Ujima: New York Edition

The pandemic has provided us many benefits, including how we examine and eliminate the continuous oppression of groups of people in the US. In addition, Black Theatre United opened my eyes to oppression that was happening in black theater (unfortunately, I wasn’t surprised).  I have pledged my patron support by being more proactive with productions I choose to see.  I have been more selective on voting with my dollars for more diverse actors and leadership on Broadway (and in Houston). My trip to New York on Dr. MLK, Jr. Weekend 2023 made sure to continue that theme of support for black artists.

With a limited amount of time, I had to optimize my schedule because the city that never sleeps also has a way of making you feel like time is warped and moving at the speed of light. Prior to leaving Houston, I had plans to attend “The Piano Lesson” and dine at Tatiana, a new restaurant by Kwame Onwuachi.  To book at the restaurant, I constantly searched Resy for 6 weeks to finally learn that reservations are released 28 days prior. It was very difficult to score weekend reservations as I found it easier to get mid-week ones. Since, I was not arriving until the weekend I had to keep trying. I finally was able to get two nights of reservations for about 15 minutes before close. I am glad that I was able to do that as there was way more food that I wanted to eat than what I could consume in one seating.

On the first night, we quickly realized that the shareable plates are called that because they are quite large. However, my dietary restrictions came with limitations for the table. Nevertheless, we started with scallop pinchos, egusi dumplings and ended with braised oxtails with rice& peas. The peppa sauce was amazing which is why we had to order a few more sides of rice as that became my main entrée topped with the sauce.

Peppa Sauce by Chef Kwame Onwuachi. Photo by Mercedes Harris

I am pretty sure Kwame was not in the kitchen himself (I can taste when his hands have touched a dish), yet it was still great. The second night we ordered the okra (omg!) and more scallops with a shared dish of red snapper. My mouth is watering as I type this, and I am happy that I had the opportunity to enjoy the artistic talents of Chef Kwame’s creations once again. I topped off the meal with the bodega special dessert. I was SO full as I pre-gamed food at Le Jardinier after our quick visit to MOMA.

Crispy Okra at Tatiana Restaurant by Chef Kwame Onwuachi. Photo by Mercedes Harris

Speaking of MOMA, I was pleasantly surprised during my visit there (which my membership is included by being a member of Studio Museum Harlem). While we were discussing a painting by Mark Rothko, one of the security staff overheard us and asked more questions. She stopped as she was inspired by overhearing two “young” black women discussing art. We created a safe space for her to ask more questions. She ended up blessing us because she suggested the JAM (Just Above Midtown: Changing Spaces) exhibit which we would have missed without her suggestion.

Page from The Call and Post, featuring “Columbus Native Awarded Rockefeller Art Grant” about Linda Goode Bryant, 9/22/1973 (Displayed at MOMA)

JAM was an art gallery space created by my Spelman sister, Linda Goode Bryant, in 1974 to help create a space for black art by diverse artists. It was beautiful to see expressions of art during this time period as Goode Bryant was one of the first New York gallerists that paved the way of black art in galleries. Yet, she wanted us to focus beyond the commercialization of art which is a great reminder for us to remain centered about why we produce art. Eventually, she shifted her focus to become a non-profit organization in order not to be distracted by only selling art. I was happy that we were able to experience the exhibit.

R. Kenneth Bryant, son of Linda Goode Bryant at JAM in 1974. Photo by Mercedes Harris

When Houston-native, Brandon J. Dirden, urged his IG followers to see “Between Riverside and Crazy” I was intrigued.  I felt drawn to support Stephen McKinley Henderson as it is rare that we get to see a 73-year-old legend live on stage. Yet, I learned later that this show was also Common’s Broadway debut.  Unfortunately, I had to leave at intermission in order to make my reservation for Tatiana but I am hoping I can catch a simulcast to finish the show. From what I saw, all of the actors were wonderful.

My second show was “The Piano Lesson” which was directed by Spelman alumna, LaTanya Richardson Jackson and the led by Morehouse alumnus, John David Washington. Unfortunately, Samuel Jackson was not in the performance I attended. The energy of the show was still very high, and I am not sure how much higher it would have gone with Jackson present. Again, every cast member was phenomenal, and I must highlight how well John David Washington performed.

I am sure it is difficult making your own name when your father is “The Denzel Washington”, however, (don’t come for me) he might be an even more talented actor than his dad. I really felt him embody Boy Willie (and I really still can’t get over his skills in Black Kkklansman). Despite him sounding and sometimes at angles looking like Denzel, I really felt Boy Willie was embodied on the stage. It was a special moment to see all of that talent at one time.  Danielle Brooks (Berniece) was the glue that held everything together (just like her character). I have a personal connection to The Piano Lesson as it was the first and only scene that I directed in high school (and won State honors) yet, there were still parts where I couldn’t remember what would happen next. I stopped trying to remember and became engulfed in the moment that was captured by this special production.

The last show I was privileged to see was the early closing of “Ohio State Murders” starring Audra McDonald at the beautifully renovated and renamed James Earl Jones Theater. Initially, I was not interested in the show as the titled made me think it might have violence which is hard for me to watch. Yet, it kept surfacing and after strong recommendation, I decided to see it. I learned that the playwright, Adrienne Kennedy, is a 91-year-old black woman who has been writing plays for over 60 years but was often overlooked. The production directed by Kenny Leon (who I remember from living in Atlanta) was a Broadway debut for the play.

