If you can remember at any point the euphoric feeling surrounding having the following snacks in a black plastic bag, before or after school, then chances are, you have, at some point, experienced the bliss of a corner store. Let me refresh your memory: Boston Baked Beans, Chico Sticks too hard to chew, Cheese Curls, Air Heads (the mystery flavor), Mike and Ike’s, Now n’ Later’s (the green or the grape kind, so sweet they made your cavities or feel -in’s ache), Oatmeal Creme Pies, Sugar Wafers, Fudge Rounds, Zebra Cakes, Jumbo Glazed Honey Buns, nacho cheese sunflower seeds, Cool Ranch Doritos and Funyuns.
For some of us, the snacks named above were merely foods consumed for sweet cravings. Grown up’s labeled it junk food. Yet for others, those same foods were a saving grace for survival.
In Baltimore, the corner store — the store at the corner of your block, is apart of who you are like the name you were given at birth. The corner store is your lifeline. Anywhere, ova West or ova East, the corner store is a Black Baltimore staple — a place of convenience and comfort. When you can’t afford anything at the corner store, there is at least something there you can afford. The corner store is the safest place to penny pinch and not feel embarrassed. It’s the original home of 4 bags of chips for $1. It’s the unofficial hang out spot with those who become day ones. It’s the place where hardworking parents cash their checks. And it is without a doubt the go-to source for food in neighborhoods that lack supermarkets. What was true for me about corner stores growing up, is still true for an entire generation of Black youth today in the city. And though, I have only good memories about my corner store experiences, sadly, this explanation is not for a nostalgic rebirth. What I value here is transparency. Meaning, I’m transparent enough to tell you that I am not a nutritionist or healthcare advocate. I’m only a poet. I know just enough to be aware that we, meaning Black people, have obviously seen and continue to see enough death in and in close proximity of corner stores. I also know that no one and I mean no American establishment that profits on feeding Black people poison, will make you aware of its method of selling systematic oppression.
But what does any of this have to do with Flaming Hot Cheetos? I’ll tell you.
Health, even in 2022; even with surviving a global health crisis is not a priority. It has never been proposed to Black people that way and probably never will. At the core of Ode to Flaming Hot Cheetos — my third short film, and a original poem selected from the second chapter of my upcoming book, is perhaps what is at the core of who I am. And that is, I too am a corner store baby. Urgently layered atop that, is what we all should be aware of, and that is that life expectancy in Baltimore City is low, very low. Death and disease looms over us like a cumulonimbus. I knew this since I was a youngin. And I know it all too well as an adult now. Which is why every short film I release or have released to date represents one of the seven lessons I have crafted that will help Black youth and millennial’s navigate through life.
On this 3 minute and 48 second short film, I collaborated with some of the best community and educational savants in Baltimore. One being Brother Isaiah Muhammad, who is a community and youth activist; and another being Chester Saunders who is a Assistant Principal and musician. From the beginning scene of the film, the message is clear: the time to be disciplined and graceful ( because we are all at different stages in our lives) in how we take care of our bodies is now.
But again, what does Flaming Hot Cheetos, a popular snack for the youth have to do with anything? And again, I’ll tell you.
If I can take a Honda coupe (Baltimore’s favorite car) and illustrate the importance of self-identity; and if I can amplify my thoughts about the Covid-19 vaccine and the history of medical racism and illustrate the importance of being aware of your surroundings; then I know for a fact I can illustrate the vitality of eating selectively using Flaming Hot Cheetos chips. Ode to Flaming Hot Cheetos follows that same formula. It is a spoken-word film highlighting the beautiful struggle Black youth, and those who identify as youthful (you can put whatever age you want on it) face while living in malnourished food deserts.
Let me break down the urgency behind the meaning..
The Most Honorable Elijah Muhammad wrote in his 1967 publication How To Eat To Live, “It is ignorant for you to suffer with disease, when it can easily be cured. Just stop eating that which is causing you trouble.”
Now I’m not here to tell you how many meals a day to eat. Or even what to eat. I’m no health expert, nor am I a nutritionist or spiritual leader or Muslim. Again, I’m only a poet. But if life has taught us anything in the past year of surviving a global health crisis, it’s that it’s time to be healthy.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Black men have the highest death rate among any ethnic group in America. To add, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes are the top leading causes of death for all Black people. Studies further reveal that Black people, more than any other racial group in America, man or woman, have the lowest life expectancy.
So again you might ask, what does this have to do with Flaming Hot Cheetos? And again I’ll say. Each chapter and in this case, each video, is a teachable moment driven home with relatable concepts. In this case it’s Flaming Hot Cheetos. The lesson in Ode to Flaming Hot Cheetos is simply this: Eat Selectively. Meaning, beware cautious in the foods you consume. Which is also to say, be graceful with yourself when eating. What I love about Ode to Flaming Hot Cheetos is that I’m not condemning the foods we eat and love. Rather, I’m saying be mindful. There is a scene towards the end where I am eating Flaming Hot Cheetos. This scene ultimately represents that I am in no way telling anyone to go cold turkey and never eat a bag of Flaming Hot Cheetos again. I’m simply saying be mindful at the rate that you consume certain foods. We only get one body, and it is our daily job to maintain the health of the body we are given. We have to aspire to become the healthiest version of ourselves as much as we strive to become the wealthiest version of ourselves.
There’s an old saying: just because it looks good does not mean it is good for you. That saying captures the essence of what it means to eat selectively. Black people, my people, are more nutrient-deficient and disease-riddled than we have ever been. Not only do we have the highest chances of any racial group in America to prematurely develop lasting ailments and diseases, we also are more likely to die first from those same diseases. What we are eating is literally killing us. We have reached a critical point in time, especially now, with the ongoing fight against Covid-19, where our health is just as important to us as our financial status or money. We can no longer just eat what pleases us; we have to eat what provides us health and life.
When I was a teenager growing up in Baltimore City during the early 2000’s, corner stores and carry outs were our go to source of nutrition, therefore I’m sympathetic towards anyone struggling to eat healthy. In fact, in my neighborhood grocery stores and produce markets were scarce. Block after block was flooded with liquor stores and sub joints, and still is to this day.
Health in urban America has always been an anomaly, and my era was no different. Our communities, among other established communities, were overpopulated with popular fast food and processed food establishments. We were taste dummies and didn’t even realize it. The imminent danger that surrounded us also haunted every decision we made nutritionally. Growing up in my neighborhood we had no idea what a food desert was or much less that our community was one. (This is also illustrated in Ode to Flaming Hot Cheetos by the student-actors.) Therefore, we certainly did not care that the foods we loved could eventually lead to a premature demise. We did not advocate for our health and well-being because no one taught us to. That narrative must change. We must be advocates of our personal health. America will never be a utopia for all people, especially not minorities, and we must accept that. But the time of accepting the bare minimum for ourselves has passed, and this applies to the food we eat. We must do better!
“It is health that is real wealth and not pieces of gold and silver,” Mahatma Gandhi said. Hence, the time to pursue our personal health as we do our personal wealth is now. The time for excuses is long gone. The internet is at the palm of our hands. Education is accessible far beyond the walls of a classroom. It’s time to learn our bodies. It’s time to love our bodies. It’s time to discipline and do right by our bodies.
And again I say S/O to this generation rising.
-Young OG Talk