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Eating While Black

by Psyche Williams-Forson, Tressie McMillan Cottom

Psyche Williams-Forson and Tressie McMillan Cottom sat down at the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History on November 9, 2022, to discuss Williams-Forson’s new book, Eating While Black: Food Shaming and Race in America. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for publication.

Tressie McMillan Cottom: I have to tell you. My family is from Eastern North Carolina, which is rural. And I get about a chapter into your book when you are telling a story that sent me home—not just to a place, but to the idea. My great-grandmother used to say, about leaving the rural South, that you could be poor in the North. You could be poor in the South in the country, but you couldn’t be hungry. Country poor was different than city poor because we did not go hungry.

Psyche Williams-Forson: That’s right.

TMC: Because we had a little bit of land, we could grow our food. We could do small homesteading.

PWF: And you have neighbors.

TMC: Right. Then I grew up, and people thought it was a shameful thing to do. Growing your own food became associated with labor. One of the things that I never wanted to let go of, however, was the fact that my people had not been hungry and they were proud of that.

Psyche Williams-Forson: That’s right.

TCM: You start with a story about being in this room with people who are performing different things, and shame emerges in some interesting places in that room. What’s the role that shame has in these spaces where we are too ashamed to talk about what food means to us?

PWF: I think Black people have for too long been denied the richness of our culture. We know that. We know it permeates every aspect, from our hair to our clothing, our music, all of the cultural expression. Food does not escape that paradigm. And so it’s very easy for us to feel shame because of our connection to the land and because so much of what we think we know about our connections to the land is totally and intricately tied to enslavement.

TMC: One of the things that you explore early on, which felt very present tense, is that this is a transcultural experience. The South Asian women who came forward, how deeply ashamed they were to take their food to lunch or how they were shamed at work when they would reheat their leftovers from home in the work cafeteria, or how they wouldn’t invite their friends over to their home from the school. So this is a transcultural experience.

PWF: Yes, absolutely.

TMC: But the Black experience within that is very specific, and it is across class and across geography, which are these narratives that you start talking about. So even if we do accept that we ate “slave food,” our picture of what that diet looked like is very wrong and very limited, right?

PWF: Yes.

TMC: Can we explode the idea of what real food of enslaved people looked like?

PWF: Sure. One of the things I explore in my first book is the prevalence of Black people’s interaction with chicken going back to the 1400s. And we’re not talking about chicken you can get from Safeway or Giant; we’re talking about birds that roam. You had all kinds of birds and all kinds of berries and nuts. And one of the things I try to help people to see is that Black people are agriculturalists. We came to this country particularly because of our knowledge. Because folks have to remember enslavement was about race, but it was an economic system and it was about labor, our labor, free labor, and the ability to exploit that. You mean to tell me we don’t have a wherewithal to go out and pick pokeweed and . . .

TMC: Peas and greens.

PWF: Peas and greens, yeah. Of course, we did. Acorns and chestnuts and you name it. And when we did the WPA narratives, two centuries later, we weren’t necessarily going to tell you everything we did for survival because some of those practices we were still going. Black folks are not dumb. Let’s be clear. We know how to live off the land. We know how to do that, right? And we know how to teach it to others. So that becomes very important, but that’s a part of our historical narrative that is kept from us.

TMC: What isn’t kept from us, I feel like, are the stereotypes and the ideologies, narratives that say not only did we inherit the poor diet of enslaved people, but we inherited the unruly bodies that came with this.

PWF: We have these narratives in society that do everything except celebrate who we are, right? And we have bought into them. We don’t take joy in the fact that we can cook. Why not allow us to celebrate that which is a part of our power and helps to constitute who we are? Obesity, for example, comes from a lot of different things. If you think it’s obesity that’s killing us, then I think we all need to revisit a number of different narratives. Because in the long list of things that could kill us in this country, food is really very much at the bottom. And so I need for us to realize how that narrative prevents us from really engaging in who we are and the joy that resonates through the foods we cook, the stories we tell, the fellowship that we engage in, all of that. And part of that narrative is to keep us bound, conflicted, constricted, depressed, oppressed, repressed, all of that, right? It’s part of the cultural narrative that I’m working against when I talk about a system of anti-Black racism.

