Andra AJ Johnson

Activism comes in many shapes and sizes,” says Andra “AJ” Johnson. “There is a lane for creatives as we can be the storytellers of the movement.”

This past June in the wake of the protests after the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Tony McDade, the beverage director and partner at Serenata, a Latin-inspired bar in Washington, D.C.’s Union Market, mobilized some of the city’s top Black bartenders for a cocktail pop-up called Back to Black held to support racial justice and activism in America.

During the event each bartender created a signature libation distilling the story of his or her personal journey, with proceeds benefiting a racism-focused charity of the bartender’s choice; the team ended up raising more than $10,000. (Her inclusion was a Daiquiri-style sip incorporating bourbon, rum, watermelon, coconut, and activated charcoal influenced by her Jamaican heritages and the constant struggle of trying to break racial stereotypes.)

(A second Back to Black pop-up with cocktails, food, and merchandise is happening this weekend, August 1-2 at a different location.)

Johnson, who has had stints in the D.C. area over the years as a barista, server, manager, bartender, and wine director, also co-founded DMV Black Restaurant Week in 2018. The annual event (held this year November 8-15, 2020) brings together black leaders in the hospitality industry for mutual entrepreneurial and educational support and draws in diners for hosted dinners, discounts, and special menus at participating restaurants.

She is also the author of the book “White Plates, Black Faces” which shines a spotlight on POC in the restaurant industry, and a member of the LGBTQIA+ community. Johnson spoke to Chowhound recently about the inspiration for Back to Black, how her identity has impacted her role, the many forms activism can take, and what she believes the restaurant industry needs moving forward in this critical time period.

Chowhound: Why did you decide to organize Back to Black? 

Andra Johnson: A very good friend of mine who I haven’t talked to in several years called me out of the blue. She was scared for her two young children. She was scared for their lives. She was scared of what the future might hold for them in this country as Black children. She asked me to stand up and do something. I had no idea how her words were going to stick with me, but four hours later I started making calls to my network.

Black people are not monolithic, our stories and backgrounds are all different and the more voices that can be heard, the more effective the cause. I hoped to create space for bartenders and chefs to express their frustrations, unpack their burdens, and tap into their creativity without the constant constraints of their daily routines and obligations. What is happening right now is upsetting and it is unhealthy to continue to try and bottle that up everyday; by allowing a space for self-reflection I hoped that our bartenders and chefs as well as our supporters could find some semblance of peace.

What inspires and drives you behind the bar and how has that evolved over the years?

AJ: Immersive education is key in order to properly present and tell the story behind the cocktails I present. I really don’t think I could continue behind the bar if I didn’t think I could learn anything else or teach anyone else about the history, processes, and techniques of the beverage world. I spend most of my long days and nights researching drink profiles, exploring indigenous fruits and flavors, learning about the history of different cultures and nations to bring cohesiveness to the cocktails, and most importantly finding new ways to engage my guests and my staff.

Did this Pride Month feel differently this year in the wake of everything else going on? 

AJ: Pride events may have been cancelled but Pride is so much more than a parade—it is a revolution and a proclamation of freedom. At Serenata I host weekly cocktail classes and the month of June was our collaboration month, so I invited my good friend [cocktail consultant] Pamela Wiznitzer to guide my class in making three different kinds of Fizz cocktails, with the tips from our class donated to an LGBTQIA+ organization. We also teamed up with Republic Restoratives, a local spirits company here in D.C. that actively works towards advancing the rights of LGBTQIA+ people in the community.

How has being part of the LGBTQ+ community influenced your career in positive, neutral or negative ways?

AJ: I’ve definitely had some interesting experiences in my career in regards to my sexuality. When I was younger, it manifested itself in ways that felt like people who hired me looked at me more as a novelty item to have on staff: a show, a mystery. As I tried to transition into fine dining it was definitely apparent that my look did not really have a place. Even as I rose to positions of management I was scrutinized by owners about my appearance not being feminine enough. I’ve been out and comfortable with myself for a long time; there was no need to fold to their comments, so I let my work ethic speak for me. I’ve been called ‘sir’, ‘mister’, etc by guests as well. It gets under your skin at first but I’ve been doing this for 18 years now so I know how to navigate those situations.

What must the hospitality industry do better to address racial inequality as well as discrimination due to sexual and gender identity?

AJ: The issues within the restaurant industry directly correlate with the inequality we see in this country.

Though it may not be something people want to hear, it needs to be said: If an owner or manager of a company has personal biases towards people of color, religious groups, [or] the queer community then those ideologies will translate into the business and infect its employees with an understanding that in order to succeed in the company, they must perpetuate these corrupt ideals. You can’t be a socially irresponsible individual and run a socially responsible business.

All these companies are ‘pledging to do better’ and it is being met with mixed feelings because a business cannot do better if its leader doesn’t believe in being better or never believed anything was wrong. Being a good person and accepting people for who they are isn’t radical, but it is a necessary mindset in order to run a socially responsible business.

Related Reading: Black-Owned Food Businesses to Support Now & Always

In the era of coronavirus and the ongoing conversation about how we can move as a society and as individuals to being anti-racist, what positive changes do you foresee in the future for the hospitality industry?

AJ: We are so very far from fixing anything because racism is as American as apple pie. However it is good to see non-POC owners collaborating with Black industry professionals, doing the work to educate themselves on the topic and most of all listening to the issues. Actions speak louder than words so I am just as curious as anyone else as to what the future may hold. It is not the job of marginalized people to fix these issues. If the industry really wants to change, it will change because people earnestly want it to, not because of hollow apologies and donations.

What does activism look like right now?

AJ: There is no right or wrong way to activate. A revolution is never sustained by one person or one type of activism. You can be a part of a movement in several ways that fit your ideals and make your contributions the most effective. As we’ve seen with the LGBTQIA+ community, Marsha P. Johnson threw a brick at a cop car and that sparked the celebration that we now know as Pride in commemoration, but there were countless other individuals who stepped into the activist role in several other ways.

Political leaders pushed for laws, religious leaders pushed for acceptance, social activists never let the cause die in the streets, empaths opened up their hearts and homes to provide safe haven, artists created the visual canvas of the hardships, chefs cooked to provide sustenance for the frontlines of the movement.

One person can make a statement, but a community of people is what sustains a movement for actual change. Everybody has a lane and a contribution to a movement if they choose to take it.

Some Ways You Can Help

Food Justice Explained and Why It Matters

Black lives matter. Visit blacklivesmatters.carrd.co for more ways to donate, sign petitions, and protest safely.

Header image courtesy of Rey Lopez

Kelly Magyarics is a wine, spirits, food, travel and lifestyle writer in the Washington, D.C. area. You can reach her on her website, www.kellymagyarics.com, or on Twitter and Instagram @kmagyarics.
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