"I took a bite, finding it as sweet and hot as any I’d ever had, and was overcome with such a surge of homesickness that I turned away to keep my control. I walked along, munching the yam, just as suddenly overcome by an intense feeling of freedom - simply because I was eating while walking along the street. It was exhilarating. I no longer had to worry about who saw me or what was proper. To hell with that, and as sweet as the yam actually was, it became like nectar with the thought"

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

Jonathan Bishop Highfield

Professor, Rhode Island School
of Design

As Ralph Ellison poignantly points out in the epigraph that comes from Invisible Man, food and foodways are among the most potent of cultural expressions. The food people eat and the way it is prepared speaks volumes about their relationship to their culture, their place in society, and their interaction with the environment. On a most basic level, though, food has the ability to remember home, to reconstruct cultural memory from the integration of ingredients, seasonings, and preparations. Foodways act a crucial tool of cultural self-definition, and the memories of those foodways serve as a connection between the lost identity of childhood and the inhabited adult identity.  

Recently, former United States president Barack Obama wrote a Facebook post about the protests spreading across the United States and around the world. The protests were prompted by the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, just the latest in a series of murders of African-Americans at the hands of law enforcement officers. Obama’s post was articulate and compassionate, diametrically opposed to the tweets and rambling speeches by the current president, Donald Trump. At one point in the post, however, Obama completely missed the mark. He wrote:

I saw an elderly black woman being interviewed today in tears because the only grocery store in her neighborhood had been trashed. If history is any guide, that store may take years to come back. So let’s not excuse violence, or rationalize it, or participate in it. If we want our criminal justice system, and American society at large, to operate on a higher ethical code, then we have to model that code ourselves.

While Obama’s ethical sensibility is admirable, it completely overlooks the psychological impulses behind an attack on a neighborhood store. After his residency in the Blida-Joinville Psychiatric Hospital in Algeria during the Algerian war for independence, the Martinican psychiatrist Frantz Fanon observed that violence in colonial Algeria was mostly Algerian upon Algerian violence because the everyday frustrations a person faced mostly emerged from the local environment. Yes, the outrage over the killing of unarmed civilians by French troops was driving the revolutionary impulses of the resistance, but it was the corner grocery that charged too much for semolina and oil that is a likely target of violence emerging out of the pent-up frustrations of the ordinary Algerian.  It was, as Fanon observed, like the pecking order of hens: “Every colony tends to turn into a huge farmyard, where the only law is that of the knife.” What Obama fails to recognize in his post is that the corner store represents the traumas of underemployment, disenfranchisement, and underprivilege. While its looting may ultimately be self-destructive, psychologically it brings temporary relief. 

 

In Wretched of the Earth, Fanon observed that “The relations of man with matter, with the world outside, and with history are in the colonial period simply relations with food.” Fanon recognized that, for the colonized subject, existence itself is so threatened that every bit of food one can gain access to is “a victory felt as a triumph for life.” Unmediated access to food and the means to produce it are central tenets of Fanon’s anticolonial project. His insistence on the Africa of everyday places the emphasis on material conditions across Africa, both during the colonial period and afterwards. When he wrote that “Independence is not a word which can be used as an exorcism, but an indispensable condition for the existence of men and women who are truly liberated, in other words who are truly masters of all the material means which make possible the radical transformation of society,” it becomes clear that, for him, liberation is inextricably tied to people’s control of their own means of sustenance.

 

In Black Power, Stokley Carmichael (now Kwame Ture) and Charles V. Hamilton defined institutional racism in the United States as colonialism. Black Power was first published in 1967, but the segregated conditions and differentiated opportunities that they pointed out in the book remain in place in 2020. Legally-sanctioned lynchings of Black men and women based solely on phenotype continue, and the incarceration of African-Americans has increased exponentially. Currently in the US, there is a $24,000 wage disparity between the median income of all families and Black families, 46% of all the incarcerated in American prisons are African-Americans while African-Americans make up just 13.3% of the US population, 27% of all African-Americans live below the poverty level compared to just 11% of all Americans, and 38% of Black children live in poverty compared to 22% of all children in America. Carmichael and Hamilton’s observation of the conditions in Black America remain maddeningly relevant. African-Americans are still an internally colonized population, facing systemic injustice and state-sponsored violence and humiliation.

Access to foodstuffs is also unequal. Food activist Ron Finley points out that the lack of access to fresh food is commonplace in the predominately brown areas of the urban United States:

Food and foodways are archives. Through food and foodways one can access forgotten histories and lost connections.

Like 26.5 million other Americans, I live in a food desert: South Central Los Angeles– home of the drive-thru and the drive-by. Funny thing is the drive-thrus are killing more people than the drive-bys. People are dying of curable diseases in South Central Los Angeles.

