A new Black family explores America together
A post-wedding road trip leads to family, history and a sweet dessert
I took my new wife and new 5-year-old son on a long drive this summer, trying to surprise them with a serving of beignets.
We live in Connecticut. The beignets were in New Orleans.
We ended up driving more than 3,400 miles and seeing parts of America that made us proud, made us smile and made us cry. We were a newly blended Black family, with a dad from the United States and a mom who grew up in Guyana, exploring our nation together for the first time on the road rather than through the air.
In Washington, we admired the construction handiwork of slaves from 200 years ago. In Tennessee, we worshipped in a centuries-old church on a mountaintop and later inadvertently spent a night in the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan. We also made an impromptu decision to visit a sick loved one.
It was quite a trip, one of learning, of bonding, of kindergarten high jinks. We found the beignets, 1,400 miles from our front steps in Connecticut. We brought back a couple boxes of beignet mix and a lifetime of memories.
My wife Aquila immigrated to the United States in 2016. She’s a nurse now, but in Guyana she was a pastry chef. As such, one of her hobbies is critiquing the food and service at restaurants. So I was surprised in March when she fell hard for the beignets at Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen fast-food restaurants. I only knew Popeyes as the place to get a quick order of mild or spicy Southern-fried chicken and biscuits.
Beignets are fluffy, sweet pieces of dough, usually about 2 square inches or so. The dough is fried and then sprinkled with sugar or coated with icing. They came to New Orleans with the French in the 18th century.
One cold New England day in March, after working a double shift at her nursing gig, Aquila discovered berry-filled beignets, three for $1.99. Her only knowledge of the treat came from The Princess and the Frog animated film, which is set in New Orleans. In one scene, a desperate-for-marriage princess orders up 500 “man-catching beignets” for that night’s ball, convinced the treats will entice the prince and lead to their nuptials.
“My mama always said a way to a man’s heart is his stomach,” Tiana, a friend of the princess, says.
Something about that little bit of sweetness after a long day on her feet really hit the spot for Aquila. But Popeyes was only offering beignets on a monthlong promotion. One day they were available, then they weren’t, a fact that so depressed her that she shed some tears.
We were getting married in July. With the beignet drama now fully present in our lives, I told Aquila we’d be taking a road trip after the wedding. But I didn’t tell her we were going to New Orleans in search of beignets.
I was a divorced father of three adult kids when Aquila and I started dating in the fall of 2019, about four months before the coronavirus pandemic shut down the world as we knew it. In March 2020, she and her son Ezra moved into my home. They had been living with her mom and brother, both frontline health-care workers at the time. We wanted to lessen Aquila and Ezra’s risk of catching COVID-19.
At the time, Ezra knew me as his mom’s boyfriend and called me “Uncle Dwayne.” Over time, he would refer to me as “Dad.” Then it was back to “uncle” until one day it was dad and never changed.
Aquila and I married on July 9 and the three of us hit the road four days later in my 10-year-old Nissan Armada.
On that first day, we drove 350 miles to Washington.
On our first full day in town, we left the SUV in our hotel parking lot and took an Uber to the International Spy Museum, which was sold out on this afternoon. We bought tickets for the next day and hiked a mile and a half, in 86-degree Washington heat and humidity, to the White House.
Ezra knew that Joe Biden was the president of the United States.
“Are we going in to see him?” he asked.
“He’s not home,” I said, truthfully.
Biden was in the Middle East. We loitered outside a 13-foot wrought-iron fence that separates tourists from the North Lawn and enlisted a fellow tourist to snap a few pictures of us on Aquila’s phone.
Aquila had never been to Washington before. I had visited a few times and I’m always impressed by how stately the White House appears in person, especially once the sun starts going down. I’m overcome with pride when I think of how this citadel of power and grace was built in part by free Black laborers and slaves. The White House, as well as the U.S. Capitol and possibly the Washington Monument, were built with the labor of slaves, whose “owners” were paid rent for their services.
We walked across the street to Lafayette Square, a park north of the White House and rested on a bench. After a while, Aquila ordered dinner off her phone from Oohh’s & Aahh’s Soul Food Restaurant, a spot a friend in Connecticut had recommended. We walked across the square, past a statute of Andrew Jackson, and caught an Uber to our hotel to meet our food delivery person. In our room, I ate catfish and grits and green beans, Aquila had jerk chicken and yellow cake and Ezra had wings and mac and cheese.
