Tag Archives: African American History

Melba Patillo-Beals – Warriors Dont Cry (1994)

WarriorsDontCryThis book should be required reading for anyone studying the civil rights movement. I know that can be said for a number of titles, and there’s probably a few I haven’t read, but after reading these memoirs, written by one of the Little Rock Nine, I was floored by how much I didn’t know about the desegregation of Little Rock’s Central High School.

The Civil Right’s movement is so vast and so large that when studying it, the events at Little Rock are mentioned briefly, if at all. I had read about Governor Faubus standing in front of the doors of Central High School and the President ordering federal troops in to protect the 9 Black students, but often times the story ends there. The nine students enter the school, the end.

But of course the story doesn’t end there, the students faced persecution, torment, and physical and emotional abuse at the hands of fellow students; they faced indifference from the Arkansas National Guard, and they faced ostracism from members of their own community. Of course these students faced all these things, and yet I was floored reading Patillo-Beals’ account of her time spent at Little Rock.

These students were some of the most courageous participants in the Civil Rights Movement. Not only did they endure physical harassment, including and incident in which a white student flung acid into Melba’s face nearly blinding her, but they couldn’t do anything about it. While being harassed in the cafeteria by a group of white boys, one of the Black students spilled her soup over them, either accidently or on purpose, resulting in her expulsion. To fight back was to let the segregationists win.

While I thought I was more or less aware of the violence that went along with the Civil Rights Movement, I was still shocked at the physical attacks that these teenagers faced every single day. It really puts things into perspective and provides a look at the Civil Rights Movement through the eyes of a teenage girl.

Kyla Wazana Tompkins – Racial Indigestion (2012)

RacialIndigestionMuch like Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs, this book was much more race/gender/queer theory than food history. This should not be surprising given that the central argument of the book is that eating is central to the performative production of raced and gendered bodies in the 19th century, but I still would have liked to see a bit more discussion about the role of food.

The 19th century is an area that I have a specific interest in so reading this book was still enjoyable, although it was dense at times. I especially enjoyed her discussions surrounding the Alcott family and the different ideas that sprung up surrounding diet that I have discussed earlier. One of the strongest points she made was in looking at how the Americans linked the omnivores diet, which embodies a republican virtue of balance not found among the British, to racial and imperial superiority.

Bread, as it played a central role in American’s diets, also played a central role in this books. She discussed the role of bread in households as well as the impact of the change from open hearth cooking to stovetop cooking had on the family.

While she touches briefly on Sidney Mintz’s work on sugar, I wished she dealt more with it, especially since he is one of the preeminent scholars on the links between food and race. Overall however this was an interesting read.

Psyche Williams-Forson – Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs (2006)

BuildingHousesOutofChickenLegsWhile I was expecting this book to be more in line with the “food writing” that I like reading, it contained much more cultural/race/gender theory than I was expecting, and quite frankly, could handle.

Williams-Forson starts off very strong, asking the important questions of why it is often assumed that African Americans love fried chicken and the damage that this stereotype does to African Americans, particularly women. She outlines the history of African American’s perceived attachment to chicken and traces this view from the height of slavery, when it was assumed that all slaves were chicken thieves, up to Chris Rock’s stand-up routines.

The stereotype is damaging to African Americans, especially women, who are often seen as the producers of fried chicken, but Williams-Forson does mention cases where African American women use fried chicken to empower themselves. She moves past the image of the “Mammy” that many are familiar with and instead explores how women, especially while preparing food for Church gatherings, reclaimed their role as the providers of food.

The first chapters, the ones outlining the history of African American’s perceived ties to fried chicken appealed to me the most. They were the most straightforward, and, for me as someone who studies history, easy to follow. Williams-Forson then wades through some difficult concepts and does her best to show the reader how damanging sterotypes can be, and how African American’s, especially women, attempt to move past them. Unfortunatley a lot of her main points were lost on me, especially when she began to talk about the work of Kara Walker. Still I believe that this is an important book, not necessarily for scholars of food history, but for anyone studying African American history, or histories of race and gender.