Ashanté M. Reese and Hanna Garth
. . .
The global food system is plagued with inequities. On the one hand, the U.S. food supply is so abundant it could feed everyone in the country nearly twice over—even after exports are considered (Nestle 2002, 1). Yet the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported that in 2018, 14.3 million Americans were food insecure.1 The burden of food insecurity is especially felt by communities of color. In an effort to understand how race and ethnicity influence food insecurity, Ana McCormick Myers and Matthew Painter (2017) find that Black and Latinx people—regardless of immigrant status—are significantly more food insecure than foreign- or U.S.-born whites, suggesting that the food system is part of a larger structure of inequity. In an effort to address both food insecurity and unequal food access, activists and scholars have turned their attention to creating an equitable food system, framing their work under the umbrella of food justice. Growing out of the environmental justice movement that is largely led by women of color, food justice has become a theoretical, methodological, and aspirational framework for reenvisioning a world in which access to healthy, affordable food is not a dream but a reality for all.
In recent years, nuanced examinations of this movement reveal that what was once characterized as a singular movement is more a collection of similar (though sometimes diverging), fragmented approaches to food inequity, resulting in varied definitions and applications of the term food justice. At minimum, food justice highlights the problems of a contemporary food system that relies heavily on undervalued labor and the quick and efficient circulation of food products and is concerned with the unequal distribution of and access to healthy, affordable food. Robert Gottlieb and Anupama Joshi (2010, 6) assert that “food justice” ensures that “the benefits and risks of where, what, and how food is grown and produced, transported and distributed, and accessed and eaten are shared fairly” and as part of the process, knowing how food injustices are distributed and experienced form the basis for which a movement can grow.
Many Black activists and scholars theorize and frame food inequities as a by-product of the contestation to Black life, specifically grounding their food justice work from the starting point that just as racism produces increasing surveillance, disproportionate rates of mass incarceration, and income inequities, it also produces food inequities. Leah Penniman argues,
Racism is built into the DNA of the US food system. Beginning with the genocidal land theft from Indigenous people, continuing with the kidnapping of our ancestors from the shores of West Africa for forced agricultural labor, morphing into convict leasing, expanding to the migrant guest worker program, and maturing into its current state where farm management is among the whitest professions, farm labor is predominantly Brown and exploited, and people of color disproportionately live in food apartheid neighborhoods and suffer from diet-related illness, this system is built on stolen land and stolen labor, and needs a redesign. (2018, 5)
Our food system and the inequities it produces, in other words, are the afterlife of slavery—the ways the “past” extends beyond a fixed position or time period to extend into the present day (Hartman 2007, 6). In this afterlife, one in which the racial calculus devalues Black life, inequities and injustices are not accidental but the result of deeply entrenched systemic processes: the fruit that is produced from a capitalist economic system for which the expendability of Black life is not tertiary but central. The implications for those of us who study food is that it is not enough to simply examine race in the food system. We must also consider how the food system is part of larger structures that, by design, were never created for Black survival (Lorde 1997; Costa Vargas 2010).
In this way, food inequities are one manifestation of the afterlife of slavery. Rasheed Salaam Hislop connects food justice explicitly to racial justice, defining it as “the struggle against racism, exploitation, and oppression taking place within the food system that addresses inequality’s root causes both within and beyond the food chain” (2014, 19). Working from the premise that anti-Blackness is “pervasive as climate” and operates as a precondition for the expendability of Black lives (Sharpe 2016, 106), in her book Black Food Geographies: Race, Self-Reliance, and Food Access in Washington, D.C., Ashanté Reese argues that examining both the specificity and the mundaneness of anti-Blackness “opens up possibilities for us to reconsider and imagine constraint and possibility, harm and care, and destruction and community building” (2019, 4). We frame this edited volume in similar ways to Hislop, adding the specificity of anti-Blackness that Reese (2019) offers with the hope that within the chapters, we may witness seedlings of resistance and refusal. As the chapters in this volume demonstrate, we are talking about not only racial disparities that Black people experience in the food system but the conditions that produce those disparities. The “contested landscape” (Twitty 2017, 6) in which Black people shop for, grow, distribute, and consume food is multidimensional. Redlining in housing and supermarkets, nefarious practices of discrimination and exclusionary lending, and ongoing forms of institutionalized discrimination and circuits of capital exacerbate deeply entrenched inequalities and poverty. This is the context from which many food justice movements have taken up the call to provide or fight for healthy, accessible food for all. Intermingled with these contexts, Black communities maintain vibrant Black food cultures that draw from Black history and shift into contemporary variations.
