ALL FOUR RESTAURANTS suggest that racism makes food taste better. Racism lends an added spice to restaurant dining ranging from relatively tony full-service establishments to roadhouse eateries and fast casual chains. Across quite different settings, these restaurants have made antiblackness their central premise. Because racism is the way American society does business, the establishments reviewed here may at first blush suggest simply another—if unique—example of how that business is done. But it is meaningful that these outlets are restaurants and not bookstores, auto supply shops, or hotels. What is it about the combination of racism and the provision of meals that makes these businesses a draw?
Certainly, nostalgia for a past in which Black people were relegated to servitude has traction in many public arenas, including literature, film, and television. And racial caricatures of Black people in subservient positions grace the packaging of manifold products. Racist restaurants, like these products, may evoke nostalgia for slavery itself, and the racial dictatorship it comprised. It is also possible that racist restaurants mobilize the culture, geography, and institutions of the South. They pay tribute to social structures in which mobility was severely constrained for Black Americans and constitute simple reminders of the wages of Whiteness.
Images of faithful slaves have arisen in reaction to eras in which Black folk have pressed for racial equality, and for that reason it could be expected to find Mammy a popular image in the 1950s and 1960s as the Civil Rights movement ignited radical social change. Along those lines, Sambo’s and Richard’s came into being in the 1950s.
But beyond that, if White patrons enjoy dining in settings where their racial superiority is explicit, and those same pleasures are not extended to other retail and consumer contexts, other processes must be at work. The racial work these restaurants do echoes the distinct concerns of differing schools of CRT thought: they affect and are affected by systems of images, discourse, and unconscious feelings; they allocate privilege and tangible benefits; and they advance variable racial projects that ebb and flow with prevailing social conditions.
Capitalism always requires novelty and difference for products to stand out in a crowded marketplace, the more exotic and outré the better. Blackness is easy shorthand for exotic, and dehumanizing Black people makes them easily convertible into gimmick. The exoticism of bblackness therefore brings material benefits to those who use racism as a marketing tool. Objectified blackness makes these restaurants innovative and brings with it the added benefit of bringing diners that much closer to the earth, whence the food came or over which it was slaughtered and cooked. Blackness makes the food more primal, subversive, and real. As noted earlier, cooking and serving food have been seen as intrinsic to Black women, and these restaurants offered meals thought to embody the culinary repertoire of Black people. It is for that reason that the Coon Chicken Inn was a phenomenon, rather than a Coon Auto Parts. Black people are thought to be naturally affiliated with food, and that connection creates a selling point for a restaurant; to connect coons with cars would not only be insensible, it would be a liability that would stain the business with a badge of inferior products, service, or implied customer base.
And yet there are competing forces in how blackness is constructed in relation to food. On the one hand, these restaurants provide satiation from a satisfying, often “authentic” meal, and satiation from the pleasurable reaffirmations of Black inferiority. On the other hand, two of the restaurants are people buildings, in which patrons are invited into the dining room through the Black body. In order to consume Black food, or food prepared by Blacks, or food prepared as though by Blacks, one has to be consumed by the Black body and therefore risk being destroyed. To eat is to be potentially destroyed; it is like preparing ackee or fugu when you don’t know what you’re doing. But perhaps by going inside the Black body, the White diner destroys it, much as Neo destroys Agent Smith by diving inside him—or at least appears to destroy Smith, before Matrix Revolutions shows him to be altered rather than dead. Might then these restaurants set up the potential for the duality of being able to destroy the despised Black body at the same time as being fed? Or to express contempt for the servant who is metaphorically providing the food, by literally wiping one’s feet on him or her?
Either way, the racial caricature people buildings make objects out of Black people. Historically, there have been many restaurants shaped like the food they sell. Termed mimetic architecture, or logo buildings, these structures that resemble the goods or services available at the establishment were particularly popular for restaurants and retail food outlets, especially during the 1940s and 1950s. Examples include a Long Island poultry stand in the shape of a duck, Mexican restaurants taking the shape of giant tamales, and fast food symbolized in giant root beer kegs. But all of these buildings are objects, not people. Even those restaurant chains that employ people as logos and signposts, (e.g., Bob’s Big Boy and Colonel Sanders) restrict them to signage and rooftops alone. Never do patrons walk inside these bodies. The racial order of racist restaurants transformed the coon and mammy into the realm of nonhuman object. The Black body, then, “principally holds value in its ability to entertain. Its humanity, culture, history, and dignity are erased and its voice is silenced.”
It is also true that the restaurants may loosen bodily boundaries, without total destruction. For example, in the case of Mammy’s Cupboard, White consumers can tame the perceived unruliness of Black women’s bodies and perceived excessiveness in relation to food. As Sabina Strings argues, “The discourse of obese black women engaging in behaviors that place themselves and others at risk is not solely, or principally, a matter of the (inconsistent) medical findings as they relate to weight and health. Instead, they are the latest innovation in the familiar medical trope of the unrestrained black women as deadly.” Strings contends that though there is abundant discourse about the idea of Black insatiability, one aspect of that, which has been little examined, is the notion of “unfettered indulgence in oral appetites.” This notion is evident in historical texts such as racial encyclopedias, where African gluttony was a central construct. By walking into a Black body, the White diner is able to partake of that gluttony and inhabit a perilous yet satisfying space where food can be consumed without the constraints of social decency. If Black bodies are thought to be animalistic and irrational, eating inside of them suggests a meal where the dictates of moral fitness may be tossed to the winds.
