Beyond the Parentheticals: The Practice of Being in Conversation (Response to “From the Editor: The Politics of Citation in the Field of Food Studies”)

"Okra—Abelmoschus esculentus" by Surely Shirly, licensed under CC CC0 1.0.

Ashanté Reese
Hanna Garth

At the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) this year, I (Ashanté) was on a panel called, “Cite Black Women.” The panel, convened by Dr. Christen Smith, was a follow up to the popular Twitter hashtag she created to center Black women’s theorizing and writing in our various fields. Tweeters post quotes, book passages, and images of Black women they admire. The panel at NWSA was no less popular, as people packed the room on a Thursday afternoon to listen to panelists reflect on our citational practices and the value of citing Black women. In my reflections on citations, I offered a few questions including: how do we promote citing Black women while not creating an exclusionary practice that mimics the canons we seek to disrupt? How can we consider citations as a practice of care—not simply for our own work, but in terms of how we engage others? The latter is a question I would like to follow up on here, because as Dr. Keisha-Khan Perry, who was also a panelist, asked: when we say “citation” what do we actually mean? Do we only speak of adding people to the parentheses and endnotes or do we mean something broader? I think, I would add, that any citational practice that we are serious about begins well before the parentheses—with whom we choose to read and how we engage that work.

I write this after posting on Twitter about the lack of engagement with Black women scholars and Black studies in the eighth issue of Graduate Journal of Food Studies, though Black women were evoked as arbiters of the call to consider the politics of citation. I did not tag the journal or its contributors, but Catherine, then Editor-in-Chief, followed up with me on Twitter citing the examples of when Black women were cited in the respective pieces. This moment took me back to the NWSA panel and thinking about what we mean by citing people. It made me consider who are we teaching, whose work do we position as theorists, and how do we teach our students to read these works? In fields beyond Black/Indigenous/Ethnic Studies, works produced by Black scholars or about Black experiences are often considered context-specific in ways that cannot be applied more broadly. This is one of the tensions we deal with as a field. This, I think, is a tension (and maybe what I actually mean here is the sometime willful erasure) that happens in the academy. It is one reflection of what Nettles-Barcelón et al. articulate as a conundrum of Black women and our relationship to food—we are both hypervisible and unseen at the same time.[1]

I applaud the graduate students who are taking the question of citation seriously. It is bold and reflects that, perhaps, food studies is moving towards reckoning with questions of power and knowledge production. Our comments are not a reflection on you as scholars. They are a reflection of where we are as a field. We take this as an opportunity for us to ask: what do we want our field to look like, sound like, feel like? What do we want our field to be and do? Who do we want our students (and future students) to read? How will we model a citational practice that teaches them to tend to others’ work—engaging it carefully—before and beyond the parentheticals? How will we learn this ourselves? I do not pretend to have the answers. As I stated in the NWSA panel, I am learning ways to expand my own reading practices so that they may be reflected in my thinking and my writing. I am, in effect, thinking deeply about who I am in conversation with and why, sharing these thoughts with those I respect and who hold me in care as I engage work I have not before. Perhaps my own different disciplinary, methodological, and departmental trainings initially shaped with whom I was in conversation. Part of our work moving forward is to choose (and sometimes that choosing includes willfully refusing) practices that get us close to the field we want to see.

Making a Way Forward

Given these problems in the field, how do we make food studies more hospitable/open/inclusive for conversations about difference outside/beyond the parentheses? How do we take up Black scholars’ work as theoretical? Black food scholarship has a long and rich scholarly tradition, much of which has been spearheaded by Black scholars. That said, our approaches are varied, representing different theoretical, methodological, and epistemological approaches to yield different results. Given this variation, it is not sufficient to only use a singular approach to Black food studies; instead scholarly engagement should be broad and encompass a wide range of work.

If we carefully read the African American Food Studies canon, it reveals the ways in which Black cooks, and Black culinary epistemologies were erased from the history of the United States. Indeed, when we carefully read through the canon it becomes clear that Black cooks, usually women, were the creators of numerous “traditional American” dishes, but their contributions were undocumented and stolen by white cookbook authors or the white families for whom the Black cooks worked. Toni-Tipton Martin’s The Jemima Code carefully documents this erasure of Black culinary epistemologies and documents the rise of various facets of Black food culture over nearly 200 years.[2]

Martin cites Robert Roberts, author of The House Servant’s Directory (1827), the first American cookbook to be published under the name of an African American writer.”[3] As Psyche Williams-Forson’s work shows, instead of embracing a rich canon, scholars have too often pigeonholed Black food culture into one narrow type of food, a common misconception built upon the clichés and stereotypes of advertisers who portrayed Black people as dim-witted, incapable, and only useful as “docile servant[s] who [were] always ready to serve.”[4] When we look closely at the literature, we find that there is a whole lesser-known history of teaching “industry and self-reliance” in the kitchen, using fresh fruits and vegetables and maintaining a variety of nutrients in Black cuisine “that shunned frying or dependence upon fatback seasoning.”[5]