TMC: That’s right. Over the last 20, 30 years, we’ve had these movements in foodyism, this explosive culture around food. You think about how chefs have become celebrities. Or how community food people have become local celebrities and political actors because they have an urban garden. They’re going to expose this side of town to this way of eating and change the way people have a relationship with food. And some of that is extremely well-intentioned. But I would be remiss if I didn’t look across that big foodie landscape and see that the knowledge of the people who are known for doing the cooking and people who seem to get credit for it diverge, we shall say. So what are your thoughts on how our talent gets separated from our people?

PWF: I study the material culture of Black people’s lives, the stories that haven’t been told. As I was traveling the country giving lectures, people were always coming up to help me figure out how to get people to eat whole and clean. They were like, “Well, how do we get people to eat clean?” I was like, “Well, do I eat dirty? What does that mean?”

TMC: Exactly.

PWF: And I would say to people, “Why do you think you need to go into a Black community and help them to grow a garden?” You’re talking to the original gardeners, some of the original gardeners along with Indigenous peoples, right? Native people. And then I had one person say, “Well, the closest you can get to heaven is growing your own food.” And I said, “For whom?” Because land and disenfranchisement is not the same for everybody. So much of this is not about Black people. It’s about the intentions of folks to feel good and moral and ethical in a way that is tangible, or they feel is tangible. It’s about saving Black people. But we don’t need saving. We do just fine. We’ve been doing just fine all our lives. I don’t care what we’re doing. We’re doing just fine. We don’t need saving. In conversations with my editor, Elaine Maisner, I said I had a number of different stories that I wanted to share, but I kept trying to come at this story with these overarching things and I said, “Well, let me change this. Let me start with the story and build out the story. Can’t go wrong with the story.”

People were always coming up to help me figure out how to get people to eat whole and clean. They were like, “Well, how do we get people to eat clean?” I was like, “Well, do I eat dirty? What does that mean?”

TMC: That’s right.

PWF: And as I started looking at the story, it became clear to me that the throughline was really one of anti-Black racism, quite frankly. And it was the ways in which Black people also have bought into that narrative. One of the most powerful stories for me was a lecture at the University of Maryland. The Super Size Me guy was there, and he kept saying in his remarks, “Well, the whole key is to just eat local.” But there are problems with repeatedly telling people to eat local. You move away from a whole community of folks, immigrants, folks, people for whom local food is unaffordable—

TMC: Or hostile to them.

PWF: Or hostile to them. And at the end of his lecture, two, three Black women got up to the mic. They wanted to share with him their experience of changing their diets. One was like, “Oh, I stopped drinking milkshakes, which was my favorite.” And after about the second one, he was like, “Wow, that’s an extreme reaction.” And I thought: These women are seeking validation in a place that isn’t designed to validate them.

TMC: Yeah. That was hard reading because I understood what was motivating them. But I wanted to say, “Do you see the room you’re in? What happened to your sense of safety?”

PWF: Right. But they felt they were safe. They didn’t realize that food is complex and food is multilayered and food is problematic and food is dangerous and food is piercing. It is not only this wholesome, celebratory set of objects that we can sit around and enjoy, as if food is not laden with all kinds of power. And that was a power moment because he could have validated them.

TMC: That’s right.

PWF: I say in the book, as Melissa Harris-Perry gives the example, they’re in the crooked room sitting in the crooked chair and they’re trying to balance on this chair, but the room is crooked. And they don’t realize it’s not the chair that you’re trying to right; it’s the room that’s always going to be crooked. So you’ll never be able to right the chair in the crooked room. No matter how much you try to seek validation, it’s not coming from that source.

TMC: That’s right.

PWF: So you’ve got to look within and be okay with whatever decisions you make about food or anything else, right? So I sat there in the audience and I was like, “Wow, I felt bad for those sisters.” I really did. Because I saw them seeking again for some approval. And I was like, “You don’t need it from him.” And then he went on to say, “I don’t eat clean, I eat ethically. I eat burgers and so forth, but I eat from places that have fair labor practices.” So do I.

TMC: Yeah. Me too.

