Black Women’s Food Work is from the Future

Ashanté M. Reese, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Spelman College

 When I think about being a Black girl from the future, my mind goes to the contradiction that many Black girls and women encounter which is that we are often simultaneously hyper visible and invisible at the same time – Renina Jarmon

Black women are not seen as authorities in the kitchen or elsewhere in matters of food—culturally, politically, and socially—and when she dares to be, she may be described in reviews as “angry” or “not angry enough.” She is rendered absent, and made invisible by the continued salience of intersecting vectors of disempowerment: race/gender/class/sexuality. Or in the absolute worst cases she is confronted—face-to-face and in social media outlets—with a “how dare she” attitude because she does not, will not, cannot conform to a prescribed role of Black women who work with, as banal as it sounds, food (Nettles-Barcélon et al. 2015:35)

If there is to be a future where the food system is safe, equitable, and healthy how will we get there?

On March 30th, the newly launched Food Studies Program at Spelman College hosted a symposium on Food Justice featuring three Black women activists and scholars who work to improve the food system and health of communities in various parts of the country.  The symposium was clear in its purpose: to not only interrogate the successes and limits of food justice but to also highlight the work of Black women that is often invisible, ignored, or co-opted.

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Monica White, PhD in the field in Mississippi

I left the symposium feeling energized and challenged by the panelists and the audience. I also left with questions. How do we contend with the hypervisibility of Black women’s association with obesity on the one hand and the lack of visibility concerning Black women’s activist, artistic, and academic expertise in food production, preparation and writing on the other?  Nettles-Barcélon et al. provide a framework—Black women’s food work as critical space—for understanding how the future of the food system is deeply intertwined with the food work produced by Black women and the barriers that attempt to curtail that work. They argue that because Black women are positioned as both speakers for “the other” while also being Othered, their food work is not simply necessary but critical in the dismantling of an oppressive food system that consistently denies equal access to Othered bodies from which corporations profit.

From the scholarly world to on-the-ground organizing, Black women ask difficult questions, put their reputations and bodies on the line, and demonstrate a Black feminist food future attuned to a far-off world in which we are all free.  This future is currently being written in the scholarly works about Fannie Lou Hamer and the Freedom Farms Cooperative (White 2017), increasing visibility of Black women vegans outside the normative gaze (Harper 2010), and analyses of Black women’s agency, power and entrepreneurship in the context of stereotypes-turned-metaphors (Williams-Forson 2006). It is engaged with dismantling an unjust and unequal industrialized food system at the nexus of racial justice under the Movement for Black Lives. It is on the front lines on the Fight for $15. It is being built everyday on urban farms, in community gardens, in nonprofit organizations, and in classrooms where Black women’s labor contribute to everyday resistances.  It is present in intergenerational storytelling and cross-institutional relationship building. This work is generated from a simultaneous engagement with the past, the present, and a future where the dialectical hypervisibility and invisibility that Black women experience no longer exists.

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Community Member Supporting Urban Ag in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Ashanté Reese)

In the sixth episode of season two of the WGN series Underground, Harriet Tubman—played by Aisha Hinds—delivers a passionate, hour-long speech to abolitionists who are at odds about how to move forward on the question of eradicating slavery. After detailing parts of her own journey to freedom and commitment to others’ freedom, she declared:

There ain’t no negotiations on freedom. I spent all my time knowing things instead of believing them. And that’s the first step to being free. When you can see past all the things that you know and believe something better.

Black women’s food work is often informed by an embodied knowing that it is difficult—if not impossible—to negotiate from the duality of hypervisibility and invisibility. Instead, this food work is rooted in a belief in something beyond. It is not simply a substance of things hoped for or the evidence of things not seen (see Hebrews 11:1 for biblical reference). No. Black women’s food work is the critical space from which the world we want to see is being built.  Black women’s food work is, indeed, from the future.

 

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Filed under anthropology, feminism, food, food activism, food systems, foodways

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