by Michael Harriot (The Root)
As one of the world’s leading cookoutologists (I would say I’m the leading authority, but my aunt Phyllis hasn’t officially retired), I feel it is my duty to keep you updated on the latest in cookout culture. (Always remember: White people barbecue, black people “cook out.”)
Although many people think of cookouts as events or celebrations, they are so much more. Cookouts have evolved into a metaphor for the black experience. Being “uninvited to the cookout” now means that you have been effectively excommunicated from the black community.
If you can handle a black cookout, you can handle anything you may encounter in life. As black America prepares to celebrate Labor Day in the tradition we all love, we have assembled this handy guide to help you learn how to navigate any black cookout, which coincidentally consists of the same rules that apply to living a happy, productive life.
1. Bring something to the table.
Showing up empty-handed to a black cookout is one of the worst offenses a human being can commit. If you’re wondering why everyone is giving you a slight side eye, it’s because you waltzed into Aunt Phyllis’ backyard with nothing but a cellphone and a beer. One beer! What kind of motherfucking savage are you?
I’m not saying you had to bring a pan or ribs or work the grill, but at least bring a case of NuGrape (the official soda sponsor of black cookouts since 1902). Or how about aluminum foil? A black barbecue can never have enough aluminum foil. (Did you know that black cookouts are responsible for 27 percent of all aluminum consumption in the United States? I’m not exactly sure what we do with all that aluminum foil. I think it goes in the macaroni, but I’m not sure. No one knows what’s in Aunt Phyllis’ macaroni. We just know it’s good.)
When your cousins say you “be actin’ white,” it has nothing to do with the way you talk, or that you went to an Ivy league college. It’s because you came to the cookout with nothing to offer. We love you, and you are part of the family, but showing up and expecting a seat at the table just because you were born in the right family is the definition of privilege.
Your people built this cookout!
2. Respect the culture.
Although every family has a set of individual rules, there are some universal rules for cookouts:
Honor those who came before you: I don’t care how hungry you are; if you step in line in front of Grandma Betty, you might catch a knife to the gut. Even if Uncle Jack is half drunk, you let him have the last rib. You didn’t fight in Vietnam. You didn’t march with Martin Luther King Jr.
To be fair, neither did Uncle Jack, but you know how he gets when he’s on that Crown Royal.
Don’t be selfish: Only two deviled eggs per plate. If you want more, come back for seconds. Or do what I do: Eat one, put one on the plate. Eat one, put one on the plate.
Cleanliness is next to godliness: It should go without saying, but clean up after yourself. If the trash bag is full, tie it in a square knot and get another one. And everyone knows the most important rule: Don’t put your nasty-ass hand in the ice! Use a cup!
Don’t block your blessings … or anyone else’s car. Someone’s going to have to run to the store, and you could hold up the entire barbecue by parking incorrectly. We’re going to need more ice. And aluminum foil. We always need more aluminum foil.
If they didn’t come, help or put in on the food, they don’t get a plate: I don’t care who it is. Tasha didn’t slave over that potato salad so you could take it home to your boo and get credit for giving her a meal. Those ribs were meant for us, not your co-workers! That’s cultural appropriation. Don’t Taylor Swift Aunt Phyllis’ macaroni.
3. Know thyself.
It is not simply enough to know your strengths. You must also familiarize yourself with your weaknesses. If you know you can’t cook, you have no business in the kitchen. The reason we ask you to bring cups and napkins (and aluminum foil; always bring aluminum foil) is that bringing paper products is the duty of the family member who has no culinary skills.
In 2004, Keshia informed the family that you were seen adding sugar to the Kool-Aid with a measuring cup. What kind of Paula Deen-type mess is that, Jamaal? Everyone knows you are supposed to pour the sugar straight out of the bag into the Kool-Aid! Who raised you?
You must learn to stay in your lane. Being honest with yourself is the key to having a good time at the cookout and living an abundant life. Your feelings are bound to get hurt if you get on the spades table knowing you don’t have enough experience and expertise to get in the game. Either sit down or go play Uno.
4. Choose your partners wisely.
Speaking of spades, you can’t just blindly choose a partner because they seem to have all the qualifications. You must get to know them first, or the relationship and your game are bound to fail.
How well do you know them? Who’s going to rake the books? Are they an underbidder? If they tell you they have a “possible,” can you turn it into a reality? If you renege, will they stand faithfully beside you and fight even if they know you’re wrong?
Most importantly, you can’t just bring anyone to the cookout. You must understand that not everyone is ready for a family gathering. Some people will get upset when your cousin Mookie tells them to “knock, you bitch-ass motherfucker” on the domino table. They must be able to understand your culture. What if you bring someone to the cookout, only to find out later that they put raisins in their potato salad, or use measuring cups to make Kool-Aid?
I’m not racist, but if you invite a guest who asks for a Coke Zero or a piece of chicken without any seasoning, they have to leave.
5. Dance like nobody’s watching … except your cousins.
Black cookouts are one of the few times you can submerge yourself in family and culture without judgment. There is no need for code-switching. You don’t have to eat chicken with a fork. You can devour watermelon without fear of being stereotyped.
Enjoy it. Bathe in the beauty of your blackness. Do the Electric Slide on Aunt Phyllis’ lawn in a pair of flip-flops. Renege just for the fun of it. Tell Tasha to sneak you a couple of deviled eggs.
Black cookouts have nothing to do with the quality of the food. It will always taste perfect because there’s love in both the air and the sauce. It doesn’t matter who won the game of dominoes (because it will always be the uncle wearing a Kangol, sandals and a matching “short set”). Black cookouts are about family. They are about love. They are about freedom.
Being black in America is like walking a tightrope with no safety net—it is fun, but a little scary. It isn’t often that we get to be free from the balancing act in this American circus, but every now and then we get the rare opportunity to plant our feet firmly on the ground. You might think there will always be another day … or another cookout, but right now, all you can truly know for sure is that you have this day. This cookout. Make every second count. Do not waste this chance.
… and bring aluminum foil.
Michael Harriot is a staff writer at The Root, host of “The Black One” podcast and editor-in-chief of the daily digital magazine NegusWhoRead.