Merlex Picks Founder after “Ohio State Murders” last show with a picture of Audra McDonald. Photo by Mercedes Harris

The play explores the racism of our country during the 1950s but that is still pervasive today. I enjoyed Ms. Kennedy depicting black middle-class people during that time period which is rarely shown in plays. I can relate to having relatives in college and graduate school during the 50s era. Audra spent 75 minutes (no intermission) playing an older and younger version of the main character Suzanne Alexander. Once the show was over, one is perplexed if the events occurred in real life. Director Kenny Leon said after communicating with Ms. Kennedy over the preparation of the show, he believes about 50% may be based on her own life. Regardless of whether the murders happened or not, it left everyone with that drop in the stomach feeling. We all know that tragedies similar to what happened in the play happen often in this country and are usually publicized a specific way depending on the suspect or victim.

Cast & Crew of “Ohio State Murders” take their final bow for the show. Photo by Mercedes Harris

My trip to NYC was a beautiful experience and I’m grateful that I was able to support black artists (culinary, performing and visual). I encourage us to continue to search for art experiences that are not only diverse in production and performers but also less publicized. The shows were all very different and helped to showcase different periods of experience for black people in America. We want to continue to see shows and art that reflect the diversity of our country.

Amoako Boafo: Soul of Black Folks

Contemporary Arts Museum Houston

I can not remember where I first was introduced to the work of Amoako Boafo which is the blessing and the curse of social media (it could also be art magazines or emails too). Nevertheless, the minute that I saw he had an exhibit at CAMH, I immediately knew in my spirit that it was a very big deal. Yet, it was not until Larry Ossei-Mensah confirmed in the artist talk that tonight was a historic moment that my intuition was validated.

Amoako Boafo is a Ghanian painter and visual artist that started his professional career around 2018 but as it was stated in his talk back, he has been perfecting his practice over two decades. Amoako was primarily focus on tennis with art being a hobby. He took a break in tennis to study at the Ghanatta College of Art and Design in Accra in 2007. Later, he went on to study at the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna, Austria. Amoako has been able to transform a natural passion into a flourishing career.

Amoako’s career feels like an overnight success. It is not often that an artist has a collaboration with Dior, is on first name basis with Kehinde Wiley and sells at $3M at auction in such a short amount of time. However, we learned during his talk back that he experienced rejection in Vienna before he was accepted as a global art rising star. What I loved most about Amoako’s story is the fact that he continued to persevere despite obstacles. He actually took the rejection of not selling pieces in Vienna to confirm that he was on the right track. What an amazing perspective to provide hope to never give up.

Artwork by Amoako Boafo

The standing room only artist talk back was only a small indication of how much his art is admired and appreciated. There were visitors from Houston and beyond who wanted to be the first to grab a sneak peak of his latest works before opening on Thursday, May 26th. There were many people in the room that ranged from artists, collectors, curators and friends all with one unified goal: support.

Artwork by Amoako Boafo

When I observed the paintings, I was not aware that Amoako made most of his paintings with his finger instead of a brush. It took a second look for me to distinguish the strokes and recognize that it was not created with a brush. Every painting captured your attention and accomplished Amoako’s goal of him experiencing the piece with you (taking a bit of him with you in your head).

Larry Ossei-Mensah and Amoako Boafo

The interview was led by Larry Ossei-Mensah who also curated the show. I was so happy to finally meet him and excited that their connection brought this work to Houston. We are honored to witness and support another unexpected star. Houston is the land of opportunity and we specialize in the success of the “underdog.” We have so many stories of people who were not expected to succeed and beat all odds to reach their dreams. It would be very fitting that the exhibit opened here for many reasons.

To add a special flair to the exhibit, one piece was painted on a wall and will be gone after the exhibit leaves Houston in October. We had an amazing opportunity to view a piece that had a definitive end date which was unique in itself. I kept thinking of all of the unique ways the wall could be salvaged. Could it just stay there and future exhibits blended it in forever? I made sure to take a picture with the piece just in case it is indeed taken away.

Mercedes Harris pictured with piece that will only be up during the Houston exhibit

There was a question in the audience that really struck me where it was asked where can Amoako grow from here since he has reached the “top” so quickly. His response kept me thinking for a while as he said he really hopes he can keep growing, especially in Ghana. I thought about his vision of creating an art district and residency for future artists and realized he is really on to something. Ironically, today is Africa Day which symbolizes the beginning of something very historic, indeed. I am imagining where more African artists continue to build in Africa and establish more resources for those that don’t have access to help further solidify our place in the art world which has been deemed out of the ordinary for far too long. Indeed, our work is extraordinary and I am blessed to witness art from artists that will make sure we preserve the soul of black folks in a positive light.

Artwork by Amoako Boafo

Soul of Black Folks will be at the Contemporary Art Museum of Houston until October 2, 2022. Admission to the museum is free.

The Inaugural Kwame Onwuachi Family Reunion Food & Wine Event at the Salamander

The very first time I learned about the James Beard Awards was through an event called Iconoclast . The Iconoclast Dinner Experience (IDE) was created by my classmate Dr. Lezli Levene Harvell as a scholarship fundraiser for Spelman College. IDE was one of the first events that I am aware of that showcased James Beard Chefs of Color. I have always wanted to attend the event and seemed to have a schedule conflict every time. Nevertheless, IDE introduced me to many black chefs that I had not heard of before.

