latest from the magazine
latest journal issue
Black Soil: Our Better Nature, a Black-owned and operated agribusiness based in Lexington, Kentucky, writes that its mission is to “reconnect Black Kentuckians to their legacy and heritage in agriculture.” Such a mission is emblematic of Black food mattering, as the organization seeks to uplift the stories and experiences of Black farmers through farm tours, farm-to-table dinners, workshops, and other collaborations across the commonwealth. Black Soil’s approach integrates both urban and rural producers and consumers in engaging with the key themes of education, economic development and empowerment. And they are hardly alone in demonstrating that Black food matters.
Hanna Garth and Ashanté Reese have compiled a transcendent volume written primarily but not exclusively by nonwhite scholars that addresses anti-Blackness within food justice movements and spaces, and in doing so proclaim that “Black food matters.” Each chapter is written to stand on its own (with occasional allusion to other chapters) but they collectively work to address the key themes that the co-editors present in their introduction - utilizing food as an entry point for “understanding the complexities of Blackness” (14), centering lived experiences (16), interrogating “who food justice serves and why” (19), and challenging how we as scholars and activists understand food justice as “serving the real needs of Black communities” (21).
In an overview of the literature present through the early 2000s, Slocum (2010) emphasizes that there is not a lack of research connecting race to production, distribution and consumption of food, but rather the issue is that “it is not always evident how race matters to the study of food” (303). Food studies has been successful in addressing racial identity through eating (see Williams-Forson (2006) on the role of chicken and Black feminism), in interrogating the role of food in political ecologies and political economies (see McCutcheon (2013) on Black nationalism and farming), and through “embodiment and alimentary identities” (see Hayes-Conroy and Haye-Conroy (2008) on food beliefs and the material impacts on bodies) (314).
However, Slocum (2010) challenges those in food studies to be more explicit about race in food research, especially in theorizing race itself in the relationship of race and food (320). Being explicit is at the root of Williams-Forson (2011)’s call for centering the “methodologies and theories of gender, race and intersectionality” in food studies research (15) and in engaging with the “specific ways [white structural privilege] violently manifests in U.S. food systems” (Kolavelli, 2020: 67). Works examining farming and agriculture as sites of both terror and possibility for Black people (White, 2018; Penniman, 2018), and how Black people survive and create food cultures “within and in spite of” anti-Black racism (Reese, 2019: 3) crucially push food studies to see anti-Blackness as a structural component intwined with our food system(s). Race is at the heart of food in the United States, from the slave trade and the plantation to prison farms, to tourism and gentrification, Black movements for justice, urbanism and ruralism, and to the appropriation of Black knowledge and understandings of the world. Black Food Matters addresses each of the aforementioned topics and more as the authors do not stop at highlighting racial disparities but interrogate “the conditions that produce those disparities” (Garth & Reese, 2020: 3; my emphasis). In this way, Black Food Matters centers race as the key component in which to understand the multiple spaces of Black food knowledge, production, and consumption.
Key takeaways are signposted by the authors in the beginning of each chapter and returned to in said chapter’s conclusion. This structuring allows readers to reflect without having to flip back to the beginning to determine what the goals of the chapter were. Additionally, Garth’s and Reese’s introduction serves as a strong unifying piece that quickly and clearly defines the connections, goals, and key questions that readers should take away. The emphasis on agency and active participation by Black people themselves stands out, as previous food justice research and movements have tended to neglect the agency of the people in studying places. It comes as no surprise that Garth and Reese would emphasize both agency and active participation, as Gilbert and Wright (2019) similarly highlighted these themes in Reese’s 2019 book, Black Food Geographies, in a forum for this journal. Further, food justice is addressed across multiple sites, such as community gardens, farms, urban, and rural communities, but also those spaces that have historically been neglected within the food justice literature such as food trucks, restaurants, and restaurant staff.
