Food in the Time of Race: Ruminations on Cultural Sustainability and Black Food Energy
by Psyche Williams-Forson, Ph.D.
Food is a problem. I am not talking here just about accessing foodstuffs but about understanding the many issues surrounding food. There are layers to this thing and most people do not recognize this. We talk in shorthand using soundbites about food as if it is benign – only about what we like to eat, or from where we obtain our food, or how much we eat. This is one of many reasons that we have so many food disputes and misunderstandings, food permeates our lives on so many different levels and has so many implications—real and imagined. Those who study, write, and talk about food often do so from positions of years of research but even then, we often overlook that food is part of our material existence and thus informed by a constellation of experiences, practices, habits, and meanings. It is no wonder we are all apt to disagree. These thoughts and reflections are designed to engage some of these issues to tease out the ways in which cultural practices around food are life sustaining even as they are negotiated daily. To do this, I discuss the concept of cultural sustainability and introduce the idea of Black food energy to argue for its life-sustaining value even as it pushes back against those who would devalue the food experiences of Black Americans.
Cultural sustainability and Black food energy (BFE). What does these mean? How does one obtain it? From where does one get it? Food is a significant component of cultural sustainability in that it is one of the many life rituals that helps to reinforce our social and cultural norms. More than sustenance, food in rituals and customs, as ingredients and in processes of preparation, are symbolic for what they convey about who we are—our racial and ethnic identities, in particular. It is from cultural sustainability that we get what I call, Black food energy.
BFE is hard to explain but one may know it when they experience it. It is why the combination of macaroni and cheese, collard greens, and fried chicken are familiar to many Black people, though these are arguably not “Black Foods.” It is the sound of funk and soul music, amidst the sale of Afro-centric clothing, Black art, sweet potato and bean pies at a Black run farmer’s market. It is the smell of gumbo cooking or shrimp and crab legs with butter, hot sauce, and vinegar, while the game is on, the kids are loud, and the sounds of Marvin Gaye waft or the Migos blare, in the distance. And all of this is only complete with a spades game in process.
When you are surrounded by Black food energy, you know what it is. There are versions in the ways in which it plays out because Black people have styles to ourselves and our food cultures. We eat shrimp and grits, jambalaya, caviar, fried chicken, cobb salad, tofu, seiten, eggplant, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, peppers, kale, Brussels sprouts, collard greens, bok choy, Savoy cabbage, and gai lan. And some foods make us feel at home and bring us life while others are unsettling to our bodies and make us queasy or feel unfulfilled. We are not dichotomous beings—we do not eat only this food or that food. We eat lots of different foods when we desire and when we have access because Black people are complex. We are part of the complicatedness of society. As sociologist Avery Gordon reminds us, people embody complex personhood; that is, we are shaped by multiple histories and experiences of personal agency and these in turn effect how we move about the world. So, while most all African American people in the United States are descendants of enslavement, and thus have a common history, we have myriad experiences that inform how we identify with and relate to this commonness. These histories—food and otherwise—are informed by our regions, socioeconomic statures, genders, families, religions, and more.
Our complexities also inform our relationships to power – how we exercise it, resist it, entertain it, and live in it. Power is heterogeneous, dynamic, ever-changing, productive, unproductive, and inhibiting. Power can manifest itself through food interactions as forcefully as a violent blow or as subtle as a gentle breeze. We would do well to recognize, then, that power is multifaceted in food interactions which is another reason that cultural sustainability practices are important. It allows us to engage food and power on our own terms, even when the odds are not in our favor and when our food interactions are policed and shamed.
Consider, for example, the ability to obtain indigenous or familiar foods in a new country (or your own country). In addition to having or not having financial access to those foods, there are often situations when the food is not even within proximity. In an interview with food historian Fran Osseo-Asare, chef Dinah Ayensu emphatically states, “there are [some Ghanaians] who will say they haven’t eaten the whole day, simply because they haven’t had their soup and fufu.” The need to eat a food that is familiar and comforting should not be underestimated. When everything else around you is new and the very fiber of your being longs for home, food can be a lifeline. So, opening ethnic food markets, sending home for various food items, making substitutions are all some of the ways migrants often practice their food habits. As a new or seasoned arrival, learning new foodscapes—where to buy, how much to pay, how to assess tastes and how to determine what foods work best as substitutes in the absence of the familiar—can be overwhelming, to say the least. This is where Black food energy can be useful and effective. Connecting with others who have similar food habits in niche food markets, finding food spaces that serve as conduits between home and the host country, buying from those unknown vendors who use the underground economy to provide home country dinners and side dishes, sharing recipes and other food trends that are informed by new environs; and, cultivating gardens or container pots using local knowledge of the soil, are all ways in which [Black] food energy is experienced.
