Black Food Geographies By Ashantè Reese

Introduction by
Jessica Gilbert And Willie J Wright

Black Food Geographies’ emphasis that food geographies are made, lived, and experienced shows that there is much more to be gained through food geographies research – expressly through the condition of Black communities.

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e are grateful for the opportunity to introduce reviews of Ashanté Reese’s Black Food Geographies: Race, Self-Reliance, and Food Access in Washington, D.C. Each response was originally presented in Washington, D.C., at the 2019 Annual Meeting of the American Association of Geographers (AAG). The session was a collaboration between the Black Geographies Specialty Group (BGSG) and the Geographies of Food and Agriculture Specialty Group (GFASG). Reese’s work unites the foci of both the BGSG and the GFASG. However, unbeknownst to the other, either specialty group initially sought to organize a session on this trailblazing text. Ultimately, the publishing of Black Food Geographies was a fortuitous opportunity to bring our specialty groups together through a co-sponsored Author Meets Allies session (a term we borrowed from a session in honor of Monica White’s Black Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Farmer Movement).

Black Food Geographies’ emphasis that food geographies are made, lived, and experienced shows that there is much more to be gained through food geographies research – expressly through the condition of Black communities. A key contribution of the text is its avowal that scholarly interpretations are but one way of understanding the inequities within our food systems and that it is critical that researchers recognize the knowledge and perspectives of those outside of the academy. Drawing on ethnography, interviews, and participatory methods, Reese brings the sites, celebrations, and experiences of the Deanwood community to the pages and to our imaginations. The voices of Deanwood are so prevalent that we invited one of its residents to partake in the AAG panel session and this special review issue. In fact, in honor of this methodological stance our panel at AAG consisted of two food studies scholars (Priscilla McCutcheon and Kristin Reynolds) and two food justice organizers working in Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, Maryland (Xavier Brown and Sache Jones, respectively). The addition of these organizers complimented the grounded nature of Reese’s research, provided parity to comments made by our two academic panelists, and resulted in an exciting array of insights and interpretations of Reese’s research. Unfortunately, only one of their remarks made it into writing. This is a significant limitation of this collection of reviews.

In addition to highlighting voices outside of the Academy, we had hoped to make the panel session accessible to audiences beyond those registered to attend the conference. Initially, we envisioned hosting the session at one of two Black-owned bookstores in Washington, D.C.: Busboys and Poets or Sankofa Books. We were particularly interested in the latter because it was there that Reese spent a considerable amount of time reading, coding, and writing  while conducting fieldwork as a doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthropology at American University. Unfortunately, we were not successful in hosting our event at either location. However, in conjunction with the Radical Food Geographies pre-conference workshop, the GFASG convened a separate panel of authors (including Reese) of recent food justice-related books at Busboys and Poets. The attendees represented various sectors, including government officials, activists, and scholars, and thus introduced Reese’s work to a wider audience than is traditionally found at the AAG.

Black Food Geographies is timely for a number of reasons. First, it adds to and furthers conversations on Black food and agricultural traditions in urban America. While Reese specifically focuses on the outer rings of Washington, D.C., she notes that this story could be about any predominantly Black space in America. The crux of her argument concerns how Black communities in the outer rings of D.C. navigate devalued communal spaces and create valued food geographies in the face of a rapidly advancing D.C. gentrification project. What the book also makes clear is that though members of the Deanwood community must contend daily with the intergenerational pressures of institutional racism, they nevertheless continue to build upon a generations long tradition of Black self-determination and self-reliance.

Second, Black Food Geographies amplifies the voice of Black women food and agricultural scholars (Grim, 1995; White, 2011) particularly in the realm of geography (McCutcheon, 2019; Reese, 2019). With her recent foray into the discipline (as author, conference attendee, and Assistant Professor of Geosciences at the University of Maryland Baltimore County), Reese adds to the representative and analytical contributions being made by Black women within and from without the field of geography.

Third, though the Deanwood community has a long history of economic self-reliance, Reese notes that this has been out of necessity. Whether in its past heydey as a viable economic enclave or during its present-day struggles to respond to disinvestment, the potential for Black self-reliance to improve the lives of residents has been plagued by institutional racism in the form of policies and practices. Thus, a lasting development from Black Food Geographies and Reese’s discussion of Deanwood is the “limits of agency and self-reliance” as a methods of uplift (11). Without local, state, and federal support, the likes of which scaffolded America’s post-war white middle class (Brodkin, 1998) and now benefits its post-industrial progeny (Moskowitz, 2017), the development of Black communities will remain constrained.

As a scholarly work crafted through anthropological methods, Black Food Geographies does not simply outline, critique, and analyze food geographies in D.C. Instead it includes the voices of the residents that create and make productive use of Deanwood’s green spaces – introducing the Black lives that make Black spaces matter. In the following remarks, our contributors address the theoretical, analytical, and personal aspects of Black Food Geographies – all of which make it an important study of food and Blackness in urban America. Priscilla McCutcheon highlights various benefits of the text. In addition to lauding the Rees’es centering of informal food economies and how she humanizes residents of Deanwood, McCutcheon states what she sees as its future value to the nieghborhood. McCutcheon suggests Black Food Geographies is the kind of text that “will be prominently displayed in Deanwood’s public library indefinitely,” for young bookworms like her childhood self, to explore. Kristin Reynolds makes note of Reese’s contributions to critical food studies – in particular, the theoretical significance of Reese’s centering of small grocers, bartering, and hucksters in the midst of the growth of supermarkets. She also highlights Reese’s methodological contributions as a Black woman ethnographer; “Reese’s reflexivity is important for this study and work in Black food geographies, critical food geographies, and to food studies overall,” she says. Last, Jessica Gilbert views Black Food Geographies as an act of activism that not only exposes Deanwood’s food inequities, but the institutional discriminations that created this “food apartheid” as well as local residents’ generations-long attempts to counteract its affects. As a work informed by grounded knowledges, Black Food Geographies brings to the surface histories that are often elided in critical food studies and geography. This work, its insights, and Dr. Reese are welcome additions to the discipline.

References

Brodkin, K. B. (1998).  How Jews became White folks & what that says about race in America. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.
Grim, V. (1995). The Politics of Inclusion: Black Farmers and the Quest for Agribusiness Participation. Agricultural History, 69(2), 257–271.
McCutcheon, P. (2019). Fannie Lou Hamer’s Freedom Farms and Black Agrarian Geographies. Antipode, 51(1), 207–224.
Moskowitz, P. (2017). How to kill a city: Gentrification, inequality and the fight for the neighborhood. New York, NY: Nation Books.
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.
White, M. (2011b). Sisters of the Soil: Urban Gardening as Resistance in Detroit. Food Justice, 5(1), 13–28.

essays in this forum

Black Food Geographies: The Book That Will Always Be Prominently Displayed

‍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.

Critical Food Geographies

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.

Black Food Geographies: Writing As Activism

‍In her new book, Black Food Geographies: Race, Self-Reliance, and Food Access in Washington, D.C., Dr. Ashanté Reese exemplifies the power of writing as a form of activism. Rather than focusing on and reproducing discussions of suffering and dispossession, Reese challenges dominant, disproportionately white food justice narratives by centering agency and humanity within discussions of structural inequities and anti-Black racism.