Beginning with an introduction by the co-editors that frames the ten primary contributions (to be discussed more depth below), the volume powerfully ends with Psyche Williams-Forson’s afterword where she urges readers to not “just read and agree” (283) but to go do the work and to follow those who are already doing the work highlighted throughout the text. The first chapter by Reese amplifies the need to connect work focused on Black lives and/ or Black spaces to the everyday experiences of those who are the subjects of study as she examines Black mobile food services (31). Moving into the second chapter, readers encounter the first of two chapters that look to Black rural spaces (Chapter Two by Gillian Richards-Greaves and Chapter Nine by Willie J. Wright, Tyler McCreary, Brian Williams, & Adam Bledsoe). The third chapter by Analena Hope Hassberg moves into looking at the history of Black food programs, and is complimented by the seventh chapter by Kimberly Kasper that examines the erasure of Black agency and complexity in food culture(s). Diving into the fifth and eighth chapters, by Andrew Newman & Yuson Jung and Monica M. White, respectively, readers see a turn to Black women’s roles in community survival and urban gardening in Detroit. Chapter Six, by Billy Hall, and Chapter Ten, by Judith Williams, turn towards Black urban spaces through interrogations of the marketing of Black heritage, gentrification, and appropriation. And finally, similar to the first chapter by Reese, Garth’s individual chapter - Chapter Four - functions as a stand-alone piece which seeks to untangle meanings of justice and just practices through the lens of three different case studies. Like White’s chapter, which will be discussed more in depth below, Garth’s chapter would be incredibly useful for teaching as she engages with tangible examples of how anti-Blackness manifests in food justice interventions which are supposedly working to confront white supremacist logics but instead end up reproducing them. These examples demonstrate the need for food justice practitioners, particularly white people and white-led organizations, to constantly reevaluate what harms they may be perpetuating.
Despite myriad positives, one particular shortcoming comes to mind with the limited engagement with Black rural spaces outside of Richards-Greaves’ chapter on rural South Carolina and Wright et. al’s chapter on the limits of a politics of recognition in untangling the Pigford v. Glickman lawsuits at the turn of the twenty-first century. The overwhelming majority of Black spaces examined focus on major metropolitan spaces such as Washington, D.C., Miami, Detroit, and Memphis. But what is missed when we do not more fully engage with Black rural geographies, and their importance for understanding the trajectory of Black food geographies throughout the history of the United States? Work on Black agrarian geographies (McCutcheon 2019), plantation futures (McKittrick 2013), racial capitalism (Robinson 2000), and agricultural institutions of the U.S. South (Woods 1998, 2017) all demonstrate the importance of the rural in Black food cultures (Garth & Reese 2020, 2).
Speaking of Black rural spaces, Chapter Two and Chapter Nine pair together as the only two chapters grappling with Black rural spaces. In Chapter Two, Richards-Greaves examines the “multifaceted role that food plays” in a rural Black community in South Carolina and argues that Black food production and consumption work to not only preserve autonomy and tradition but also as defensive mechanisms with potential disruptions to food supplies (55). In Chapter Nine, Wright et. al utilize a legal review in arguing against the idea that discrimination is an “aberrant singularity” rather than as a structural feature of the U.S. government in their examination of the Pigford v. Glickman lawsuits (230). They argue for an approach to justice that “recenters land ownership” and refuses one-time compensation in return for centuries of injustices done to Black farmers (231).
Dispossession and responses to it are not limited to Black rural areas as evidenced by the pair of chapters examining processes of gentrification and appropriation of Black spaces and culinary knowledge in Miami. In Chapter Six, Hall examines how food is understood as an “untapped cultural resource” (167) to be exploited by entrepreneurs but how this approach fails to “meaningfully address” historical dispossession of Black communities in the neighborhood (175). However, while Hall proposes considering alternative forms of tourism or “alternatives to tourism” (italics in original, 176), he does not list any examples of how this has been done previously nor imagine what this would look like in practice, which could be beneficial for rethinking development. As I finished this chapter, I was left wanting to know more about these possibilities. Similarly, Williams chronicles how Latin American and Afro-Caribbean cooking methods and recipes are appropriated, whitewashed, and rebranded by predominantly white men in a manner that relies on nonwhite peoples’ culinary knowledge and labor (251-2). In doing so, Williams argues that is a fetishization of nonwhite food that capitalizes on the “white imagination of the racial Other” (271). In this way, the food cultures that Williams describes are caught up in what Brandi Summers (2019) calls “black aesthetic emplacement” - Blackness “accrues a value that is not necessarily extended to Black bodies” (3).
