Critical food geography has gained momentum since the early 2000s as a lens of scholarly analysis that steps beyond documentation of food system inequities to elucidate the ways that sociopolitical structures create them. Often less obvious is what makes this work that of geography – a discipline distinguishable in its broadest sense by its focus on space and spatiality. Black geographies (McKittrick and Woods 2007; McKittrick 2011), for its part, has been explicit in its conceptualization of spatial analysis, and offers a constellation of ways to understand geographic relationships beyond what is theorized within a white-dominant discipline forged in a colonialist path (cf. Kobayashi and Peake 2000; Pulido 2002). Only recently have scholars begun to explore the intersection of these two areas of inquiry (see Ramirez 2015; McCutcheon 2019). Ashanté Reese’s Black Food Geographies is an essential contribution in this regard, and it is an honor to offer my perspectives on this book.

Black Food Geographies analyzes food systems and practices from a diachronic perspective in Deanwood, a predominantly Black community in upper northeast Washington, D.C.’s Ward 7, which underwent depopulation throughout the 20th century, and saw its access to grocery stores decline in the midst of the supermarket revolution and racialized economic and urban restructuring. Deanwood, we learn, has a relatively lower median household income than the nearby neighborhood of Anacostia, itself a predominantly Black community that has undergone gentrification and serves in parts of the book as a comparative counterpoint to the community of focus. Reese uses archival research, participant observation, interviews, surveys (conducted in collaboration with a community resident) and the anthropological method of ‘deep hanging out’ to provide a rich analysis of the relationships, analyses, and practices surrounding food access in the Deanwood community.

The book traverses many now-common food studies preoccupations, including lack of food access in low-income U.S. communities, in general, and in low-income communities of color, in particular; the debate over the label ‘food desert’ (such as whether it is a concept useful for policymaking or one that entrenches racist and classist stereotypes); and a turn toward the concept of ‘food apartheid,’ which explicitly problematizes food inaccessibility as a racialized, and intentional phenomenon. But, Reese takes us far beyond these debates, detailing the many, diverse ways that Deanwood residents have forged community resilience through foodways. Reese theorizes these historical and contemporary practices in terms of Black “ways of being, doing, and knowing” (p 8).

As the title suggests, self-reliance is a key theme in the book. Reese argues that underlying the idea of self-reliance as “an embodied theory of [Black] community uplift,” is often a belief that because states and corporations will “fail to meet the needs of Black people,” a certain “racialized asceticism” is necessary to meet those needs (p 56). Reese provides a counterpoint to this idea, finding that Deanwood residents’ articulation of self-reliance through community-embedded food practices neither supports per se the argument for asceticism as a necessary means for survival, nor falls into neoliberal logics emphasizing the primacy of individual responsibility. Detailing ways in which Deanwood residents have used trading and barter, urban gardening and patronage at Black-owned stores as ways to meet individual and household food needs, Reese observes that self-reliance is “grounded in historical and spatial contexts addressing structural inequalities while building community” (p 129). Reese uses [community] self-reliance through food as one theory through which we may understand Black life in the United States.

Another theme central to the book’s analysis is ‘nothingness,’ – a trope often used, along with corollaries ‘empty’ or ‘vacant,’ to describe the landscape in some communities in which there is economic need. Black Food Geographies takes this framing to task as Reese seeks to understand how residents “navigate nothingness” (p 47), particularly in terms of the lack of access to conventional food procurement opportunities, and she theorizes this within broader historical and sociopolitical structures.

Taking as given the observation that unequal food access is racialized in terms of its use as a tool for social control (cf. Heynen 2009), Reese points out that [white dominant] “narratives of violence intertwined with Blackness become integral to justifying the systematic demise of access” (p 37). If Black people and Black communities are constructed in the dominant (white) imaginary as the location of violence and state-defined crime, then denying means of survival, including access to food, whether purchased, bartered, or produced – creating ‘nothingness’ through, and beyond erasure – becomes a way to ‘solve’ these societal problems. This implicitly racist construction of reality is used in white dominant society to control Black lives, through and beyond denying food access. But this construction is more complicated than being only an outsider perspective; Specifically, Reese is conscious to point out that ‘nothingness,’ as a descriptor “consistently factored into [Deanwood] residents’ responses concerning how, where, and how often they accessed the groceries they needed to feed themselves and their families” (p 45). This does not mean that residents lacked agency or knowledge about accessing the types of food that they need and desire to consume. Rather, as Reese shows, residents’ food procurement strategies are constructed around their own analyses – and critiques – of an unequal food landscape, and demonstrate a dynamic set of practices that enable community members, to varying extents, to meet those needs.

