Black Food Matters: Racial Justice in the Wake of Food Justice. Hanna Garth and Ashanté M. Reese, eds., Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2020, 320 pp.
Chelsey R. Carter
In Black Food Matters: Racial Justice in the Wake of Food Justice, anthropologists Hanna Garth and Ashanté Reese excise the White gaze that tends to envelop global food movement discourse and instead focus on threats to Black people’s lives through food culture. Each of the 12 essays in this innovative edited volume offers an incisive contribution that destabilizes dominant assumptions about the food justice movement. The authors examine uncritical interventions that read Black food geographies (Reese 2019) as “lacking,” “scarce,” and “food deserts” in need of saving from White hegemonic forces. Garth and Reese debunk these anti-Black renderings of food justice and instead “grapple with what survives (Sharpe 2016) when threats to Black life are endemic to the food system” and affect Black well-being (p. 17).
Garth and Reese’s volume engages simultaneously in two important conversations: “one that concerns the persistent threats to Black life and another that concerns problems produced by the increasingly global and corporate food systems” (p. 17). In doing so, epistemological and theoretical interventions bring together 15 food studies scholars interested in survival and agency, food justice, appropriation and gentrification, and land—four of the text’s broader themes that seamlessly connect each essay. Ashanté Reese grounds the compendium, tackling the volume’s first theme, survival and agency, with a stunning ethnographic essay showcasing Black entrepreneurship and agency in Deanwood, a neighborhood in Washington, D.C. While the average food studies critic would not view Deanwood businesses like “Danny’s Ice-Cream-Turned-Food-Truck” and “Derek’s Mobile Food Delivery” as positive food justice interventions, Reese suggests that they should be because businesses like these are improving Black food systems at the local level. Not far from Deanwood, Richard Greene’s chapter tells the story of Cool Springs, South Carolina, a small-town using horticulture, animal husbandry, fishing, and foraging in “preparation for the literal and figurative fight” against the racial and political violence Black communities experience at the hands of the state and racial capitalism (p. 56).
Several chapters address the volume’s second theme of food justice. Chapters 3 (Hassberg) and 4 (Garth) compel readers to (re)imagine the meaning of food justice, to rethink food justice as a movement, and to reckon with the white-washing of the Black Panther Party’s role in improving the health of Black communities through their survival strategies, like the Breakfast Program. Andrew Newman and Yuson Jung’s chapter examines the moral meanings made of economic exchange through Black food culture embedded within Detroit’s food justice movement. The volume’s theme of appropriation and gentrification is tackled incisively through soul food gentrification in Overton, Florida (see Hall’s chapter), BBQ in Memphis (see Kasper’s chapter), and Miami’s “New World Cuisine” (Williams). Through eco–feminism and legal studies, “Sisters of the Soil” (White) and “Race, Land, and the Law” (Wright et. al) address the volume’s third theme, land ownership, the central problem with farming and urban gardening in Black communities. Scholars take on Pigford et al. vs. Glickman and food justice initiatives in Detroit to demonstrate that corporate-giving endeavors (altruism by Whole Foods in Detroit) and state political recognition (read: financial compensation) are not enough in the struggle for an equitable food system.
The editors are clear in the volume’s aims and location, reminding readers that “Blackness is a foundation upon which American food culture was built” (p. 12). At the onset they ask: “What are the particular geographical components that factor into the production, distribution and consumption of food in Black communities? Specifically, what additional questions does a Black geographical lens applied to food ask us to consider and what knowledge is produced at that intersection?” (p. 8) While the volume is U.S.-centric in its geographies, it successfully situates Black food culture within globalized food procurement, agriculture, and distribution. This theme is strikingly argued in the volume’s final chapter, “The Mango Gang and New World Cuisine: White Privilege in the Commodification of Latin and Afro-Caribbean Foods,” where anthropologist Judith Williams juxtaposes Miami’s Mango Gang’s “New World Cuisine” with Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of the Americas in 1492. Here, racial capitalism drives White chefs to “Columbus” Latin American and Afro-Caribbean food culture, sanitizing Latinidad and upholding White supremacist logics that often harm Black and Brown Floridians whom they care nothing about. Each chapter maps various Black food geographies from Florida to Los Angeles to Detroit to Memphis to a small South Carolina town and more—reminding the reader how little we really know about Black food culture because of the historical and present subjugation of Black food culture knowledge(s).
If one were to long for any additional contribution from this robust and thorough volume, it would be for a piece at the intersection of Black food, diet-related diseases, and fatphobia. As a Black medical anthropologist coded as a woman, fat, and dark-skinned, I couldn’t help noticing the absence of this conversation, as Garth, Williams, Kasper, and especially White’s chapters on eco–feminism gesture to the ways in which Black women lead food movements as activists, organizers, and scholars. But, in turn, “52.9 percent of Black women are defined as obese … are two to three times more likely than their white female counterparts to be diagnosed with hypertension, which often leads to cardiovascular disease … and are diagnosed with diabetes at twice the rate of white women and 1.4 times that of Black men” (p. 211). With agencies like “Greening Life and Bettering Life” approaching the food justice movement with a “punitive justice” tactic, how are “logics of ‘health eating’” policed and weaponized against Black women? (p. 126; and see Garth’s chapter). How is the health of Black people’s bodies contested through food? How are Black people, especially women, “envisioning other ways of being and relating” around Black food cultures and geographies in an anti-Black, White supremacist world, when health inequities lay hold of their well-being? (p. 10). This beautiful volume gestures to some of the epistemological and theoretical places to start but left me salivating for more, which I hope comes in a subsequent volume. Nevertheless, medical and cultural anthropologists (and students), specifically those sitting at the crossroads of food studies and medicine can a learn a great deal from this volume, which will hopefully engender more equitable and community centered solutions for people of African descent across the Diaspora.
The afterword by Psyche Williams-Forson reminds us that there are no “tidy answers” to the volume’s critiques, challenges, and conceptual invitations—and this is precisely the text’s most important contribution. The solutions are found within the reader and among Black communities—already doing the work to (re)create and (re)imagine new futures through Black food culture. As Williams-Forson so astutely reminds us, “we ignore their wisdom at our own peril” (p. 283).
Reese, A. M. 2019. Black Food Geographies: Race, Self-reliance, and Food Access in Washington, DC. Chapel Hill: UNC Press Books.
Sharpe, C. 2016. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Durham: Duke University Press.