I had never heard of Dr. Jessica B. Harris, a food expert and writer, but I had been wanting to read her memoir for over a year. There’s something enchanting about the title: My Soul Looks Back. I love the cover, obviously a photograph from her personal collection taken sometime during the 60s or 70s based on the grainy color and look that old photographs often have. A Black woman fixing her headwrap, wearing large round glasses, stacked chunky bracelets on one arm, and dressed in a black spaghetti-strap tank top and emerald green skirt. The photograph and book cover end slightly below her skirted knees.
It’s no wonder Harris’s soul looks back. Through a romance with Sam, a colleague more than ten years her senior, she ran in the same circles as Sam’s best friend James (Jimmy) Baldwin, Maya Angelou, and Toni Morrison. (I met Toni Morrison at a book signing!) The first time Harris encountered Nina Simone at a gathering, she overheard Simone ask “who’s the bitch in the red dress?” To Harris’ dismay, she realized she was the bitch in the red dress. Harris and Maya Angelou became close enough that she asked Angelou to speak at her mother’s funeral. Harris witnessed firsthand Angelou’s declining health, and was treated as a VIP member at one of Angelou’s many services after she passed away in 2014. Fun fact: Maya Angelou was allergic to shellfish—like me!
Harris shouldn’t only be defined by her relationships and proximity to greatness. Though she often suffered from Imposter Syndrome, she had an impressive life as well. Her parents weren’t wealthy, but they made sure to expose her to a life outside of their Queens, NY, neighborhood. She recalls a family trip to Europe. Her parents owned a summer home in Martha’s Vineyard. She attended the High School of Performing Arts, which if you’re a person of a particular age, you know was featured in the TV show Fame starring The Debbie Allen.
Not only was I envious of her book reviewer position at Essence magazine (my dream job and publication), but Harris also had access to free tickets to shows when she was a theater critic. These were the tiers in her writing career before she became a food writer. It’s incredible how in some recollections she’s able to recount not only what she ordered and ate, but the tastes similar to Padma Lakshmi in her memoir Love, Loss and What We Ate. I appreciate the honesty when several times she admits to forgotten details, like names and places in other scenarios.
Of course, there was some sadness in her life. Harris witnessed the AIDS epidemic firsthand. I was disappointed that in her list of reasons of disbelief about someone close to her contracting the virus being that he was not Haitian. Growing up Haitian and even now in 2020, this is a horrible untruth that my people have had to deal with for decades. Haitians are not the cause nor super-spreader of the virus. I suppose her comment was a sign of the (more) ignorant times, but still disappointing nonetheless.
For me, who moved to New York to chase yet stifle her daydreams of being a part of the literary world, charges up her credit card on concerts, Broadway shows and other live entertainment, and wishes I could indulge in the yummy deliciousness that I read about online and in magazines, My Soul Looks Back is a thrilling memoir. Harris loves, eats, travels the world, has relationships and connections with the Black intelligentsia. In my eleven years of living in the same city in which Harris grew up an lived, I’ve had and hoping to have my own experiences after which my own soul will look back and reflect that it had a remarkable life.