On the morning of our second day in Washington, I got a call from my stepsister, Nikki Wells, in Cleveland, my hometown. Her dad, the man who help raise me from adolescence, had been admitted into an intensive-care unit with acute breathing issues. A retired truck driver, Roy Williams had been diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, for many years. This latest attack had doctors concerned for his life.
COPD, which causes airflow blockage in the lungs, is irreversible. About 16 million Americans, disproportionately Black, have COPD, the fourth-leading cause of death in the U.S. The brutal disease is prevalent among smokers, but also affects millions of nonsmokers.
Roy, 72, says that he likely contracted COPD from inhaling diesel fumes during the decades he drove 18-wheelers across the country. Roy quit smoking more than 20 years ago and also spent a lot of time around smokers, including my mom and at least one other significant other later in his life.
I told Nikki that I’d get there but I didn’t know exactly when. I’d last seen Roy in person at a July Fourth cookout in 2021. That was the day I had introduced him to Aquila, then my girlfriend.
I gave the news to Aquila before she, Ezra and I went to the Spy Museum with the tickets bought the day before. Ezra enjoyed the museum’s gadgets. Aquila and I enjoyed the histories of the spies. After that, we made our way to the grounds of the U.S. Capitol, which were cordoned off with chain-link fencing.
I didn’t want to leave Washington, affectionately known as “Chocolate City,” without going into some of its Black neighborhoods. I typed “Martin Luther King Jr” into Google Maps, knowing that would take me to where I wanted to go.
We drove to Martin Luther King Avenue SE, passed Malcolm X Avenue and arrived in an area of small houses and apartment complexes, a community that bustled with people and activity. We eventually pulled into a Popeyes. Aquila ordered a chicken sandwich and concluded it was too salty. I asked the cashier for beignets, to no avail.
Martin Luther King Jr. once proclaimed, “I’ve been to the mountaintop.”
He also said that “11 o’clock on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours … in Christian America.”
It’s worth noting that Sunday mornings can be equally segregated in Black and white communities, a notion we would soon be testing.
We left Washington, taking Interstate 66 west to I-81 south. It was our third night away from home and we were headed to the town of Signal Mountain, Tennessee, more than 1,700 feet above the Chattanooga metro area. The community is home to Beth and Todd Henon. I had told Beth, a friend from graduate school at Ohio State, that we would be driving through the area and she invited us to stay over.
Ezra was already asking how long we’d be on the road. Meanwhile, Aquila raised the subject of Roy’s condition. “I think we should go see him on this trip,” she said. She knew I’d never forgive myself if his condition worsened and I’d not gone to Cleveland.
Cherokee and Creek people once used the mountain to send smoke signals. Union troops would use it for similar purposes during the Civil War. In the early 1870s, Signal Mountain was a refuge for Chattanooga’s rich families fleeing cholera and residents say they enjoy cooler temperatures in the summer than the surrounding flatlands. In December 1990, Byron De La Beckwith, the man who assassinated NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers, was extradited to Jackson, Miss., from Signal Mountain, where he’d moved after meeting and marrying a local woman about seven years earlier.
Today, the mountain offers suburban living, quality schools and low crime. There are 8,500 predominantly white residents. According to the U.S. Census, only 28 residents are Black and 108 residents are Asian. Beth and Todd are white, and Todd also has some Native American ancestry.
I drove a twisting, two-lane road to the summit. At my friends’ home, we were greeted by Beth and Todd, as well as their daughter Savannah and Savannah’s two girls, Kennedy, 3, and Caroline, 6.
Todd grilled burgers, hot dogs and corn on the cob and we caught up on each other’s lives. Ezra had a ball running around Beth and Todd’s new two-story barn, chasing the girls, before Savannah and her daughters departed at dusk.
The next morning, my family of three joined Beth, Todd and their Boykin spaniel, Riggs, in Todd’s pickup truck for a six-mile drive to the Little Brown Church for worship service on the mountain. It was sunny and in the 80s, and Todd, Ezra and I dressed in shorts. The women wore summer dresses.
Todd parked about a quarter-mile from the church. He grabbed some folding chairs and we picked a prime spot under some white oak trees, catty-corner to the quaint church. A U.S. flag flapped out front.
The announced attendance that day was 219 folks, from teenage boys wearing khaki shorts and collared shirts to a young dad in a baseball cap and flip-flops standing next to his wife and baby in a stroller to older men and women, who appeared to be grandparents or great-grandparents.
I didn’t see any other Black folks, although I didn’t see everyone at the service up close. The congregants here were more subdued than those I worship with in Connecticut, where shouting, speaking in tongues and dancing in the aisle aren’t uncommon. Here, the gospel seemed more inward.
