Niama Safia Sandy

"Red" was published in Active Cultures’ Digest, Issue 05, July 2020.

Image: Niama Safia Sandy, Red, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.


Niama Safia Sandy is a New York-based cultural anthropologist, curator, producer, multidisciplinary artist and educator. Niama's work delves into the human story, often with stories of the Global Black diaspora at its center. She currently hosts and produces a weekly conversation series FOR/FOUR, featuring Black women and non-binary persons in the arts and culture. Niama recently helped found The Blacksmiths, a new coalition of culture workers standing together to forge support for Black liberation against anti-Black racism in the academy and at presenting institutions. Through The Blacksmiths, Niama has produced resources and public events engaging communities, activists, artists across disciplines, and more to close the gaps in appropriate opportunities for Black artists, curators, and administrators on the global stage. Additionally, Niama is a member of the Resistance Revival Chorus, a group of women-identifying people who bring song to life in the spirit of activism, collective joy and resistance. Niama has spoken at Prizm Art Fair, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Creative Time Summit, Harvard University, Oberlin College, and Rhode Island School of Design & more. Her writing has been featured in Artsy, MFON: Women Photographers of the Black Diaspora, NAD NOW, and more. She is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor at Pratt Institute.

Everyone who knows my family well knows that my mother COOKS. The handful of times I have asked her about how and when she learned to cook, she always shares an anecdote from when she was 7 or 8 years old as a child in St. Vincent. She cooked pea soup and brought a bowl to her mother, my grandmother who died before I was born. Upon tasting it, she says with pride, her mother excitedly exclaimed, "Who made this?!" From that point forward, she cooked; I suspect often even when she has no desire to do so.

In my mind, growing up, my mother was a kind of indefatigable kitchen goddess. To me, it seemed she was born that way: like she leapt from Oshun's head with a mind full of recipes activated by muscle memory. She made food to sell to her co-workers, food for events she organized, food for people who asked. There was food for us: cod fish cakes, curry chicken, roast pork, roti fresh off the tawah, peas & rice, five-layer lasagnas—sometimes all in the same day.

For many years, there was a gallon-sized, clear plastic container with pink designs and a pink handle used to store a drink she made on special occasions. The drink was often sorrel, a viscous ruby-colored herbaceous beverage made across the Caribbean from the sepals of the sorrel plant (native to East and West Africa). My mother flavors hers with cinnamon, fresh ginger, and other hints of spices, all indigenous to places as far afield as Central America, India, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka. It is the world in a glass. Considering the interconnected histories of global Black Diasporic resilience, white settler colonialism, and the movement of goods and people over the last two millennia, I have come to appreciate the truth of that statement.

I still remember the first time I made sorrel on my own. It was April 2006. I was a junior at Howard University. It was on the eve of one of the first serious cultural events I ever produced: Masquerade: Poems of Calypso & Home, Trinidadian poet Roger Bonair-Agard's one-man show in the Blackburn Center on campus. Masquerade was a bildungsroman-esque suite of poems about Bonair-Agard's life in Trinidad and Brooklyn from the eighties to the early aughts, performed with a glass of rum in hand. I had first discovered his work a few years earlier via HBO's Def Poetry. His Trinidadian accent boomed out of my television, reflecting myself and my ancestors back to me. It was most startling because in those days the only Caribbean accents you heard on TV were the absolute worst, fakest Jamaican ones.

The first time I saw Masquerade at Bowery Poetry Club in July 2005, I promised myself I would bring the show to Howard before I graduated. The words spilled out of him with a force and rhythm that connected not just to the Brooklyn and Trinidad I knew, but to an idea of an intertwined global Black diasporic identity that I was just beginning to understand and feel connected to. Less than a year later, it was happening. A local Trinidadian business sponsored a platter of pastries, and I figured it was only right to make sorrel to accompany such a momentous occasion.

A few days before, I called my mother to ask her how to make the sorrel. She told me to buy loose dried sorrel, fresh ginger, cinnamon, an apple, and sugar. Almost all of my mother's directives are approximations, no matter what they are for. I have begun to think of the habit as a kind of positioning toward following one's intuition, hearing the whispers of the ancestors through the ether. The sorrel was a hit, and so was the event!

Some 14 years later, as I write this, I have begun to think the sorrel was an offering. It continues to be. Every time I have made sorrel since has been in the context of loving Black people. I have learned that in Senegal, it's called bissap; sobolo/soborodo/zobo in Ghana and Nigeria; agua de jamaica in Latin American countries; and karkade in Egypt and Sudan in East Africa. In the United States, there is the ubiquitous red drink; it often doesn't have any of the ingredients my mother taught me to use. Nevertheless, Black foodways scholars suggest the drink developed from the same source, with African descendants using what is on hand to remake home however they could.

Today, I recognize the drink as a channeling-cum-conjuring of ancestors, Black joy, and pleasure through time and space. I don't recall sorrel ever being made in my home purely because someone craved it. It was always libation for a special occasion, or an appetizing offering when hosting family or friends. It has literally never been just because I wanted to feel the tart, spicy, dense vermillion liquid dance across my tongue. I think that stops today. I owe it to myself, and to my ancestors.

Active Cultures is a cultural organization that explores the convergence of food and art in contemporary life.