Where to Find Black Joy in Durham
What is Black joy? It’s a lot of things, but primarily it’s a feeling.
Posted By Nikki Miller-Ka on Mar 03, 2023
Black joy is any and everything that inspires, supports, and uplifts Black culture. It’s the freedom to revel in the happiness that comes from seeing other Black and brown folks who identify as Black, get their bag, make things happen or simply just do what it do, baby. The joy enables you to wave your hands in the air like you just don’t care. Laughter is the heart of it. Black joy is a celebration of our past, present and future. Economic success, social capital and community building are a triad of ingredients that embody the tangible outcome of Black joy. As resilient, mirth-filled, and tenaciously-willed citizens of the world, Black Americans inherently shine and produce magic.
For generations, Black expression was controlled and stifled through enslavement, subjugation, and systemic racism. In spite of it all, we use all of the pieces of the world’s puzzle to experience the pleasure of unrestricted joy. The African diaspora is not a monolith or a linear journey from one continent to the next. It is a melting pot of culture that enriches, strengthens and brings joy to life for all who identify as Black. In Durham, it’s easy to find Black joy. From museums to art galleries, public murals and community festivals to independently owned businesses and nationally ranked centers of higher education, the tour de force of Black culture in Durham rings a resounding knell throughout the state of North Carolina and beyond. Joy is subjective and so is finding it, but I am thrilled to share the places I’ve found in the Bull City for good food, good drink, and happiness in my own skin.
Chez Moi Bakery
If you’ve ever met Rhonda Jones, most likely you’ve been subject to her infectious smile and laughter. If you’ve ever had one of her bourbon or rum cakes, that smile and laughter were probably transferred to you, too. What started out as a USDA-certified home-based bakery and then a food truck, Jones has expanded her business to include ice cream-filled rum cakes, homemade lemon and lime curd and greeting cards. Watching a Black business thrive, be featured on PBS, and ship cakes all around the world says “BLACK GIRL MAGIC” ALL IN CAPITAL LETTERS. Her signature Brown Sugar Vanilla Rum Cake contains multitudes of flavor and texture. The first bite greets you with sugar-crusted peaks and valleys that match up perfectly with the soft, golden-brown exterior of each cake. The bourbon and rum-soaked desserts not only look pretty, they’re so luscious it’s hard not to eat an entire cake in one sitting. Find everything Chez Moi at Cecy’s Gallery, Cocoa Cinnamon, Durham Co-op Market, Namu, and Smitten Boutique.
When food makes you want to dance and sing, you know it’s good. The original Chicken Hut was called The Chicken Box and was subject to urban renewal in the 1960s, only to move and continue operating in its current space on Fayetteville St. Black history personified, the Hut is one of the oldest continuously operating restaurants in Durham. Plates of juicy fried chicken, silken brown gravy, macaroni and cheese, golden brown salmon patties and oxtails with rice and extra gravy all bring me joy. The menu reminds me of the country cooking my grandma used to do most every night of the week. She hailed from the eastern part of the state and made the Triangle her home after graduating from high school in the 1950s. Every meal was plentiful, flavorful and filling, just like the plates at Chicken Hut. Pro tip: remember to bring cash as the establishment does not take credit cards.
Another example of Black joy is when a nuclear Black family prays, plays and works together for the common good. Check out the Afro-Boricua cuisine at one of the most highly lauded restaurants in the Bull City. What began as a food truck, is now a spot in the American Tobacco Campus. Toriano and Serena Fredricks launched a Kickstarter campaign in 2016 to launch their business. Crowdfunding is not merely a means to an end, but it creates community where there once may have been none and it calls people in to help uplift and celebrate, too. Surpassing their original goal by $3000, the Soul is now a cultural phenom. As seen in Food And Wine Magazine, Afar Magazine, and Our State Mazagine, the world is blessed with the Puerto Rican and Caribbean-inspired pernil, collard greens, rice and pigeon peas, empanadas, tostones, and spicy pique hot sauce are a straight path to “Puerto Rican inspired soul food to feed the soul.”
