“Never let a white man know how much you really do know about anything except hard work,” John Dabney once said to his son, Wendell. Dabney was born a slave in 1824 and employed out to a railroad restaurant by Cora Williamson DeJarnette, a widow who lived off his wages for several decades. Dabney became known among prominent whites in Richmond, Virginia, for his hailstorm mint juleps and turtle soup.
At the outset of the Civil War, with years of saved tips and help from white acquaintances, Dabney negotiated the purchase of his freedom and that of his wife, who was at risk of being sold after owners complained she was doting too much over her newborn son. While nearly finished making payments toward a total purchasing price of $2,000, the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation set Dabney and his wife free. In 1865, he opened the doors to his own saloon named Dabney’s House.
Dabney was one of the three black bartenders honored at a bar named Saint Leo in Oxford, Mississippi, on this past February’s Black History Month cocktails menu created by bartender and manager Joseph Stinchcomb, a black man. Another is Tom Bullock, the author of the first cocktail book in 1917, called The Ideal Bartender. Bartender Clyde Goolsby, the once-owner of Prince Albert Lounge at the Holiday Inn in Oxford, appears, too.
Yet it wasn’t “The Clyde” nor “Bullock and Dabney” that caused a firestorm on social media that month among both white and black Oxfordians, leading to multiple local meetings, a public apology, the menu being pulled altogether, and an open reckoning on identity and history in a town that’s had more than its share of racial tension and violence.
On the night of February 10, a white patron of the restaurant took to Instagram to extol another drink on the menu, “Blood of the Leaves,” a famous line from the anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit.” “Beautiful and bright with a mint sprig,” the patron wrote. “Chilling in all kinds of ways.”
That post has since been deleted and the commenter has offered an apology. But the post went viral, and it was how I first learned of Joe’s drink menu, which also included “Black Wall Street,” and “(I’m Not Your) Negroni.”
Many Oxfordians expressed concern that the menu needed more context. “If you’re going to market ‘something new’, you better warn people first or at the very least have a disclaimer,” Regina Pitts responded on Saint Leo’s Facebook apology, wherein the owner, Emily Blount, said it was “neither of our intention to demean, trivialize, upset or offend.” For some unnerved black people living in a town where confederate symbols still reign as a threatening reminder of white supremacy’s monstrous iniquities, such a tribute seemed careless and insensitive. “I can’t imagine ordering a drink using a phrase from a song about lynching, and I can’t understand why anyone would think that was a suitable name for a drink,” Colleen Thorndike replied on the same Facebook post.
Others, especially those who knew Joe, felt the educational message behind the drinks meant more than the black anguish the menu items triggered. Critiques were disregarded as unfounded attacks on Joe’s artistic brilliance. Denver Bridwill, a white line cook at Saint Leo, posted on Facebook above a framed photo of the menu: “Is it art now that it’s in a frame, or is my dear friend’s past year of research, artistry, and self-discovery still a series of uncomfortable words that you reject as legitimate nor appropriate?”
Soon enough, like most heated discussions on social media, the conversation descended into name-calling. Those who criticized the menu were called idiots and snowflakes who refused to see the menu as decorative, well-thought out elixirs. In return, Joe was called an Uncle Tom, and his blackness was called into question.
“I am a bit flabbergasted by all of this,” Ethel Young-Scurlock, an associate professor of English at University of Mississippi, posted on Facebook. Joe Stinchcomb “seems to have tried to do something good, but it turned out really bad.”
And me? I have to admit the menu initially rubbed me the wrong way. I’ve been an instructor at University of Mississippi for three years, long enough to know that black people in Oxford overpopulate minimum wage service jobs. A vexing discomfort arrived as I thought about the struggles of black service workers in Mississippi, many of whom are priced out of the housing market in Oxford, much less the menu at Saint Leo. I thought of how frequently African American students express concerns that Oxford—and particularly The Square, an enclosed historic shopping and government district—cater to white patrons by default.