A 2021 study by the Pew Research Center found that 60% of Black churchgoers attend predominantly Black churches, 13% attend predominantly white churches and 25% attend multiracial churches. Those numbers – especially Black people attending white churches – are better than I would have thought. Black church diversity improves with younger folks. Among Black millennials, 18% attend a white church and that number is 25% for Gen Z Black folks – all signs that the younger generations have a shot at improving diversity in faith groups.
After the sermon from visiting pastor David McNabb from Chattanooga Todd introduced us to members of the flock. Ezra was in good spirits — not being cooped up in the SUV for a day certainly helped. He was invited inside the church, where he rang the church bell four times, which might have set some sort of record.
From the mountain, we drove three hours west to Sheffield, Alabama, where we had dinner with one of my uncles before heading further south to Meridian, Mississippi, a city I briefly called home in my teenage years.
My grandfather, a bricklayer named Samuel Bray, moved to Meridian in the early 1960s. He had grown up in Montgomery, Alabama, during the Jim Crow era, when he was obligated to relinquish his seat at the front of the city bus to white people. In 1949, he joined the Army at 16, served during the Korean War and became a mason after his military service.
“Daddy” came to Mississippi in his late 20s to lay bricks on the Naval Air Station Meridian. He started a small masonry company and worked on thousands of houses, churches and commercial buildings all over the country, including Chicago, New York, Boston and Washington. He’d work up North in the summer and autumn and back in Mississippi and Alabama in the winter and spring.
In Mississippi, he became a civic leader, working for criminal justice reform, including helping convicts get jobs upon their release. He hired former inmates to work in his construction business. He also was a property owner, renting small homes and trailers to dozens of families. When I was 14, I left my mom and Roy in Cleveland and moved to red-dirt Mississippi to live with Daddy for a year. When I wasn’t in school, I worked alongside his crews as a raker, which meant I raked mortar from in between the bricks once the men – they were all men – laid them. I attended desegregated Meridian High School, in notable contrast with my life up North, where I went to an all-Black school. Of course, this was still Mississippi where, in 1922, the state Senate voted to ask the federal government to resettle the state’s Black citizens — 52% of Mississippi’s population — in one of the European colonies in Africa.
Daddy was a storyteller, but the one that sticks with me till this day involves James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner – the three civil rights workers who were killed in the nearby town of Philadelphia, Mississippi. (Their deaths were the basis for the Academy Award-winning movie Mississippi Burning.)
Chaney, who also lived in Meridian, was about 10 years younger than Daddy. Daddy said Chaney and other freedom fighters would enlist him to recruit protesters for their activities around Meridian and the rest of central Mississippi. Daddy and his wife would feed Chaney and the others.
“They used to come by the house for lunch,” Daddy, who died in 2015, told me. “More than once.”
Aquila, Ezra and I ate dinner at Outback Steakhouse with three relatives who live in Meridian. Our waitress, a white woman, served the six of us with impeccable hospitality. Yet, vestiges of the intolerant past are still present. Mississippi is one of 15 states to restrict curriculum on race and history in schools in recent years.
During our time in Meridian, our biggest worry, though, was keeping Ezra out of mischief. One night, when the elevator arrived at our floor, Ezra stayed on.
“Come on, let’s go,” I said.
“My arm is stuck.”
“Well, we’re going to leave you.”
He began crying. I noticed his left arm was lodged above his elbow between a handrail and the wall of the elevator.
“Get some Vaseline from the room,” Aquila commanded.
She massaged the petroleum jelly over Ezra’s bony right limb and the railing. His arm slipped free. His tears turned into a grin.
After leaving Meridian, we spent day six of our journey in Gulfport, Mississippi, where we splashed around in the warmest beach water any of us had ever encountered. We drove another 75 miles and crossed a five-mile bridge along Interstate 10 into New Orleans, arriving at 2:30 in the afternoon on July 20, one week and four hours after beginning our journey 1,400 miles away in central Connecticut.
We drove to Royal Street and found parking about an eighth of a mile from the cafe. It was warm and bright outside. People were dressed in shorts, T shirts and flip-flops. The subcultures of the French Quarter and surrounding areas – street vendors, artists, musicians, painters, panhandlers and the unhoused – all mixed seamlessly. You could hear saxophones, Aquila’s favorite instrument, playing from street corners. Two airline pilots from Dallas noticed my Cleveland Browns T-shirt and gave me a ribbing.