PWF: So that was a very disappointing experience. And I saw it play out at the museum experience I had in Philadelphia, where we all had this four-course vegan meal, and at the end, the chef made these greens. But the part that I remembered [in the book] was that a woman asked the chef, “Oh my god, how can I do this? Because my mother-in-law’s always cooking these greens with pork on Sunday morning.”

TMC: Her mother-in-law’s greens sounded good.

PWF: Her mother-in-law’s green sounded the bomb. I was like, “No, no. Sunday morning, too, before church? She’s putting her foot in those greens.” And so she went on to ask the chef, “Please tell me.” And he said, “Well, first of all, those aren’t just collard greens.” And he went on to list about six different types of greens that were in that pot. But then, most importantly, he said, “And I soaked them overnight in black truffles.”

TMC: So see, I don’t actually think a truffle goes with a sharp spicy green. I wanted to ask you if those were even good.

PWF: They were soft. But I was like, I can tell you how to make them soft. My aunt used to say, “Put a little teaspoon of baking soda to break it down.” You don’t have to use a truffle. And he told her, “They’re expensive.” He had to go in the back and get it to even show them what a truffle was. Meanwhile, she had thrown her mother-in-law under the bus for something she couldn’t even obtain. And so I’m like, “At what cost?” We bought into this narrative that somehow this is better than what you are doing. You can do whatever you want, but you don’t have to totally overthrow who you are in a fundamental way or what helps to constitute who you are for something that you can’t even obtain. And that to me, once again, was the perfect example of sitting on the crooked chair in the crooked room and thinking you can write your own identity by straightening up the chair, not realizing you’re on a tilted wheel of what happened.

TMC: So when we are on the tilted wheel, because again, I’m empathetic, right? There are a lot of pressures when you’re in this room.

PWF: Absolutely.

TMC: And we don’t all get there with the same love, care, investment in us when we arrive. And so some of these were just painful for me to read because I understood what was motivating them. That’s a lot of trauma. But I did think about our Black students. So often they are asking us, “How do I right the chair?”

PWF: That’s right.

TMC: And it is tough.

PWF: It’s very tough.

TMC: What do you tell them when they come to you in these moments? How do we not seek this validation? Especially if you’re still working through your own stuff.

PWF: I wrote this book when I was seeking the next step in promotion in the academy. That’s what I think. You understand?

TMC: Yes.

PWF: So I absolutely understand that. But at the same time, as much as there’s something I was trying to obtain, I learned a long time ago I cannot give my soul in the service of validation by an institution that will never see me. That’s who I am. They’ll never see me. So I wrote this book for my child. I wrote this book for my family. I wrote this book for the numerous Black people out there who I hope will read it and see themselves and understand the value and the beauty of telling your story and of recognizing that no matter what you practice culturally, it’s all right, and that they should reclaim some measure of joy.

When I wrote this story about my daughter and all the other young children being told, “Some of you are going to die from obesity,” because they have hips and breasts and butts in elementary school, I had to find a way to help my child heal that trauma because she’s a young Black girl in a majority Black county in Maryland, and to be in a situation where she has to stand on a scale in the presence of other children, and then the teacher reads their weight out loud and then says to the mass of them, “Some of you are going to die.” I had to figure out a way to heal her trauma.

For the young lady who I talk about, Latricia Avery, who the Washington Post all but eviscerated under the guise of talking about obesity. I had to write this book for her because I felt her trauma and her pain. I wrote this book for people like that in hopes that one day they may read it or hear about it and understand it’s okay to be Black in America. I dare say it’s not only okay; it’s good to be Black.

Eating in the Meantime: Expanding African American Food Stories in a Changing Food World

An excerpt from Eating While Black (UNC Press, 2022)
by Psyche Williams-Forson

I was at a seminar on the intersection of health, diet, and culture for African Americans when one of the speakers mentioned that some of the elderly clients that visit her service center do not take their medication because they do not have food. The costs of health care and prescriptions make it almost impossible, at times, for elders to the afford both, and by the middle of every month they are in a quandary and must make difficult choices. These are hard decisions to make at any time, and certainly at the end of one’s life cycle. Around the same time as the presentation, I had been working for some time on a theory about shopping at dollar stores, so the co-panelist’s information resonated very strongly with me. It was my hope to include the essay in my coedited publication Taking Food Public: Redefining Foodways in a Changing World, but my arguments just were not hanging together as I would have liked. I spoke to a colleague about the article and shared my thoughts; while she was encouraging, she also cautioned me that some food products in the dollar store are expired and/or imported and thus maybe would not be the best source of nourishment. The comments of my co-panelists, however, rapidly brought my attention back to the argument that budget stores might be a useful option for people to consider for a number of different reasons, from convenience to economics, accessibility to creativity.