Weaving together the contexts of vibrant Black food cultures and the need to incorporate racial justice into the food justice movement, Black Food Matters brings together authors who examine production, distribution, and consumption through the lens of (anti-)Blackness to explore themes of fugitivity and disposability, the consumability of Blackness and Black food culture, and the everyday resistances that are produced in the making of Black food geographies. Some scholars and activists have pointed to the brokenness of our food system, while others have suggested that there is nothing broken, that the inequities it produces are functions of how it should work, as the push to maximize production and consumption while devaluing labor are integral to capitalist production. This volume operates from the latter assumption. We presume that many of the solutions offered—particularly those related to combatting the so-called obesity epidemic and those that stem from the “food desert” framing—are antithetical to rather than supportive of Black life. Rather than offer solutions to brokenness, these chapters provide some insight into how Blackness is contested even within food justice work, the challenges that emerge when different perspectives of “healthy” emerge, or how Black people imagine otherwise.
In particular, the authors collectively grapple with questions of Black agency and leadership, (hyper)visibility of Black people as targets for food justice interventions, and how geography influences the particularities of how food resources and food justice efforts unfold in different spaces. We illuminate how Black people are in the midst of their own struggles for justice within the mainstream food justice movement (White 2018). Though food insecurity (or the threat of it) is a thread that runs throughout the chapters, one of the main arguments of this volume is that food and the fugitive practices Black people employ around food comprise a lens through which we can explore anti-Blackness and Black life. The chapters explore individual and community values, the influence of history, and the everyday ways that institutions and communities reflect an ongoing struggle to not only meet needs but affirm Black life (see also Smart-Grosvenor 1970, 1972). The chapters in this volume reflect what pioneering food anthropologist Sidney Mintz (1996) urged those who research food to do: to see food as a reflection of sociopolitical relations that are much broader than what is on our plates. Even in their recognition of a food system that, by design, ensures that Black people and Black spaces are not adequately resourced, many of the chapters still grapple with possibility, challenging popular notions that the only way to understand Black people’s relationships with food and food institutions is through lack.
What Survives: Reading Black Life, Refusal, and Self-Determination in Food
In 2017, at the Young Farmers Conference held at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in New York, chef Nadine Nelson asked keynote speaker Mark Bittman a question after he and Ricardo Salvador finished their joint presentation on racism and land reform: “How do you hold yourself accountable to communities of color, and vulnerable communities . . . to the things you say that you aspire to change?” Bittman did not directly answer her question, first saying that he did not know what she meant by “hold [yourself] accountable to” before moving on to field additional questions. Later, North Carolina–based farmer Dallas Robinson declared that Bittman’s dismissal of the question was hurtful and that what was needed was for white men like him to share power and listen to people of color. The National Black Food and Justice Alliance (NBFJA) publicly applauded chef Nadine and others, declaring that
Black and Brown people have always been the life force of the food movement. From national formations created and led by Black leaders such as the National Black Food and Justice Alliance, to local formations such as Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, groups are organizing and thus positioning themselves in rightful leadership within the food movement. Continuously portraying the leadership of the food movement almost exclusively in the body of white men is not only inaccurate and harmful, but a dated form of hegemony. (NBFJA 2017)
This moment, albeit brief, illustrates ongoing tensions within food movements: Who has the power to name and define? Who is creating policy? In what ways are Black and other people of color framed as the recipients of aid but rarely the theorists, creators, and experts, even though there is a long history of Black, Indigenous, and other people of color–led community-based activism that forms the crux of contemporary food justice movements? It also calls to mind refusal as a strategy for navigating inequity, for holding (white) people in powerful positions accountable, and for creating everyday lives. Audra Simpson (2007, 2014) has developed the notion of “refusal” in the context of the anthropological study of Indigenous communities as a way of pushing back against particular forms of power and sovereignty that do not align with the needs and identities of a particular group. In some cases, this includes refusing to participate in ethnographic projects or refusing definitions created by outsiders. We build upon and extend this understanding of refusal to think through the ways Black communities use forms of refusal to assert what is at stake and what matters deeply in our lives.
In this volume, we theorize how Black food culture—whether at the level of cultivation or consumption—reflects refusals, fugitive food practices, and the desire for Black self-determination: the ability to imagine, define, determine, and create sustainable worlds free of anti-Blackness and its accompanying oppressions. We document the myriad ways in which the nation-state in which we live does not provide for or protect Black people and, more often than not, causes direct and indirect harm. From systematically withholding financial support from Black farmers, to histories of redlining and racist lending practices for Black homeowners and businesses, to categorizing Black neighborhoods as violent and “deserts” devoid of food worth eating, various state and institutional actors have contributed to the food inequities these chapters grapple with. Those who uphold Black food culture, who insist on our right to grow, buy, sell, trade, and consume the foods that we are historically and culturally connected to regardless of how other groups see these practices, are prominently featured in this volume.
