The Back Porch

A Family Reunion

By Sheila Johnson

Among the many things I’ve learned in my time, one of the most rock-solid is this: in business, as in life, it is essential to surround yourself with the best people.  Which is why a few weeks ago I found myself part of something that extended far beyond my wildest dreams.

But more on that in a moment.

A while back, while on a speaking engagement in the Bahamas, I had the occasion to share the dais with a brilliant young chef named Kwame Onwuachi.  As I talked with Kwame before our mutual addresses that day, and as I listened to him later weave his stories for those gathered, I became enthralled with the young man’s mix of knowledge, grace, humility and, for lack of a better word, wisdom.

As a result, a few days after I got home, I decided to seek out Kwame. My staff made reservations for us at Kith/Kin, the Afro-Caribbean Washington, DC restaurant that he helped put on the map with his unique (and James Beard Award-winning) mix of imagination.  As someone who’s poured her heart and soul into the food and hospitality industries, I was eager to learn more about a young man whose life and career choices were clearly running so parallel to my own.

Once really getting to know Kwame, I soon came to realize we shared a love for three things in particular: food, family, and tradition. And since we were both proud people of color, we also realized that so much of how we frame almost everything we do is a product of the Blackness we shared.

That’s how the idea of a first-ever “Family Reunion” came about. Together, Kwame and I conceived a four-day celebration of Afro-Caribbean food, culture, history, and traditions.  I’d supply the staff, the location – my resort in Middleburg, Virginia – and the physical infrastructure.  He’d provide his creativity and passion, his many industry contacts, and, above all else, his vision.

What he and I were able to pull off, far exceeded my expectations – was a four-day lovefest in the shadows of the magnificent Bull Run Mountains. In a beautiful setting, and beautiful people. And not just great food and incredible insights into Black and Brown history but Black and Brown challenges, and Black and Brown culinary traditions.

(And should you be interested, or should you like to get a glimpse of the lightning we were able to catch in a bottle), check out CBS Saturday Good Morning this past weekend, and the report filed by Michelle Miller.)

And, rest assured, in the weeks ahead I will write more about some of the remarkable people and moments that helped make our very first Family Reunion so special on so many levels.  In the meantime, though, let me leave you with one memory from the weekend and one sneak peek into my soul.

As for the first of those two things, on Friday I happened to meet a family who, together, had driven down Philadelphia for the day.  The husband was a charming young White man, probably in his mid-thirties, originally from Pennsylvania. His wife was a gracious Black thirty-something who originally hailed from DC.  Their (maybe) four-year-old daughter was an adorable angel with soft, curly hair, big brown eyes, and some of the milkiest and most coffee-colored skin I’d ever seen. Her grandmother, meanwhile, was a proud but soft-spoken Black woman from Tanzania who’d been living with her daughter and son-in-law in Philly since the onset of Covid, when she found herself unable to fly home to Africa.

As the family sat there in the lobby, all four of them sitting shoulder-to-shoulder on one of its couches, I glanced in their direction.  And as I did, I found myself letting out an involuntarily gasp at the poignancy of what I saw before me. In an instant, my mind flashed back to the many hurdles I’d been forced to scale in the ten years I spent trying to build my resort. And I flashed back to all those people who openly resented and railed against me during that time – and not for the content of my character, but for the color of my skin.

Now, there it was sitting there before me like a vision, like my very own Norman Rockwell painting.  A snapshot – a portrait – of the all-new American family, a collection of four hearts who somehow had found each other and who now regularly found comfort in one another’s arms and company, regardless of their background, circumstance, and skin color.

It was the best kind of family reunion and a moment that burned itself into my mind.  What’s more, in that very same instant, it made me proud of every sleepless night I spent during my decade-long quest to get my Salamander Resort and Spa built and bring a little more diversity into the world.

Which leads me, finally, to that glimpse into my soul.

I will be honest, while Kwame and I share many things, and are in many ways on the same path, I’ve traveled much father down that path than he has. Kwame is a young warrior who, before he’s done, still has many dragons to slay and many mountains to climb.

But I’m in an entirely different place in life.  I see my job now as creating opportunities for those younger than me to stretch their wings and to fly higher than they ever have before. I see it as building platforms for those on the path behind me to find their voices, test their limits, and quench their thirsts.  And that’s especially true for those who look and talk like me, who share my skin color and my sense of always having to swim upstream, and whose gifts and talents must, like mine, constantly burn all that much brighter to even get recognized by a public that for far too many years has been far too conditioned to ignore them.

To ignore us.

That, at least to me, was what our very first Family Reunion was all about. It was about love. It was about family. It was about food and history. But more than anything, it was about passing a torch to a generation of Black and Brown people ready to set the world on fire.

Eat well, my friends.  And God bless.

Sheila

1 thought on “A Family Reunion”

  1. The Family Reunion was an amazing event that nurtured my soul! After a year of racial strife, political turmoil and Covid fears – it was healing to be in a safe environment and break bread with like minds & hearts. Thank you Shelia for your vision and strength to make the Salamander everyone’s loving home.! Many of us came to the Reunion as strangers, but do to your welcoming spirit, great food and engaging entertainment – we all left as family. Cheers to you for putting another great memory in my life book. Here’s to our next adventure! LY, Paula

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