On a trip to DC, I asked an Atlanta foodie for dinner recommendations. Years later, I am still impacted from the experience. I went to the restaurant called Kith and Kin led by executive chef Kwame Onwauachi. I had never been to a restaurant that had as much flavor, if not more, than my grandmother’s dinner table. On my second visit, I was afraid that it would not be as good as the first time. Yet, I was pleasantly surprised. The restaurant has closed but I stayed abreast on Kwame through social media. The day that I read Kwame was hosting an event called The Family Reunion, at a resort that I love dearly, Salamander Resort, I had to go.

I waited for what felt like forever for the tickets to come out. I even desperately looked at the Aspen Food and Wine event when I thought I may have missed the family reunion ticket sales. When I received the email to register for the family reunion, I was on the phone making reservations within 10 minutes. There were different options which included a full week pass, a single day pass or a full week with accommodations.

What drove me to this event was a combination of several things. I loved Kwame, his food, and his story of overcoming obstacles. Another reason was the five star Salamander Resort had been on my list of places to visit for 13+ years before I was able to finally stay in 2019. There were several chefs that were going to be at the Family Reunion event that I have been following for years or had eaten in their restaurants. Lastly, I was fresh off of watching High on the Hog, a Netflix documentary. High on the Hog was one of the best documentaries I have ever seen. What was super special about it as it helped me realize my passion for the combination of history of the African diaspora and our resilience through bringing our food with us as a form of resistance and survival.

Taylor Milton and Dr. Jessica B. Harris. Photo by Mercedes Harris

The first day of the event, I made it in time for the cookout, hosted by Rodney Scott and Bryan Furman. After submitting medical documentation from my negative covid test, I went to experience the cookout. I was not able to partake in a lot of the options due to dietary restrictions, but it all looked amazing. I found a veggie burger with vegetarian chili & banana pudding by Ben’s Chili Bowl. Standing next to the table was the co-founder, Mrs. Virginia Ali. She was very welcoming and the food was great. I have had a Ben’s chili bowl t-shirt forever but never had the depth of understanding of all its historical impact until I met Mrs. Ali. The restaurant deserves its own documentary. She was amazingly kind and sharp while being 87 years old. She is one of the few people living today who has hosted Dr. King and President Obama. What a privilege it was to meet her (and to later realize she would receive a lifetime achievement award from the event).

Kwame Onwuachi, Virginia Ali & Shelia Johnson. Photo by Clay WIlliams

 I left the cookout to indulge in the spa (fully masked). It was my first time at Salamander’s Spa and it reminded me of the Canyon Ranch Spa in Vegas yet more intimate and access to nature. The experience allowed me to relax indoors or outside at the infinity pool which faced a beautiful collage of trees and flowers. The massage was great and included a steam treatment in a bowl with essential oils. I was able to leave all of my stress on the table and fully enjoy the rest of the week.

The Things We Do For Love: Moderated by Padma Lakshmi with Priya Krishna and Carla Hall. Photo by Mercedes Harris

The next day, I started with a series of panels and learned about some chefs I didn’t know. I discovered the collaboration of Williams Sonoma and Ghetto Gastro and was intrigued. I shared links of their small kitchen appliances as well as waffle mix to friends. As Sheila Johnson greeted us between panels, she gave a call to action on supporting our black chefs. Many of the themes of the panels ranged from food history, the need for more black women leadership in the food industry, the impact of the pandemic, West African food influence, showing up unapologetically black and reclaiming everything that has been stolen from us.

Old Guard to New Trope: Moderated by Alexander Smalls with Tiana Gee, Rashida Holmes and Ashleigh Shanti. Photo by Mercedes Harris

I met a lot of people from DC and eventually found the Houston crew when I saw Erica from Black Girls Who Brunch. There can’t be a food event without representation from Houston, since we are the food capital. It was also great to re-meet Keisha Griggs from Bocage Catering (she has some great events coming up soon that I will be sure to share).  

In the afternoon of Day 2, I was able to participate in an outdoor event with Mashama Bailey of The Grey. We learned how to throw axes and archery. Thankfully, the rain stopped and we were able to learn how to throw axes like the pros. I had never done either and quickly got over the fact that I was too late to register for the equestrian ride with Kwame (there were only 3 spots) and was very happy with my choice. We had an amazing time and quickly bonded with all the participants. We had an hour to change before it was time for African Night Market (food by Pierre Thiam, Kwame Onwuachi, Michael Elégbèdé, J.R. Robinson and Peter Prime).

Kwame Riding Horse
Equestrian Trot with Kwame Onwuachi. Photo by Clay Williams

Before going to the African market, I had dinner at the Salamander restaurant Harriman’s . On Day 1, there were Chef takeovers all over Middleburg. Unfortunately, my event was cancelled but I learned that Chef Kwame’s takeover menu was available all week at Harriman’s. We were delighted to be able to try his food. Kwame was busy preparing for the African market so the executive chef of Harriman’s made his recipes. The coco bread and brussel sprouts were on point. I also enjoyed my octopus. The service was amazing and my server made sure we had a great visit.

I went to the African market quite full but with enough room to continue tasting. I had already started the night with a great Sauvignon Blanc by the McBride Sisters (who were also in attendance as a sponsor). I got to taste some amazing pepper soup with fish. I meant to get some puff puff but ended up running my mouth with new found “family.”