In an effort to examine self-determination and self-reliance, some food scholars have highlighted the ways that neoliberalism shapes the contours of food justice organizing and funding (Alkon and Guthman 2017; Sbicca 2018). The neoliberal turn in food studies in particular has demonstrated, for example, how access to funding and capital create opportunities and constraints for even the most radical food justice organizations and have shown little evidence of having an effect on the root causes of food inequities. In this volume, however, we ask the question, What is possible when we root self-determination and self-reliance in cultural and historical practices that are not solely the product of neoliberal logics? Offering collective agency as a theoretical framework, Monica White (2018) argues that history and commitment to communally produced solutions are a manifestation of self-reliance and self-determination and Reese (2018) argues that the “self” in these articulations is less about the individual and more about the ways the community itself can produce alternatives, though they may be limited in scope and sustainability.
This is a tension we explore in this volume, as the inclination of Black communities toward forms of self-reliance and self-determination articulates more with the food sovereignty movement, which is grounded in “the people’s right to determine their own agricultural and food policies” (McMichael 2008, quoted in Carney 2012). For some Black communities, this turn to self-determination is not only a response to a food system that fails them; it is also built upon a long-standing distrust of the state (see Gillian Richards-Greaves’s chapter in this volume). While efforts to take control of food production and consumption are rarely permanent solutions, in their efforts people feel they are able to do something tangible rather than waiting for the U.S. government to solve the food problem (see Pulido 2016). In many Black communities, it has been accepted that rather than solely depending on the state to alleviate structural inequalities and violence, Black people must instead take care of our own needs, even if that includes food production and distribution, such as through informal cookshares or rideshares (see Reese’s chapter). This volume builds on germinal texts in the African American food canon that established the significance of food in the study of Black political, social, and cultural life. The chapters in this volume are not overly celebratory and they acknowledge the limitations inherent in the work that each explores. At the same time, they demonstrate the possibilities that can emerge when people are not positioned as social or political risk objects but are responding to and pushing against white supremacy in institutional and everyday ways.
Considering self-reliance and self-determination and Black food cultural production, this also leads us to ask: What are the particular geographic components that factor into the production, distribution, and consumption of food in Black communities? Specifically, what additional questions does a Black geographical lens applied to food ask us to consider and what knowledge is produced at that intersection? Each chapter in this volume grapples with these questions. Bringing together chapters that explore Black food cultural production and justice in Los Angeles, Detroit, Memphis, South Carolina, the rural South, Miami, and Washington, D.C., Black Food Matters presumes the significance of spatial food practices. Specifically, we challenge the tendency to treat Black neighborhoods and communities as blank slates in need of guidance or structure. Rather, epistemologically and methodologically, we concern ourselves with examining how a “Black sense of place” that does not reduce Black people or Blackness to countable objects (McKittrick and Woods 2007; McKittrick 2011) emerges through how Black people produce, navigate, resist, and read their food landscapes. Margaret Marietta Ramírez (2015, 749) argues that food justice organizations often overlook these Black geographies, demonstrating how deeply rooted contemporary practices are based on racialized processes dating back to the plantation. Similarly, Reese (2019) suggests that the Black food geographies that unfold are not simply a response to contemporary restraints but are grounded in personal and communal histories as well as desires to build community; and Priscilla McCutcheon (2015) and Naya Jones (2018) turn to how these personal and communal histories intersect with an embodied experience of navigating food inequities. In their works, both McCutcheon and Jones illustrate that food access is not solely about the location of food and food consumption is not purely about individual choice or taste. Authors in this volume all grapple with this in different ways: exploring the choices and decisions residents make to protect or change their food landscapes, alternative food distribution mechanisms, the role of legal proceedings in protecting farmland, and, as in the case of Billy Hall’s and Judith Williams’s chapters in particular, gentrification’s role in creating the conditions under which Black food geographies are threatened.
In addition, we see the chapters included here as part of a longer continuum that explores the changes in and preservation of Black food culture and institutions. For some of the chapters, this means thinking deeply about the ancestral knowledge that was brought to the Americas in the seeds and practices of those enslaved. What does that knowledge look like in the contemporary sense? What remains? As Jessica Harris and Michael Twitty have both demonstrated, Black food culture is tied to histories of enslavement and diaspora connections, and the knowledge of cultivating, processing, and preparing foods was not only brought to the Americas but also incorporated into everyday life (Harris 2003; Twitty 2017; see also Carney 2001, 2010; Miller 2013). Food cultures were carried in the wake of slavery, transformed by contact and hybridities that reverberated and, in some cases, carried over into contemporary Black food culture. Exploring enslavement and the related movement of foods and people is one way of considering how everyday food consumption patterns reflect fugitivity. Across the volume, and in particular in Williams’s and Reese’s chapters, we are challenged to consider the ways that people employ fugitive practices, to meet their or community food needs, challenging us to consider the possibility that these practices, too, can fly under the banner of food justice. By fugitive here we mean an ongoing refusal to accept standards imposed from elsewhere: “fugitivity, then, is a desire for and a spirit of escape and transgression of the proper and the proposed. It’s a desire for the outside, for a playing or being outside, an outlaw edge proper to the now always already improper voice or instrument” (Moten 2018, 336). Building on Tina Campt (2014) and Audra Simpson (2016), who both theorize refusal as a creative practice or set of practices that undermine dominant authorities and logics, Damien Sojoyner argues that Black fugitivity is “based on the disavowal of and disengagement from state-governed projects that attempt to adjudicate normative constructions of difference through liberal tropes of freedom and democratic belonging” (2017, 516). Rather than being static or historical acts that happened in the past, Black fugitivity is a central and ongoing part of envisioning other ways of being and relating. In other words, Black fugitivity is and perhaps always has been part of the work taken up by those who survive in spite of constant attacks on Black life. These fugitivity practices, in fact, may be the reasons for survival. In this volume, we think and write about what is possible when we examine food through this lens.
