Riffin’ on Their Roots

Through the arts and food, one Memphis couple is working for holistic healing 

Photography by Lucy Garrett

Talibah Safiya Williams has a hunch. She thinks that, if given the chance, her grandmother, Alcine Arnett, would have been “besties” with Bertha Wilbert, great-grandmother of her husband, Bertram Williams Jr. 

“We both come from grandmothers who center service and community in their life missions,” says Talibah. “My grandmother started community gardens in Orange Mound in the late ’90s and early 2000s. I would go with her to these sites to water the crop and to pick and give things to people in the neighborhood. She did tutoring in Orange Mound and did a lot of work to help maintain the original Melrose High School building.”

Talibah remembers time spent at protests and at the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center with her grandmother.

“She was all about community engagement and giving this overflow of love that she had to the people in Orange Mound,” she says. “She loved Black people and she loved Orange Mound a lot. She planted that in us, and we carried on the legacy.”

Bertram’s great-grandmother raised her family in the Florida and Kansas neighborhoods of South Memphis. “She basically got ushered into activism when the urban renewal effort started tumbling down,” says Bertram. “She was quoted in some publication likening the urban renewal efforts to a white tornado—the way they would come through and bust up Black neighborhoods. That really forced her to start speaking to the issues.”

She went on to become president of her neighborhood association and fight for affordable housing and healthcare for her community. 

“Once your heart has been opened in that way, you can never go back,” says Bertram. 

Eventually, the Wilbert Heights neighborhood was named after her.

When Bertram was in high school, after his great-grandmother had died, he came across a box of her writings, including letters she had written to local pastors advocating for her community.

“We were able to communicate that way even after she had passed on,” he says. “After seeing that and knowing that someone I care so dearly for was showing up in that way, I started to feel compelled to do the same thing.”

Today Talibah and Bertram see themselves as living out a mandate for service handed to them by their grandmothers. It’s a road they’ve been on together for a long time. They’ve been friends—and sometimes more—since their days at Overton High School, where they first caught each other’s eye through theater. Though they went to separate colleges, their art kept them in touch over the years. (Bertram is an actor who works in theater and television. Talibah is a musician with a “legit cult-like following of people,” as Bertram says.)

“He started to make progress in acting and I in music, and we helped each other with that,” Talibah says.

After college, Bertram ran his own event space in Memphis. While Talibah was living in New York City—making music and running her now-closed online jewelry shop, Pretty Bull—she would occasionally return home to perform in Bertram’s space. Over the years, they began to work together more officially. Their on-again, off-again relationship became steady—and they eventually married.

Through Talibah’s music and jewelry making and Bertram’s acting, their online and in-person following was growing. At the same time, Bertram had started to get his hands in the soil, planting a vegetable garden at their South Memphis home. As Bertram grew his crops, Talibah learned to do things like pickle, can, and make hot sauces and balms.

They realized their creative following had given them a platform to talk about things like gardening, healthy living—and the issues their grandmothers would want them to be talking about. So they dove in.

Rather than waiting to become experts, they’re bringing their community alongside them as they learn to live in more sustainable ways—and in ways that build holistically healthy individuals and communities, and a healthy planet.

Talibah & Bertrum LG-38

In their home, living sustainably looks like being considerate of water usage, composting, using reusable cotton swabs and period panties, shopping secondhand, buying investment pieces that will have a long life, buying grocery items in glass jars that they can use for other things, and making their own face soaps and body butters.

In the community, the couple have their hands in all kinds of projects centered around holistic living. All those initiatives live under the umbrella of Mama’s Sundry, an organization Talibah and Bertram lead alongside Mama Sadio (Talibah’s mother, who feeds them, encourages them creatively, and keeps them connected to their ancestors), and friend Niki Boyd, who Talibah calls their sustainability forward thinker.

“Mama’s Sundry is the entity that’s the vehicle that allows us to pursue more sustainable, more healthful lives,” says Talibah. “Through it we produce podcasts, events, and products.”

Their podcast, Mama’s Sundry Presents: Kitchen Talk, which they record at Spotlight Productions, has covered topics ranging from addiction to how naturally sustainable living fits into Black cultural practices.

Talibah will often use the produce they’ve grown to make salads or smoothies for the kids—helping them see that they can grow and enjoy the food they eat. But it goes beyond just the fun of growing and eating your own food. For the Williamses, there’s a much bigger picture—that harkens back to that mandate for service they received from their grandmothers.

“We saw the front yard as a podium to send up this clarion call that individuals in urban settings have the power to produce food,” says Bertram. “It really is like a piece of performance art for me to demonstrate in our small neighborhood that we have the power to produce, and that by producing, even in very small plots, we can share and support each other and, thus, sustain each other.”

