about that, that’s cool. We’re going to keep having a great time.”
A previous version of this story used an incorrect first name for Rashaunda Grant. This version has been corrected.