The white imagination of the racial Other, and its impact on Black people, appears in other chapters as well. Hassberg works to counter the limited view of the Black Panther Party by white people in Chapter Three through highlighting the BPP’s commitment to Black liberation and constructing more just societies through community-based programs (83) and arguing that just as the BPP was much more expansive, inclusive, and intersectional than popularly imagined - especially by white people - to be, food justice movements should take a similar approach (97). Kasper also counters the white imagination in Chapter Seven through an analysis of barbecue as a “tool of cultural, economic, and political unity and resistance” in Western Tennessee (183). Barbecue, Kasper argues, has been displaced from its historical development in ways that overlook its racialized origins and marginalizes nonwhite barbecuers up to the present day (200).
Correcting historical understandings and providing new frameworks for understanding the present moment are also at work in the chapters analyzing Detroit’s food system. In Chapter Five, Newman & Jung examine the moral meanings that various actors ascribe to the process of buying and selling food, extending E.P. Thomson’s concept of the “moral economy” to incorporate race (132). Later, in Chapter Eight, White provides a fresh understanding of ecofeminism as she applies the approach to both the Global North in an assertive, proactive manner that uplifts Black and urban activists within environmental justice and sustainability movements that typically marginalize them (224). White’s chapter is noteworthy for her clarity, her explanation of participatory research methods, her novel integration of ecofeminism in a different context from its historical use in writing about the Global South, her connections to the lived experience of Black Detroiters, especially women, and connecting the neighborhood to the global scale. Due to these factors, this chapter would be an excellent chapter to teach from undergraduate to graduate courses and beyond formal academic settings.
As demonstrated above, this edited volume undertakes a tremendous array of people, spaces, and topics in seeking to interrogate the role of racial justice in food justice work. This situates this text as a valuable resource for a wide audience, from food justice scholars, activists, and practitioners, to city planners and developers, to undergraduate and graduate students in fields such as anthropology, American Studies, food studies, geography, and sociology. However, it is implied that white-centric academic disciplines - both in authorship and consumption - are a target audience, with the subtitle being “racial justice in the wake of food justice.” Drawing from Sharpe (2016), in the wake “the past that is not past reappears, always, to rupture the present” (9) and existing in the wake is “to occupy and to be occupied by the continuous and changing present of slavery’s as yet unresolved unfolding” (13-14). How has food justice as an area of academic study neglected racial justice, throwing the concept of justice itself into flux? Food justice, as has been popularized in the academy, has neglected the central role of racism in producing and sustaining food inequities. Struggling for equity in production and consumption of food without reckoning with the larger, ever-evolving structures of racial capitalism that were “never created for Black survival” (Garth & Reese, 2020: 3) will never produce justice. Justice is not, and cannot, only be highlighting and emphasizing disparities, but must also include how to go about addressing the conditions that produced these disparities in the first place (3). Justice also necessitates moving from what Eve Tuck calls “damage-based” research that focuses on lack or neglect (412) to a “desire-based framework” (416) that recognizes possibility, joy, survivals, and dynamisms. For white-centric academic disciplines, how do they grapple with the central role of racial justice in understanding food justice? Whose ways of understanding the world and whose voices are prioritized in pushing for racial justice and food justice? Black women are leading the way in the struggle for both.
