Black Hunger: Food and the Politics of U.S. Identity

Black Hunger: Food and the Politics of U.S. Identity

Black Hunger: Food and the Politics of U.S. Identity

Black Hunger: Food and the Politics of U.S. Identity

Synopsis

The creation of the Aunt Jemima trademark from an 1889 vaudeville performance of a play called "The Emigrant" helped codify a pervasive connection between African American women and food. In Black Hunger, Doris Witt demonstrates how this connection has operated as a central structuring dynamic of twentieth-century U.S. psychic, cultural, sociopolitical, and economic life. Taking as her focus the tumultuous era of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when soul food emerged as a pivotal emblem of white radical chic and black bourgeois authenticity, Witt explores how this interracial celebration of previously stigmatized foods such as chitterlings and watermelon was linked to the contemporaneous vilification of black women as slave mothers. By positioning African American women at the nexus of debates over domestic servants, black culinary history, and white female body politics, Black Hunger demonstrates why the ongoing narrative of white fascination with blackness demands increased attention to the internal dynamics of sexuality, gender, class, and religion in African American culture. Witt draws on recent work in social history and cultural studies to argue for food as an interpretive paradigm which can challenge the privileging of music in scholarship on African American culture, destabilize constrictive disciplinary boundaries in the academy, and enhance our understanding of how individual and collective identities are established.

Excerpt

"Integration has its drawbacks" I said.

"It do," confirmed Simple. "You heard, didn't you, about that old colored lady in Washington who went downtown one day to a fine white restaurant to test out integration? Well, this old lady decided to see for herself if what she heard was true about these restaurants, and if white folks were really ready for democracy. So down on Pennsylvania Avenue she went and picked herself out this nice-looking used-to-be- all-white restaurant to go in and order herself a meal."

"Good for her," I said.

"But dig what happened when she set down," said Simple. "No trouble, everybody nice. When the white waiter come up to her table to take her order, the colored old lady says, 'Son, I'll have collard greens and ham hocks, if you please.'

"'Sorry,' says the waiter. 'We don't have that on the menu.'

"'Then how about black-eyed peas and pig tails?' says the old lady.

"'That we don't have on the menu either,' says the white waiter.

"'Then chitterlings,' says the old lady, 'just plain chitterlings.'

"The waiter said, 'Madam, I never heard of chitterlings.'

"'Son,' said the old lady, 'ain't you got no kind of soul food at all?'

"'Soul food? What is that?' asked the puzzled waiter.

"'I knowed you-all wasn't ready for integration,' sighed the old lady sadly as she rose and headed toward the door. 'I just knowed you white folks wasn't ready.'"

Langston Hughes, "Soul Food," 1965

April 1997 witnessed the victory of rookie golf professional Eldrick "Tiger" Woods at the U.S. Masters tournament in Augusta, Georgia. Even before Woods had a chance to accept the green jacket bestowed yearly upon the otherwise fortunate winner, veteran player Fuzzy Zoeller offered his sport's heir apparent some unsolicited advice about how to supervise the menu for the championship dinner: "That little boy is driving well. . . . You pat him on the back . . . and tell him not to serve fried chicken next year. Got it? . . . Or collard greens or whatever the hell . . .

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