I felt a sense of accomplishment as we climbed a short flight of stairs to enter Café Beignet, where beignets are always on the menu. The floor was black-and-white and chandeliers hung over each dining table. “Fresh Handmade Beignets 3 Per Order” were part of the menu along with andouille sausage and crawfish omelets, shrimp po-boys, red beans, jambalaya, gumbo and muffulettas.
I ordered jambalaya. Aquila ordered a serving of the beignets for her and for Ezra. One was covered in powdered sugar and the other in chocolate.
“Where y’all from?” the cashier asked when I went to pay.
I shared our story: We had gotten married about a week earlier. I drove her to New Orleans for this moment.
The cashier, a Black middle-age woman, turned to face some co-workers.
“They’re from Connecticut, y’all, and he brought her all the way down here to get some of our beignets.”
Our food came out in less than 10 minutes. The beignets were hot. Aquila reached for one with powdered sugar. She loved them and said they tasted like something her mom would bake in Guyana, minus the powdered sugar.
For two days and nights, we enjoyed as much of New Orleans and the French Quarter as we could, considering we had a 5-year-old in tow.
Bourbon Street was alive early in the evening. Ezra danced as two young teens played drums with drumsticks and five-gallon utility buckets. We visited the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas. Our second day we rode the Canal Street streetcar to Cypress Grove Cemetery, with its above-ground tombs and Egyptian Revival architecture. The ostentatious graveyards are where I began to lose Aquila’s attention. She wasn’t down with the city’s fascination with the dead, its extravagant cemeteries and embrace of witches and warlocks and voodoo.
Our final night in town was July 23, a Friday. My niece Trecia Gamble, who had moved from Meridian to New Orleans, joined us for dinner at Oceana Grill, which specializes in Creole and Louisiana cuisine. Ezra and I had gumbo. Aquila had jerk chicken and, of course, beignets. As we ate, a sign on the wall caught my attention:
“IN AMERICA THERE IS
NEW YORK, SAN FRANCISCO
& NEW ORLEANS.
EVERYWHERE ELSE IS CLEVELAND”
At first, I was offended at the diss of my hometown. And then I remembered that the next day, we’d be leaving on a 1,100-mile drive to Cleveland.
And that was just fine by me.
On the way north, we stopped in Tuscaloosa at the University of Alabama’s football stadium, which has its own walk of fame honoring the six national championships the Crimson Tide has won since 2009, after Nick Saban took over as head coach.
I was taking a picture of Aquila next to a statue of Saban when we bumped into another family.
“We’re Ohio State fans,” I told them.
“We are, too,” one of them said. “We’re from Cincinnati.”
“O-H,” I said.
“I-O,” the Ohio mom responded.
“We better say that quietly,” she chided me, with a laugh.
We filled up the Armada at a Walmart in Tuscaloosa for $3.73 a gallon, the cheapest gas we’d get during our journey.
Back on full, we drove three more hours and stayed overnight at a Hampton Inn in Pulaski in south central Tennessee. I picked the hotel because it was a midpoint between New Orleans and Cleveland. When we hit town, it was close to 10 p.m. and darkness had descended. We spotted an open Dollar General store in an old shopping center and I pulled in the lot so Aquila could run in and get some items we needed. Next to the store, several men sat outside a closed business drinking beer, their pickups close by.
While my wife was in the store, I started reading about the history of Pulaski, the county seat of Giles County. The beer drinkers eyeballed us.
Within seconds, I discovered Pulaski had been a Confederate stronghold and that Giles County was the site of the Battle of Anthony’s Hill during the Civil War. In that battle, the Confederate Army of Tennessee held off Union soldiers on Christmas Day in 1864, allowing that army to fight a few more months, into the spring of 1865, before eventual defeat.
I also found out that Pulaski is the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan, which was formed in December 1865, by Confederate veterans. A plaque commemorating Pulaski’s role hangs on a one-story building in town. But since 1986 it’s been bolted on backward, a symbol of the building’s owner disdain for the people who pay homage to the plaque and what it stands for.
I also learned about the Pulaski Race Riot of Jan. 7, 1868, when Klansmen stormed into a local grocery store and killed or wounded six Black men. Pulaski was a destination for some people who were freed from slavery and, when we visited, Blacks comprised nearly 22% of the town’s 8,500 residents.
When Aquila returned to the car, she had an uneasy expression on her face. She said the clerk was pleasant, but she got a bad vibe from the group of beer drinkers next door.
“It feels like I’m in Get Out,” my wife said, referring to filmmaker Jordan Peele’s horror movie about a Black man who is lured into a bizarre white community that he can’t escape.