Emphasizing the contemporary period and referencing recent events, the chapters take place across various locations around the U.S., ranging from the local and neighborhood scale to the regional, providing several inroads for similar research to be taken up. The three detailed epistemological lenses and frameworks as laid out by Garth & Reese in their introduction - centering Black ways of knowing, understanding constraints produced by anti-Blackness, and examining the possibilities that Black people innovate and create in the wake of these constraints - also encourage researchers to deeply engage instead of operating in a more surface-level extractivist manner. Similar to the Indigenous-centered epistemologies that Tuck (2009) discusses, these Black-centered epistemologies at the core of Black Food Matters grapple with the “complexity, contradiction, and the self-determination of lived lives” (Tuck, 2009: 416) and seek “to imagine, define, determine, and create sustainable worlds free of anti-Blackness and its accompanying oppressions” (Garth & Reese, 2020: 6).
In closing, we return to Garth & Reese’s introduction in which they ask readers to consider what happens when a Black geographical lens is applied to food (8). Black Food Matters fits neatly within recent works from the past decade trying to address this exact topic, with books such as White’s 2018 Freedom Farmers, Leah Penniman’s 2018 Farming While Black, and Reese’s 2019 Black Food Geographies, as well as articles such as McCutcheon’s 2019 piece on Black agrarian geographies and Margaret M. Ramirez’s 2014 piece on racialized food spaces. All of these works serve as starting points for engaging with Black fugitivity, which Garth & Reese define as “central and ongoing” for “envisioning other ways of being and relating” (10). What happens when we consider racial justice at the root of food justice? What possibilities become apparent? Black Food Matters serves as a nexus for those possibilities.
Gilbert, J., and Wright, W.J. (2019). Book Review Forum Introduction for Black Food Geographies by Ashanté Reese. Society and Space Online, available here.
Hayes-Conroy, A., and Hayes-Conroy, J. (2008). Taking back taste: Feminism, food and visceral politics. Gender, Place and Culture, 15(5): 461-473.
Kolavalli, C. (2020). Confronting whiteness in Kansas City's local food movement: Diversity work and discourse on privilege and power. Gastronomica, 20(1): 59-68.
McCutcheon, P. (2013). “Returning home to our rightful place”: The Nation of Islam and Muhammad Farms. Geoforum, 49: 61-70.
McCutcheon, P. (2019). Fannie Lou Hamer’s Freedom Farms and Black Agrarian Geographies. Antipode 51(1): 207-224.
McKittrick, K. (2013). Plantation futures. Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism, 17(42): 1-15.
Penniman, L. (2018). Farming while Black: Soul Fire Farm’s practical guide to liberation on the land. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing.
Ramirez, M.M. (2014). The exclusive inclusive: Black food geographies and racialized food spaces. Antipode 47(3): 748-769.
Reese, A.M. (2019). Black food geographies: Race, self-reliance, and food access in Washington, D.C. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press.
Robinson, C.J. (2000). Black Marxism: The making of the Black radical tradition. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press.
Sharpe, C.E. (2016). In the wake: On Blackness and being. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.
Summers, B.T. (2019). Black in place: The spatial aesthetics of race in a post-chocolate city. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press.
Tuck, E. (2009). Suspending damage: A letter to communities. Harvard Educational Review, 79(3): 409-428.
White, M.M. (2018). Freedom farmers: Agricultural resistance and the Black freedom movement. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press.
Williams-Forson, P. A. (2006). Building houses out of chicken legs: Black women, food, and power. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press.
Williams-Forson, P.A, and Wilkerson, A. (2011). Intersectionality and food studies. Food, Culture & Society, 14(1), 7-28.
Woods, C. (1998). Development arrested: The blues and plantation power in the Mississippi Delta. New York: Verso.
Woods, C. (2017). Development drowned and reborn: The blues and bourbon restorations in post-Katrina New Orleans. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press.
Jed DeBruin (he/him) is a PhD student and graduate instructor in the Department of Geography at the University of Kentucky. Jed’s research interests include food justice, race & racism, political economy (especially Marxian economics), Appalachia, and political ecologies.