Another important contribution that Reese’s analysis makes to food systems knowledge is the reconsideration of histories familiar to many food studies scholars. An example is the so-called ‘supermarket revolution,’ the consolidation of the grocery industry and transition to self-service, one-stop stores beginning in the early 20th century that eventually led to the demise of independently owned grocery stores as viable businesses and reliable sources of fresh food. Reese discusses the racialized differences in the ways that small stores that have persisted despite the supermarket revolution have been valorized and portrayed. One of Reese’s’ interviewees, Mr. Jones, continues to operate his small grocery, which is seen by residents as an important part of the community; However, in food access literature and policymaking, small stores like Mr. Jones’ are often referred to as ‘corner stores,’ a racially-coded moniker that connotes a place where only unhealthful goods and sometimes liquor are sold, and which, this ideology continues, contribute to the degradation of public health. Survival of independent food stores in the midst of broader food system restructuring thus takes on differential meaning depending on the context and the observer. This type of analysis and re-telling of familiar food systems histories underscores the importance of decentering the white gaze in order to understand the food system, as Reese does throughout the book.

Reese also uses the framing of productive nostalgia (i.e., ‘a process in which nostalgia is not just memories or imaginations, but instead calls for the embodiment and enactment of practice,’ as theorized by Lorena Munoz) to understand the ways that Deanwood residents use food-related memories, whether real or imagined, as a site of strength and resilience. And, Reese argues, none of this is monolithic: the gendered order, as well as the racialized one, keeps certain ‘productive nostalgia’ possible and such a practice may entrench ideas about societal roles, with potentially positive or negative effects. For example, in the book, Deanwood resident Cliff recounts his childhood memories of eating corn out of his mother’s garden as “country in the city” (p 83) but this is inscribed in gender roles that are seen as traditional and ever-present, even when in reality such neat distinctions no longer exist (if they ever did). Reese notes that “nostalgic imaginaries do not forgive or erase inequities, but they are strategies through which residents sought to reclaim power” (p 89).

An additional theoretical contribution of this book is Reese’s reflection on the ways her identity as a Black woman shaped her interactions during field research, as well as her analysis. In the concluding chapter, referring to work by Irma McLaurin, Reese notes that “the field experiences of Black women scholars are often radically different from those of our white counterparts, and these differences have potential for producing rich theoretical interventions that are often dismissed under the guise of lacking ‘objectivity’” (p 134). Here, I will briefly interject my own positionality to make a specific point. As a white female scholar, I am continually reminded of the need to proactively reorient my own positioning of information if I hope to understand food geographies, and to use this understanding to support a more just food system; But, I am inherently limited in the extent to which I can exercise theoretical empathy with respect to racial inequity, precisely because of my racial(ized) identity. Reese’s reflexivity is important for this study and work in Black food geographies, critical food geographies, and to food studies overall. Akin to Williams Forson’s (2011) question, “What happens to food studies if you put intersectionality at the center?” Reese asks, “where do we go when we put food in the context of Black liberation” (p 137)? This is a future-oriented question that needs to be asked – and one that should continue to be explored.

If I have critiques, they are mainly wishes to know more. Reese states, “changing notions of progress and modernity complicated the concept of self-reliance upon which Deanwood was founded” (p 42). I wondered, ‘what progress, and what modernity in particular – Away from agriculture? Toward standardized supermarkets?’ This is generally implicit in the book, but it would have been interesting to learn a bit more about Reese’s analysis. I also wanted to know even more about memory and ‘productive nostalgia;’ whether and to what extent this connects with Afrofuturist ways of seeing and being in the world – Octavia Butler is evoked, but Afrofuturism is not explicitly discussed. What might a more explicit Afrofuturist lens bring to Black food geographies, to spatial analysis, to critical food geographies? Is this already evident in light of previous work and/or Reese’s questioning about ‘putting food in the context of Black liberation’ (as above)? Or, is this not a relevant lens for specific reasons?

Overall, Black Food Geographies makes a valuable contribution to food systems and geography literature. It should be read by food studies, critical food geography, and Black geographies scholars alike, and will be of great use to graduate and undergraduate students in these and related disciplines. (I have already begun using it in my teaching at both levels!) Reese has provided a timely example of how Black food geographies, as a frame of inquiry, can be used to help strengthen our understandings of the food system – with its embedded inequities – and the possibilities grounded in communities that exist to transform this system toward more just realities.


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