Building Houses out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power

Building Houses out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power

Building Houses out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power

Building Houses out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power

Excerpt

My mother paid for this place with chicken legs.
—Isabella “Bella” Winston, Gordonsville, Virginia

When “Bella” Winston uttered the simple but profound statement that her mother purchased their home “with chicken legs,” she was describing the tenacious spirit of the women who served as “waiter carriers” for many years in Gordonsville, Virginia. Like her mother before her, Bella Winston learned the trade of selling chicken, hot biscuits, coffee, and other foodstuffs to hungry train passengers who were eager to purchase their goods when trains stopped in their rural town. The waiter carriers, like women in various churches, benevolent associations, and other community institutions who used chicken as a source of fund—raising, valued this object for its financial, cultural, spiritual, and communal importance.

The women of Gordonsville are all deceased. With them have gone many of the untold and unknown aspects of their lives in this area of trade. What remains, however, are the vibrant snatches of this narrative and a lone photograph that captures the women as they lifted food—laden trays to the windows of trains. The life experiences of the waiter carriers—Bella Winston; her mother, Maria Wallace; Laura Swift; Lucy Washington; Frances Taylor; Adeline Daniel; and Mary Vest—and countless African American women elsewhere offer narratives about women's uses of chicken that go well beyond eating.

Building Houses out of Chicken Legs examines the roles that chicken has played in the lives of black women from the past to the present. It is an inquiry into the ways black women shaped vital aspects of their lives with food. 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. It also allows for a stimulating story to unfold, a story of feminist consciousness, community building, cultural work . . .

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