I considered driving to the next town, but we decided to go to our hotel, across the road from the Dollar General. We were relieved to be greeted by a Black male front-desk clerk. The next morning, we began the 600-mile drive to Cleveland, but not before Aquila shared some thoughts.
“I would recommend immigrant families take a road trip and go through all these battlefields and see some of the posters of plantations,” she told me, feeling some kind of way from her Pulaski experience. “I’ll tell you the truth, we immigrants don’t really understand how Black Americans feel [about] slavery. When you take a road trip like this, you see it – and you understand it even more.”
We had traveled nearly 2,700 miles in 11 days by the time we reached Cleveland in the predawn hours of July 24. We slept a few hours and then attended the church from my childhood, Burning Bush Baptist, sitting next to my 89-year-old grandmother, Sangenella Smith.
After church, we headed to a suburban branch of University Hospitals, where Roy was in the intensive care unit. Roy came into my life when I was 11. To that point, I’d been raised by a single mom and her mom. Roy’s daughter, Nikki, was a few years younger than me, and we became each other’s brother and sister.
I loved sports and so did Roy. He took me to my first Cleveland Cavaliers games. The team played in Richfield, about an hour away from Cleveland, and it wasn’t common for a Black kid from a single-parent home to have the luxury of attending NBA games. But I did, along with Roy and my mom.
Like a lot of Black men back then, he was also a fan of Major League Baseball. On Memorial Day in 1977, I was outside our two-family house about four miles from downtown Cleveland throwing a baseball around. It was nearing 7 p.m.
“Let’s go to the Indians game,” Roy said, and we hopped into his brown Lincoln Continental, for the first pitch.
Once inside the old Cleveland Municipal Stadium, Roy slipped an usher an extra $5 and he placed us in unoccupied box seats behind the third baseline even though we’d paid for much cheaper seats. On that day, pitcher Dennis Eckersley, the team’s long-haired ace, tossed a no-hitter against the California Angels. It’s rare to see a no-hitter in person. Thanks to Roy, I saw one while sitting in some prime seats.
When we walked into his room at the hospital, Roy was shirtless, sitting in a chair and holding onto his oxygen mask.
“Brother Bray!” he exclaimed, lifting off his mask and using the nickname he gave me back in the day. Roy lit up at the sight of my family. We all hugged.
Nikki was at the hospital with Paul Wells, her husband. Also in the room was Roy’s girlfriend, Brandi. Roy’s two teenage sons, Rashad Williams and Rasheed Evans, came along about 45 minutes later, as did, Kyra, Nikki and Paul’s daughter.
Roy noted that this was the first and only time all of his kids had gathered in one place. That was true because I had moved from Cleveland before Rasheed and Rashad were born. That’s why this trip to Cleveland was crucial.
The room was 10 people deep and I worried about violating the hospital’s visitors policy. His physician walked in and admonished Roy for taking off his mask. Roy had the energy to respond and said he thought the doctor wanted him to try to start breathing on his own. Roy’s mind was on family.
Nikki introduced me to the doctor and we talked out in the hall. The doc explained how the COPD was damaging Roy’s lungs. He said air was being inhaled just fine but Roy’s lungs were having difficulty pushing that air back out.
Roy was going to be released in a few days, but he needed physical therapy and pulmonary rehab. (On Sept. 1, Roy had another serious flare-up and was admitted back into intensive care.)
Brandi snapped some pictures of Roy with Rashad, Rasheed and my family. A little more than two hours after we had arrived, it was time for us to hit the road. We were driving to Syracuse, New York, that night and Roy had told us that a storm was in our path. Recalling his days as a truck driver, he advised us not to keep driving into the teeth of bad weather.
We ran into the storm about an hour before we got to Syracuse. But we made it safely to our hotel. The next day, on July 26, after nearly 3,400 miles on the road, we pulled into our driveway in Connecticut. “Thank you, Lord,” said Ezra, repeating a phrase his mom would say at each destination throughout the trip.
Aquila said the trip gave her a better view of how Americans outside the Northeast and New England interact with one another. The South, she said, is not better or worse. It’s just different. Of all things, my wife was most enchanted with how the people of Mississippi and Louisiana use and say the word “y’all.”
We had tasted beignets in New Orleans and brought home two boxes of beignet mix. We had visited cities that Black folks helped build and places where local leaders had tried to keep us in line through force and threats of exportation to Africa.
We’d also spent time with friends and relatives and, most of all, with each other, my new wife and my new son and me. Who can ask for a better road trip?