Julia Coney  Wine
Middleburg, VA – August 19, 2021: Sommelier Julia Coney with Guest. Photo by Clay Williams.

We were entertained by an African dance troupe and the audience was quick on the call for volunteers to dance. We had a surprise visit from Dave Chappelle who made sure we set the stage right for the party. Later, we went to a party near the culinary garden and our phones were locked. I appreciated the opportunity to be forced in the moment. The conference was also sponsored by Remy so the party was jumping into the wee hours of the night.

Day 3 were more panels and a beautiful lunch cooked by Mashama Bailey, Jonny Rhodes, Gregory Gourdet and Jason Reaves. After lunch, I took a pause and participated in the Lexus Driving Experience. The car I chose was a red convertible that retails about $110k. It was a nice ride and another opportunity to be in nature. I rested and was able to join for the last events which included book signings and  the block party. The block party had a surprise performance by Estelle. I spoke briefly with Jidenna who was there for the events and shared how beautiful his show was in Houston. In our conversation, he confirmed what Houstonians already know…our city rocks.

Lexus Driving Experience. Photo by Mercedes Harris

In summary, the inaugural Family Reunion was a success. The intimacy of about 350 people was unmatched while having the intention of unapologetically showing up to the table with our food and history. I was able to deepen my passion and understanding that as an advocate for the arts, that black culinary art has always had been in my subconscious. This event made me bring it to my conscious. It is my responsibility to continue to encourage everyone to support black chefs as they continue to tell our ancestors’ stories through food. We learned about our past, celebrated our present and did not forget our future.

Save the date for the 2022 Family Reunion which will be held August 18-21, 2022.

2% of the ticket proceeds and silent auction benefitted No Kid Hungry. If you would like to donate directly, you can here.

Conjure by Delita Martin

Delita Martin Conjure Sign in Beaumont, TX for the American Southeast Texas Art Museum

I remember the first time I saw Delita Martin‘s work in 2017. It was an exhibit called “Between Sisters and Spirits” at the Nicole Longnecker Gallery and I was blown away. I am pretty sure Jaison suggested I go see her work, as he always guides me to some life changing event. I wanted to buy everything on the wall but couldn’t afford it and I had no room for one piece because everything was wall size large. I put my name on the wait list for a smaller piece. I was collector #2 on the waiting list.

In 2018, I was emailed when a smaller work came out. I was out of town and couldn’t see it in person. I was not as drawn to it as I was for the larger pieces and I had nerve to say I would pass on this one and wait on the next one. Well, those are words I will always regret because despite me knowing in my spirit that Delita was a star, the logic of my mind and the $ in my bank account distracted me. Fast forward to Art Basel Miami 2019, and I saw Delita’s masterpieces valued at 4X what I saw 2 years prior. Despite having the feelings of rocks in my stomach, I didn’t give up. I had confirmation that my novice collecting was turning into having a special gift to pick emerging artists, as long as I trusted my intuition.

Two Views

I started going into defensive mode and decided that I should buy prints since original pieces escaped my affordability. Everything Delita makes has some tie to black women and spirituality. I always see a reflection when I experience her work. My disappointment grew into anger that I didn’t eat beans and rice for a year so I could buy a piece but I finally forgave myself because there would be future opportunities for me to collect.

Blue Stars

I was very excited to finally meet Delita in person for her exhibit “In the Shadows” with a talkback at Community Artist Collective. Listening to that talk I realized why I felt so drawn to the work. Delita not only looks like my first cousin, her aura makes you feel like she is family. Despite being in my art collecting infancy, I felt welcomed to the table because the art was made for me. My connection to the art moved from wanting to collect the works of art to wanting to support Delita’s success as an artist.

After becoming the unofficial president of the Delita Martin fan club, I saw a call for models on instagram. We were in the beginning of the pandemic and I figured, why not try out. Delita selected me as one of her models and I pretty much was undone. It was absolutely an honor to be chosen by Delita to be a medium for her work. I was completely fine if the world never saw the final piece. Then she announced the exhibit Conjure would feature the piece “Red Bird” and I pretty much lost my mind.

On Good Friday, I was able to take a road trip to Beaumont to visit the American Museum of Southeast Texas. Beaumont has always been the place my family stops for gas on the way to Louisiana. This was my first time actually stopping into Beaumont and exploring. There was a lot of traffic and construction from Houston. Since I am usually not on the outside during the pandemic, this felt like a bonafide road trip. I was so happy to get to the museum though I had a small window to get back before rush hour Friday traffic.

Red Bird

The exhibit was absolutely gorgeous. I loved the intimacy of the building and it brought me back to the first time I saw Delita’s work in 2017. I felt welcomed and had the entire exhibit to myself. Every single piece was special to me, yet it was amazing to see the piece I modeled up close. I made sure not to see any spoiler alerts on social media before going which allowed me to just be with the work. When I came home, I read some of the excerpts from the show book and reflected on the objects from the women in my family and their meanings. There were definitely lots of collections and rules growing up at my grandmother’s house. Yet, the way Delita eloquently captures her family history and our history is what make her so special. I could have never imagined being so aligned to a movement that started in 2017 when I just thought I was observing an emerging artist.

What I learned is that I was welcomed to an opportunity to go deeper in myself through art. The irony is the exhibit’s theme conjure (that the ancestors come only when they are called) reminds me that we must give space for the spiritual world to connect with our daily lives. I acknowledge that we all have the ability to be conduits if we just allow ourselves. Conjure is a must see to begin the journey to connecting to you.