So, while we might practice it differently, Black food energy will feel the same. You will know it when you are experiencing it. Kimberly Nettles-Barcelon reminded me that it is a version of what culinary historian Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor referred to as “vibration cooking.” As she writes, “And when I cook, I never measure or weigh anything. I cook by vibration. I can tell by the look and smell of it….for my part, I just do it by vibration. Different strokes for different folks. Do your thing your way.” And though you do your thing your way, the food still is what it is. No matter how you cook collard greens or fufu, they are still collard greens and fufu, even if we differ on its taste and its look (unless you completely reconstitute it). Similarly, no matter how we practice the sustaining of culture and Black food energy, it still is what it is.
This is one of many reasons that to best accommodate the food needs of any racial and ethnic group, the work should begin by involving the group themselves. Those outside the community who want to work with the group should do so by listening and asking, listening and learning, and listening and watching. The operative word here being listening. This latter point is what gets a lot of organizers in trouble when they decide to go into communities with their own intentions rather than hearing the desires of the community. If I had a dollar for the countless times I have heard a well-meaning white person tell me they are planning to put a garden in X community and that they want my expertise on how to accomplish this “huge” task. I always start with, “who did you ask about that mission?” Most often, I get a blank stare. It is as if actually talking to the people is an afterthought. Another example from my travel experiences in the United States seeks to illustrate this point.
Several years ago, I visited a major Southern city to provide a keynote address. Prior to the event, my hosts took me on a tour of a new farmer’s market near the epicenter of downtown. Apparently, the market creators had applied for and been awarded a grant to provide fresh food products to the neighboring African American community because they had been displaced by gentrification. This “consolation prize” to the community was established on the edge of town in an area that bordered where a majority of African American people would congregate but now had been pushed back I explained to my host that I saw this effort as an undeniable symbol of white guilt and that thus, the market, on its face was problematic. Moreover, the goal of the grant was to get African American customers to come to the market; another obvious fundamental flaw in the grant proposal.
As we began our pre-opening market tour, I noticed most of the foods being vended were the same, albeit by different sellers—free range eggs, pesticide-free produce, responsibly-raised meats like grass-fed beef and pasture raised pork. There was a variety of swiss chard, snap peas, bok choy, carrots, and kohlrabi, lots of kohlrabi. And there was a table that held literature and apparatus for taking SNAP (The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or the Food Stamp Program, which provides food-purchasing assistance for low- and no-income people living in the United States). As I walked through the market watching the vendors setup, I thought to myself: where are the retailers who look like the people to whom they are trying to sell? More importantly, where are the foods familiar to the people – maybe half of the intended audience – to whom the grant was directed? What I saw was a “yes”/ “and” scenario. While African Americans do eat swiss chard and bok choy, I was curious about the absence of sweet potatoes, collards and other greens, squash, cabbage, leeks, peppers and so on. I was searching for the foods familiar to African American people.
As I walked further along the market path, I came upon the sole African American stall – a worm farmer or vermicomposter. This, too, struck me as odd, given the intention of the grant to attract African American customers. Not only was he at the very end of the curved pathway (probably because of what he was selling) but also, he had no actual food. So, it was not just the fact that there were no purple-hulled peas, jams, pickles, melons, peaches, lopes, over-sweetened cakes and pies, and few vendors and customers, but the space did not have the feel of an African American welcoming market. There were no soaps, hair products, jewelry, or clothing – all items frequently found at Black run markets. Rather, the environment of the farmer’s market was sterile—meaning, there was no Black food energy to signal “you are welcome here.”