Appropriating Black Food
Amid Black fugitivity and refusal, Black food culture has remained a source of cultural production and community building in spite of ongoing threats to its very existence. The African American food studies canon has carefully documented the erasure of Black cooks and their culinary knowledge from the history of American food more generally (Whitehead 1992; Bower 2007; Opie 2008; Harris 2011; Miller 2013; Wallach 2015, 2019; Zafar 2019). As Toni Tipton-Martin (2015) demonstrates, Black cooks, usually women, were the creators of the many kinds of delicacies and traditional dishes coming out of early American kitchens. Linked to this idea, as Saidiya Hartman notes, “the systematic violence needed to conscript black women’s domestic labor after slavery required locking them out of all other sectors of the labor market, a condition William Patterson (1982) described as economic genocide. Race riots, the enclosure of the ghetto, the vertical order of human life, and the forms of value and debt promulgated through emergent forms of racism, what Sarah Haley terms ‘Jim Crow modernity,’ made it impossible for black women to escape the white household” (Hartman 2016, 170; see also Patterson 1982; Haley 2016). Whether under chattel slavery or as underpaid domestic labor, Black women’s culinary knowledge and practices were stolen by white cookbook authors, absconded by white housewives, and absorbed into a white-washed American cuisine, erasing the Black foundations of our food system. While authors like Tipton-Martin have painstakingly demonstrated the centrality of Black cooks in our history despite the limited number of cookbooks published by them, it is still not commonly accepted that Black culinary practices form a critical foundation of all-American food culture. Furthermore, if we turn our attention to this history, we can clearly see the fallacy of the notion that Black people’s food preferences and culinary practices have always been the stereotypical “soul foods” that Black people created as a way to make “something out of nothing” (Tipton-Martin 2015, 7). Instead we find that there is a whole lesser-known history of teaching “industry and self-reliance” in the kitchen, using fresh fruits and vegetables and maintaining a variety of nutrients in Black cuisine “that shunned frying or dependence upon fatback seasoning” (Opie 2008, quoted in Tipton-Martin 2015, 7). As Psyche Williams-Forson’s (2006, 2012) work shows, the devaluation of Black foodways and pigeonholing of it into one narrow type of food is a common misconception built upon the clichés and stereotypes of advertisers who portrayed Black people as dim-witted, incapable, and useful only as “the docile servant who was always ready to serve” (Kern-Foxworth 1994, quoted in Tipton-Martin 2015, 8). While consumption is key, Black food culture is also deeply intertwined with global systems of food production and distribution. Indeed, one troublesome narrative of Black foodways is that the foods we eat were the trash and scraps that white people threw at us and we made something out of nothing. While that can be an uplifting story of overcoming adversity, a deeper look at Black food culture tells us that it is simply not true.
The culinary and agricultural knowledge of Black people, some of which was stolen and appropriated, was fundamental to the economic development of the United States and further supported the global economic dominance of European colonizing countries for centuries (see Robinson 1983). Black people were brought to the Americas with extensive knowledge of cooking and agriculture and came together to produce a rich diasporic Black culture (Carney 2001, 2010). Not only have Black people been cultivating, processing, and preparing Black food for hundreds of years, but this quintessential Black knowledge also forms the basis of many cuisines thought to be just “American,” where Blackness has been erased—such as southern food (Franklin 2018). Still, while Black knowledge and skill have long been key to Black food culture, oppressive and restrictive systems of food distribution have hampered and limited food access and threatened Black food culture.
Amid the many Black cultural forms that are celebrated, commoditized, and highly sought after by Black and non-Black people alike, such as music, clothing styles, hairstyles, ways of speaking, and so on, Black food cultures span the range of popular acceptance—from being devalued to seeing a “renaissance” in cities like Oakland (Nettles-Barcelón 2012). By turning our attention to the richness of Black food culture across the diaspora and its history, we can help illuminate how Blackness is so much more than merely making something out of the scraps of white folks, more than histories of shucking and jiving as Black hands processed massive amounts of corn. That said, Black people in the United States and the broader African diaspora have been incredibly adept at responding to and improving on the conditions of inequity in which so many Black people live. This ability to make and build Black communities in this way is a strength, and is not merely the outgrowth of whiteness or the use of what is rejected by white people (Lewis 1976; Franklin 2018). Black food culture is in fact the inverse, and Blackness is a foundation upon which American food culture was built.