It was a subtle change, this expansion into food products. And yet it was a change that was both welcoming and troubling.

When my daughter was in elementary school, it seemed we were always attending birthday parties or holding celebrations of one kind or another. In the absence of a party-supply store, the local Dollar Tree became my go-to place to shop. It had everything: seasonal decorations, gift bags, crafts, paper goods, school supplies, bleach, and other miscellany for my household. From a budgetary perspective, I could maximize my shopping in one stop—I could get twenty items for just over twenty dollars. Over time, this local value mart began to make the one-stop shopping experience even more convenient by expanding their line to include food products such as bottled water and a host of dry goods. It was a subtle change, this expansion into food products. And yet it was a change that was both welcoming and troubling. As a wife and mother, it could make my often-tedious errand runs relatively shorter. As a food scholar, however, it made me ask, Who buys food from the dollar store? As I noticed the inventory increase to include such as items as wheat bread, bagels, and English muffins, I also noticed the installation of refrigeration. The next thing I knew, the dollar store was offering everything from turkey bacon to eggs, cheese, and frozen vegetables. My curiosity was heightened, and the question began to resound even more loudly: Who is buying food from the dollar store?1 

More to the point of this discussion, why had no one considered the role of the value market as an immediate option for getting food? At a time of rapidly changing sources of food supply (and demand), how are these stores being used to reduce dimensions of food insecurity? And thinking more broadly, I began to wonder what other venues could enable people to purchase food economically, especially when everyone was decrying food deserts, far and wide. Why was the local budget store not an option? These questions led me to consider how we can empower people to eat and live how they want and need to without imposing shame or policing them. Using two distinct venues that are most likely considered polar opposites of health—budget stores (that is, dollar stores, bodegas, corner markets, convenience stores, fast-food outlets) and farmers markets—this chapter is designed to encourage readers to consider a variety of stores, markets, and networks. These food spaces can challenge how we think about accessing food and also can allow people to exercise food choices without making them feel bad about their decisions. And lastly, this discussion hopes to broaden the conversation about a topic that is polarizing, because it assumes an either/or option or what philosopher Lisa Heldke refers as a “paper or plastic” mentality.

Growing up, Pennsylvania native Elizabeth Fisher was one of five kids in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania. Because there were constantly growing children, her family would frequent thrift shops. So she grew up appreciating the bargains available at stores that some might have considered unconventional. This conscientious frugality extends to food products for Fisher. It is not surprising then, that as she cares for her eighty-eight-year-old mother Fisher turns again to an alternative store for food products. In an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer, Fisher tells Annette John-Hall, “My friends used to make fun of me all the time, but it was OK. Those places were like my Neiman Marcus.”

A friend confirms this longstanding practice of Fisher’s when she says, “Whether it was clothes or items for the house, Fisher had a knack for making her things ‘frugally fly.’” According to the Inquirer article, Fisher uses the ingredients she purchases from the dollar store to create “gourmet meals” and shares her knowledge in a cookbook titled Dining with the Dollar Diva: Divalicious Menus with Ingredients Costing $1 or Less.