We must resist collapsing this conversation into one that is defined as “Black People’s Foods” (read as not healthy) versus “White People’s Foods” (read as healthy). The fact of the matter is that people of all races eat many of the foods mentioned above. The differences are two: the perception that what one eats is superior to what another one eats, especially if race and socio-economics are involved. Perceptions are everything. Embedded in the grant-initiated farmer’s market, was the perception that all of those foods being sold there were “the best.” Either that, or the curators of the market were significantly ignorant or intentionally not serving the African American community. How else do we account for wanting to create an environment where you provide access to foods to people who have been displaced then you do so by providing them with few foods that may appeal to them? I told my host that the grant-initiative was written to fail because also embedded in its charge was the suggestion that African Americans do not like “good,” “clean” food because if they did why else would they not come to the market? Note the alogism here.
This fallacy about “Black food” and “White food” is a very real in the United States. It is often equated with “bad” and “good,” “ignorant” and “progressive.” These dichotomies are undergirded, not only by a false moral compass, but also racism. With the assistance of several residents from Washington, DC, food practitioners, and scholars, Kristen Aiken expounds on the ways in which power informs these kinds of binaries in food negotiations. In the 2018 article, “‘White People Food’ is Creating an Unattainable Picture of Health,” Aiken quotes Black restaurateur Dr. Baruch Ben-Yehudah who tells Huff Post ““You’ve got the dominant culture in the USA being white culture…And that white culture has taken the power to define all things good as white, and all things white as good. So that definition of healthy eating is not an accurate depiction of eating healthy….African-Americans might say, ‘I don’t want to eat like white people.’ However, at the end of the day, it’s not eating like white people, it’s actually eating the way we used to eat before we were brought to this country.”” Indeed.
This argument is a perfect example of what Nigerian author Chimimanda Adichie, among others, means when she states that dispossession begins with telling people’s stories in ways that render them secondary or “less than.” Adichie writes, “Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story, and to start with, ‘secondly.’ Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have and entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story.” Picking up this thread, I argue, start the story with what Africans ate prior to capture and enslavement and not what they ate once they arrived and you have a different story. Reiterating the single story, along with not knowing one’s true histories, makes it easier for us to fall for a simple dichotomous narrative rather than the complex one that actually informs the lives of African American people.
It is this singular point of view that also renders African Americans grossly susceptible to food shaming and food policing, interracially and intraracially. One last example is useful. In Building Houses out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power, I share the story of a U.S. government employee who indicated she thought it was inappropriate and “ghetto” for African American people to eat fried chicken for lunch within eyeshot of others. And yet, in many district and federal government buildings that have cafeterias, fried chicken is a staple on the menu. While she, and others, are perfectly within their right to think what they like, with regards to, where and when African Americans consume fried chicken, the thinking harkens back to a period of cultural regulating when middle and upper-class reformers tied domesticity, including food preparation and consumption, to ideal citizenship (read, be more like white society).
This belief undergirded the mantras found in African Americans newspapers and domestic manuals and was postulated by civic uplift organizations like the Urban League and the Colored Women’s Club movement. All of these sought to help the working-class better represent the race. Unimportant were the social and cultural advances that emerged from the sales of food items like chicken, rolls, pies, hot coffee, and other edibles which helped to create better lives for these same working-class communities. Also, seemingly unimportant was the historical import of such foods in helping the enslaved and many others to obtain their freedom and/or to participate in the burgeoning consumer society. Lost, then and now, were the elements of cultural sustainability and Black food energy.
Writing long ago in a different (yet very connected) context, black lesbian feminist writer and poet Audre Lorde wrote, “My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.” Though often decontextualized from Lorde’s larger body of work about inequality and injustices in all facets of life, her points continue to have salience for the times in which we live. Many will be quick to dismiss and see the connections between Lorde’s clarion calls against injustice and this discussion of food because it is easy to disconnect food from the larger issues of systemic racism, classism, and sexism in American society. But they are wholly imbricated and intertwined. Lorde’s assertion is connected when Black people are denied land to farm for the food that sustains our economic, mental, social, and cultural wellbeing; it is connected when we are forced off our land to make way for gentrifiers and then thrown a consolation prize in the form of a farmer’s market that denies our food existence; and, it is connected when we deny our cultural food heritages because they are embarrassing or may cause us to be seen differently in the eyes of white people. In all of these instances, our silence has us swallowing the day-to-day tyrannies from which we will one day sicken and die. This is the absence of Black food energy.
