Gumbo Media: Reclamation and Reimagination

Published November 03, 2021

Gumbo Media: Reclamation and Reimagination

Written by Matthew R. Manning
With support from Raeghn Draper, L Brew, and Donnie Moreland
Edited by Britt Julious

It’s not a feeling I’ll soon forget. I watch from the corners as the Gumbo Media team finds their clusters among colleagues old and new. They embrace each other, crack jokes, praise each other’s monochrome, brown-toned fits. We’re preparing for a team photoshoot, and we look good, real good. Artists, athletes, strategists, curators. Brown bodies and black curls.

It’s as if we are suspended in time, these few moments audacious enough to demand permanence between a forgotten past and a hopeful future...

The team undulates curiously about the space, peering up at the dilapidated walls as warm bands of light grace their melanin through cracked windows and floorboards. This massive dance hall, Forum Hall, was once an epicenter for Black art, culture and commerce in Bronzeville. Rising to prominence during the Great Migration at the corner of 43rd St. and Calumet in Southside Chicago—known then as the “Black Metropolis” or the “Black Belt”—The Forum provided safety for Black genius for decades. Now it sits vacant, primarily a vessel, save for the scaffolding from morning construction and the echoes of a Black past Chicago’s neglected.

Gumbo Media: Reclamation and ReimaginationPhoto by Build Bronzeville

But some of us have not forgotten. On the contrary, some of us have been searching for these spiritual ties—seeking shelter in a Black metropolis. Some of us have been yearning and building toward a future where art, culture and commerce thrive once more, where Black genius is heeded as truth. Gumbo Media is among them—and so it is with awe and wonder and bitter nostalgia that we stand in that hollowed shell and welcome the voices of recent ancestors.

Saved from emergency demolition in 2011, The Forum is now the property of Build Bronzeville, who’s working adamantly to ensure it restores its centrality in Black Chicago. But someday in the not-so-distant future, it will be home to Gumbo’s first official office, our Chicago headquarters, a humbling actualization of our potential.

The Forum is haunting for those who understand its historical import. Its energy is visceral, as if the scattered vibrations of jazz and steady cadences of blues still bounce off its walls. Names like the Muhammad Ali Foundation and The Elks are still affixed to the walls and window decals, a time capsule of all that transpired here. Local elders add to the growing repository of knowledge about the space with memories of childhood concerts at The Forum where legendary Black entertainers like Muddy Waters, Diana Ross and The Jackson Five blessed the stage. A 100-year-old milk bottle hidden behind wood panels tells a story of small Black businesses from the late 19th century.

Gumbo Media: Reclamation and ReimaginationPhotos by Eric Allix Rogers

It is as if we are excavating a past long buried. Remembering ourselves as we remember the spaces and relics that shaped our history. And now, Gumbo has the opportunity to help unearth this time capsule and the many histories and secrets that lay dormant here. But, more importantly, we get to play a hand in rewriting its future.

It is this truth—the process of unearthing—that haunts me. I sense The Forum resonates so profoundly not only because of the reverence we feel in it and for it, but because its spiritual excavation reflects what’s happening within each of us. The Forum is a mirror for the reckoning we’re each processing internally.

The Forum resonates so profoundly not only because of the reverence we feel in it and for it, but because its spiritual excavation reflects what’s happening within each of us.

I’ll speak for myself when I say that I spent years, well over a decade, pouring my energy and my hopes into work that didn’t fulfill me. Despite putting my best foot forwards, I felt unseen, like my talents were wasted. It didn’t matter how much agency I was granted, how many unique opportunities were entrusted to me to exercise my creativity. It was the institution that failed me because, until Gumbo, no business or organization I’d ever worked for looked like me. Until Gumbo, I was mistaken for any person that did look like me. Until Gumbo, I’d never been able to bring all of myself to work, to feel safe among peers, and let my guard down.

I found myself trying to shake off Black death and grief to complete that inevitable deliverable. I felt alone in my thoughts, even more isolated in “community.” I began to feel like I was hyper-reactive for trying to grapple with the fullness of my humanity as a Black man and Black person. Despite my best effort to merge them, I lived two lives because non-Black teammates never understood—indeed, never could—how to serve the part of me that yearned for community, purpose, joy.

Finally, after years of doubt and discontent, I realized that I held power. I had the ideas. I had the creativity. I had the juice. And so I left work traditions behind me, surrendered years of institutional practice to a more profound desire for purpose. And I quickly learned I was not alone in this search.

Gumbo Media: Reclamation and Reimagination

Born formally in 2018, Gumbo is an ecosystem of storytellers and cultivators who nourish and uplift Black voices. We’re doing our best to take back our stories and reimagine our legacies through flagship content like Gumbo Magazine, a robust client portfolio of brand services, and community programming.

And as September 2021 turned to October, and the Gumbo Media team gathered for the first time ever at The Forum, I was reminded of the power of reclamation. Gumbo represents a group of people on parallel journeys who arrived, each in their own time and experience, to a place where we no longer wanted to conform to systems and structures that asphyxiate our peace, our wonder, our joy.

Collectively, we were silenced, let down, even abused. Every day, we were forced to check half of ourselves at the door and surrender what remained to people and spaces that cared little to nothing about us. Finally, we grew tired of rooms that treasured our creative contributions but manipulated our humanity. That always preached about inclusion but never acted on it and rarely took our word as bond. And so we fundamentally reimagined our responsibility and came together over time to harness our collective power, using art and design as tools for resistance and liberation.

