DC Podcast Episode 19: Black Food Geographies

Food can be such an innocent concept, but has far more sinister connotations. When Jamie Oliver made his voyage from Britain, he lamented on how he had to leave his family to make this “brave trek” to the United States to teach people about food. At the time, so many people from the upperclasses ate it up, likely because they felt that Oliver was saying things that they, too, believed about the lower classes and marginalized communities. However, Jamie Oliver’s “Food Revolution” could also be described this way: White British chef travels to a marginalized but racially integrated community to shame residents into eating the way someone who does not have socioeconomic and racial stigmas might eat.

Dr. Ashanté Reese takes the reader on the journey of food within the Black community, beginning at slavery and ending with the present. Instead of focusing on statistics that offer only the common misconceptions, she combs through archives, pours over surveys, observes, and–most importantly–she talks to people. Through her work, readers can begin to see that Black food geographies are constructed not by Black people, but by those who believe that Black people must be told how to eat and prepare food. Additionally, she illustrates how, because of the persistent outside perception of Black communities, Black people themselves began to internalize a lack of value to food being provided within their communities. Dr. Reese also highlights what she refers to as “quiet refusals,” or how Black people resist being told what to eat or that their choices are inherently unhealthy.

The myth of “Black people are incapable of making the correct food choices” has been perpetuated since the administrative beginning of this country. How did Black people become established here? Colonizers brought Black people from African countries, determined what they were going to wear, where they were going to live, and most importantly, what they were going to eat. Did Black people have farming and gardening practices back in Africa? Of course, because how otherwise would people have fed themselves? Coming to this country, Black people were allotted no land until they “earned” their freedom while enduring violent scrutiny, ran away to join Indigenous communities, or were “allowed” a garden within slave quarters. Their diets were almost completely chosen by those who claimed to “own” them. Adding insult to injury, when they were given the scraps and transformed them into edible cuisine, the resulting narrative was, “That’s their culture.”

Leading up to and following “emancipation,” Black people formed freedom colonies and redeveloped food practices as best they could. Many homes had gardens which were shared among the community because of sharecropping and poor wages. In fact, most of the time, Black people were taken from their own crops by the lure of some money or by force. Within freedom colonies and the meager Black communities within cities, there were small enterprises which allowed Black people to enhance their cooking skills (as well as other trades) and sell their crops and consumable wares. Reese affirms that trading and bargaining skills were not the sole province of foreign lands. It could be stipulated that these markets were where Black people regained their African qualities, as there are plenty of African marketplaces to this day where trading and bargaining are still practiced.

None of this was to last, because of course, Black people must always be reminded that they are subhuman in the eyes of the dominant narrative. When the corporate supermarket appeared, suddenly whatever agricultural resources had been diverted to small enterprises was swallowed up by corporations. Land that had been used to grow food was devoured by the need to create single-family zoning; there was no more land for community farms and segregation dictated that Black people were not allowed to live in single-family zoning. Gone were the home gardens and the shared crops among neighbors, and trading and bargaining disappeared under uniform prices–except when White business owners decided to overcharge Black customers. Some were lucky enough to live far enough out or scrape together enough money to garden or farm, but despite interference, the dominant narrative stated, “Without us, Black people would be unable to even feed themselves!”

Fast forward to the present, and now Black people are relegated to begging. They beg for the fastfood chains to stop concentrating in their neighborhoods, driving down their property values and teaching outsiders to think that Black people are incapable of cooking for themselves. They beg for stores from the corporate supermarkets that take them away from their neighborhoods and steal their labor and money in the form of tax incentives to avoid the interracial animosity stoked in their brown neighbors by White supremacy. More importantly, they beg for the same community gardens and farming cooperatives that are constantly shown with White faces, and they beg for those White faces to stop depicting them with statistics and language designed to infantilize them. Black people know how to manipulate food in a variety of methods; they mostly beg for the dominant narrative to stop limiting their resources, access and time while simultaneously saying, “That’s their culture. They don’t know any better.”

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