While much of the rich scholarship on Black food culture is based in the kitchen, the links between food and Blackness reach out to the fields. Leah Penniman’s sensation Farming While Black has made clear that Black farming can be an act of resistance to white supremacy and a move toward Black self-sufficiency.[6] Penniman notes that the National Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners Conference (BUGS) meets annually and continues to grow, as each year, over 500 aspiring and veteran Black farmers convene to exchange knowledge affirmation our belonging to the sustainable food movement. While some Black farmers find liberation in the land, others face ongoing discrimination barring land access and the right to farm for Black people. Willie J. Wright has theorized Black farmers as resisting systemic racism within the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in his analysis of the class-action lawsuit, Pigford et. al. v. Glickman, which Black farmers levied against the USDA for racial discrimination in farm loans and assistance between 1981 and 1996.[7] Monica White’s work has traced the connections between Black institutions and their leadership with Black farmers.[8] White argues that history and commitment to communally-produced solutions are a manifestation of self-reliance and self-determination, and these lessons apply to all of food studies and beyond. Relatedly Ashanté Reese’s work demonstrates that the “self” in these articulations is less about the individual and more about the ways the community itself can produce alternative ways of being in the world.[9]

The intersections of Black American life and food not only matter for the ways in which Black cooks’ knowledge has been the foundation for many American cuisines, or practices of farming and food cultivation in Black communities, but Black culinary practices also create and recreate food as a cultural form. For instance, poet Nikky Finney has explored rice as a Black cultural form in her book Rice.[10] She analyzes the beauty of Carolina Gold rice alongside the brutality against the enslaved people whose knowledge, skills, and labor brought rice to the region. She links rice to Gullah culture on the Carolina coastal islands. In his bestseller The Cooking Gene Michael J. Twitty is able to weave together nearly every facet of Black food traditions, history, present, and future.[11] He writes of the ingenuity of Black cooks as they created tools for cooking and perfected the timing and measurements needed to produce an amazing cuisine. Twitty recalls the ways in which ingredients from the African continent were incorporated with European and Native American ingredients to create early American cuisine. Kimberly Nettles-Barcelón has documented the role of Chef Tanya Holland’s Brown Sugar Kitchen in maintaining a sense of place and belonging in Oakland, California.[12]

We cite these not as seminal works, but as examples of the broad range of scholarly work produced by Black scholars. We, two Black women junior scholars, recognize that if it is left up to the “official” narrative, it is likely that we would never be included. We’re grateful for the other Black/WOC scholars who paved a way for us in this field. We hope that the questions we pose here offer some thought not simply for graduate students, but those of us who also mentor students at any rank. In the attached bibliography, we include additional sources beyond these that include other scholars of color, too. It isn’t complete, but we hope it is useful for those who want to broaden their practices beyond the parentheses.

Biographies

Ashanté M. Reese (Spelman College) joined the department of sociology and anthropology as an assistant professor in 2015. She completed her Doctorate in anthropology (with a specialization in race, gender, and social justice) at American University in 2015 where she also earned a Masters in Public Anthropology in 2013.  Her dissertation, “Groceries and Gardens: Race, Place, and Food Access in Washington, D.C.” is an ethnographic exploration of food access and community building in a D.C. neighborhood. Situating the neighborhood in historical and contemporary perspectives, she specifically examines the roles of race and class in the gradual decline in food access and in the ways residents actively navigated the decline. In addition to her food studies work, Dr. Reese has conducted ethnographic fieldwork in Baltimore, MD, during which she interviewed aging Baltimore residents about their diabetes care and management to ascertain similarities and differences across race, gender, and class.

Hanna Garth (Assistant Professor of Anthropology, UC San Diego) is a sociocultural and medical anthropologist specializing in the anthropology of food. Her work addresses issues of inequality and structural violence, with regional interests in Latin American, the Caribbean, and the United States. She currently has active research projects in Cuba and Los Angeles. In Cuba, she has conducted research on household food acquisition practices and the changing Cuban food system. In Los Angeles, she has been researching the food justice movement and the organizations that work toward increasing healthy food access in low-income areas. Both projects address issues of race and gender based inequality. She received her PhD in Anthropology from UCLA in 2014, and an MPH focused in Global Health from Boston University in 2006. Dr. Garth has been a UC President’s Postdoctoral Fellow, and a Mellon Mays fellow. For more information on Dr. Garth’s research and teaching interests please visit www.hannagarth.com.

Notes

[1] Kimberly D. Nettles-Barcelón, Gillian Clark, Courtney Thorsson, Jessica Kenyatta Walker, and Psyche Williams-Forson, “Black Women’s Food Work as Critical Space,” Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies 15, no. 4 (2015): 34–49.

[2] Toni Tipton-Martin, The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015).

[3] Tipton-Martin, The Jemima Code, x.

[4] Psyche Williams-Forson, Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006).

[5] Frederick Opie, Hog and Hominy: Soul Food from Africa to America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), in Tipton-Martin, The Jemima Code, 7.

[6] Leah Penniman, Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land (White River Junction: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2018).

[7] Willie J. Wright, “Black Farmers General and Gendered Strikes Against the USDA,” in Living Racism: Through the Barrel of the Book, eds. Theresa Rajack-Talley and Derrick Brooms (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2018), 169–185.

[8] Monica M. White, Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement (Chapel Hill: UNC Press Books, 2018).

[9] Ashanté M. Reese, “‘We Will Not Perish; We’re Going to Keep Flourishing’: Race, Food Access, and Geographies of Self-Reliance,” Antipode 50, no. 2 (2018): 407–24.

[10] Nikky Finney, Rice: Poems (Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 2013).

[11] Michael W. Twitty, The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South (New York: Amistad/Harper Collins, 2017).

[12] Kimberly Nettles-Barcelón, “California Soul: Stories of Food and Place from Oakland’s Brown Sugar Kitchen,” Boom: A Journal of California 2, no. 3 (2012): 18–24.

Last updated: 15 July 2019.

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