Within Gumbo are storytellers, cultural curators, visual architects, reality shifters and legacy builders circling a wheel of equitable investment. At each level of our ecosystem, Black genius is catalyzed through freedom of expression. While we are a media company working with clients of all sizes, we’re fundamentally reimagining our relationships with power and business; we try to show up for ourselves, each other, and our people in ways that others aren’t, and in ways that others cannot.

we try to show up for ourselves, each other, and our people in ways that others aren’t, and in ways that others cannot.

Nowhere is this affirmation more present than during the second day of our team retreat, the day following our afternoon photoshoot at The Forum. After a day of building camaraderie through fits and flicks, we gathered once more for a day of strategy and community-building.

On that day, during our lunch break, we stand in a half-circle, about 15 of us, facing a picturesque kitchen and a colorful food display, still steaming. We listen attentively as Gerald Guevarra, one of Gumbo’s project managers and a professional chef, stands over half a dozen plates, pots and pans they’ve prepared, rich with dishes of the diaspora. Maya Angelou’s favorite Kale and Collard greens recipe, inspired by her conversations with James Baldwin. Filipino Milkfish, known in Southeast Asia as Bangus. And okra, the foundation of any Gumbo, whose etymological name, “ki ngombo,” or, in its shortened form, “gombo,” translates in several West African languages to the English word “okra.” The feast before us is a blend of flavors, spices and notes—a culinary playlist thoughtfully curated to capture the spirit of a team that seeks to radicalize joy and community in the workplace, our birthrights. It is a love language.

And as Gerald walks us through the intention of the home-cooked meal before us, we’re reminded that many African women, during their forced bondage through the middle passage into enslavement in the Americas, harbored seeds in their hair. Carrying okra and the like, their bodies, nappy curls and locs were a vessel—even in the face of grave inhumanity and danger—for generations of life, food, culture and tradition.

Gumbo Media: Reclamation and Reimagination

As Gumbo’s copywriters recently made plain to us, “Gumbo fuels the people. And fueled people start revolutions.”

So what does this say about Black bodies and the Black experience? It says that we harbor life. That we are creative geniuses, miracle workers. That we can endure the unfathomable—and that we already have.

But more importantly, it says that we are worthy of rest. Indeed, we are long overdue.

These are not ordinary workplace experiences. This is not a typical workplace culture, at least by my experience or those I know. Our meal and Forum photoshoot before it were carefully curated to nurture. To feed the souls of all those who graciously committed their talents and energies to the Gumbo community. To ensure that we are well fed physically, creatively and spiritually. To serve as a reminder that community love can be—and indeed should be—liberatory and revolutionary.

Coming into one’s Blackness in America is a bittersweet reality. For most in the Black community, self-love is an ideological tug of war between the shaky embrace of our worth and the tacit loathing we feel from our country.

For most in the Black community, self-love is an ideological tug of war between the shaky embrace of our worth and the tacit loathing we feel from our country.

This loathing is not always vocal or explicit. Sometimes it’s as passive as labeling our presence as a weed, like the dandelions about which Toni Morrison wrote. Or the microaggressions we feel in corporate offices. The paradox of espousing our culture while ignoring the systematic barriers its communities face. The presumed guilt—on street corners, in stores, hosting barbecues, in our apartments—forced on us like a cloak we can’t take off.

This imbalanced dance with self-love makes it difficult to fully concede to the radical power we possess. For some of us, it takes decades to accept our worth, without apology, and to create freely from it.

But we are not weeds. And the time for sacrifice is long gone.

Systems are changing. People are taking their time back—they are fighting for peace. At Gumbo, we are unabashedly choosing our own joy and doing so successfully.

Gumbo Media: Reclamation and Reimagination

This is a call to all Black and Brown creatives: embrace your power. Trust your intuition. Do not surrender any part of yourself to meet the status quo. Ask for more; demand more. Remember the talent you come from. Remember the seeds that were carried through your locs in generations past to sustain you today.

Remember that Blackness is a genesis from which all life emerges—body, earth, sea, cosmos. Remember that we’ve survived every test, no matter how atrocious, and that we’ve emerged each time with new recipes, new rhythms, new proverbs. For a people whose expressions, talents and curiosities literally steer culture globally, there is no overselling just how powerful and revolutionary the mobilization of our energy is.

There is no overselling just how powerful and revolutionary the mobilization of our energy is.

Join us. Let’s build this world together. A renewed Black metropolis—a more liberationist vision—not predicated on capital or outcomes but on communal and interpersonal joy and peace. Where all of us eat, all of us rest, all of us prosper. Where we claim and affirm each other’s worth. Where the work we take on and the words we craft, whether for clients or ourselves, are anchored by a revolutionary ethos. These things are your birthright.

Above all, just know there is a place for you. That we see you. That there will always be a space for you here, beside us.

Our paths have long been connected, incubated by stories written long before us. We are informed by the people and spaces that shaped us, like ancestral protectors and the century-old jazz halls safeguarding our echoes. The choice before us is whether or not we choose to listen and how we ultimately choose to write the next chapter.

Gumbo Media: Reclamation and Reimagination