Talibah says that their South Memphis neighborhood has few gardens or grocery stores. “For us to take it into our own hands and provide our own produce, and produce for the people in the neighborhood, makes it seem just normal,” she says. “This isn’t just something for people who live in the suburbs. This isn’t just for your great-grandmother. This is somebody your big brother’s age, your uncle’s age who’s super accessible and willing to have a conversation with you.”

Talibah and Bertram see what they’re involved in as a matter of food justice.

“I would liken it to the level of importance that we placed around the Civil Rights Movement era. This food justice era is that important in my mind and has the same unifying power.

There are folks who have been participants in oppression of people and the land for eons,” Bertram says, citing toxic chemicals that have been used in agriculture during the last century.

“After nearly a century of that, we are butting up against those titans of industry in the same way that during the Civil Rights Movement we were butting up against those titans of oppression and racism. In this season I think it is truly paramount for folks who recognize the lack of wisdom in the industrial agriculture approach to really start to innovate and work together to find new uses and new solutions to some of the problems that they’ve created.”

Toward this end, the Williamses are partnering with local groups and individuals that have been working toward food justice for years. “We are newly showing up in the conversation and never want to overstep and always want to give honor to the folks who have been serving and doing the work for decades,” says Bertram.

When he’s not filming television shows, going to auditions, or digging in his own garden, Bertram often is bringing together local activists for conversation or working at the Memphis Tilth office, creating the weekly Bring It Food Hub bags, filled with produce from local growers.

Talibah is working in a residency with the University of Memphis’s music business program, recording on their Highwater Records label. And she’s using her music as a platform for furthering the conversation around food justice and holistic living. In August 2022, she performed at Frayser Connect, a project of the Frayser CDC. During that performance the Mama’s Sundry team recorded the first episode of their podcast and toured the Frayser Connect garden.

“A lot of folks came out just to see me perform, but because they were there, they had to listen to our conversation about food justice and take a tour of the garden,” Talibah says. “So we use the audiences that love us for one thing to kind of push forward the other things that are valuable to us.”

Talibah also serves women in her community through AWW, Afro-Indigenous Wholistic Women. And as she learns skills like pickling and canning, she passes those on to other people, often through classes at Memphis Tilth.

The Mama’s Sundry team is partnering with TONE, a collective of artists that is part of the Orange Mound Tower development effort, which aims to create a place where Black creatives and cultural organizations can live, collaborate, build, and perform. The Williamses hope eventually to see Mama’s Sundry housed at the tower. 

“There will be a communal gardening exhibition. Like the garden in our front yard, we’re hoping it will create a space for more conversations,” says Betram. “Ultimately we want to create a safe space to do the things that we’ve been doing with the events that we’ve been producing. In addition to it being a space for us to congregate, it will be a space for us to aggregate and share food as well, in what is technically a food desert.”

In whatever the Williamses do, the ideas of service, food justice, and holistic living are always at the forefront. 

“All around, our big missions are pushing forward healthy lifestyles—holistic lifestyles—for ourselves and people like us, which means Black people and Memphians,” says Talibah.

“We do that through acting and theater, through music and Mama’s Sundry and pushing forward our mission with food and sustainability. All of that is centered around our desire to bring people together in community and to be living holistic lives together.” 

Bertram sees all of these avenues coming together to give Memphis an opportunity for a collective fresh start in a few areas.

First, he hears the clock ticking as it relates to the health of the planet, and he believes sustainable practices are essential to helping Earth remain inhabitable. 

Next, he believes Memphians need to make a fresh start in how they get their food, leaning into organizations like Memphis Tilth and distancing themselves from “the models that have become deleterious,” as he says. 

And, finally, he sees a chance for healing from all the trauma that families and communities have experienced related to race, gender, and more. “We have a real opportunity to practice the type of vulnerability that will allow us to share the harm that has been done and really listen and work to find ways to repair,” he says. “It’s my belief that in this upcoming season we have the tools, we have the players, we have hearts open enough to really embrace the changes that need to be made.”

And Bertram and Talibah are confident that’s a message their grandmothers would approve.

Manda Gibson is copy editor at Edible Memphis. She loves telling stories and helping other writers tell their stories.

Lucy Garrett is a British photographer based in Memphis. Her visual storytelling focuses on human rights, social justice, and environmental issues. She moved from London to Memphis for love, following her wife, but quickly fell in love with Memphis, sourdough baking, and her dog Juniper. @lucygarrett.co