But I didn’t think people screaming at each other on social media was the most effective platform for a transformative conversation, so I called up Joe and requested a closed forum meeting at English professor Kiese Laymon’s home. (The white patron who went on social media to praise the drink “Blood on the Leaves” was invited to the forum, but declined due to health-related family obligations.)
At the forum, Saint Leo owner Emily Blount felt at a crossroads. She had sensed an atmosphere shift upon the menu’s release, but felt unauthorized to appraise the menu’s black artistic expression as a white woman. At one point during the intimate talk, Blount began to cry. I remember my body hardening like a rock as I sat on the sofa next to her. I folded my arms against my chest in order to resist the strong inclination to find Kleenex for her weeping face. I’d recognized there was very little pain relief or redress given to the real victims who suffer in the name of keeping white people (and some bougie black people) satisfied and safe in the overpriced bubble of Oxford, Mississippi.
Days after the closed forum, angered by the discontinuation of the menu, white friends of Joe continued to attack skeptics online. Ironically, the menu was supposed to make white people feel uncomfortable, but white Oxfordians seemed far more at ease about it than their black counterparts.
After the forum, I wanted to know more about Joe and why he thought the menu was important—especially in a place like Oxford.
According to the U.S. Census, in 2016, African Americans made up roughly 21 percent percent of Oxford’s population, while white people account for almost three-quarters of it. And the number of black residents in Oxford continues to rise. In 2010, compared to 2016, black people made up only 13 percent of the population. The state of Mississippi has bleak educational, health, and economic outcomes for black and poor white residents. Moreover, Oxford has a staggering educational achievement gap between white and black students. In September of 2016, school officials recommended placing low-performing students in their own separate schools. The idea was immediately repudiated by parents and Oxford residents.
Oxford also has a dark history of racial discrimination that still hangs over the college town. Just two years ago, Austin Reed Edenfield and Graeme Phillips, both pleaded guilty to a 2014 incident where they tied a noose and a Confederate flag around the neck of the James Meredith statue, the first black male student at The University of Mississippi.
I needed to ask Joe: How could a cocktail menu that evoked lynching in a restaurant largely patronized by well-off white people shift the race conversation in a place like Oxford, Mississippi?
It was the end of February, an early afternoon on a Friday. East Jackson and Van Buren Avenues, encased by the historic courthouse on the Square, were bustling with rip-roaring sounds of car engines and the chatter of middle school-aged youth. Joe and I sat opposite each other at Uptown, a coffee shop on Oxford’s Square, regaling each other with details of an insanely busy work week—the end game of which was being certain we could both make the rent on the first of March.
“You know when you give dogs medicine you have to put it in the food,” Joe said at Uptown Coffee, “and make them enjoy it? I wanted to use our shared trauma to show this shit is still here.” If you drank one of his drinks from the special Black History Menu, he explained, “you swallowed that hard truth. It’s bologna over the pill.”
Joe told me about the frequency with which white patrons at Saint Leo had whistled to, finger snapped at, or addressed him not by his name, but “Ay, boy.” He told me about the limitations of the English language when trying to find sufficient words for how that blatant disrespect made him feel. As he spoke, I felt a familiar grief, the weight of American hope sunken by an elite class seduced by the idea of their own importance. As an African American woman in academia, I could surely empathize.
I learned that Joseph “Joe” Stinchcomb, the oldest of six children, was born in Germany to African Americans parents with military backgrounds. His dad served in the Air Force during the 1980s and early 1990s. His mother, Carol Jeffries-Stinchcomb, a cancer survivor, often worked two or three jobs to support the family, and worked at Taco Bell to help out her adult children.
“I hate that we limit ourselves in this town. Fuck that. This town is just as much as ours as it is theirs,” Joe told me. “What hurt me the most was black people disowned me. The very people I wanted to build up told me I wasn’t black.”
The night after we met at Uptown, I visited Saint Leo for the first time. Joe’s bar—“a little slice of heaven,” as he calls it—is the first thing I saw after pushing open the pristine wooden door encased with a lion knocker. Then I saw Joe himself, standing behind the bar, a medium-height, broad-shouldered, slim man with golden brown skin and a nearly bald head that shines under the dim light fixtures. His smile, full of straight white teeth, felt sincere. I sat among his wealthy, well-dressed, mostly white and elderly guests and watched him make cocktail after cocktail with a speed and agility one would more often attribute to a magician.
