Review: Black Food Matters

Hanna Garth and Ashanté M. Reese, eds. Black Food Matters: Racial Justice in the Wake of Food Justice. University of Minnesota Press. Minneapolis. 2020. ISBN: 978-1-5179-0814-0. pp. 302.

Jennifer Jo Thompson (University of Georgia)

Published in 2020, Black Food Matters is an edited collection of chapters that explicitly center Black ways of knowing and Black food culture as a means of countering systemic anti-Blackness in the food system (and beyond). The volume is an outgrowth of AAA panels in 2015 and 2017, and a collaborative workshop held at UC-San Diego in 2018 with several of the authors.

In their Introduction, editors Ashanté M. Reese and Hanna Garth argue that their task is clear, “it is not enough to simply examine race in the food system. We must also consider how the food system is part of larger structures that, by design, were never created for Black survival” (p. 3). The chapters that follow refuse to settle for narratives that evoke deficit or lack in the lives or communities of Black people. Rather, drawing on a Black feminist approach, the chapters counter extractive, colonialist approaches to research, and provide models for collaboration and engagement with communities. They offer “seedlings of resistance and refusal” (p. 3)—by focusing on self-determination and fugitivity (which the authors define as “an ongoing refusal to accept standards imposed from elsewhere” [p.9]) as modes of activism, centering Black food culture as a vibrant cultural and social resource, and calling out its appropriation and commodification by dominant groups.

Several chapters examine the consequences of gentrification and the cultural appropriation of Black food culture. Reese contributes the first chapter, which focuses on Black mobile food entrepreneurs in Washington, D.C., as “examples of the creative, everyday maneuvering” (p. 44) that challenge anti-Blackness and enact Black agency in a gentrifying city.

In chapters set forty years apart, Billy Hall and Judith Williams each examine gentrification and cultural appropriation of Black food cultures in Miami. Hall examines contemporary “redevelopment” efforts targeting the historically Black Overtown community as a site for Black “heritage tourism”—a strategy that “celebrates Black cultural achievement during Jim Crow while ignoring, silencing, and erasing a more recent history of struggle in the wake of urban renewal, economic decline, and institutional neglect” (p. 172). According to Hall, this approach simultaneously commodifies whitened ideals of Black creativity and resilience, while marginalizing local residents and businesses that do not conform to this ideal.

In an auto-ethnographic chapter, Williams focuses on the commodification of Latin American and Afro-Caribbean cuisine in the 1980s by the “Mango Gang”—a group of white, male chefs who became known for the “discovery” of so-called “New World Cuisine.” Williams examines how these chefs drew upon their “invisible authority,” culinary capital, and structural advantage “to boldly appropriate, and then declare themselves authorities on” this cuisine, in ways that also allowed them to exploit, and profit from, the knowledge and labor of immigrant food service workers. (p. 272-3).

Kimberly Kasper draws on her experience teaching a community-based research course, to examine “historicity, materialities, and symbolism” of Memphis barbecue (p. 182). Kasper’s chapter, like those from Hall and Williams, highlights cultural appropriation, displacement, and the erasure of Black knowledge and experience—even as Memphis barbecue emerges as “a tool of culture, economic and political unity and resistance in the region” (p 183).

Another set of chapters focuses on practices of Black agency and self-determination in the face of political inequalities and injustices in the food system. Andrew Newman and Yunson Jung investigate moral economies of food provisioning in the city of Detroit. Troubling the usual focus on “food access,” by unpacking “the other meaning-laden aspects of food provisioning in daily life” (p. 133), this chapter echoes themes in Reese’s book, Black Food Geographies—specifically, consumers’ focus on food quality over mere access, and their insistence that selling low quality food signals disrespect for the community and is fundamentally a manifestation of a “racist, immoral economy” (p. 140).

Also grounded in the city of Detroit, Monica M. White’s chapter draws on an ecofeminist perspective to examine Black women’s urban gardening as practices of activism and resistance. In the wake of generations of racial discrimination and political disregard, “gardening becomes an act of political agency and empowerment” (p. 215). Through the ecofeminist lens, White pushes back on “the assumption that African Americans avoid farming as a result of the historical memory of slavery and sharecropping” to argue that these Black women activists are reclaiming gardening “and creating spaces that are cathartic, political, and liberatory” (p. 220).

In a similar vein, Gillian Richards-Greaves’ chapter focuses on food production and food sharing as “a principal strategy of resistance” (p. 75) in the Gullah-Geechee community of Cool Spring, SC, where histories of racialized violence and inequality have bred deep distrust in reliance on political systems.

A final set of chapters critically examines how organizations and institutions serve as sites for reinforcing or resisting anti-Blackness in the food system. Analena Hope Hassberg’s chapter focuses on the Black Panther Party’s feeding programs—examining the way these programs nurtured both bodies and a “revolutionary consciousness” (p. 89). Among other things, Hassberg sheds important light on FBI efforts to undermine the Panther’s work by seeding false rumors of poisoned food in their school breakfast programs, and the way the expansion of school feeding programs “functioned to usurp and co-opt the Panther food programs” (p. 91).

Analyzing the work of food justice organizations in Los Angeles, Hanna Garth levels an important critique: well-intentioned as they may be, too many food justice organizations are “steeped in paternalistic, white supremacist, and anti-Black ideologies” (p. 124) that undermine the communities they aim to serve by devaluing culturally-meaningful food practices while promoting whitened logics of health and nutrition.

Willie J. Wright, Tyler McCreary, Brian Williams, and Adam Bledsoe examine the Pigford et al. v. Glickman class-action lawsuits, which sought justice for decades of discrimination by USDA representatives that led to severe land dispossession for Black farmers. The authors draw on Indigenous critiques of the politics of recognition to reject individualized financial compensation as a sufficient response to this systematic injustice. Rather, they argue for “a unique agrarian politics of difference” that “might draw inspiration from collective attempts at spatial autonomy and economic self-determination”—including the long history of Black agricultural cooperatives (p. 244).

The volume concludes with an Afterword by Psyche Williams-Forson, who draws on W.E.B. DuBois’s enduring question, “How does it feel to be a problem?” to frame this collection, and the community-based work that underpins it, as part of the “ongoing, necessary work of liberation: liberatory food work” (p. 282).

Black Food Matters should instantly become required reading for anthropologists and geographers of food, and those teaching/taking food studies courses. While a few articles may be challenging for undergraduates, I have no doubt they’d be accessible with context and discussion. I’ll be teaching from it next week—and for years to come.

(As a companion piece, check out The Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition’s Black Food Matters Panel at the AAA’s 2020 Raising Our Voices meeting, which included reading and discussion among Garth, Reese, Williams, and Richards-Greaves.)

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