While all kinds of people consume and enjoy foods that are culturally Black, the appropriation of those foods means that members of a dominant or privileged group in society adopt or lay claim to the production of and profits from Black food culture. This sometimes leads to stereotypes that are entrenched in the marketing of some foods. As Williams-Forson (2006) details, images of the Black cook, servant, slave, and mammy have been used by large corporations to sell food products since at least the late nineteenth century. For instance, in the 1880s, “Aunt Jemima materialized as a product of commercial advertising inspired by blackface routines” (Tipton-Martin 2015, xi; see also Turner 1994; Kwate 2019). These kinds of advertisements draw from imagined docile Black (often maternal) figures, equate “simple” with blackness, and disparage Black intelligence and culinary skills while simultaneously erasing the Black contribution to American food.
The brief history we detail here is tied up with our deliberate move to use Black food culture in this volume rather than African American food culture. We use Black in multiple ways to indicate Black people, those who are the descendants of African slaves brought to the United States against their will, and those who claim other ties to the African diaspora, such as through the Black Caribbean (as in Williams’s chapter in this volume). We also engage Blackness here as a theoretical concept and political stance. Drawing on W. E. B. Du Bois, Cedric Robinson and Elizabeth Robinson argue that “Black people” did not always exist in the Americas since the slave trade. They assert: “The ‘Negro’ was in place; that is, his docility, ignorance, beastality, child-like inferiority, that was in place. But a strata was emerging in conflict with that, to contest it” (Robinson and Robinson 2017, 6). For Du Bois, making a claim on Black identity was taking a strong stance against the degradation of Black people. The assertion of Blackness, the naming of Black people, was staking a claim that “we are a people, we have achieved cultures, we have left a mark on the world, we have a past and we can have a future . . . Black Sovereignty!” (Robinson and Robinson 2017, 6).
These ways of reclaiming Blackness were also taken up by related movements, like the Black Power movement. Although the Black Power movement was vilified as a form of violence and tyranny, Analena Hope Hassberg’s chapter documents that Black Power was and continues to be misunderstood (see also White 2018). We draw from the understanding of Black Power as a way of productively channeling Black rage into Black consciousness “built on the twin pillars of racial pride and unity,” which “sought to foster black self-respect and redefine blackness by reclaiming and venerating black history and culture” (Davies 2017, 1). A focus on Black food culture thus allows us to illuminate the variety of ways in which Black cultural forms come up against other dominant (white) culture, analyzing why Black ways of being are sometimes degraded and at other times celebrated. Food allows that entry point into understanding the complexities of Blackness.
Positionality and the Politics of Studying Black Food Culture
As interest in food justice (and the related concept of food sovereignty) has grown, so too have questions about methodological, theoretical, and ethical concerns about studying racialized communities that bear the weight of food inequities. Questions of food justice are fundamentally about the production, distribution, and consumption of food. In the process of envisioning a more equitable and sustainable food system, however, we must also contend with the epistemological lenses and frameworks from which we theorize ways forward. Black Food Matters was compiled based on the belief that it is imperative to center Black ways of knowing and being as a place from which to understand not only the constraints produced by anti-Blackness but the possibilities that Black people innovate and create in the wake of these constraints.
We (the editors of this volume) developed the ideas for this volume over the course of two panels at the American Anthropological Association annual meetings, the first in Denver in November 2015 and the second in Washington, D.C., in November 2017. Following these two panels, in May 2018, we brought together six scholars, included in this volume, to present publicly on our work at the University of California, San Diego, and engage in a weekend-long writing and thinking workshop. As part of the workshop, we each read each other’s chapters, provided feedback on them individually, and then discussed the themes that cut across each of them. While we would have preferred to have all the contributors be part of this workshop, limited funding meant we had to make strategic decisions. We chose to invite those with whom we had not had extensive engagement in other venues.
We mention this workshop here because as we conceptualized this volume, we were intentional and clear that we wanted to model the type of collaborative work that many of us write about, knowing that collaboration is not always easy, nor is it clear-cut. We also wanted to bring together these scholars, the majority of whom identify as Black, to discuss the various tensions and contradictions we see and experience as Black people mainly writing about other Black people in a field in which most of those who are writing about Black people are not Black. We include this here to call attention to the number and diversity of Black scholars, particularly those who work from a social science perspective, engaging in food work, and note that other scholars have complicated the notion that one can have automatic or permanent “insider” status (Zavella 1993; Jacobs-Huey 2002; Yelvington et al. 2015). With this approach, we take up another aspect of Williams-Forson’s call for food studies to take intersectionality more seriously: what does that look like when we apply it to research participants and communities but also turn that lens on ourselves—the ones doing the studying? Black feminist anthropologists have long argued that to decolonize our disciplines, who produces knowledge and how it is produced matters, especially when Black scholars see ourselves and our own liberation bound up with those with whom we conduct research (McClaurin 2001; Rodriguez 2003; Harrison 2008; E. Williams 2013; B. Williams 2018). In an interview with Savage Minds, Faye Harrison articulates this in terms of vulnerability and care in the context of ethnographic work.