Conjure is at the American Museum of Southeast Texas from March 13th to May 23rd 2021. Items for the show can be purchased at Delita Martin’s site.

Houston Cinema Arts Festival

The Houston Cinema Arts Festival is in its 11th year of running and this may be their biggest year. The festival runs from 11/14-11/18 celebrating the arts through film. In parallel, Cinespace (in conjunction with NASA) will judge their finalists that use space imagery as a part of the content. The HCAF opened with a film called Waves, directed by Houston native Trey Edward Shults and was a sold out performance.

Trey Edward Shults and Bun B

It is not often that you watch a film that is emotionally raw yet you can’t bring yourself to tears. Waves was that experience for me. On a journey with an American middle class family , in South Florida, it felt too familiar (and the familiarity was more than being from South Florida). In the talk back with the director and Bun B, they discussed how the experiences could happen in any American family.

My immediate numbness came from seeing so many reflections of myself and people around me. The film focused on choices and consequences and displayed what happens when communication is frayed or non-existent. In addition, Trey mentioned he wanted to create empathy for his characters, not judgement. The characters experienced relatable trauma and joy. Yet, it was the non-expectance that threw me off. Reminding me that each of us has a story and none of us appear like what we have been through. After watching Waves, I was reminded of the fragility of life and the importance of focusing on each day with care. Hugging and loving those around you is the most important reminder received from the film.

The Houston Cinema Arts Festival is demonstrating that diverse content attracts diverse audiences. Houston is the most diverse city in the country and it was warming being in an audience that reflects the population of our city. There are several amazing films throughout the festival. I am looking forward most to Sugar Cane Alley which is a repurposed film (recently played by Ava Duvernay at her theater opening) where the director will be joining us from France. In addition, Black Rodeo will be a documentary about the rodeo lifestyle through the eyes of black rodeo riders. There will also be rodeo riders for a talk back after the film (we know you won’t be at the Kanye concert so come through and support).

Every year the Houston Cinema Arts festival gets better and this is their best year ever. Individual tickets are available for each film or a pass for the week.  I have not seen ratings on the films so it is best to assume that it is most appropriate for adults.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor

I was completely oblivious to the impact Mr. Fred Rogers had on my life until I heard about the documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor. The amount of excitement I had to see the documentary could not be contained. Yet, when I tried to get other adults to attend with me, they were too busy “adulting” to go. Though I was busy as well, I felt it was worth sacrificing all of my tasks to watch this screening. I even had someone decline because they felt it was pushing a gay agenda. I took my 10 year old date and kept it moving. I also confirmed that we adults have things really backwards.

I was told to arrive by 7pm and spent at least 30 minutes waiting before the movie started. Those that know how impatient I am, know I was on pins and needles. I learned about the Houston Film Fanatics group which is a group that writes film reviews for the Houston community. Once the film finally began, I couldn’t help but smile 80% of the time. I thought I understood how amazing Mr. Rogers was when I was a child, but the film brought back subconscious memories that I had not thought about in decades.

My childhood was far from perfect. It is more accurate to say that most of my environment growing up was very toxic. Nevertheless, Mr. Rogers Neighborhood was one of the places I could escape and focus on love. I recall arguing with my older brother over the television as he wanted to watch WWF (and often won the fight). He also constantly called Mr. Rogers a weirdo which I always defended. After watching this documentary, I realized why I was drawn to him.

Mr. Rogers was the first person in my life to teach me that being who I am (unapologetically) was fine. I always felt different whether it was at school, church, or with my family. No one in the world was like me. I even took it upon myself to visit my neighbors often and had no idea that was from the encouragement of Mr. Rogers. I even went to the mean lady’s house who’s house often smelled of urine (because she was a senior citizen with no help) and my family would wonder if their 6 year old had bumped her head. Sharing love with my neighbors gave me joy. Now that I am retrospective, I realize the senior citizens in my community understood my mission and appreciated it because they were often forgotten.

Mr. Rogers was the advocate for those often overlooked. He was the inclusion movement. He understood that children were sponges and the impact of what they watched could shape their minds forever. It is amazing to me that evil still tries to persist but love still conquers all. I find it disturbing that as an adult, all I hear about Mr. Rogers is that he was gay. Even when I first heard that I still remember responding with, ok, I still love him. Well, the documentary addresses the fact that Mr. Rogers is not gay (spoiler alert). I also learned that he is an ordained minister, anyone ever here that one? No!

We need more people like Mr. Rogers on television. People who genuinely care about the well being of children. Not marketers exploiting children to increase market share. I applaud Mr. Rogers for encouraging me to be me. For accepting people as uniquely as they are. For focusing on inclusion before it was as a hot topic.  My four year old self knew his authenticity and will forever be grateful for access to public television that gave me access to someone like Mr. Rogers who genuinely cared for me. Go see Won’t You Be My Neighbor at River Oaks Theater starting June 15th.

Prospect.4: The Lotus in Spite of the Swamp

As New Orleans is completely focused on celebrating Mardi Gras 2018, you would be remiss if you are in town and miss Prospect.4. Prospect is a citywide triennial of contemporary art displayed all over New Orleans. The artists range from local to international. Created by Dan Cameron, a world recognized curator, he brought the idea to New Orleans in 2007 with seed money from philanthropist Toby Devan.

