Black Food Geographies: Race, Self-reliance, and Food Access in Washington, D.C.

Megan A. Carney

University of Arizona

Black Food Geographies: Race, Self-reliance, and Food Access in Washington, D.C. Ashanté M. Reese, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2019, 183 pp.

With her book Black Food Geographies, black feminist anthropologist Ashanté Reese does critical work in the project of dismantling anti-black racism as it pervades the U.S. food system as well as the structures—media, politics, institutions—that render food access uneven in the United States. Carefully documenting how decades of enslavement, dispossession, deindustrialization, gentrification, disinvestment, and disenfranchisement have structured unequal food access in black communities, Reese’s work resonates with calls to advance the geography of blackness by delineating a “history of racial encounters” and “black diasporic practices [that] spatialize acts of survival” (McKittrick 2013, 2). More specifically, the book “examines both the macro-level structures that influence and shape local food systems, including grocery store access, and the ways that residents have sought alternatives. Some of those alternatives are material: stores and gardens. Others are more abstract: memories, nostalgia, hopes and dreams” (p. 132).

Black Food Geographies may be read as a counternarrative to the dominant narratives of “food deserts” and violence that have perpetuated myths about the “deficiencies” within black communities and subsequent attempts to justify the “systematic demise of access” (p. 34) to life-sustaining resources. The book could be said to be primarily concerned with two questions: “How have Black people been challenged by and resisted unequal food access?” and “How do quiet food refusals show up in everyday life?” (p. 5). As Dara Cooper of the National Black Food and Justice Alliance writes in her foreword, for these reasons, the book is politically significant in contesting the ways that “mainstream dominant narratives rarely afford Black communities the dignity or humanity of nuance” (p. xiii).

Reese’s book disrupts these dominant narratives, which uphold hegemonic whiteness, in two important ways. First, she intervenes in food studies and related disciplines with a necessary literacy in anti-blackness. Second, she argues that a dismantling of structures that perpetuate anti-blackness needs to be at the forefront of food systems change. In short, the book is as much about race and its place in our society as it is about food. Anti-blackness is a lens for understanding food apartheid and related spatial, wealth, and health inequities, and food is a lens for understanding race and anti-blackness. Reese’s critiques help frame food system issues in ways that diverge from those that tend to dominate academic theory, food system work, media discourse, and politics.

Reese conducted ethnographic fieldwork in Deanwood, a neighborhood in upper northeast Washington, DC, that she notes was “once farmland worked by enslaved Black people” (p. 20). She describes Deanwood’s small-town feel, exhibited by its “Single-family brick and wood-framed homes [and] sizeable front and back yards” (p. 19). Her methodology consists of extensive participant observation, surveys, semi-structured interviews, and archival research, grounded in the black feminist anthropological tradition. As she explains, “My work is based on the assumption that anthropological practice should engage real-world problems, with the hopes of adding nuanced perspectives that will eventually lead to solutions” (p. 136). She cites an early conversation with a resident of Deanwood to illustrate how participants informed the direction of her research: “I left with questions about how Black residents connected past, present, and future in their experiences with navigating an anti-Black food system and what tools helped them to do so” (p. 2).

The book is rich with narratives from Reese’s research participants, through which she illustrates the interrelated importance of place-making and self-reliance among black residents of Deanwood. Working the land is an example of an everyday practice that serves both of these ends in the present-day as well as in the years following the Great Migration: “residents used food production as a means to both resist the subjugation associated with the Deep South and to plant roots that connected their D.C. experiences with their former homes” (p. 25). Reese reframes practices of cultivation as both “skills of subjugation” and “liberation tools” (p. 25). Despite the paradoxical aspects of self-reliance amid problems that “are much bigger than the sum of their individual actions” (p. 123), Reese argues that self-reliance in this context refers to both communal survival and individual gain.

Archival data, presented mostly in chapter 1, help Reese to show how enslavement, dispossession, and segregation shaped present-day black material lives. Chapter 2 explores the ways that Deanwood residents engage with supermarkets—particularly the UnSafeway—through discourses, critiques, and food preferences. Chapter 3 engages with narratives of nostalgia and memory around food as politically significant registers for reclaiming power at the community level. Reese shifts her analysis in Chapters 4 and 5 to examine the historical, social, and symbolic value of one locally owned market and a community garden. Many of the chapters include maps and tables to show how the uneven distribution of wealth and food access has been produced over time and to illustrate other characteristics of the population and region in which she worked.

This book should be required reading for anyone seeking to understand how anti-black racism and food insecurity are coproduced in the United States. Reese’s text is deeply embedded in black food experiences, but her intersectional approach to understanding power and refusal would likely be important for making sense of food apartheid and health disparities among other systematically marginalized and racialized groups, both within the United States and transnationally (e.g., immigrants of precarious or undocumented status, refugees, low-income women of color, working-class families). For instance, her telling of how supermarkets put many of Deanwood’s itinerant vendors and black-owned shops out of business is reminiscent of the effects that NAFTA had on small-scale farmers in Mexico. She explains: “As the [US] food system became more industrialized and usurped by the market economy, residents became more dependent on supermarkets, unknowingly contributing to the destabilization of Deanwood’s local foodscape” (p. 42). In sum, Black Food Geographies makes a formidable and productive contribution to the existing literature. Students, scholars, and practitioners from across the fields of anthropology, geography, food systems, and food studies will derive enormous benefit and gain a crucial toolkit for imagining anti-racist futures from reading this book.

 

Reference Cited

McKittrick, K. 2013. Plantation Futures. Small Axe 42: 1–15.

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