October 17, 2021

Disclaimer: Transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.


Transcript: Cultural and Food MalPractice: Should Black Americans be Ashamed of Eating Chicken (Part 1) – Podcast 6


Dr. Psyche Williams-Forson is Professor and Chair of the Department of American Studies at University of Maryland College Park. She examines the lives of African Americans living in the United States from the late 19th century to the present. In addition to several journal articles and book chapters, her work on material culture and food has been published in her books Taking Food Public: Redefining Foodways in a Changing World and the award-winning Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, & Power. Her current book is on food shaming and race in America.

 Host : Charmaine Jones

So good morning Psyche.

How are you?

Special Guest: Dr. Psyche A. Williams-Forson

Good morning. Thank you very much for having me.

Host: Charmaine Jones 

No, thank you for joining us, I’m just going to cut to the chase and just actually start the interview. But before we start the conversation, I would love for you to tell us a little bit about yourself, your work, your work in the community, and what you are hoping to discuss with us today.

Special Guest: Dr. Psyche A. Williams-Forson   

Great, again, thank you all for having me on this morning. You know, I’m honored to be here to be able to share, you know, my work and some of my thoughts.

I’ve been studying food, and food culture since the mid to late 90s. I went to undergraduate studies at UVA (University of Virgina) in African American Studies, English, African American Studies in women’s studies. And never once did I, think anything at all about food.

My interest was in Black Women’s literature. And so, when I came out of there, I actually taught for a little while in a community college in the area of literature. It was when I moved to Connecticut, working as a resident director, assistant director of housing that I realized in helping other people that my own knowledge was limited around again, black women’s literature and just literature in general.

A lot of things were happening in food studies at that time. It has been accused of being scholarship light and had been dismissed primarily by the-by the Academy. And mostly throughout the world. People weren’t really studying food, even though you’ve had noted scholars and, and chefs and so forth who are women, but black women’s voices had by and large, been eclipsed. So that’s how I came to this, this this word.

So, ‘Building Houses out of Chicken Legs’ was my doctoral thesis, right. And as I said, though, I was reading a lot about what black people ate, in cookbooks and so forth. What, I wasn’t hearing is why those particular foods.  

I had the opportunity to work with noted Anthropologist Tony Whitehead. We worked on an article on soul food. And it was great, because I learned a lot about nutrition through an anthropological lens…and diet and foods that tended to be associated with black people…regionally, culinarily in terms of how it’s cooked, and so forth, how it seasoned.

But I still was not hearing black women’s voices. In 1999, I went to Oxford, Mississippi, and attended the first Southern food symposium.

That’s when I met Toni Tipton-Martin and Jessica Harris, in real time…Verta Mae Grosvenor. Just a host of other black women…Donna Battle, who is a journalist. And we were all very excited. I remember that Doris Witt was about to come out with her book ‘Black Hunger.’ And it was the study of basically African Americans fiction and food also around this time. Andrew Warren had written the book similar to Black Hunger, around black folks in starvation and wants in African American fiction.

So, these books had come out, but I still wasn’t hearing black women’s voices. I was hearing about black women, but I wanted to know what they were saying about African American food.

CoHost: Dr. Tia Jeffrey

Okay. I’d also like to interject how in your book described the process of how food was used as a necessity in many instances. In some instances, it was lack and others, as to piggyback on what you were saying about how certain parts of the food or the meat we weren’t allowed to have or our ancestors weren’t offered.

And so,  I just want to say that speaks volumes to what is going on right now. And that also speaks to the narrative that I find is very false narratives that I’ve heard about chicken in general, or soul food.  

Special Guest: Dr. Psyche A. Williams-Forson   

So, there’s a whole thread here from Building Houses out of Chicken legs to eating while Black, which says, you are inferior as a people, you are unable to police yourself, you are unable to regulate yourself. So, we must step in and regulate you. And we’re going to do that with policies. We’re going to do that with continued misinformation. We’re going to do that with things like soul food, it has been ruled Soul Food diets are bad or Southern food diets here coded as Black are bad, but a Mediterranean diet is good, right? And, so you get these sound bites that people hold on to, and they walk away with this overwhelming thought that soul food as Kimberly Nettles-Barcelon says “need saving.” And since their food needs saving, so do they.

So, if you think along those historical lines, two things happen, One, you can appreciate if your best effort is a container garden, or an egg crate that has dirt in it with a couple of herbs, because you understand scale, right? Not everything is big. Okay, that’s number one.

 If you also understand that history, then you will common sensical think I’m working all day, so while I’m down here, picking this cotton. If I come across some dandelion leaves, or whatever I may come across, I can pick those too.  I just found out the other day, I didn’t really realize you can cook squash leaves.  I have a squash vine growing in my grass and my neighbor came home and she’s like, oh, yeah, don’t get rid of the leaves, you can actually, clean those off and eat them, like other kinds of leaves.

And, so we forget about those elements of food leaves and berries and nuts, and acorns and chestnuts and stuff like that. If you are starving, why are you only going to rely upon what was given to you?