The art is exhibited all around New Orleans, including traditional museums like the New Orleans Museum of Arts (NOMA) to non traditional art venues, including public art. Prospect is able to intertwine the rich New Orleans culture with artists from around the world to create a seamless benefit to impact New Orleans culturally and economically.

I found out about the exhibit from an Artsy email and I am glad I caught it. Immediately, I fell in love with the work of Njideka Akunyili Crosby and had to figure out a way to get to New Orleans to see it. With a quick flight to New Orleans from Houston, I literally drove from the airport to NOMA. I did not have a lot of time on this trip so I had to be very strategic with which pieces I could see.

As soon as I entered NOMA, I was greeted by pieces that immediately blew me away. I had never heard of Barkley Hendricks, but his work left you remembering that they are unforgettable. While I learned more about Mr. Hendricks, I realized he recently passed away in 2017 (RIP). All of the pieces exhibited, were recently purchased from his estate and on loan for Prospect.4. I am very grateful to the collector that allowed us to witness the magnificence of his work.

I was emotionally full before I even made it to Ms. Crosby’s work. Yet, I had no idea I would have the response I did when I explored her section of NOMA. I burst into tears as soon as I saw it. The collages were not like anything I have ever seen. I was also overwhelmed thinking about how blessed I was to go from a goal to visit by reading an email to a very short time before I was standing in front of masterpieces. As you look closer to her collages, you begin to see some materials from magazines from Nigeria. There is an overlap of Western and African culture with small messages throughout each piece. These pieces felt like they represented me. A gumbo of many of life’s experiences and cultures, never fully understood by the naked eye.


Next, I ventured off to an Afro-Cuban artist Alexis Esquivel. Still processing  Njideka’s work, I now had to evoke emotions by seeing our former President in paintings placed in Cuba. A beautiful play of fact and fiction, I enjoyed experiencing the depiction from Alexis’s lens.

Prospect.4 features art from 73 artists from around the world. If you only have time to visit one place, I suggest you visit NOMA. It runs through February 25, 2018. The welcome center is on 750 Carondelet Street with hours from 10:30am-4:30pm. Some venues will be closed from Feb 10th-Feb14th for Mardi Gras so check before you go. For more information, visit Prospect New Orleans

Optimized Travel on a Budget

Often people look at travel as being only available to the wealthy but I beg to differ. The way to optimize travel and reduce cost is by having excellent credit. If you have credit difficulties, focus on fixing that first before you venture to plan the next big vacation. A Houston based organization like Money Management International, could help you get on the right foot. If you are already there, I will share some tips that took my vacation from a 7 to a 10.
Initially, I started following posts from The Points Guy and studying tips on which travel credit cards are best (note, I had a very established credit history before I got into this game. I always pay off balances to avoid interest fees). I was hesitant to have more than one credit card but now that I have learned the game, it really makes sense to have cards for brands you gravitate towards. Yet, to be smart with your credit utilization, you don’t need a million cards. Two to three can make a difference as long as you have the discipline to not fall into a trap.
My favorite is Chase Sapphire Reserve because it gives you 3x points for travel (ride-sharing, planes, buses,etc) and Restaurants (in addition to paying for global entry, lounge access, and more). Yet, the best part is when you use the points for travel, you get a 50% bonus towards the trip. For a cherry on top, you still earn frequent flyer miles for the trip booked with points (For example, since I love math, let’s say you use the card to buy a $200 flight. You will get 600 points, which basically is equal to 900  points or $9 toward a future flight. The points add up very quickly). Lastly, of the $450 annual fee per year, you get $300 reimbursed to you when you use charge travel (ground or air). You can very easily have the card pay you if you use it wisely.
In addition, some hotel cards will give you nights towards status or like Intercontinental Hotel Group (IHG), instant platinum status if you have their card. This entitles you to earning bonuses on hotel stays, late check-out (4pm), etc. When combining a travel card and a hotel card, you get the best of both worlds. I am a big fan of Marriott, so it was imperative I get the Marriott card.
Lastly, getting specifically to my last international trip, another tip is to follow or subscribe to alerts such as Scott’s Cheap Flights, Escape Houston or Airfare Watch Dog. That is exactly how I scored a ~$350 round-trip United ticket to Singapore from Los Angeles. With Scott’s Cheap flights, you typically have to decide quickly. After an hour of booking, the flights shot back up to $700+.
Sometimes, when it is deemed an error fare, you should wait until it is confirmed to book any additional plans (but don’t be like me and think you booked your Houston to Los Angeles flight but actually find out 11 days before your trip that you didn’t. Yet, thank God for redeemable points from Sapphire Reserve for your $100 flight to $300 flight error, whew). Once confirmed, it was unbelievable that you could get a total round-trip ticket to SE Asia for less than $500 round-trip.