When we do it right the fact [is] that we immerse ourselves in everyday lives and demands of ordinary people all over the world. We humble ourselves to being sort of re-socialized and enculturated, which means you show your vulnerabilities . . . when you do it right. And to the extent that we go beyond those models of fieldwork which are really based on what I call the mining and the extraction of data as though it’s a raw material that needs to be then refined and created into some other sort of commodity. If we can get away from that model which is consistent with basically a market, a capitalist market, commodification, competitive individualism, hierarchies and whatever, and realize that the people who make our research possible are much like us. (Harrison 2016)
In this volume, we bring together a group of scholars whose work has been motivated by deep engagements with the communities of study and to the extent possible has moved away from extractivist research, which are characteristics of research that embodies a Black feminist approach.
The majority of the work included here comes from a social scientific or ethnographic approach, and the authors write from perspectives that reflect Harrison’s assertion that there are ways to do this work that do not reify colonialist approaches to “the other.” In this way, we build on the work that forms the base of the African American foodways canon, much of which has analyzed food from historical, literary, and other humanistic perspectives. Most of the chapters in this volume draw upon empirically rich, historically grounded ethnographic data to document the food-related practices and the everyday lives of Black people. While we build upon the foodways literature, we have moved away from using the term foodways in favor of food culture. The term foodways, often connected to “folk culture,” connotes an essentializing gaze on the food-related practices of marginalized communities. We want to move away from the assumption that American food means white middle class and that everything else is “ethnic” or marginal in some way.
Across the chapters, the volume works to illuminate how Black food culture is experienced in the everyday lives of Black and non-Black people. We center lived experience as a way to demonstrate how Black food culture is not fixed but instead an emergent and vibrant phenomenon. We also deliberately include noncanonical works on African American and Black foodways here. The work of writers such as Michael Twitty and Toni Tipton-Martin has made significant intellectual contributions to our understanding of Black food culture, and we acknowledge that in our work. We draw upon these tools as a platform for rethinking and retheorizing the social, economic, and political dimensions of American food culture beyond the unstated but assumed white middle-class perspective. We assert that food studies should always include multiple forms of Black food culture and the various ways in which food matters in Black communities.
Black food culture and Black life are varied and ever changing; they are not monolithic. Yet the surveillance of Black bodies, Black lives, and Black communities as unruly and uncontrolled is pervasive and often results in outside efforts to control Black practices through our food, our health, our bodies, and our communities. In her remarks after one of our panels at the American Anthropological Association annual meetings, Williams-Forson was reminded of an important 1903 Du Bois quote: “How does it feel to be a problem?” The fact that we are still asking this question, that we must still defend Black life as legitimate, vibrant, and beautiful, is part of what makes this volume so crucial right now.
Overview of the Book
Black Food Matters enters two conversations at once: one that concerns the persistent threats to Black life and another that concerns problems produced by the increasingly global and corporatized food system. The chapters do not posture absolute solutions to either. Instead, we offer epistemological and theoretical perspectives that place these two conversations in the same frame to grapple with what survives (Sharpe 2016) when threats to Black life are endemic to our food system. This volume examines Black food culture and food justice from several distinct but complementary angles. In the first chapter, Ashanté M. Reese grounds the volume in Black agency with ethnographic research on how residents of Washington, D.C., “(re)inhabit and (re)imagine” Black food culture through self-reliance, entrepreneurship, and artistic impressions. Reese anchors these local forms of food work within the broader frame of “wake work” that we find to be central to the resilience of many Black communities and cultural forms.
The connections between histories of food production, Black fugitivity, and food culture as a site of resistance and practice of self-reliance are then further illuminated in chapter 2 by Gillian Richards-Greaves, whose inquiry moves us from the urban to a small town in South Carolina. Residents of Cool Spring, part of Carolina low country, are descendants of enslaved Africans with ties to the coastal Gullah-Geechee community. Gullah-Geechee food culture, as Twitty has said, “came from an ‘African culinary grammar’ in which ‘methods of cooking and spicing, remembered foods, ancestral tastes’ defined the flavor of the dishes and the people who created them” (Joyner 1984, 91, quoted in Twitty 2017, 183; see also Beoku-Betts 1995). Richards-Greaves documents the agricultural and animal husbandry practices of this community, which plants crops year-round with an explicit praxis of exchanging with or selling to local neighbors and friends. Richards-Greaves’s sharp analysis reveals that these food production practices are “a deliberate means of maintaining self-ownership, self-sufficiency, and personal security in post-emancipation America,” arising from “political uncertainty” and fear of a potential “world war three.” This community draws on hundreds of years of Black knowledge and agricultural skill to protect itself against further incursions or new forms of political violence.
