AME Anniversary: A talk with Chef BJ Dennis

Helen Mitternight
(Editor's Note: Five years after of the racially motivated shooting at Mother Emanual AME Church, we're sharing Helen Mitternight's interview with acclaimed Chef BJ Dennis on the one-year anniversary of the tragedy. Reprinted from original publication June 17th, 2016.) 

By Helen Mitternight

After the AME shootings, I haunted social media and news sites, trying to make some kind of sense out of a senseless act.

One person whose voice stood out in contrast to all the tender postings was the astringent views ofBenjamin (BJ) Dennis,a vocal advocate for the Gullah culture and foods. While everyone was posting platitudes, Dennis was posting stark, almost angry, reactions.

I spoke with him recently to ask if, after a year, race relations have changed in Charleston. Spoiler alert: he says they haven’t.


HM: Where were you when you heard the news?


BJD:  I was here that night. I flew out the next morning, but I was downtown that night. I was coming up from West Ashley and I saw the police going downtown. I didn’t know what was going on. I saw it on the news and I was kind of in shock.


HLM: Can you walk me through what you were feeling?


This is Charleston. We have always lived side by side, respect each other’s space. It’s just a segregated city. It is what it is. When something happens , it’s just like we’re sorry, but what you are seeing is basically the same thing you’ve been seeing. It’s all cute and everything to hold hands and all that, but at the end of day, everybody holds hands and then goes about their business.


Truth be told, most Charlestonians could really care less about the plight of black people in Charleston. But black people have made the city what it is, that’s just fact. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful city. And African Americans, we have our own issues in this country, period. But when you’re talking about 300 plus years of enslavement and no more than 50 years coming out of civil rights, this is what you have.


HM: What do you mean?


BJD: What you have with integration is the loss of black businesses. Every other minority culture for the most part in major cities has their areas of town. Not to say that we should be segregated, but you know, you have a China Town, you have a Korea Town, in major cities, where their kids can go off and integrate but they have a base to come to. You know, African Americans were brought unwillingly through the slave trade…we are the only people in this country outside of the natives…that don’t have a base to go back to, and the base that we have to go back to is basically white America.


We can’t even get the truth in schoolbooks. Let’s not be afraid to say there were African Americans who owned businesses, hotels, restaurants, instead of just saying they were slaves. Until we can get everybody to talk the truth about African American culture and have everybody accept it, until we can talk the truth about the Confederacy, then (when something happens) you say we’re sorry, we’re sorry, we’re sorry but at the end of the day, you go back about your business.


HM: You have said nothing has changed. What do you mean specifically?


BJD: I’m a realist. Maybe certain people’s minds will be changed about certain things, but we have to make that change. It was beautiful to see the compassion, very beautiful to see the heartfelt, but after all the smoke clears, you go back to the same situation. It doesn’t change the fact that the Charleston County School system sucks. I’ve been out of high school going on 19 years and we’re still the bottom of the barrel in the country. How do we get better education in the school systems, how do we become fair in our history lessons so they not all about people of European descent? How do we reach the communities, how do we as black people find a way to support each other, because it won’t be done unless we start to help each other. You can’t expect someone who doesn’t look like me to do for me.


HM: So what should change?


BJD: Everybody thought Barack Obama was going to change everything for black people and black people are exactly the same. If black people are going to change, mainstream society has to allow us to change our situations without thinking that we are trying to be overly racist. We need educational systems for young black men and even people from poor communities. Young black men need their own institutions to be taught about themselves, be taught about their culture. Some people might find that racist but you see the plight of black men, this is what we need.


If you come from a bad situation, at home you don’t see anything positive and then you go to school you learn only about slaves. You don’t even know the history about when African kings and queens found out about what was going on in America, how they were fighting back. When you aren’t taught these things and you have no knowledge of this yourself, and you’re coming from nothing, then you think of nothing and then you have situations like the ignorance you see that’s going on in Park Circle right now. These brothers have no sense of self.


But then you also have a young brother that I’m working with that goes to North Charleston High School, that’s 17 years old, and a senior, working full time as a line cook, not selling drugs, not doing the wrong thing, but graduation’s the last thing on his mind when he has to pay bills because his mother was a diabetic and lost her legs. She can’t work. And he’s got a car note. There’s levels to it.


That’s why I say this whole Emmanuel Nine thing…I love the compassion, I really did love the compassion. But I’m a realist. I knew that after all the smoke clears, the situation going to be the same.


It was beautiful to see, I mean, listen, Charleston we’ve always been really different from the rest of the state, we really truly are. But racism and segregation still permeates the city. But at the same time there is a certain respect there. (pauses). We’re a very difficult city to understand.