But these are rather metaphorical interpretations of why racism makes food taste better. There are more concrete explanations as well. Sambo’s and Richard’s Slave Market used names founded on the degradation of blackness and also located their restaurants in social spaces that were inhospitable and dangerous to Black people, thereby excluding them as patrons. In that regard, racist restaurants recreate/recover Jim Crow spaces. Like swimming pools, eating establishments were one of the most contested public spaces undergoing desegregation. White people were disgusted at having to eat with Black neighbors; although Black people were fit to prepare the food, dining with them was intolerable. The intimacy of eating was discordant with transracial spaces, and a vast body of memoirs by White authors shows that eating with Black people was “unthinkable.” If naming a restaurant Coon Chicken Inn or Mammy’s Cupboard will not keep Black clientele away, then buildings that brandish racial caricature probably will. The concrete explanation, simply put, is that these restaurants guarantee Whites-only spaces in public accommodations that should otherwise be open to all.
A second more concrete draw of racist restaurants is the spectacle. In a qualitatively different way, to be sure, but in the manner that lynchings invited a crowd, these restaurants make a very public display of racism, a display to buttress the country’s racial hierarchies and the topmost position of whiteness within it. Customers who patronize these restaurants can share in the consumption of Black domination with others. Moreover, precisely because it is a less virulent display than the public spectacles of old, White consumers can indulge racist postures under the guise of kitsch, tradition, and Americana, and even chide for exceptional sensitivity those who would be offended. Indeed, while it may not have been the purpose of setting up these restaurants, their existence clearly allows Whites to buy into the idea that racism is gone, if it ever existed. Eating out at a restaurant is purely for pleasure, and restaurants named after racist epithets insist on their innocence by virtue of the goods they sell. It’s Sambo’s pancakes, after all, not Sambo’s Police Brutality Gun Shop. As well, the racist caricatures that these restaurants employed are seen by Whites as simple, innocent, humorous, and even beloved. These outlets parse out “real racism” as expressions or depictions of maniacal animus; stereotypes that merely dehumanize Black people are not seen as racist if they elicit smiles.
The international scale of investments in racist imagery is useful as a comparative framework for the “willful” or “smug ignorance” over what can be described as an “unadulterated colonialism and racism.” British adults continue to profess fondness for racist Golliwogs, and in the 1960s thought it “absurd to imagine that they could ever engender hostile feelings about race.” Scholars have argued that because Zwarte Piet (“Black Pete”), a racial caricature in blackface that is part of Christmas celebrations in the Netherlands, is directed at children, it is thought to be unassailably innocent. A commonly voiced viewpoint is that Black Pete itself is not racist, but “If you talk about it this way, you make it a problem and make it racist,” said one high school student. Similarly, statements about the racism inherent in Black Pete are often met with assertions that the person who believes so is deranged and absurd. When the leaders of the right-wing populist group Leefbaar Rotterdam attached Black golliwog-like dolls to lampposts and trees, the public denounced the action as mimicking lynchings. The group responded that these statements were “ridiculous and disgusting” and that “if you have these associations, you should go see a psychiatrist.” This stance suggests that being unable to recognize racism is not a flaw but rather a mark of purity. To call out racism is disgusting, not the racism itself.
The Zwarte Piet case is instructive in reading racist restaurants because it involves a public display of racism that is constructed as innocent tradition, and invites ignorance of deeply ingrained cultural messages and colonial histories. Indeed, discourse around Zwarte Piet often devolves into false analogies, that if Zwarte Piet is racism, then so is X and Y and Z, none of which have to do with racism (e.g., “Perhaps we shouldn’t build snowmen, this is racism against Whites). Such discourse intimates “not just an inability to make out what is and is not racist; it is to glorify such an inability.” The same kinds of false equivalencies pervade discourse about racist restaurants, and the tenor of the discourse is similarly and surprisingly fraught with emotion. Just as contestations surrounding Zwarte Piet elicits acute anger, anxiety, hurt, and other strong feelings—passion—among “pro-Pieten,” challenges to racist restaurants seem to enrage many average White Americans. Why should this be? What stake do they hold in the name or branding of restaurants with which they are not affiliated? In the case of Zwarte Piet, Dutch supporters argue that the country as a whole risks losing a longstanding cultural tradition and that, more specifically, Dutch (implied White) children face the hurt of losing special holiday festivities. Ignored is the possibility that Black Dutch children will be hurt by maintaining the celebration. Were proponents of Zwarte Piet to recognize this hurt, and therefore the fact that everyone feels a full spectrum of emotions, it would allow the nation to “settle on a form of courteousness; a courtesy not based on the suppression or hiding of animosity, but upon the acceptance that others, too, are fully human and capable of hurt.”
Is America ready for a similar reckoning?