Academic journal article MELUS

Ebony Jr! and "Soul Food": The Construction of Middle-Class African American Identity through the Use of Traditional Southern Foodways

Academic journal article MELUS

Ebony Jr! and "Soul Food": The Construction of Middle-Class African American Identity through the Use of Traditional Southern Foodways

Article excerpt

During the post-World War II era the United States saw an unprecedented expansion of the black middle class and a new level of black middle-class prosperity. Yet this expansion led many to question what constituted "authentic" blackness. E. Franklin Frazier's unflattering portrayal of the black middle class in Black Bourgeoisie (1957), for example, attacked the black middle class as assimilationist. In the 1960s and the 1970s the Black Arts Movement, from which the black aesthetic arose, redefined black art by designating the black community as its audience, as opposed to art which was more committed to the struggle for human and civil rights and for interracial relations. Hostile to the assimilationist tendencies of the black middle class, the Black Arts Movement sought to shatter middle-class decorum and help black people, in the words of Addison Gayle, break out of the "polluted mainstream of Americanism" (xxii).

The black middle class responded to these cultural developments in numerous ways, attempting to create a strong sense of self-definition through art, politics, and, most relevant to this essay, food. Not only were systems such as art and politics evaluated and redefined, but also included in this redefinition was the human body and everything associated with it, including food consumption. According to William Van Deburg, the concept of "soul [that arose in the 1960s] was the folk equivalent of the black aesthetic. [As the essence of black culture], soul was closely related to black America's need for individual and group definition" (195). In its culinary incarnation, "soul food" was associated with a shared history of oppression and inculcated, by some, with cultural pride. Soul food was eaten by the bondsmen. It was also the food former slaves incorporated into their diet after emancipation. Therefore, during the 1960s, middle-class blacks used their reported consumption of soul food to distance themselves from the values of the white middle class, to define themselves ethnically, and to align themselves with lower-class blacks. Irrespective of political affiliation or social class, the definition of "blackness," or "soul," became part of everyday discourse in the black community.

Foodways and African American Identity

Factors such as a common culture, history, and civic ideology contribute to the creation of a group-based identity. According to Claude Fischler, "Food is central to our sense of identity. The way any given human group eats helps to assert its diversity [and] hierarchy ... and at the same time, both its oneness and the otherness of whoever eats differently" (275). And since meaning is attached to the separation of the culinary habits of various groups, food is also used to differentiate among groups. Foodways become "associated with nearly every dimension of human social and cultural life" (Gabaccia 8). Specific foods become entwined with holidays, group history, and the health of the community. According to cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead, how adults teach children to eat plays an important role in the production and reproduction of food moralities (227-28). Foodways and identity intersect, as does the power relationship between adults and children. Either explicitly and consciously or implicitly and unconsciously, adults teach children foodways that are often associated with their ethnic identity.

A term coined in the North, "soul food," was part of a self-defining discourse of the 1960s and 1970s. Some commentators, such as Amiri Baraka (then known as LeRoi Jones) "began valorizing it as an expression of pride in the cultural forms created from and articulated through a history of black oppression" (Witt 80). Scholars define soul food in terms of three attributes: a connection to Africa and the diet of enslaved blacks, something inherent in the black body, and a tool to define a black identity (Baraka, Van Deburg, Witt). Van Deburg states that soul food originated in Western Africa and was transported to the American South with the slave trade (203). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.