But that narrative of we come from scraps? Well, yes. And we also come from people who were the original farmers. So, you know, if we know how to fix scraps, then that means we also know how to eat vegetation. We can learn, because we were medicine doctors, we were healers, we were agriculturalists, we were botanists, and we were familiar with vintage culture. We knew how to make everything, okay, it may not have been everywhere, but we knew how to vend, we knew how to sell.

Host : Charmaine Jones   

So, do you think because black bodies are always shamed as a result, black people try to disassociate themselves from the culture. I think I asked that question with the “Bubbies.’ And I love the way you say, Bubbies is because it’s the black urban professionals today that tried to disassociate themselves from the black culture, trying to fit into this, I guess, white society, mainstream society, so they won’t be shamed, or they won’t get negatively associated with eating chicken or cultural foods that represent themselves.

Special Guest: Dr. Psyche A. Williams-Forson   

And so, we have always wanted to be seen as humans in the best possible light. So, when you think about our food histories, no doubt, this occurred during enslavement;  and as we comb the slave narratives and read them closely enough, I’m sure you can hear some different kinds {narratives such as}, ‘I was able to eat this way,’ ‘while these people ate that way’, so delineations it’s not just the house and the field, there were delineations within the house and within the field, right, because these, these again as a premise of supremacy also, however we can divide Black people, we can keep them at one another, so they cannot unify, to overthrow and to liberate, right? That is the whole premise of white supremacy.  So back to the food piece. Black folks have always tried to separate themselves from that, which was not going to be seen as positive. We’re like every other culture, you just don’t hear that part about us. Because again, we are reduced to this level of inferiority, we’re either this or that, as if we don’t have lives that also are contradictory and are okay to be contradictory.  So, coming out of enslavement during reconstruction, you had a whole group of hoteliers, and black owned businesses, and so forth, whose primary clientele were the elite, upper class, and white folks.

As I said, in Building Houses, chicken was not part of their repertoire, because they were eaten with hands, we need things, they’re going to represent a fineness, a sense of mastery of how to use fork and spoon because we forget, that was not something that was fundamental to our lives in existence, we had to be given those implements, or we had to make them.

Co-Host : Dr. Sapna Batheja  

Can I? I know I’m going a bit off script, Charmaine,  but I just want to make a comment before it escapes me. And I wanted to comment on something that you said in the beginning, when you got interested in this work of food studies, and you mentioned how you fell in love with the details that were provided by Pauline Hopkins and, you know, you’re speaking to a group of dietitians here,  who always get pegged as the Type A one to go digging for those details.

So, I just want to comment about how much is this resonates with all the work that we do with our patients and with our clients,  and how this actually goes hand in hand and why this work is so important for black women, black men, for any ethnicity, really, because all of these different things are going to impact how and why people eat which eventually that impacts health.

So,  it is so important this work and for people to be aware of this, that people I think today probably don’t even realize the history of why they’re eating the way they do.

It takes so much effort to bring awareness and education and to try to provide different stories around these foods. So,  I just want to say this is on point with dietitians and helps with everything that we’re trying to do. There’s not just one reason why we eat for energy, because there are so many reasons why we choose the food that we do.

Special Guest: Dr. Psyche A. Williams-Forson

Listen, as industrialization has taken up. It has both harmed and helped us. Segregation and integration has both harmed and helped us. We are a resilient people. As African Americans, we have contributed a great deal to American society. We’ve shown this now repeatedly in every area of our cultural expression, from language to music to food. When you start talking about today, here’s the thing- Soul food is a concept, right? Amiri Baraka, Leroy Jones was responding specifically to someone who said Black folks had no culture. We do. We have culture in our music, we have culture in our dance, we have culture in our clothing, we have culture in our hair styles, the myriad ways in which we perform hair. We have culture in our food, look at these foods right here and look at the way they taste and how they cook. That’s our soul right? And that soul is the element as the song says, keep on keepin on. That’s how we put things in there.  We cook by vibration, right? We don’t really measure. Not, that we don’t know how, because we were supreme chefs during the era of enslavement, right? So, we know how to measure, many of us, and some of us don’t, quite frankly, I have trouble with a pint. Okay, that’s not my area of skill.  I can’t really tell you what that looks like. I think I can, but I may not, but that’s okay.  What I can tell you is, I know how to season my greens and I don’t need to know what a pint of anything is because I’ve been cooking long enough. And I watched other people in my family cooked to know how  and I ask questions of how you cook a thing.

So ,when you start talking about soul food written off as bad, you fail to realize that we’re just talking about butter beans and corn. When, you know, some esteemed white chef adds cream to it, now it becomes creamed corn. But when a black person adds cream to it, it becomes unhealthy.

That’s part of the script. Okay, that’s number one. Number two, yes, uur communities are lacking in good food resources, “good thing” in quotes. who defines, ‘what’s good,’ only the people in that community. If you can go and watch chef, one of these many crazy chef shows and watch folks get food from the gas stations, and whip up all kinds of stuff, What makes you think that that stuff is new? What makes you think that’s a new idea? Why all the sudden, because we see it on the chef show, it’s supreme. But when black folks do it, you’re killing yourself.

Podcast #7: What is it about Black Bodies that Makes You Feel that We Need to Be Regulated and Policed”   

Will be available November 2021.