It was affirming to realize that at least one other person found the dollar store to be a place from which they could get food. For Fisher, this is especially important, because she is able to help her aged mother by picking up goods at the local Dollar Tree. Fisher indicates that while shopping for placemats and glasses, she also picks up dry good ingredients that she combines with leftovers from her mother’s refrigerator. One of Fisher’s main meals is Salisbury steak, with creamed spinach, macaroni and cheese, and tea biscuits. According to Fisher, the meal “pays homage to family sojourns to the old Horn & Hardart Automats in West Philly, those giant vending machines where you’d pull the food out of the glass mail slots.” Fisher’s respect for the automat foods of West Philly speaks to another kind of culinary cultural tradition—the foods of our youth. Sometimes we want to recreate the foods that we grew up eating because they bring us comfort. Fisher is able to do this, or get close to doing this, and saves money in the process. Though Fisher does not indicate how many of these items were purchased from the Dollar Tree, she makes the overall point that there are options available, depending upon where your store is located. But what I particularly appreciate about Fisher’s story is that it moves beyond an either/or set of options. Rather, she engages in multiple possibilities. Fisher encourages others to buy what they can from dollar stores—especially ingredients like beans, rice, and spices—but also meat and vegetables where they are sold. For those stores that do not sell such items, she encourages buying from “farmers’ markets or on the sale aisles in discount supermarkets like Aldi.” Taking her mother’s fixed income into account, Fisher embraces a combination of alternatives, including ones that involve relying on fixed-price budget stores.

The Dollar Tree in my neighborhood is large, which is perhaps why it is able to provide refrigerated items. On one of my many visits to the store, both to shop and to observe, I saw that they not only had frozen vegetables but also one-dollar rib-eye steak, brown rice, pasta, condiments, spices, bread (wheat, white, and buns), and canned goods. How is it not healthy to have a meal of brown rice or pasta and vegetables along with baked chicken, fish, or something else already in the refrigerator? The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or the food stamp program, provides food-purchasing assistance for low- and no-income people living in the United States. Are farmers markets and grocery stores the only food sites where EBT/SNAP is acceptable? Many other stores (dollar stores, Target, Walmart, even gas stations) now take SNAP and offer some of the same foods that are available at grocery stores. The next time I went to the major grocery store, about a mile away from the value store, I noticed they had a freezer bin in the middle of the meat section with seafood and fish, also selling for one dollar per package. What Fisher’s experience reveals is that it is possible for some dollar stores to be used as a food source. And she demonstrates that it may be especially helpful for those who are living with limited funds, like the elderly citizens who visit my colleague’s service center.

Fisher is not alone in her stores of choice for grocery shopping. Nor is the dollar store option being accessed only by those on a fixed income. In a 2011 article for the New York Times Magazine, Jack Hitt writes:

We are awakening to a dollar-store economy. For years the dollar store has not only made a market out of the detritus of a hyperproductive global manufacturing system, but it has also made it appealing—by making it amazingly cheap. Before the market meltdown of 2008 and the stagnant, jobless recovery that followed, the conventional wisdom about dollar stores—whether one of the three big corporate chains (Dollar General, Family Dollar, and Dollar Tree) or any of the smaller chains (like “99 Cents Only Stores”) or the world of independents—was that they appeal to only poor people. And while it’s true that low-wage earners still make up the core of dollar-store customers (42 percent earn $30,000 or less), what has turned this sector into a nearly recession-proof corner of the economy is a new customer base. “What’s driving the growth,” says James Russo, a vice president with the Nielsen Company, a consumer survey firm, “is affluent households.”

It is interesting that so many of the people leaving comments about Hitt’s article said they would not purchase food from any of these stores because the products are “cheap.” I was curious to ask if they would purchase the same or a similar good from a local market. Moreover, I was intrigued by Hitt’s conclusion that the new consumer at these stores is “affluent.” I wonder to what degree affluence is relative in this context. I have been in the dollar store when people of all races, ethnicities, and, at least by appearance, socioeconomic statuses, were shopping for everything from toiletries and sundries to orange juice, coffee, milk, and bread. I recall being in Target, and the customer in front of me had a full cart of groceries. She paid for the items with her Target red card. I know this both because I saw the card and the cashier was relatively indiscreet. When I exited the store, I noticed the woman was putting her groceries into the trunk of a Mercedes SUV. There is absolutely no way of knowing her socioeconomic status by this display of materialism. But given where the store is located in the county and the other shoppers who were there that day, by all appearances this shopper was a person of some means.

