By Clayton Singleton
Too often, I scroll food delivery apps on my phone, begrudge which grocery to visit or stare into my fridge indecisively like the cereal aisle scene in the film The Hurt Locker. I commonly refer to these as first-world problems. However, just 4.3 miles from my first-world oasis in the Norview area of Norfolk, there are communities that have only limited access to a variety of affordable and healthy food options. These communities are often referred to as food deserts.
To better understand the outcomes food disparities impose on people’s lives, I spent four months investigating the domino effects of food deserts and created an artwork titled Far from Manna in response. The work is part of an exhibit called Nourish at Virginia MOCA, on display through June 6, 2021, along with contributions by eleven other artists examining the intersection of food and art in different ways.
My hypothesis was that food serves as a catalyst for social construction, community stability and holistic individual development. Furthermore, anyone without access to proper nutrition cannot function, let alone thrive in our America. I didn’t pull this theory out of thin air. I’ve worked as a teacher with Norfolk Public Schools since 1994, and I see firsthand that a steady diet of unhealthy snacks and limited access to nutritional food makes our kids agitated, dehydrated and unable to learn.
To gain a better understanding of this epidemic, I conducted a series of interviews with St. Paul’s Community Development Corporation, Reverend Brandon Praileau of Wesley Union A.M.E. Zion Church, Lauren DeSimone of Virginia Community Capital, and most importantly, families living in Norfolk’s Young Terrace neighborhood. The neighborhood’s only grocery, Save-A-Lot Food Stores, closed in June 2020. I also practiced a sort of “method painting,” if you will. I took the HRT bus from Church and Brambleton to the Food Lion in Colley Village and purchased groceries like many people in downtown Norfolk must do when buying and transporting their food.
After my experiences interviewing, reading and riding, I began work on my 54” x 84” painting. I knew it had to be large. The images had to be present—inescapable. I began painting flat on the floor, treating the canvas like earth. My initial paint layers were the soil. Each of the printed Adinkra symbols were sown onto the surface like seeds. Each of these West African symbols carries meaning and proverb. The one that looks like a heart is another version of Sankofa, which translates to “go back and get it.” Listed too are symbols such as Bese Saka and Wawa Aba, representing abundance and perseverance. Each print also serves to represent a trip to the market. There are over 200 printings.
I purposely placed paint at a distance to which I had to walk and repaint the stamp, walk back to the painting, kneel on the floor, position the plate, press, lift and repeat. Next, I began painting layers of maps that served as tools for containing and restraining African descendants; the transatlantic slave trade, redlining, food deserts and the city of Norfolk skyline. I wrote quotes from the interviews I conducted in cursive using graphite pencil. One of those quotes belongs to Sherri who’s sitting next to Duwarn riding the number four bus with groceries arranged on blue plastic seats. The raised edges of symbols and maps remain visible through their skin and clothing.
Far from Manna explores how the underlying intentional generational restriction and containment of Black people have served as dominoes in the run against African American advancement and created food deserts thousands of our citizens endure. As part of this process, I learned that food deserts in Norfolk are the result of established policies rooted in racism. I learned we cannot drop a grocery store into a desert to solve these durable obstructions. We must create a web of several sustainable solutions to address deep underlying architectures of social divisions. We must nourish our communities the way we nourish healthy bodies.
Food creates community. Food is a catalyst for social change. When we create sustainable models for food wealth, our social wealth will improve. We must nourish our social health. We must become socially fit in such a way that each citizen can exercise their rights, exert free will and have true ownership of their bodies. We still have work to do for inclusion of all citizens. Even now a new map, labeled opportunity zones, has been layered over these once restricted acres. Yet, the question emerges, opportunities for whom?
Clayton Singleton is a native of Norfolk and has lived in six different neighborhoods across the city throughout his life. He is a practicing artist currently teaching art in Norfolk at The Great Lake Taylor High, where all dreams come true.