Good Food, Good Folks, Good Business
By Gwen McKinney
The novelist Aldous Huxley once said: ‘Liberties are not given; they are taken.’ We are not given our liberties by the Bill of Rights, certainly not by the government which either violates or ignores those rights. We take our rights, as thinking, acting citizens.
– Howard Zinn
From Columbus to the Constitution, the history of America can be charted by the narratives of people committed to resistance and change. Even in dark times of plunder and political excesses, resolute popular movements can reverse the tide. That faith, borrowed from historian Howard Zinn, gives Andy Shallal his hope and inspiration. Shallal operates six establishments in DC, Maryland and Virginia that is home to free Wi-Fi, fair trade coffee and performance stages for progressive authors and change agents. The Iraqi-born restaurateur has honed his Busboys and Poets brand into a unique mélange of culture, politics and culinary pleasures.
I recently joined him to reflect on becoming American and staying engaged in activism and struggle.
What does “Becoming American” mean to you – someone who brings an immigrant experience to your unique but important success story?
As an immigrant who came to this country at age 10, I had a hard time figuring out what would make me American…suddenly becoming an American overnight. Assuming a new identity is monumental. If you analyze what it means to be an American, you know it’s more than a place. It’s a state of mind. There are foundational values…significant things that make you proud to be an American – the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly. When someone who embraces these bedrock principles sees these values turned on their head and trampled, you have to act. These are rights – not privileges – and that’s what we have to fight for whether we define ourselves as immigrants or not. Everyone except for Native Americans came from someplace else; some by choice, some because of conditions that forced them here and some unwillingly in shackles as slaves. No one can claim this as their land – it’s everyone’s land. America is an idea and no one has singular claim to that.
Is there a prescription to stave off the anti-immigrant vitriol?
It’s important for people who want a better world to remain visible. It’s very difficult for me as a brown Muslim man to deal with the ascendency of Trump. It gave me a deep despair that even surprised me; it reaped a real sense of exhaustion and all the past struggles seemed they were for naught. I didn’t have the luxury to believe that this too shall pass. A lot of damage can happen in four years.
Then in the immediate days leading into the inauguration, a really cool thing happened. We did the Peace Ball [the third inaugural gala sponsored by Busboys and Poets to spotlight progressive voices of hope and resistance at the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the eve of the presidential inauguration]. It was the largest ever; 4,000 people came from across the country. And then the next day the Women’s March, garnering millions in DC, around the country and worldwide. And then day after day, issue after issue, more people who had never demonstrated began taking to the streets. The really exciting part was that young white people were taking to the streets. It honestly restored my faith in young people of all races. They were present. Many of them have thrown their lives on the line.
There’s a silver lining in every cloud. This whole idea of intersectionality that we’ve all been talking about now has real and practical application. Maybe Trump is the thread that’s weaving a cross-sectional new dawn.
Alone we fail. Together we prevail. Collectively we are starting to recognize that we cannot do this alone. We’re gaining a sense of restoration in the human spirit. That’s even bigger than the notion of justice.
Columbus…What about him? This is a month we mark his “great discovery.”
We know that Columbus represented plunder, violence, greed, disrespect of other cultures. Perhaps you might call him the first terrorist of the Americas. I draw my meaning of Columbus as a student of Howard Zinn and his re-writing of American history. It’s based on a people’s history – not conquests and wars – but the movements that shape who we are…from the immigrant rights movement, to the Black Lives Matters movement, to antiwar movement, to the civil right movement, to the industrial workers’ movement, to the abolition movement… every demand and every victory is because of the values enshrined, not on paper, but the struggles of people to make those values real. That has very little to do with Columbus.
For instance, take the diversity training of the 1990s. It was a big thing in corporate settings, imposed to make white people in the workplace feel comfortable. But really those kinds of “PC” endeavors really just put the lid on the sewer. Below the surface, the cesspool was still infested with all the stinking stuff. You want to believe that we’ve evolved as a country, but we did not, evidenced by the outcome of the presidential election. There was not an opportunity to flush out the toxins so people just held them in, locked in to their own camps.
In this day of demands to remove the many statutes and monuments that celebrated this nation’s dark legacy of slavery, we can extract important lessons. It has little to do with the Robert E. Lees or Stonewall Jacksons. Just removing their statutes without redefining what that means makes very little difference. There are ways to do these things that have longer lasting impact. It comes from not stifling the conversations, but opening the debate and removing the false sense that once the statutes and symbols are gone, the problem goes away. They just move underground.
Columbus, like Robert E. Lee, was a product of his times. Every society is built on a set of truths and foundations that form the building blocks of who we are. At some point we take a pause and emerge with a narrative that is not based on a white, European genocidal perspective…It’s important to emerge with a shared narrative of how we can move together as a people united around common interests. There are tipping points that move and transform. Sometimes a moment is a tipping point. But change happens with the cumulative impact of what leads to that moment.
Travel back to 1966 when you arrived to the U.S. What experiences shaped you?
My father traveled here as a diplomat for the government of Iraq. We flew on a First Class Swiss Air flight; a wondrous experience for a 10-year-old kid who had never had such luxurious travel, and coming to America…how sweet!
My father was not an aristocrat but he was educated and had the amenities of opulence because of his government position. We settled in a middle class suburb outside of DC. From the early days of my arrival, race shaped my experience. Even though I came from Iraq, people saw me as a little Black boy. I didn’t know what that meant. Coming from a community where you believe you had a clear identity, suddenly you are thrown into a setting where you’re called nigger. I knew there was something about this country that was very odd. It deals with race in a peculiar way. Instinctively, I wanted to mine the notion of race deeper, to investigate and learn to understand it better. I was thrust into the race factor but didn’t know what it meant.
Angela Davis, at the time on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, was one of the first images that I remember flashed across the TV screen. I revered her, not as a criminal, but as an amazing ‘bad ass’ …the first Black woman that I actually worshiped. The civil rights movement was huge during my formative years. Two years after I arrived, Martin Luther King was assassinated and suddenly America was on fire. I lived in an epicenter of this whirlwind of resistance and change. In fact, I attended the first public secondary school in Virginia (Stratford Junior High School) to desegregate.
Good food, good folks and good business – those three elements define your Busboys brand. Speak to that.
There’s a power in food that brings people together. Once you have them, there’s so much potential to do more. I wanted to experiment with that – how to use the opportunity to create a better space, a better community, a better world. I started exploring how to make people comfortable. I wanted to create a place that can stand up on its own, to be part of a community for sharing ideas and making change. Running a business that honors people – all people – is a hallmark of Busboys and Poets, which pays tribute to Langston Hughes, one of the greatest poets of our time.
First and foremost, you have to create a welcoming space that honors people from different backgrounds. Everyone who enters feels like it’s their space. We use art, music, literature; it is also embraced in the people we hire, the food on the menu, the books on our shelves, the events in our meeting spaces – this is all painstakingly created. It’s not just about organic chicken or fair trade coffee – it’s important to give people a safe and welcoming place. A triple bottom line – food that we source is enhanced by the people that serve it and the patrons that consume it.
I think that’s my model for Busboys, but also for progressive change.
The author heads the first African American and woman-owned firm in the nation’s capital expressly dedicated to social justice communications.