In a similar vein, Analena Hope Hassberg’s chapter centers on the role of the Black Panther Party’s food work as part of its “survival programs.” Hassberg analyzes how food provisioning was central to the Panther mission as a way to ensure that Black folks stayed alive because “hungry people cannot effectively organize for freedom.” Hunger and malnutrition in Black communities were and continue to be one of the greatest forms of oppression in the United States. The Black Panther Party’s food work also served to shift attention away from the negative image of the Panthers as too radical and violent. The chapter not only reveals that food was central to the Panther mission but also shows that this program was critical in shaping the early food justice movement in South Los Angeles.
Hanna Garth’s chapter picks up on these tensions through an explicit analysis of the forms of “justice” and resulting forms of anti-Blackness that emerge from the work of several food justice organizations in Los Angeles. Garth examines Community Services Unlimited Inc. (CSU), which is the present-day continuation of the nonprofit arm of the Black Panther Party detailed by Hassberg. In addition to CSU, the chapter analyzes the work of several Los Angeles nonprofits and the Los Angeles Food Policy Council. Garth reveals how food justice work can operate in a wide variety of ways, from a radical grassroots orientation that supports Black communities, to orientations that try to fit Black life into dominant white legal and political structures, to those that serve only to protect white social and political interests. This chapter forces us to ask, Who does food justice serve and why?
In a related interrogation of food justice, Andrew Newman and Yuson Jung flip the approach from Garth’s focus on food justice to look at the role that food has played in (re)imagining Detroit as a vibrant majority Black city. Newman and Jung “look beyond the food justice movement as it is typically formulated and examine how individuals within these movements are contesting and reworking the moral meaning of economic exchange itself, especially within Black communities.” The authors point out the tensions in the positioning of food, which is sometimes cast as part of the foodie frontier of repurposing urban space and thus paving a path for the emergent forms of gentrification that others want to ward off. The authors analyze this as part of a competing moral economy of “good food” that is differentiated and organized by race, racism, and Detroit’s history of Black politics in symbolic and tangible ways. Newman and Jung reveal that differing moral beliefs and commitments can produce schisms concerning what is good food, not simply because of the food items themselves but because of the social relations that are embedded in them.
Building on the tensions that are apparent in both trying to define food justice at the intersection of Blackness and exploring the limitations of food justice efforts, Billy Hall’s chapter takes us to Miami’s Overtown community, formed in 1896, which has endured a long history of racism. Today Overtown faces yet another racialized project as “economic development” paves the way for gentrification and the removal of Black people. Hall demonstrates how food becomes central to the racialized project of gentrification by carefully documenting the ways Overtown is sometimes cast as an unsafe, blighted “food desert” and other times as a culturally vibrant, racial heritage and soul food destination-in-the-making. Beyond just Overtown, this sort of labeling of Black communities in this way allows for the justification of ongoing forms of policing, removal, and subsequent “investment” and “development” of Black areas. These forms of “heritage” tourism not only elide histories of anti-Black racism and ongoing forms of structural violence but also erase the centrality of Black history, Black practices, and Black knowledge that built those places.
As Kimberly Kasper’s chapter on Memphis illuminates, the contributions of Black people to American BBQ practices are often ignored, particularly as BBQ is taken up by younger hipster foodies in the Nashville scene. Brad Weiss (2016) has documented a similar phenomenon in North Carolina, focusing on the rise of local hipster foodies’ whole hog BBQ practices in the local food movement. Richards-Greaves’s chapter in this volume documents the connections of contemporary practices of whole hog BBQ in South Carolina to histories of Black animal husbandry and BBQ knowledge intricately connected with a large system of Black food culture. The erasure of Black cultural significance from these food histories is a form of anti-Blackness in and of itself, and it facilitates an extension of this anti-Blackness into tangential aspects of Black life. Additionally, as Garth’s chapter points out, when the important Black cultural connection is removed from a dish, foods such as macaroni and cheese are rendered as merely unhealthy, fatty foods commonly consumed by Black people, allowing for people to slip into the anti-Black logics about the consumption of unhealthy, undignified foods within Black communities.