I decided that Singapore, though a great city, was not enough to go that far to see. I had been to Singapore before and figured it would be a great place to start the jet lag process, but wanted to venture somewhere else. After much deliberation, and advisement, I decided on Langkawi, Malaysia. I know Malaysia still is associated with the horrific disappearance with Malaysia Airlines (RIP), but you can’t live in fear if you want to travel and explore the world. It is counterproductive. For $100/roundtrip from Singapore, I opted to take the risk.
It was fairly simple to book American chain hotels in Singapore (and I stayed with a brand where I have status). Yet, Malaysia was new territory for me. I engaged Uniglobe Travel Designers and they made everything seamless. We were able to find a hotel for a reasonable price and an airport transfer (I am so happy I had a driver when I landed because there is nothing like getting in a random taxi in a country that you are unfamiliar).
Unfortunately, it rained a bit in Langkawi which is surrounded by outdoor activities. Rainy days  became rest days (rest and eat, repeat),  I was able to get a wonderful spa treatment (mud & aloe wrap 50 mins+ 50 minute deep tissue massage) all for $90. The dollar was going very far in Malaysia and I slightly didn’t know how to act. The food was amazing as well.
Meanwhile, I was unprepared for the monkeys being such a large part of the experience. Thankfully, we were not “robbed” by any for food but we were told stories. They were everywhere and generally not afraid of humans. Yet, none of them came within reach and I was happy to observe them from a distance. I noticed it was odd for me to see them in the wild, much like kangaroos in Australia. We learned about an infamous monkey named George who was disowned from his family because he cut his lip on a coke can when a tourist thought that was a great idea to share a coke (not!) So for over a decade, George has had to live alone because they didn’t recognize him with his deformed lip. (Do not feed the monkeys 0_0)
Our hotel didn’t have an adequate kids club (it was more for toddlers versus tweens), so we decided to switch hotels on the last day. I brought out my optimization software (I kid but not really) to see where we could stay with points and it became difficult very fast. The hotels in Langkawi are either reasonable or luxurious. No in between. We finally were able to find a stay at the Ritz Carlton Langkawi for 40k Marriott Points. With my status, I was upgraded from what was a $500/night value room to $700/night (note, my budget hotel was about $100/night w/ buffet breakfast). (A Marriott room in New Orleans for $293 is also 40k points so this was a much better deal)
Though, I didn’t have the budget to stay at the almost brand new Ritz Carlton the entire time, I am glad I had the contrast. The rain and clouds finally stopped, so before we left the budget hotel, we were able to visit the Sky Cab which was within walking  distance. I am so grateful the weather cleared up because not being able to see the views would have diminished the entire experience.
When we arrived to the Ritz Carlton, I felt like I stepped into a real life Zumanda. It was less crowded, the kids club was exciting and not an extra charge. The room was amazing and staff beyond hospitable. The monkeys were a bit more aggressive, but hey, I am in their space so, I should be grateful they allowed me to visit.
We went back to Singapore one more day before our trip and finished it off with a visit to the National Gallery. Interestingly, I had not been there before and it reminded me that you can never see all of a city. There is always something more to see. The art was amazing at the gallery. It was refreshing to see such a variety of artists (mostly from Singapore and Malaysia). The views of Singapore from the building were also amazing. We went back to the JW Marriott with a new perspective than when we arrived.  I was grateful that their lounge access included breakfast, afternoon tea and evening cocktails. Yet, having traveled almost 17 hours to get there, my favorite amenity was them laundering 3 items for free.
In short, it does take some money to plan for a trip, yet there are ways you can stretch the dollar by combining it with loyalty programs and branded credit cards. With only a week to spare, we were able to experience another part of the world which always is a blessing. I encourage you to choose new places to travel, yet try to look up their customs before you go such as tipping, dress and top things to do. Lastly, be flexible and open-minded to experience a culture different from your own.


I have been drawn to visit Belize for at least 5 years. When Southwest created a direct flight to Belize from Houston, it made the dream more of a reality. I had absolutely no knowledge of the island. My podiatrist’s assistant told me about her homeland, which increased my desire to visit more. I finally made the dream a reality MLK Weekend 2017.

I began purchasing parts of my trip in pieces. I was able to attend the Eyes For You fundraising gala and was the highest bidder for a 3 night stay in Belize. I was happy to support a great cause while beginning preparation of my trek to Central America. The second portion was purchased with a Southwest Voucher due to suffering through a 3 hour flight with no air conditioning. I caught a Southwest sale where I had to debate between Art Basel Miami, a visit to Atlanta or Belize for about the same price. Belize won.

When I went to reserve my hotel, I quickly learned that there were layers to this journey. Somehow, I missed that the stay was on an island (caye, pronounced key) which was a distance from Belize City. My flight was landing after the last run of the water taxi so I had to purchase a local domestic flight (which was near the price of my southwest ticket).

I arrived in Belize City seamlessly on Southwest yet started to panic because I did not write down my connecting flight number. I also did not have a plan on what would happen if my Southwest flight was delayed and I couldn’t make the connection. Thankfully, I found my flight on Maya Air after the desk agent from Tropic Air verified I was not flying with them.

I have flown in a Cessna before so a small plane does not scare me very much. Yet, flying over water in a Cessna is another ball game. I recall my connecting flights out of Puerto Rico on American Airlines to the Caribbean, but never did I take a similar journey on an airline that I had never heard. I had to calm my nerves and use the time to take in the scenery. The view from the plane was just the beginning of views I would have from Ambergris Caye.

I landed at night, which I later discovered is new for Belizian pilots. I did research that my hotel was across the street from the airport. I waited on my bag and walked around the corner to the hotel. I observed immediately that golf carts are the major mode of transportation and they are frequently buzzing through the streets.

I arrived at the Sunbreeze Hotel tired and very hungry. The first thing I learned was the hotel restaurant would be closed for dinner for two nights and as they were having a fundraiser for Oceana (an organization that protects the reef). Through clinched teeth, I tried to comprehend no food and was not excited to have to explore to go somewhere else. Yet, two great things came out of it. I registered for the event for Saturday night and I explored eating outside of the hotel.