It is further connected because Lorde originally delivered this speech at the Lesbian and Literature panel of the Modern Language Association’s December 28, 1977 meeting. The annual meeting that year took place during the week of Kwanzaa, the celebration of African American culture, history, and life, which starts December 26 and ends on January 1, with a gift-giving feast of faith, called the Karamu Ya Imani. Created in the 1960’s by Maulana Karenga, Kwanzaa epitomizes the spirit of Black food energy precisely because it involves life and giving and the richness of our heritage, central of which is food. Lorde’s discussion of her breast cancer diagnosis and surgery, the death that infiltrated her body, makes clear that food alone is not the culprit of black illness. Rather, it is the malignancy of tyranny borne out of racism and sexism and other isms. It is our silences that swallow down these injustices and not turning our rage and anger into language and action. It is the inability to get fufu, egusi, soup, goat, and other life-sustaining foods when we move to hinterlands or have lack of financial access. It is walking throuogh a farmer’s market purported to serve Black people and refusing to say, “this is a problem.” It is sitting down to eat lunch at work and looking over your shoulder to see if your food is being shamed for its look, its smell, or its taste. Refusing to speak back to these mockeries, what Lorde calls “tyrannies,” may well ultimately kill us because they ravish our bodies and our minds.
Speaking up and out is what compels us to research and write more about our food histories—from slavery to the present—but also about the recipes we created that were heretofore credited elsewhere. It is what drives my friends and colleagues to continuously rewrite the single narrative. It is this same energy that propels us to detail what is happening in Detroit, MI, Washington, DC, on farms across the United States. And it is definitely this energy that encourages us to be our best selves in opening restaurants, as entrepreneur/chefs across the nation showing the broad range of our genius in kitchen management, at the stove, in the vineyard, and on the winelists. Black food energy is everywhere, and we must continue to insist that it stay. Our food lives can no more be reduced to scraps than it can be boxed into a bundle of kohlrabi. This very essence of our lives must speak to the complexities of our personhoods and speak back to the single narratives that continuously want to limit who we are.
Demanding what sustains us culturally, socially, economically, politically, sexually and more, in ways that will allow us to thrive and be whole, comforted, satiated and alive is not a fight from which we should shrink. Rather, it is an ongoing struggle to debunk the single story and to declare, we exist. If Black people allow any element of their material lives to go unremarked and unacknowledged, especially our food cultures, then we will falter, sicken, and die. Our silence will not protect us at all, but our culture will, and one form of that culture is Black food energy.
(This is a revised article)
Psyche Williams-Forson, Ph.D.
University of Maryland College Park
 Williams-Forson, P. “I Haven’t Eaten If I Don’t Have My Soup and Fufu”: Cultural Preservation through Food and Foodways among Ghanaian Migrants in the United States, August 2014, Africa Today 61(1):69-87
 Smart-Grosvenor, V. Vibration Cooking, or The Travel Notes of a GeeChee Girl. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1970.
 I am thankful for the collective experiences of Monica White, Ashante Reese, and Kiimberly Nettles-Barcelon, that inform my understanding.
 Aiken, K. White People Food’ is Creating an Unattainable Picture of Health.” September 17, 2018. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/white-people-food_n_5b75c270e4b0df9b093dadbb
 Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. 2009. TEDTalks: Chimamanda Adichie – The Danger of a Single Story. New York, N.Y.: Films Media Group. http://digital.films.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?aid=13753&xtid=48462.
 Williams-Forson, P. 2007. Building houses out of chicken legs: black women, food, and power. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press.
 Lorde, A. 2007. “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” Sister outsider: essays and speeches. NY: Ten Speed Press, 40-44.
 Here, I am thinking of the work of Toni Tipton Martin, Jessica Harris, Adrian Miller, Michael Twitty, Natasha Bowens, Frederick Douglass Opie, and so many other voices who have recently emerged on the landscape of African American food studies.
The work of Matthew Raiford and Jovan Sage and Heritage Radio Network, Southeastern African American Farmers’ Organic Network (SAAFON), and the Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners are all unparalleled in their missions to critically engage people of African descent living in America and elsewhere in the critical understanding and expression of the range of inequalities that affect Black food energies and lives.