In an effort to assess whether people of different economic statuses were shopping at dollar stores, I asked this question of one of my graduate classes, where we tend to see a cross-section of students from various backgrounds. Several people responded to my query, but one response that struck me in particular was from a student in my course Feminist Cultural Criticism of Diasporic Texts. Though living in Maryland at the time, the student originally hailed from the West Coast, a point that might affect the kinds of foods that are sold at the dollar stores she is used to. When asked what kind of discount stores her family visited, she replied, “99 Cent Only Stores.” She explained, “My family has bought all kinds of foods from 99 Cent Only Stores (the purple chain one), including fresh, packaged, and frozen.” She went on to voluntarily list food from each of these categories: pot pies, seafood, garlic bread, mini quiche, ice cream, butter, milk, canned goods, sardines, and much more. Most likely, this student would not describe herself as affluent, but her family had the financial ability to shop elsewhere and still found this kind of store most affordable. She explained that after living on the West Coast for some time, many adult members of her family eventually moved to the Midwest in order “to become homeowners but that resulted in an even tighter budget for some of them. All of my family members (3 different households) live within a 10 minute drive of at least two or three 99-cent stores and all have one less than 5 minutes away.” And though these stores are useful for making some purchases, not all “carry fresh and frozen food items.” The student finished her written comments by sharing, “My family is price-conscious so price matters, but even my college educated twin brother, who is doing very well financially, still prefers the bargain produce these stores have to offer.”

It is critical, for me, that we not insist that there is only one correct way of obtaining food.

What would it mean for food freedom and liberation if we encouraged people to access food how and from where they are able? We seem to herald foragers, back-to-the landers, and dumpster divers for their ingenuity, but we are willing to look down upon people who access food from the dollar store because we define it as “cheap” and somehow unwholesome. This latter notion of wholesomeness, along with the requirement of the healthiness of the food, are the twin weapons for issuing shame and culinary policing. Because we all operate out of our own experiences, we can often miss the nuances of how shopping in places like the dollar store and other budget outlets enables those who do the shopping to accomplish more than just purchasing food. For example, once I was in the company of a food advocate who strongly believed in agricultural education and outreach. As we were talking, she began extolling the virtues of her work and why her message was a necessary one for helping communities of people relieve hunger. At one point during our conversation, I told her that farmers markets were not necessarily a feasible shopping option for many people. She sharply responded, “Everyone deserves fresh food.” “Absolutely,” I said, “but that is not my point.” How we obtain foods is of interest and importance to me. It is critical, for me, that we not insist that there is only one correct way of obtaining food. We continued to banter while driving to our destination. Along the way, we happened to pass a busy shopping center that had a variety of stores including a Walmart, a Rainbow (an urban-centered clothing store for women and girls), and a Dollar Tree. As my driver continued to argue her point, I could not help but think of the many errands I had to run when I returned home, and the number of tasks I could accomplish in one hour or so just by going to the three stores we just passed, or even one of them. Alternatively, the thought of needing to figure out the time and location of the next farmers market and how it would fit within the scope of the many other things I had to do was daunting, to say the least. I explained to my companion how I, as a middle-class Black woman, would find relief in the option of large stores with varied merchandise. After I said this, we rode in silence for the rest of the trip, each of us lost in our own thoughts, perhaps thinking about the privileges in our own lives.

Dr. Psyche Williams-Forson is professor and chair of the Department of American Studies at the University of Maryland College Park. She is author of Eating While Black: Food Shaming and Race in America (winner of the James Beard Media Award for Food Issues and Advocacy, 2023); co-editor of Taking Food Public: Redefining Food in a Changing World (2013); and the award-winning Building Houses out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power. She is known nationally and internationally for her work in building the scholarly subfield of Black food studies, and she has published numerous articles on topics such as Black women, food, and power; food and literature; food and sustainability; race, food, and design thinking; eating and workplace cultures; as well as the historical legacies of race and gender (mis)representation, with (and without) food.

Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom is an award-winning author, professor, and sociologist. She is a senior research professor with the Center for Information, Technology and Public Life at UNC-Chapel Hill, a New York Times columnist, and 2020 MacArthur Fellow. In 2023, McMillan Cottom ranked in the top 200 education scholars in the nation on Education Week’s “2023 Edu-Scholar Public Influence Rankings,” an annual list published by American Enterprise Institute director of education policy studies and Education Week blogger Frederick M. Hess. McMillan Cottom’s most recent book, THICK: And Other Essays, won the Brooklyn Public Library’s 2019 Literary Prize and was shortlisted for the 2019 National Book Award in nonfiction.Illustrations by Nancey Price

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