On a perfectly sunny summer day, we hung out waterside in Queens with Anthonia Akitunde
, founder of mater mea
, a website that celebrates black women at the intersection of motherhood and career. We talked about Kansas City barbecue, what it's like growing up with immigrant parents, coming into your own, inclusivity (or lack thereof) in the Jewish community, and how good gefilte fish is.
Tell me about where you grew up.
I’m originally from Kansas City, Missouri. I can appreciate it a lot more now that I don't live there. I get homesick more often than a younger me would’ve imagined. It’s a really chill town that has a lot of great music, food, art, culture, and people. We were there when The Royals won the World Series against The Mets and the bar we were in just exploded. Someone tried to give my fiancé a high five, and Scott was like, "I'm a Mets fan." The other guy was like, "Oh, that's OK, maybe you guys will win next year" and shook his hand. That would not have happened in New York!
Did you have any pivotal moments or experiences when you left for college?
I was so ready to leave for college. My aunt was visiting from Nigeria and she was braiding my hair right as we pulled into the parking lot of my dorm and I was just craning my head, like, “Let me go, I'm ready, I'm ready.” The University of Chicago was the school I needed to go to become the person I always wanted to be. One of the biggest burns I got my first week in college was, “I bet you were really popular in high school.” That was like one of the worst things someone could’ve said to me at this school that was all about the “life of the mind” and being “uncommon.” I wasn’t considered a weirdo or an outcast because I was nerdy. I felt very affirmed there. It was great to feel seen and understood and respected and liked for the same qualities I had been made to feel insecure about growing up. It was like, who I am at this point is enough and who I will be after this point will be fine, too.
Do you have a personal mantra?
The thing my mom says a lot that I'm trying to incorporate is that you can't judge where you are by someone else's watch. It might be right on time for someone else, but it may not be my time yet. Another thing she says is whatever is supposed to be yours will be yours. It won't be a fight to get it. It'll just come to you. She said that a lot about dating!
How has Judaism played a role in your relationship with Scott?
On our 4th date, I asked him if I had to convert. He's super funny, he's very kind, the most supportive person I've ever dated. I didn't want it to get to a point where I fell in love with him and then he was like, “Oh, by the way, you have to convert.” I also didn't want to have to convert to be with someone. I thought that would be lying to him and lying to his faith, since I’m pretty agnostic. He said I wouldn't have to convert, but that he would want his kids to be raised Jewish, which makes sense to me. I like that being in this relationship is pushing me to figure out a part of my identity that I just made jokes about, like, "Oh, I'm a lapsed Catholic, don't tell my mom." I hadn't had a real thoughtful conversation with myself about it.
How do you two incorporate Judaism into your lives now?
We celebrate all the big holidays with his family, and this past year was the first year we lit candles for Hanukkah, which gave me a lot of feelings. We just got back from Kansas City where we were interviewing rabbis to officiate our wedding and having our parents meet for the first time. We met two rabbis that we really liked. The third one we met...sorry, now I'm about to have a rage blackout.
He used a racial slur when talking to us. It was like a record scratched - errrrrr! Scott shut it down. I had no words, it was like someone had just drained all the water in my body. I couldn't even form the spit necessary to say something to him. From my understanding, Judaism is really rooted in family and passing on history and tradition to future generations. But how are our kids gonna be treated in this faith that's supposed to be liberal, but has a rabbi saying the N word? We’ve been doing a lot of research into how Jewish people of color feel in Jewish spaces, and there are a lot of personal stories of devout Black Jews saying they often don’t feel accepted because they don’t “look Jewish.” Our kids are already going to be told that they're not black enough, that they're not white enough, so I don't know if I want to add Jewish enough to that, as well. We're having pretty meaty conversations about it. Is Judaism big enough to truly include people of different backgrounds? If I were to convert or if I ultimately decided not to convert but wanted to raise our kids Jewish, will my children be considered Jewish? And not just on paper but in practice when we go into temples as a family? Those are questions that I have.
Favorite writers? Favorite books?
I love Toni Morrison. Reading Beloved
was the first time I realized the power of words to heal and transform. I just finished reading Homegoing
by Yaa Gyasi. It's so good. It's the story of a family. One line is on the continent of Africa, the other, through slavery, gets sent to America. It's quick snapshots of these individuals' lives and how they interplay together. She's like 26 and started working on it when she was 20. She's so fucking talented. And I'm watching cartoons.
Do you have a favorite or least favorite Jewish food?
I feel like I just have favorites. I really like gefilte fish. It reminds me of a Nigerian dish my mom makes called moi-moi. I really like chopped liver. Matzah with chopped liver is my jam. How could I forget bagels? And lox? Bagels and lox! What am I doing?
We'll be publishing the complete interview with Anthonia on our new website very soon. In the meantime, check out her website, mater mea, and follow her on Instagram.