As I sipped from my “Bullock and Dabney,” I couldn’t help but notice the black waiters and hostess, the latter of which was a current student of mine who greeted my unexpected visit with laughter and an embrace. Compared to other restaurants in Oxford, Saint Leo seemed more inclined to hire black workers for the front of the house, refreshing in a town where the hostess and waitstaff are usually white and kitchens are often overwhelmingly staffed with black and brown bodies.
Upon closer inspection, it’s clear that Joe was telling a story through his infamous menu, a story that placed black male bartenders at the forefront of race relations with white people. Both “Black Wall Street” and “Blood on the Leaves” evoke lynching and state-sanctioned violence towards black men and black communities. Greenwood, Oklahoma, a once-prominent community of prosperous African Americans and Native Americans called “Black Wall Street,” was destroyed in 1921 after a white woman, Sarah Page, claimed she was raped by Dick Rowland, a black man. Three hundred African Americans in Greenwood died at the hands of white mobs. More than 9,000 African Americans were displaced, and the infrastructural concentration of black wealth was eradicated.
Absent from the menu were the contributions of black female bartenders like Hattie Carroll who died of a stroke after Bill Zantzinger, the son of a wealthy Maryland family with political affiliations, hit her repeatedly with his cane and called her racist slurs when she didn’t service him his drink fast enough. Her death inspired Bob Dylan’s 1963 song, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.”
“(I’m Not Your) Negroni” is a play on both a well-known Italian drink and on James Baldwin’s diatribe in the 1964 documentary Take This Hammer. Near the end of the film, Baldwin says:
Now, here in this country we’ve got something called a nigger. Who doesn’t in such terms, I beg you to remark, exist in any other country in the world. We have invented the nigger. I didn’t invent him. White people invented him. I’ve always known. I had to have known by the time I was seventeen years old. What you were describing was not me. And, what you were afraid of was not me. It had to be something else. You invented it. So, it had to be something you were afraid of. You invested me with it….And, really always, and that’s part of the agony, I’ve always known that I am not a nigger, but if I am not the nigger and if it’s true that your invention reveals you, then who is the nigger? ...I gather, that the nigger is necessary. Well, he’s unnecessary to me, so he must be necessary to you. So, I give you your problem back. You’re the nigger, baby; it isn’t me.
To reference Baldwin’s candid disavowal of the word “nigger”—especially given his 1956 redress of William Faulkner and Oxford in Partisan Review after Mississippi refused to accept the Supreme Court decision banning segregation—is to face white supremacy head-on. Such a drink calls out those who—in a fast-paced service industry where clients don’t want to wait long for a table, where good customer service is ideal, where well-prepared upscale Southern cuisine is in high demand—too often forget that the black bartender behind the bar is a bonafide human being.
To be frank, Oxford: Joe ain’t your nigger.
Joe’s menu follows in the tradition of literary tricksters like Zora Neale Hurston, who, like Joe, used art to seek retribution against power of a greater force. Like many places in the South, your power and status as a black Oxfordian is often determined by how well you can perform niceties and good morals among elite whites.
But should resistance taste good? Should protest be palatable and injected with good manners? Does it register as a protest at all if the people praising Joe’s retribution were white people themselves? After the controversy had died down, University of Mississippi student Arami Harris took issue with the notion that black trauma is part of a shared history with white people. “I mean, how exactly are whites sharing anything here?” she asked me. “They continue to reap the benefits of our suffering.”
In the end, the drink menu did what all good art should do: It unsettled us. And in a community that barely discusses race openly, that’s a very good thing.
LaToya Faulk has a B.A. in English Literature and a M.A. in Rhetoric and Writing from Michigan State University. She currently teaches composition at The University of Mississippi.
This feature is part of Splinter’s project to recruit local, embedded reporters, essayists, and photographers across the country. Read more from our Think Local series here.