BY TARA SMITH
From scholars to civil rights activists and influential musicians and writers, February is a month to honor the contributions that black Americans have made, and continue to make, on American culture.
For Tijuana Fulford, 34, of Riverhead, culinary contributions — soul food — play a huge role in understanding that history.
Last week at the Bellport Hagerman East Patchogue Alliance in North Bellport around a table of 20 girls between the ages of 5 and 14, Fulford served up traditional soul foods with a twist: a history lesson in every bite. It’s a lesson she dubbed the “soul food fact-checker” to tie into celebrating black history month with her girls’ empowerment youth group called The Butterfly Effect Project.
“There are lots of myths out there about what black people like to eat,” Fulford said. “If we’re going to call it soul food, this will help make sure the girls understand why.”
Fulford, known as Miss Tia to the girls, served each food and talked about the stereotypes surrounding it. Then, as a group, they would debunk the cliché.
“There’s the chicken one,” Fulford said laughing. “Everybody knows black people love their chicken and if you look at history, you can try to figure out why.”
The fried chicken stereotype dates back to the slave era and permeated popular culture when D.W. Griffith’s bigoted silent film, “Birth of a Nation,” was released in 1915. Fulford researched extensively, finding that the first generation of slaves was fed pork: knuckles and ham hocks — parts that are still staples of southern cuisine.
“Most slaves that were coming straight from Africa were Muslims,” Fulford explained. “So they would steal the chicken. It was like our lobster.”
The watermelon stereotype, Fulford explained, is her favorite food trope to debunk. What’s so offensive about watermelon — don’t white people like the fruit, too? During the restoration era, Fulford explained, black sharecroppers were given cheap seeds to grow on their land, usually watermelon. The fruit became a symbol of black self-sufficiency, which threatened many southern whites. Ads and cartoons began to portray black people with watermelon to show uncleanliness; cultural studies have likened watermelon and fried chicken as vehicles for racism because of the way they are eaten, with your hands.
Wednesday night’s menu also included unusual offerings such as the oatmeal cookie. “You need to give credit where it’s due,” she said, explaining the influence of Quakers. “[Quakers] made sure runaway slaves had oatmeal and porridge and their houses were found frequently along the Underground Railroad,” she said to the butterflies, adding, “Every food has a story.”
Fulford, who works as an office manager at Middle Country Endocrinology in Smithtown, founded the group in 2014 with just 10 girls in Riverhead. In 2015, the group achieved nonprofit status and now includes 96 butterflies split into a group that meets at the Riverhead Senior Center and the BHEP Alliance on a rotating, biweekly basis. She hopes the girls will learn self-confidence, teamwork, respect and how to dream big.
Fulford explained a rough upbringing, with a father addicted to crack cocaine and her mother depending on her to help with paperwork. “To me, it was a doomsday,” she recalled. So she signed up for Girl Scouts as a way to get out of the house. The experience did little to change her outlook on life.
“It was the first time I felt bullied because I was different,” she said, explaining that she was unable to earn badges due to money issues and reliable transportation on weekends.
That’s when Fulford met Justine Wells, former Riverhead Town historian. Wells and Fulford were paired up for a mentoring program at Pulaski Street Elementary School in Riverhead.
“I will never forget this image of coming in and seeing this old, white lady with curly gray hair and thick, pink lipstick. I was thinking, ‘why does everyone else get a fun person and I get stuck with an old lady?’” Fulford joked.
That old lady changed her life.
Wells encouraged Fulford to read, to ask questions and wanted to know why she was asking them. “For the first time, it felt like somebody cared about what I had to say,” Fulford recalled. Wells inspired her to try new things and aspire to be a better person, things Fulford hopes to instill in her butterflies.
“You are the author of your own story,” Fulford tells the girls, emphasizing that despite their family’s circumstances, they can achieve greater things.
At butterfly meetings, everyone is equal. “We got rid of the badges because everyone can’t afford a badge,” she said. By stripping away the frilly badges and sashes, Fulford focuses more on the whole person, from academics to treating others with respect.
“As the program goes on, you definitely see a change,” she said. “The shy ones are now talking. The rude ones are now listening. The black girls are merging with the white girls. And that is all very important.
“Not everybody is on the same financial wavelength,” Fulford added, explaining that she serves girls who are homeless and also has girls whose parents make six-figure salaries.
“The impact [Tia] is having on these girls will last long after any accolades, because it will become a part of them forever,” said Boys and Girls Club community liaison Jason Neal. “She’s set a standard for the girls and the girls themselves have raised the bar. These girls are seeing that they can be and do anything in school and in life. They can do coding, build robots, learn chess, write books, paint portraits and become entrepreneurs, all while learning to care about others.”
“What if we can invest in their futures now so we will not have to foot that bill later?” Fulford said, explaining the thousands of dollars taxpayers pay to house inmates and fund social services such as food stamps.
The program also inspires older teenagers, who come on as junior volunteers. Shanysa Tems, a freshman at Patchogue-Medford High School, loves volunteering with the butterflies. “[Tia’s] like family to me, so I came to support her and fell in love with the group,” said Tems, who liked the meaning and support of the group. “I wish I had something like this when I was younger.”
At an earlier meeting in February, the girls listened to guest speaker Jill Porter, who spoke about gang violence, but focused on bullying for the younger girls. “I’m glad to see this message being spread. Girls should learn about this at a young age,” Tems said, adding that she also found it interesting since these are issues she is seeing firsthand now that she’s a high school student.
As for last week’s event, Tems was excited for more than just the food. “I love history,” she said. “I love learning about where I came from, so I always look forward to February.”
“Butterflies” from the Butterfly Effect Project enjoy a soul food dinner while learning the history behind the dishes in Bellport.