He dips a spoon into the pot, blows to cool it, then takes a sip. Its flavor has achieved appropriate subtlety. Gumbo can have just about anything in it —hot dogs and sausages or pieces of chicken. But Sukumu is from Louisiana, widely regarded as the birthplace of the dish, and he is a purist. Gumbo began as a fish dish, and he likes to keep it that way. His daughter, Ramisi, 27, has already unwrapped the shrimp and Dungeness crabs. She stands beside him, her rose-colored blouse painting her neck and arms with a pretty blush. “All right!” he says, putting out his hand like a surgeon demanding a scalpel. Ramisi hands him the first crustaceans to get dumped into the pot.
“It won’t be long now,” he says, smiling over his shoulder.
Good looks, which register as some degree of self-regard, a private “mirror-mirror-on-the-wall” discourse, are seldom found in immediate combination with kindness or virtuous selflessness, so it is easy to miss that Sukumu is a handsome man. His eyes, seen behind glasses, are kind. He seems taller than he actually is because he has none of the nervousness, the competitive edge that a small man is likely to use to extend his shadow. Rather, Sukumu seems touched by an overlarge vision, a vague melancholy that, in his case, leaves him to appear fully at ease while at the same time he also seems not altogether present. It is not an unappealing trait, for women — and Sukumu has many admirers — are able to read in him the offer: “Nail me down. Draw me out.” The two women in the kitchen — attractive, middle-aged, and smiling — watch him putting the finishing touch to the gumbo.
Every flat space in the kitchen-dining area, except for one of the burners on the stove where the rice is cooking, has been given over to tubs of food. In addition to the gumbo, dozens of stuffed green bell peppers have been arranged in a pan, the deep, disposable aluminum kind used at Thanksgiving to bake a turkey. Another disposable container holds vegetable lasagna. Troughs of banana pudding and peach cobbler sit on the sideboard. The round kitchen table is stacked with paper plates and cups, and plastic forks, spoons, and knives. On the balcony, cooling in an ice chest the size of a steamer trunk, are cans of 7UP, Pepsi, ice tea, beer, and bottled water.
Sukumu’s gumbo feasts are legendary. He has incorporated them into fund-raisers for the political campaigns of Representatives Maxine Waters and Barbara Lee and brought thousands of dollars to their respective campaign coffers. For a marathon runner, then, tonight’s shindig is a walk around the park.
Ten minutes after dropping in the shrimps and crabs, guests are at the door of his second-floor condominium. The earliest arrivals, two women, set down their coats and enter the kitchen, wading into the delectable odors. In their Christmas finery, dark green velvet and purple silk, they are too well dressed to help the kitchen staff, and neither offers. Tonight, they understand, they are expected to kick back and get indulged — this is Sukumu’s party, his way of expressing affection for family and friends, and they are his guests.
- The revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox
- In four parts without commercial interruption.
- The revolution will not show you pictures of Nixon
- Blowing a bugle and leading a charge by John
- Mitchell, General Abrams, and Spiro Agnew to eat
- Hog maws confiscated from a Harlem sanctuary.
- The revolution will not be televised.
More guests arrive and enter the kitchen. They pick up paper plates and fill them, then make a circuit to gather flatware and a drink. The living room furniture has been distributed to other parts of the three-bedroom San Carlos apartment and replaced with eight collapsible tables and dozens of chairs set against walls on which hang photographs of Jesse Jackson and Imamu Baraka. There are commercially reproduced images of Malcolm X and Paul Robeson. In one color snapshot, Sukumu sits beside Rosa Parks. It was her refusal to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery bus that brought that city to a standstill and is traditionally said to be the event that inaugurated the Civil Rights movement. There is an enlarged snapshot of Sukumu’s son Teule, bulky in his varsity football uniform, caught as he streaks across a high school field.
Soon the room is full. It is a notably mixed group — black and white, Latin and Asian, old folks and sleeping babies. There is an easy decorum. A couple of the women, including Ramisi, wear naturals. But the era of the huge hair is long past, and their hair is close-cropped. Only a white man shows up in jeans; everyone else might have come here from church. Guests approach and their host turns in greeting, drawing each new person into the warm whirlpool. Sukumu introduces me to the cardiac specialist who treated him a year and a half ago. He introduces me to Walter Kudumu. I explain that I’m writing about activists of the ’60s. I describe it as a kind of “where are they now” story.
“Well, I’m right here,” laughs Kudumu. Like Sukumu, he seems larger than he actually is (though of average height, he gives the impression of being an exceedingly big man), but unlike our host, restlessness lifts off him like static off nylon. The crowd presses us close; Kudumu appears to be a man who likes his elbowroom. I ask to interview him. “Sure, but if you talk to me, you have to include my wife, Maisha.” At the sound of her name, a pleasant-appearing woman who has been talking at his side turns and smiles. “This is my wife,” he says proudly and with the familiarity of a napkin folded so often that it instantly takes the same crease. He tells her I’m interested in writing about ’60s activists. The woman listens and smiles but has seemed also to draw into herself so that she looks to be watching me from somewhere across the living room.