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s a kid growing up in a small town in South Carolina, the one room local library was my world. It seemed larger at the time than what I know it to be now and had everything that I needed. I vividly remember the books that were always on display. They were usually written by South Carolina authors and rotated in and out every month or so. However, there were a few books that never lost their prime space, and they were re-laminated over and over due to their constant use.
Black Food Geographies: Race, Self-Reliance, and Food Access in Washington, D.C., by Dr. Ashanté Reese, is one such book that I imagine will be prominently displayed in Deanwood’s public library indefinitely. In this work, Reese makes an invaluable contribution to food studies, an impact already being felt by academics, activists and any reader interested in food, agriculture and community. She takes us into Deanwood, a historically Black neighborhood situated in the northeast corridor of Washington, D.C. Deanwood is a mixed income neighborhood, where residents create and navigate a Black food geography through growing their own food, owning food markets and at times traveling to other areas to obtain healthy food. Reese does not use the term food desert, as it brings to the imagination “a barren, empty place” (Reese 2019, 6). Instead she encourages us to think of the many ways that Black people create and navigate neighborhood food spaces that go beyond traditional supermarkets. Black residents of Deanwood are self-reliant, and Reese argues they “have embedded the framework [geographies of self-reliance] within their everyday practices” (Reese 2019, 11). Deanwood residents actualize self-reliance on the landscape moving past what self-reliance sounds like to what it looks like and further, how we can map it. Black Food Geographies does many things. However, this review will focus on Deanwood residents’ informal economy, how nostalgia influences their present-day food geographies and how we can use Reese’s work as a model in community-based research. I conclude with some thoughts on this book’s important contribution to food studies and Black geographies.
It is easy to discount seemingly minor parts of a neighborhood’s food source and economy. However in doing so, we are not acknowledging a community’s agency and inventiveness in creating thriving food spaces. Hucksters are community members who would sell a variety of food either on foot or from their personal vehicles. As Allison, one of Deanwood residents’ notes, her mother sometimes worked to avoid hucksters, but still recognized their importance. Acknowledging hucksters expands our understanding of what business is and more importantly, what buying Black means. Buying Black does not necessarily mean buying from a brick and mortar store. It could mean, as Reese notes, purchasing fresh whiting from one of your neighbors. Reese’s exploration of hucksters brings back memories of my own upbringing where my grandfather would sell watermelons that he grew on our family farm from the back of his pickup truck, leaving in the morning with a truck full of watermelons and returning shortly after with an empty truck, but wad of cash. Through her account of the hucksters, Reese connects what to many may seem an insignificant part of the economy to larger oppressive structures that want to ensure that Black people are not able to profit off of food and land production. Reese shows this through a gentleman recounting how in the southern town he grew up in, white people would not sell pickup trucks to Black people due to their fear of this informal economy. White supremacy, through the agro-industrial food system, sought to squelch self-reliance.
Reese presents memory as imperative to how Black residents understand their present-day food landscape. Reese takes care to explain not just how residents remember the past, but how and why their positive memories came to be. She forces us to reckon with the important mental gymnastics that often happens when we remember: the good past is held up against the bad present or the bad past is held up against the good present. In Black Food Geographies, Reese does not allow us to treat nostalgia as a binary. Nor does she seek to fact check how residents remember the past. Instead, she works to understand how our memories of the past influence our present-day engagement with the food system. For example, she examines how residents remember the “Community Market” store. In many ways, resident’s nostalgia prevents them from treating the grocery store as a place that can provide safe and healthy food to them in the present. Heralding “Community Market” as a historically important community institution does not lead to bustling sales for the business. This examining of nostalgia is refreshing in food studies literature that oftentimes characterizes Black people’s involvement in the food system as only informed by slavery, sharecropping and land dispossession. Black Food Geographies focuses on the community scale and the inventive ways that Black people have always found to eat safe and healthy food. Moreover, it goes beyond and directly challenges the incorrect assumption that Black residents of Black neighborhoods are disinvested in their food source.
A Lesson in Community Research
Black Food Geographies offers many things to theorizations about Black food and Black land spaces. However, the importance of looking at the way this research was done cannot be overstated. Reese’s methodology is instructive to all who seek to do community-based research. Reese applies care to her study of Deanwood residents and also to herself. As I read each page of Black Food Geographies, it felt as though Reese did something deeper beyond applying the textbook goal of “gaining trust” in a community. Instead, through meaningful and ongoing conversations with Deanwood residents, Reese manages to present whole people and a whole neighborhood. One can also tell through her description of how she engaged with this community, that members respected and appreciated her approach. Importantly, Reese does not present a perfect picture of her research process. She discusses, for example, unwanted advances that she received. What I appreciated is that Reese did not take a hardline approach to handling precarious situations. Simply, she treated each community member as an individual, which is so often lacking in community-based research.
Reese’s engagement in the community comes full circle in a tragic moment at the very end of the book when she finds out that Caylon, one of her interviewees was murdered. What is instructive about this section is that she does not make that Caylon’s story. By this, I mean she does not include that in Caylon’s description of nothingness, which is presented earlier in the work. I find this remarkable, but also important to how we consider and think about Black bodies and their humanity. Whether through research or in the media, Black murder victims are often not presented as fully human. They are unfairly demonized or their murder becomes their life story, without a full treatment of who they are as people. Reese does not do this, and instead discusses how Caylon’s tragic murder profoundly impacted her, but also helped her to “connect the dots” in the book.
Black Food Geographies
Black Food Geographies focuses on a Black sense of place to center Black humanity, rather than solely focusing on suffering and dispossession. This is an effort to examine what is happening instead of just what is wrong in Black communities, revealing geographies of self-reliance that unfold within spatialized food inequities” (Reese 2019, 8).
Upon finding out the name of Reese’s work, I immediately questioned how Reese would define “Black food geographies,” a definition crucially important to food and agrarian studies. By providing a nuanced definition of a Black food geography, Reese does what few have done. She “center(s) Black humanity,” taking us deep into a community that is multi-faceted and complex, a community that shares similarities with many Black communities across the country but is still unique and specific. In her explanation of Black geographies, McKittrick (2006) urges us to “begin to address some of the key ways Black geographies can be recognized, and are produced, in landscapes of domination. This will demonstrate, consequently, that Black imaginations and mappings are evidence of the struggle over social space” (locations 417-419). Through this work, Reese further shows the materiality of Black geographies, and how Black people discursively and materially create space.
While this book will receive many accolades in academic circles, it is clear to me that Reese’s main audience is Deanwood, a community that she loves and respects. Reese may not be from Deanwood, but she has embraced a community that clearly embraces her back. I imagine and hope for a follow up to Black Food Geographies, not because the book is incomplete, but because as McKittrick reminds us, Black geographies are dynamic and ever changing. And perhaps selfishly, I simply want more.