The United States is in the midst of a contemporary civil rights movement that heightens the cry for understanding “Black Lives Matter.” Daily, debates surge around whose lives matter most, all the while missing the point that black lives, lifeways, and existences are important enough to be labeled Black. Black Lives Matter is a phrase that emerged in the aftermath of the recent series of racial unrests occurring in the United States. Specifically, the slogan of #BlackLivesMatter came to define the incidents in Orlando, Florida and Ferguson, Missouri where unarmed African American teenagers, Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, respectively, were shot and killed by white representatives of law enforcement. This movement is dedicated to exposing the myriad African American—men, women, and children—who die at the hands of white state violence. Recently, I asked of several African American women food scholars what relevance conversations about food have to this important social movement. The resounding reply was “Everything.”
Food is and always has been at the center of our lives, despite how current discussions make it seem this is a recent phenomenon. Often, more important than what we consume is how our identities are tied to these foods. For African Americans in the United States, and black and brown people around the world, these foods are often associated with being unrefined, unsophisticated, and unwarranted of any attention. Consider, for example, that few—if any—African countries have their food cultures designated by UNESCO as “intangible cultural heritage.” This is in contrast to the foods and cuisines of Europe, the Middle East and Latin America. Societies, it seems are still affected by thought patterns that either consciously or unconsciously imbue White societies with positive characteristics (i.e., “progressive, active, smart, productive”) while Blacks are associated with the opposite qualities (“unenlightened, lazy, unintelligent, unproductive, and non-progressive”). From this perspective, it seems, the key is to control Black bodies.
Enter the discourse surrounding the “obesity epidemic.” Several scholars suggest that characterizing obesity as a disease is less about health and more about financial and political benefits to various industries, the medical profession and weight loss industry among them. Everything is deemed a disease! High blood pressure is characterized as hypertension; malaise is depression, unruliness is attention deficit disorder, a low sex drive is erectile dysfunction; and, being overweight is obesity. In a society where thinness is seen as a measure of self-control, the opposite is interpreted as a lack of restraint. Out of control bodies are read as morally weak. And when you combine these ideologies with racial signifiers, the result is public opinions that correlate being overweight with being lazy, undisciplined, and morally bankrupt.
In responding to the early 20th-century question “How does it feel to be a problem?” asked by scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois, Ronald Jackson rightly explains, “Black bodies were inscribed with a set of meanings, which helped to perpetuate the scripter’s racial ideology. Through these scripts, race gradually became its own corporeal politics.” As I highlight in Building Houses out of Chicken Legs; Black Women, Food, and Power, these “scripts” extended to cultural products like food. Stereotypes and images that sought to denigrate African American men, women, and children using foods such as chicken and watermelon that were—and continue to be—pervasive, perpetrated in large part through popular culture. As Jackson explains, these narratives that socially assigned Black bodies to an “underclass” had their origins in the institutions of “slavery and the mass media.” Today, this includes social media and its ability to reach a vast audience with haste.
For instance, when President Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008, social media witnessed a firestorm of stereotypes using chicken and watermelon. For many African Americans the implications were immediate and clear.. In 2009, the mayor of Los Alamitos, California sent out an e-mail depicting the South Lawn of the White House planted with watermelons instead of the decorations that normally adorned the grass in preparation for the annual Easter Egg Roll. The title accompanied the post read “No Easter egg hunt this year.” The incident was widely discussed on social media.
What these scripts reveal is that Black bodies in the United States, are inscribed with and socially constructed by race meanings and representations, thus rendering them politicized in their apparent difference. These bodies in their visual and cultural difference have been deemed insufficient, incapable, inferior, and unruly. From slavery to the present, representatives of state power—slavemasters, police, and other representatives of the state imbued with authority to regulate behaviors and enforce order—have sought to control African American minds, bodies, and spirits.
African American cultural expression—food, dance, language, clothing—is often considered outside the bounds of civility and morality and thus in need of regulating by the state.
From this standpoint, rather than being seen as resilient always already resisting trauma, black bodies are devalued and read as “unruly,” always in need of taming and controlling; an ideology not far removed from a master/slave mentality. It is these perceptions that fuel beliefs that wholeness and health are not in the interest of Black communities. These misguided beliefs, propelled in no small part by the surveillance of black bodies, lead to a constant reading of African American communities as always lacking, no matter how microscopic the differences might be. For instance, it is not that African Americans dislike exercise but when we are not seen working out in the right places, in the right gear, or in large numbers, then it is assumed we do not care about fitness. When our bodies are saddled with extra fat and/or dis-ease exacerbated by the vicissitudes of life and the myriad systemic inequalities, it is our kitchens that are perceived to be unhealthy. And when we present ourselves as food professionals, we are shorthanded as only capable of creating and consuming what is called “soul food.” Thus, we are always already condemned by virtue of our histories, as if we are a monolithic, one-dimensional, community of people, disallowed any complexities.
Black lives do matter and the food conversations are a central part of this dialogue; we would be remiss to think anything else.