A giant wall of Chinese takeout boxes was the background to an array of smiling, brown, queer faces — their hands darting to and from trays of tropical fruit and perfectly encrusted coconut shrimp. It was J’ouvert, a special nighttime event by Brooklyn's Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD) meant to put the spotlight on “queer visibility in food and culture.” Named after the great street fêtes held across the Caribbean leading up to Carnival, this event was also a celebration. It was a celebration of recognition, of visibility, and of connecting queer communities in the U.S. and Jamaica.
Sandwiched between tasty treats was a panel discussion featuring three queer entrepreneurs with Jamaican ties. There was Chantel Chaday Emmanuel, a Jamaican and the founder of Jamsterdam, Tribe876 and Tribe Tours as well as co-founder of Connek; Devonn Francis, a first-generation Jamaican-American artist and the founder of Yardy; and there was Christopher Udemezue, a native New Yorker with a Jamaican mother, as well as a writer, artist, founder of RAGGA and co-founder of Connek. The panel was moderated by food writer and A Hungry Society podcast host, Korsha Wilson.
As happens with most discussions about food, it became about so much more. Using Jamaican cuisine as a jump-off point, the conversation grew to encompass the concept of legacy, the importance of entrepreneurship, the realities of immigration, rectifying the different levels of privilege among minorities, and very personal anecdotes about the fear of being rejected from the place that you’re from.
It was this fear that somehow brought the panelists together. Being queer and wanting to visit not only Jamaica — an island not outwardly known for its acceptance of LGBTQ people — but also their family members who lived there caused a great deal of anxiety in both Udemezue and Francis. Allaying that fear is why each of them has started their own businesses aimed at redirecting the narrative of Caribbean culture and, more specifically, queer Caribbean culture.
Udemezue said he could only feel confident traveling there once he was connected with Emmanuel. That feeling morphed into Connek, a travel program to experience a queer, safe, and inclusive Jamaica.
“We’re at work to demystify both Black roots and queer acceptance,” says Udemezue, “and for so many of us, it feels like the two can’t go together.”
Francis supported that sentiment with an explanation as to why entrepreneurship is so beneficial to the community, arguing that, “Entrepreneurship is an exercise in self-value. It requires you to shape a vision on your own terms and in your own language.”
All three of these entrepreneurs, and MOFAD by extension, were using food and events as a way to take a stand, to claim space, to literally place their biographies in people’s hands, eyes, ears and bellies.
Food is a peculiar cultural artifact in that way — it is made to disappear. However, by repeatedly making the same recipes and by constantly patronizing the same queer-owned spaces, those cultural stories become real. They become record and impossible to unsee; that’s what the goal is.
As Emmanuel said, “I don’t do what I do in Jamaica only for me to be able to say, look at what I’ve done. I do it to say look what you can do, see that you are welcome here. See that you’re not alone — just come and party with us. We’ll treat you right.”