When I was a girl, all I wanted to do (other than play “office” or tag with my friends) was to grow up to be the kind of adult who went to coffee shops to sit with friends, enjoy hot beverages and type away on my laptop while gazing out of the window, watching the world stroll by. Beyu is exactly that kind of place. The atmosphere is welcoming, sophisticated and walks a fine line between being an amazing breakfast and lunch spot to a center for live music and social gathering space for young folks, Buppies and everything in between.
Backyard BBQ Pit
Lauded on Yahoo! as the number one barbecue restaurant in North Carolina, best Eastern-style barbecue in Southern Living magazine, featured in “Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue,” by historian Adrian Miller and on Food Network’s Man v. Food, this tiny shack has seen many faces and turned out countless pounds of coal pit-smoked barbecue and racks of ribs. In many circles, barbecue is not seen as an elevated food. Its preparation is not seen as complex, highly skilled or artistic. Temper whole hog butchery with the volatility of live fire, smoke and extreme heat and tell me it’s not artistry. By visiting this spot, customers help to preserve the craft of barbecue so future generations can enjoy one of the two Black-owned barbecue restaurants in North Carolina. Backyard is an example of resiliency and Black excellence rolled into one.
Saltbox Seafood Joint
When one of us does well, we all do well. And owner and chef Ricky Moore has done very well. He received the award for Best Chef of the Southeast region from the James Beard Foundation in 2022. Known as the “Oscars of the food world,” the award is the most prestigious distinction a restaurant or chef can receive in America. The premise behind the award is to celebrate, support, and elevate the people behind America’s food culture. Moore celebrates and supports NC seafood in his daily business by preparing and procuring everything seasonally. He rolls with the tides and when Moore won, every plate of fish, basket of shrimp, cup of chowder and forkful of slaw I’d ever eaten at his joint came in a flashback as an exaltation. Every trip I take to Durham on Tuesdays through Saturdays, I’m pulling up at the joint.
You’ve got to show up in order to show out. What do you get when you mix whimsy, glitter, and whisps of pure cane sugar with a dose of social responsibility and activism? You get Wonderpuff! Jackie Morin began spinning cotton candy with her partner Rem in 2017. Beginning at outdoor events, festivals and music venues, and now at a permanent spot at RTP’s Boxyard, Morin sells not only her confections but the sweet promise of a prize whipped up into a tangible (and edible) piece of pastel-colored joy. My favorite items have to be the Wonder Bombs. Wonder Bombs are tiny puffs meant to be a garnish on a drink (or maybe a cake) filled with glitter and a taste of warm vanilla and honey. Swirl in colors with names like Disco Pink, Turquoise Waves, and Purple Elixir, and if you’re looking for whimsical, whoomp—there it is!
Rofhiwa Book Café
If you’re not at work and you’re not at home, everyone deserves a third place to feel welcomed, comforted and uplifted. That’s what Rofhiwa is. Black art, Black books, Black coffee, Black EVERYTHING is what you’ll find at Rofhiwa. Black Americans have a long history of storytelling, passing knowledge from one generation to the next through spoken words, language and literature. That tradition continues in this East Durham independent bookstore. Representation matters and it’s important that we see ourselves represented in the media we consume, in the community we live in and even in the food that nourishes our bodies. The shop is also a cafe where cups of coffee, handmade beverages, and steamed milk warm the soul. Getting a little pick-me-up and then picking up a new book to read encompasses what Black joy is and can be.
The diversity in places, spaces, bites and delights of joy in Durham knows no bounds. Plan a road trip, weekend getaway or vacation with visits to one or more of the featured businesses and enjoy the elegant accommodations at Morehead Manor Bed And Breakfast, another Black-owned business, as you find your own version of Black joy in Durham.