I made it to the local spot of El Fugaon. They had live music that night (which I have learned is rare). I had a wonderful waiter that was very “Americanized”. He and I chatted about the NBA and I had to learn from him that the Rockets were having a great year (I should be ashamed that I didn’t know that). I saw conch fritters on the menu but ventured to try grilled conch. What was best about the meal was the pepper sauce I requested on the side. It was phenomenal. The meal was great but I wanted it to have a bit more heat (temperature). I enjoyed my margarita which was the freshest mango margarita I have ever had.

I spent a bit of time trying to disconnect from social media and texting and was successful for 24 hours. Unfortunately, wifi was available so it made it hard to break the habit. I spent Saturday relaxing and despite being told Belize is a party mecca, I found exactly what I was looking for, peace. I wandered through the town of San Pedro and found it interesting how quickly I could “blend” like a local. I also saw the difference in price gauging. The conch fritters at El Fugon were $10BZ. I went by a Jerk Place off the beach and they were $24BZ. The currency is about 1:2 for the American dollar, but I could not bring myself to spend that much more. I knew I would eat well that night and ended up just snacking until I got to dinner.

Dinner started at the Blue Fish Grill with cocktails prior to the kickoff. We had italian spritz’s curated by Talia Baiocchi who is releasing a book on spritz recipes. The spritz was a great kick off to a wonderful night. Many of the attendees were immigrants who are now living in Belize (either permanently or occasionally). Some guests, flew back just for the event. I was very happy I decided to attend. It was a great way for me to learn about Belize from their lens.

In addition, the owners from Blue Fish Grill have Houston roots. They had 4 featured chefs per night, and Saturday included a chef from Houston’s Tasting Room and Anejo, Alberto Gutierrez. His dish was a black fin tuna crude, sopressatta-panzanella, flor de jamica, balsamic vinegar and spicy cashew butter. The spicy cashew butter was to die for. In addition to the wonderful meals prepared by Amy Knox (Wild Mango’s), Missy Robbins (Lilia) and Chris Aycock (Blue Water Grill), we had wonderful wine pairings. My favorite take away from the wine were the 2014 Puligny Montrachet and the 2014 Chassagne-Montrachet. I will be looking for those stateside.

The dessert was featured by the Belize Chocolate Company which I stopped by earlier in the day to sign up for a chocolate class. We had a 70% Kakaw Belizean chocolate truffle, wangla square, and and cashew gianduja, all very decadent. All of this food was great preparation for the journey I would have Sunday.

On Sunday, I ran for a quick breakfast at the Blue Water Grill and had one of the best pancakes I have had in a long time. I typically don’t like pancakes outside of the states but these hit the spot. I then went to the Amergeiss Dive Shop to begin my snorkel excursion. I immediately recalled my experience snorkeling in the great barrier reef. Yet, the sharks were a little hungry that day. There is something about being in the ocean that you are forced to acknowledge God’s majesty.

My experience in Belize was well worth the 5 year wait. I am confident I will be back soon to explore more. I am very grateful that I was able to explore, meet new people, but find a bit of home once I arrived. I highly recommend a visit to Belize. I have to go back and explore Belize City (especially the caves).

How was Curlfest?

How was Curlfest? I was asked that question 10 times in the last 24 hours. My reply: Wonderful!

Curlfest launched in 2013 by the Curly Girl Collective as a festival to celebrate women of color with natural hair while linking them with the best brands supporting the movement. Curlfest has been held in Prospect Park (Brooklyn, NY) in the middle of summer. It is a perfect example of utilizing social media to accelerate a movement.

Curly Girl Collective

While attending Curlfest, you could not help but feel empowered. Whether your hair is curly or straight (you would feel a bit out of place with straight hair but all are welcome!), there was a strong sense of pride which is rare in gatherings lately. There were a plethora of t-shirts with strong statements, ankara prints, children rocking their fros. It felt like this was the black girl magic version of woodstock (minus the drugs). We felt free, together and a part of a cause no one could deny.

This year, Spike Lee was in attendance and spoke to the crowd. One message that stood out was him commending the crowd on their beauty while demanding we take command of the economics of our power. Spike has a valid point as the natural hair care industry is now valued over $500B. Wouldn’t it be a shame that we don’t profit by providing brands for us and by us.

Braiding Booth by Shea Moisture

In addition to visiting vendors and booths, we were able to get our face painted by the artist Laolu. We waited in line for an hour, going well beyond his closing time, to have our face become canvasses based on Yoruba sacred traditional art. We officially were touched with the energy of our ancestors which was carried with us the entire day. The face art invited conversations and requests for pictures well beyond our expectations.









The day was hot but it did not stop anyone from dancing to the music blasting from the stage. It did not take long to run out of things to do, but the long lines made time go by fast. The best find was a bag of products from brands such as Madame CJ Walker,   Shea Moisture, etc. For $35, we were able to grab this to go bag, with a curl fest tote and a much needed coconut. It was definitely a bargain because I am sure it is valued well over $100.

Curlfest is destined to get bigger and bigger. It was an amazing experience without any drama. We all came and had a wonderful time and left with stories for years to come. It was wonderful to see children soaking up the beauty of our people from all over the diaspora. I strongly encourage a visit to Curlfest in 2018.


See you next year!