Review: Black Food Geographies

Black Food Geographies

Black Food Geographies: Race, Self-Reliance and Food Access in Washington, D.C. By Ashanté M. Reese. 2019. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press. ISBN: 978-1-4696-5150-7. 184 pp.

Jennifer Jo Thompson (University of Georgia)

In 2016, I was on a AAA panel with Ashanté Reese that focused on Critical Food Systems Education (organized by Teresa Lloro-Bidart and David Meek). In that session, Reese discussed food studies education through the lens of critical race theory—drawing on the development of Spelman College’s food studies minor and its emphasis on the longstanding history of Black women’s foodways in the South as an opportunity to “disrupt the ways whiteness circulates as part of the dominant discourse on food studies at colleges and universities” (as she says in her abstract from that talk). Reese’s presentation came at just the right time for me, a white woman who was fairly new to teaching food systems courses at a predominantly white institution. Her critical, intersectional approach drove me to work harder to decolonize my syllabus and reject easy opportunities to simply “bring good food” to marginalized communities of color surrounding my institution.

I’ve had a similar experience reading Reese’s 2019 book, Black Food Geographies. The book has been on my ‘to read’ list since it came out a year ago, but it gained greater urgency over the course of many conversations reflecting on the murders of George Floyd, Brionna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many other Black men and women in recent years. This summer, as I turned my personal attention to deliberately reading books focused on racism, white supremacy, and white fragility, I also turned my academic attention to reading books by Black food activist-scholars: Monica White’s Freedom Farmers; Leah Penniman’s Farming While Black; and Reese’s Black Food Geographies.

In the Introduction, Reese frames her objective as “one that is deeply engaged with food inequities produced by anti-Black racism, but also connected with how and where Black people create food geographies within and in spite of it” (p. 3). Here, Reese taps into one of the key challenges—and contributions—of contemporary anthropology as a field, and ethnography as a practice: bringing a critical lens to social, political, and structural conditions by looking closely at that ways people exert agency in their daily lives. This is both an ethnographic and theoretical strength of Black Food Geographies, in which Reese, by her own description, “toggles between macro-level analyses of food apartheid and micro-level analyses of how residents [of the majority-Black Deanwood neighborhood of Washington D.C.] navigate the unequal food landscape” (p. 8).

Reese’s treatment of “self-reliance as agency” in the context of deep structural inequalities particularly stands out as an exemplar for anthropologists seeking to make sense of the relationship between critical theory and lived experience. Reese emphasizes that her focus on Black “geographies of self-reliance” shifts the analytical frame away from whitened food justice work and toward the agency, creativity, and resilience that Black communities bring to navigating inequitable food landscapes. She draws upon the long history of self-reliance at the core of Black liberation movements to demonstrate that this ethos goes far beyond “earning the respect of whites” (p. 10) to that of “commitment to ‘the self’ as both individual and communal” (p. 11). Yet, fundamentally, Black Food Geographies is grounded in the day-to-day experiences—and memories—of those inhabiting Deanwood’s food landscape. Through archival research, participant observation, surveys and interviews with Deanwood residents, Reese connects the systemic racism and structural violence shaping inequities in food system with residents’ dislike of their local Safeway and the work they take on to shop elsewhere (Ch. 2); their connection to a local Black-owned neighborhood market (Ch. 4); and their ownership of a community garden in a public housing complex slated for destruction (Ch. 5).

In Chapter 1, Reese uses historical and archival research to frame Deanwood’s food landscape and the role of self-reliance in the context of The Great Migration through the 1980s. She characterizes Deanwood as a place of opportunity and agency in the early twentieth century, where Black families could “[resist] racism through self-reliance” (p. 42) by cultivating the land, businesses, and social relations that nurtured individuals and the community as a whole. Reese also tracks the effects of the growth of national supermarket chains, which displaced small, Black and Jewish-owned grocers, and fundamentally transformed Deanwood’s food landscape in ways that reflect and reinscribe racial inequalities. 

Reese turns her attention in Chapter 2 to Deanwood residents’ experiences and critiques of the contemporary food landscape. The chapter is rich in the “contradictions born out of anti-Blackness” (p. 56) that permeate day-to-day life: residents’ frustration with the low-quality and poor choice available at their local Safeway; the fact that many residents shop there occasionally because of its proximity; the complex strategies residents employ to shop elsewhere; and the persistent discourses of personal responsibility surrounding these inequalities despite residents’ recognition of the ways that racism has shaped the food landscape.

Chapter 3 draws on Munoz’s (2017) concept of “productive nostalgia,” and Reese’s own “nostalgic imaginaries,” to examine the ways that Deanwood residents draw on collective memory, as well as “imagination, symbolism, and desire” (p. 90) to construct narratives about their preferred food landscapes rooted in values of community cohesion and self-reliance, and the “best of the past” (p. 90).

In Chapter 4, Reese examines the place Community Market occupies as “an icon, a symbol of the economic viability of Black-owned businesses” (p. 104) in Deanwood, and the role of its owner, Mr. Jones, as “a moral authority in the neighborhood” (p. 98). Drawing on her participant observation in the store, Reese describes the way Community Market and Mr. Jones provide a safe and caring space for both elders and the youth in Deanwood—occupying significant ground in the community’s social and moral economies, despite playing a limited role in residents’ actual food procurement practices.

Chapter 5 focuses on a community garden project as an “literal and symbolic spatial reflection of [residents] commitment to building a healthy community” (p. 129) in the context of gentrification and forced relocation. While the project began as part of a grassroots effort to address food insecurity, Reese makes clear that Deanwood gardeners “aimed to feed the soul a serving of hope with a side of self-reliance” (p. 130) as its own grassroots response to ongoing structural violence coming from policy-makers. 

Reese concludes the volume by reiterating her focus on “micro-level” neighborhood and individual experiences, priorities, and “quiet refusals” (p. 133) as a way to ground her critique of macro-level inequalities in the food system and beyond. So much of the academic literature focused on food elides or ignores the opinions and desires of poor people and people of color—and carries within it unspoken narratives about deservedness when it comes to agency, choice, and preference about where to shop and what to eat, as well as the right to healthy and high-quality food, that can be accessed with dignity and in a pleasant environment. In contrast, Reese honors the experiences, preferences, opinions, and agency of the Deanwood residents, and the heterogeneity of these attitudes, while also interrogating how agency is constrained by poverty, racism, and structural inequality.

For several years, I’ve looked to Reese’s work as a guidepost for how to engage thoughtfully and meaningfully around issues of food, race, and justice in my scholarship and my teaching. Her book, Black Food Geographies, provides an ethnographically-rich and theoretically-robust example of this.

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