This observation is even more powerful and poignant as the world deals with the coronavirus pandemic and the disparity between the infection’s rates in the Black community and the rest of the US population. Finley’s solution to the health crisis was to plant the strip of land between the sidewalk and the street in front of his house with vegetables and fruit trees. He was returning to the concept of the commons, shared space that nurtures the community. 

The commons, Leigh Brownhill notes, serve as sources of resistance and sustenance for colonized people. Through the collective action in creating and maintaining the commons, people also build organizational strategies to resist systemic violence and institutional racism:

The “gendered commons”… refer to places in the world where people live “in common” within elaborated subsistence relations. These “places” are sometimes understood legally as “commons,” trust lands, state land or lands with other similar formal designations. But often the gendered commons are built on private land, such as slums and in rural farmlands, where occupants do not have secure rights. That is, though occupants may not own the land, they do their best to collectively organize their security, the common use of resources and access to basic requirements.

Finley understands this lack of secure rights to commons, as he faced eviction from his rental property and the garden he had created in the yard and on the verge because an investment company wanted to sell the house for a substantial profit. While Finley was eventually able to purchase the home for himself, many others in the United States’ African-American community live under the constant threat of displacement.

There is a common thread regarding land running through the history of African-Americans on this continent. In 1619, the first African slaves arrived at the Jamestown colony, captured by English privateers of a Portuguese ship taking them to work on the plantations and in the mines in the Portuguese colony of Brazil. Instead, the Africans became indentured servants and slaves for the English colonists. Instead of working in the sugarcane fields, the Africans worked in the fields of Jamestown’s commodity crop, tobacco. By mid-century, slavery was the law of the land, and by the end of the century, anyone whose mother was Black was born into slavery, and no one who was Black could own livestock or land

 

The desire for African labor across the Eastern Seaboard of North, Central, and South America was matched by the desire for African farming technologies. The connections between rice cultivation in the Low Country of South Carolina and the Senegambia region of West Africa have been well documented in Karen Hess’s The Carolina Rice Kitchen: The African Connection (1992), Judith Carney’s Black Rice (2001), Edda Fields-Black’s Deep Roots: Rice Farmers in West Africa and the African Diaspora (2008), Carney and Richard Nicholas Rosomoff’s In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World (2009), and David S. Shield’s The Golden Seed (2010). As Judith Carney points out, the technology for rice cultivation in South Carolina came from enslaved farmers from the rice cultivation region that is now shared by Senegal, Gambia, and Sierra Leone, who were brought to the Americas for the express purpose of expanding rice cultivation.

African labor and technology created white wealth and white privilege. Slavery allowed for acts of philanthropy that resulted in the founding of institutions like Duke University and Rhode Island School of Design, which proceeded to accentuate that white privilege in education, jurisprudence, and the arts. Meanwhile, following the Civil War and Emancipation, white planters across the agrarian South developed systems designed to replicate slave labor “through vulnerable land tenure arrangements, perpetual indebtedness, and coercive violence.” [1]

 

African-American foodways were shaped by slavery and Jim Crow. In Building Houses of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power, Psyche A. Williams-Forson explores the complicated relationship between Black women and the yard bird:

[1] John J.Green, Eleanor M. Green, and Anna M. Kleiner, “From the Past to the Present: Agricultural Development and Black Farmers in the American South” in Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class, and Sustainability, Alison Hope Alkon and Julian Ageyman, eds. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011. 52.

Some women used chicken for economic freedom and independence; others used it to show off their cooking skills. Still others used chicken to travel at times when their own movement was restricted. That is, they metaphorically traveled by sending packed shoe-box lunches filled with chicken and other “goodies” when it was impossible for them to go. And still others shunned chicken completely for one reason or another. Examining chicken makes it possible for these previously unacknowledged aspects of black women’s lives and creative work to be revealed.

Food and foodways are archives, and by exploring these archives one can follow the attempts of men and women to gain access to all the material means which make possible the radical transformation of society. These food archives are not official records housed with the sanction of authority, but rather what Anthony Bogues calls the archive of the ordinary.” Through food and foodways one can access forgotten histories and lost connections. The etymology of “archive,” as Jacques Derrida reminds us, contains both a sense of beginnings and the exercise of authority. Through foodways one can map power and oppression. Fried chicken is more than a food; it reflects the history both of enslavement and of innovation in the African-American community. 

 

Paul Farmer writes that “Structural violence is violence exerted systematically—that is, indirectly— by everyone who belongs to a certain social order.” The structures of violence exerted against the African-American community in the United States have deep roots, stretching back to 1619. If we recognize those structures and study the ways they have often been entangled with the theft of the commons and the lack of access to food, then the burning of a local corner store during an uprising of righteous anger against violence perpetuated by law enforcement on Black individuals, while still tragic, is understandable.