Identifying the Flavor Profiles of African American Culture
Alexandria, VA – March is women’s history month, a time to encourage and celebrate the contributions of extraordinary women in American society. In this issue of the Alexandria Noir, I will shine a light on Dr. Psyche Williams-Forson and her achievements in providing a proactive approach to how food justice is represented in the academic and media arenas.
I encountered Dr. Williams-Forson’s work when she debuted her book Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food and Power at the Alexandria Black History Museum. Dr. Williams-Forson’s expertise is in the humanities, which encompasses American, women & gender identity, communications, historical, and anthropological studies. She is a professor and chair of the department of American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is one of the few African American women who hold this position in the United States.
Zebra: Your publications and scholastic endeavors have centered around African American foodways. What inspired you to dedicate your career to preserving and documenting these cultural footprints?
Dr. W-F: In 1991, I enrolled at the University of Maryland, College Park, to begin graduate work in American studies. During this time, a huge watershed moment for Black women occurred in the humanities space. The prolific writer Alice Walker had recently rediscovered the groundbreaking works of Zora Neale Hurston, Patricia Hill Collins wrote Black Feminist Thought, and Professor Henry Louis Gates, in conjunction with the Oxford University Press & New York Public Library, published a series of works focused on Black women writers in the 19th century.
In the latter publication, I was intrigued by the descriptive details of how food was presented and eaten by the writers during that period. Before then, I was unaware of how multifaceted Black life was in the 19th century.
So, in conjunction with the influx of transformational Black literary works being published and the research I was doing for a professor on Jewish foodways as part of my studies, I began delving into Black foodways and culture. And I have been writing in this genre ever since.
Zebra: What is one thought-provoking food practice you’ve found in your studies?
Dr. W-F: While researching my book Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food and Power, I learned there was an organized network of Black women entrepreneurs in the central Virginia area selling food at train stops. I had never heard of these trailblazing women. I was amazed at how, throughout enslavement, they created businesses that allowed them to build up a nest egg of money to secure their freedom.
These strong Black women were goal-oriented and liberation minded. It’s important because the way the stories are told makes you believe that other people have helped liberate Black folks. Black people were not complacent in achieving their freedom; on the contrary, they were very active participants.
Zebra: Tell me more about your recently published book, Eating While Black: Food Shaming and Race in America.
Dr. W-F: When I was touring in the Midwest for my previous book, I observed a major counter food culture resurgence. After book discussions, attendees would ask me how to start a garden in the community. Most of the time, they were talking about Black communities. My response included asking them if a garden was something that was needed or was it an assumption that was what the Black community needed.
The number of similar questions I kept receiving identified a trend of altruistic performative actions that came off as self-interested. At that moment I knew I had to address the underlying current of how American society portrays Black people and food. Thus, I began writing my book, Eating While Black: Food Shaming and Race in America, published in 2022.
Zebra: Did you have any mentors or people who profoundly influenced who you are, what you believe in, and your commitment to your work?
Dr. W-F: My parents have been the key mentors in my life. I was born into a Black liberation household. My parents were civil rights activists in Farmville, VA. My background was shaped by my parents’ love of community and, being that my father is also a theologian, it was ingrained in me that you are responsible for working for the equality and equity of Black people.
My parents heavily influenced how I approach this work unapologetically and centering on Black people and Black women’s voices. I couldn’t be more grateful.
Zebra: What are some of your favorite Alexandria establishments and why?
Dr. W-F: My family and I moved to Virginia for a short period so my daughter could attend high school. When looking for places to eat, we discovered Della J’s. In times of dislocation, you look for touchstones that help you feel like you belong, and Della J’s become that touchstone. The cornbread, collard greens, fried fish, and fried chicken sandwich were staples we looked forward to on every visit and still crave to this day.
Zebra: What’s next for Dr. Williams-Forson?
Dr. W-F: I am scheduled to do several book talks and a few podcasts about Eating While Black: Food Shaming and Race in America.
I am also developing my next book project, which looks at Black domestic interiors from enslavement to the 1970s. I’m excited about this project because I am formally trained as a material culturalist. I’m interested in how Black people have decorated their homes as a means of participating in American citizenship. So, stay tuned for the release of my next work of art.
Zebra readers can keep up to date with Dr. Psyche Williams-Forson by visiting her website (psychewilliamsforson.com/). She is also on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
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