Kasper’s chapter on BBQ demonstrates how Black food culture is also a central force in cohesion and collective effervescence within Black communities. Black food culture thus becomes critical to resistance, fighting institutionalized racism, and the development of alternative, community-based approaches around food justice. The thread of resistance runs through Monica M. White’s chapter as she explores how Black women activists participate in urban agriculture to reclaim their cultural roots connected to food cultivation as well as power over their food supply. Along similar lines as Richards-Greaves’s chapter, White argues that through building community, Black women enact agency and self-determination. White’s chapter provides a critical analysis of gender and uses an ecofeminist perspective to connect Black food culture, women’s resistance, and the environment. The activists in White’s chapter “construct the farm as a community safe space, which operates as a creative, public outdoor classroom where they nurture activism and challenge the racial and class-based barriers to accessing healthy food” in ways that align with the work of the Black Panther Party as detailed in Hassberg’s chapter and its continuation as CSU as described in Garth’s chapter.
One of the fundamental problems with agriculture and urban gardening in Black communities is the lack of land ownership, which is tied to racist histories of redlining and systematic prevention of Black land ownership. Willie J. Wright, Tyler McCreary, Brian Williams, and Adam Bledsoe’s chapter argues that rural land ownership has been associated with “cultural retention, desire to till and tend to the earth, self-determination, personal and mental health, and intergenerational transfer of wealth” (citing Salamon 1979). Yet they explain that “Black farmers represent just under 50,000 of the nation’s 3.5 million farm operators” (citing Census of Agriculture 2017). Wright, McCreary, Williams, and Bledsoe analyze Pigford et al. v. Glickman (1999), then the largest class-action lawsuit levied against the U.S. government. This case found that agents within the USDA’s county-level programs deliberately and unjustly denied Black applicants much-needed financial and agricultural assistance. The case resulted in more than $500 million in payments to Black farmers who could prove they were discriminated against by the USDA. Given this context, how do we understand food justice as serving the real needs of Black communities? Wright and his coauthors reexamine this case through the lens of the politics of recognition, asking us to reconsider the ways that acknowledgment and validation by the state can thwart radical visions for a more equitable distribution of resources. They refuse to accept financial compensation for dispossession as an end goal of struggle, which would “normalize commodified social relations and foreclose more radical visions of Black liberation.” They argue that a “radical Black agrarian politics must look beyond the teleological finality of compensation” and move toward the “goal of agrarian struggle being land restitution and the development of communal forms of Black land use and ownership.”
Finally, akin to the histories of land dispossession and denial of access to financing, Judith Williams documents the ways that ongoing forms of food appropriation strip Black chefs and food producers of their livelihoods and potential business growth as outsiders commodify and capitalize on the trendiness of “ethnic food” in South Florida. Centering on Little Haiti, Little Havana, and other “ethnic food” enslaves, Williams frames her analysis around Cedric Robinson’s theory of racial capitalism, where “the function of the laboring classes was to provide privileged classes with the material and human resources needed for their maintenance and further accommodations of power and wealth” (Robinson 1983, 21). Williams argues that chefs who appropriate the culture and cuisine of nonwhite people, specifically to profit off it, are consuming and reproducing the Other within a racial hierarchy. This chapter clearly delineates the boundaries of liberal forms of multiculturalism, demonstrating the privileging of whiteness, the erasure of Black knowledge and histories as culinary practice, and the boundless pursuits of racial capitalism. We draw the volume to a close with an afterword by Psyche Williams-Forson, whose 2006 book, Building Houses out of Chicken Legs, shifted the field of food studies broadly and African American food studies in particular. For well over a decade, Williams-Forson has pushed our fields toward more critical and thoughtful engagement with race and intersectionality, emphasizing the need to focus on power dynamics rather than simply the aesthetics of food (Williams-Forson and Wilkerson 2011). Reflecting on both the volume and the state of the field itself, Williams-Forson draws together the themes of the volume and underscores how Black food culture is an intellectual and political centerpiece of food studies debates and scholarship more broadly.
In this contemporary moment, we see the need and urgency for more work that enters the conversation about food inequities and justice from perspectives that understand that there is no shifting local or national food system without understanding food within broader contexts. Black Food Matters is our response to this need. From gathering several of the authors in the same place to think, write, eat, and share space together to the various ways each of us grapple with aspects of contemporary Black food life, one of the common threads in this volume is that Black people are deeply invested in food and justice and produce ways of being that demonstrate those investments in spite of the ongoing threats to Black life. Though seemingly simple, the declaration that Black people are deeply invested in and making space for protecting and providing food is one that cannot be overstated. This volume, we hope, contributes to epistemic shifts in the study of Black food and justice because there is much at stake—much more than the arguments that emerge in popular media every few years about soul food; much more, too, than simply adding grocery stores to Black neighborhoods. What wake work as an analytic offers us moving forward is an opportunity to grapple with how the “past” shows up continuously in the present; how food is part of the same anti-Black climate that produces and reinforces the carceral state that extends beyond prisons and jails and into our homes; and how, even under these conditions, something survives. People survive. We offer this book as one entry point into thinking about the hows and the whys.
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