From the talented pen of Michael Twitty.
Enjoy this piece I wrote, freshly published on The Guardian giving a short history of how barbecue is connected to American food and freedom through its enslaved African and Native American roots!
From the talented pen of Michael Twitty.
Enjoy this piece I wrote, freshly published on The Guardian giving a short history of how barbecue is connected to American food and freedom through its enslaved African and Native American roots!
The new civil rights film Selma opened on Christmas Day and by January 9th will appear in theaters across the country. In Selma, director Ava DuVernay examines what the film’s official website describes as “the story of a movement [that] chronicles the tumultuous three-month period in 1965, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a dangerous campaign to secure equal voting rights in the face of violent opposition. The epic march from Selma to Montgomery culminated in President Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of the most significant victories for the civil rights movement.”
As previously discussed in this blog, the American South has consistently provided Hollywood with dramatic material since the dawn of film. For much of that history, movies have romanticized the Old South and often portrayed slavery as a benevolent institution. Last year’s Best Picture winner, 12 Years a Slave, helped to right that ship by showing the brutality of slavery in all its forms.
Hollywood has also tried to “do” civil rights films before, though not very successfully. Films like Mississippi Burning (1988) or The Long Walk Home (1990) presented a civil rights story where the heroes were white men and women.
This is not the case with Selma where DuVernay has focused her lens not only on well-known black heroes like Martin Luther King, Jr., but on the real heroes of the movement–local people whose grassroots organizing and willingness to march and subject themselves to violence resulted in changes to our nation’s laws.
Early reviews of the film are either glowing (see the NYT review) or have criticized how the film misrepresented President Lyndon B. Johnson’s role. Joseph Califano, LBJ’s top assistant for domestic affairs from 1965-1969 argues that the Selma march was Johnson’s idea and in his review of the film takes DuVernay’s version to task. DuVernay has responded with vehemence, tweeting that the suggestion that the Selma march was LBJ’s idea is “jaw dropping and offensive to SNCC, SCLC and black citizens who made it so.”
As with any film that seeks to dramatize historical events, it’s always a good idea to read a good book to help you gain perspective. For that, I recommend David J. Garrow’s Protest at Selma: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Then see the film for yourself and decide.
Pop South is pleased to introduce readers to Adrian Miller, author of Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine (UNC Press, 2013), which won a prestigious James Beard Award. Miller will be speaking at UNC Charlotte’s Center City location on Thursday October 2, 2014 at 6pm. There is no charge, but reservations are required. RSVP to Dr. Jeffrey Leak, email@example.com.
Below, Miller talks about soul food and his book.
Q: You aim to explore “where Southern food ends and soul food begins.” What’s the difference between the two?
A: Inside the South, the distinctions between the two are so subtle that it almost seems meaningless. In my experience, black Southerners are just as quick to call soul food “home cooking” or “country cooking.” I found that the Southern diet, particularly after the Civil War, is demarcated more by class than race. In other words, blacks and whites of a similar socioeconomic background pretty much eat the same foods. That said, I find that soul food dishes tend to have more intensity than their counterparts in Southern cuisine. They’re sweeter, more highly spiced and tend to have a higher fat content—all the things that one would expect from a cuisine using a lot of bland starches and lesser cuts of meat. Then there are the differences in preparation. Soul food joints and home cooks tend to have more bone-in meat selections (neckbones, smothered chicken, and meaty soups) and hardcore offerings like chitlins.
Q: You’ve structured your book around the dishes that might be found in a typical soul food meal. Was it difficult to select what to include?
A: Surprisingly, it wasn’t that hard, especially after I did my national soul food tour. Once one gets out of the American South, the soul food offerings at restaurants are pretty uniform. I thought long and hard about okra. It’s such an iconic food item, but I just didn’t see it on many soul food menus in the North and West even though fried okra is popping up at many more mainstream restaurants as a standard appetizer. It’s been more challenging to tell people what makes up my representative meal. As much as I say that I endeavored to describe a general meal that a soul foodie might eat at any time and at any place in the world, they think I’m whacked because I didn’t include their family favorite. I’m sorry, but I just didn’t see a trail of smothered neckbones across the country.
Q: Who are two or three of the most important figures associated with soul food?
A: If you’re expecting me to name a famous chef or TV personality, it’s a no-go with soul food. There really isn’t a Julia Child for soul food. I’m tempted to say Edna Lewis, but she was adamant that her cooking was Southern and not soul food. There are some notable figures out of New Orleans like Leah Chase and Austin Leslie, but I think Creole cuisine is different than soul food. The only person who comes close to being a soul food icon is the recently departed Sylvia Woods of Sylvia’s Restaurant in Harlem. Thanks to her business savvy, New Yorkers and tourists from around the world have made her cooking synonymous with soul. Otherwise, soul food’s most important figures are the cooks who carried on culinary traditions by making Sunday dinner and holiday meals for their loved ones time and time again.
Q: Why are red drinks such an important component of a soul food meal?
A: Throughout our history, African Americans have made red drinks the beverage of choice for social occasions, especially big communal gatherings. There are some popular red drinks in West Africa such as bissap (known as hibiscus tea and agua de Jamaica in the U.S.), and some in the United States such as red lemonade and red soda pop. In present times, it’s hard to imagine a soul food meal without a red drink, whether it be a powdered drink, a punch, or a carbonated beverage. Walk into any soul food joint or fast food place with a primarily black clientele and you’re going to get offered a red drink. I know this is controversial, but I think that red Kool-Aid is soul food’s official drink.
Q: Are you optimistic about soul food’s future—both among home cooks and as a chef-driven cuisine?
A: I am optimistic! There’s so much interest in food now. I know a lot of people who are into watching cooking shows on television even though they will never actually cook. What’s gratifying is that more and more people are in search of and eager to explore bizarre foods, comfort foods, healthy foods, regional foods, unusual foods, and vintage foods. Soul food has all of those elements! I think this interest will move people to cooking instead of just watching TV and visiting a restaurant. The irony is that unless soul food’s stigma can be mitigated, culinary adventurers of all types may end up discovering more about what soul food has to offer than African Americans.
(Interview courtesy of Adrian Miller, author of Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time, University of North Carolina Press, Fall 2013.)
Pop South is pleased to introduce its readers to Zandria Robinson, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Memphis where she’s also an alumna. Dr. Robinson’s new book This Ain’t Chicago: Race, Class, and Regional Identity in the Post-Soul South delves into black southern identity in Memphis, Tennessee. You should also peep her blog New South Negress where she extends the conversation on race, region, and culture she began in her book. (Note: This interview will also appear on this blog under “Porch Talk” as “This Ain’t Chicago with Zandria Robinson”.)
PS: For the uninitiated, tell us about how you arrived at the book’s title “This Ain’t Chicago?”
The title is actually a direct quote from many of my respondents, black southerners I interviewed in Memphis over the course of five years. Initially I noted it as something that people said frequently, but did not immediately grasp its import. I thought that folks were responding to the fact that they thought I was from Chicago because I was attending graduate school there. Later, as respondent after respondent made this comment and gave me varied but similar reasoning about why “this” wasn’t Chicago, I realized they weren’t talking about me, or Memphis, or even Chicago. They were saying, the South isn’t the North; the South is qualitatively different from anywhere else. Once when I was talking to one of my advisors, Chas Camic, about my findings, I told him, “people keep saying, ‘this ain’t Chicago, this ain’t Chicago.’ He said, “sounds like a good title for a book.” And it stuck. It was also a convenient dig at the Chicago School of Sociology, recognized as the “founding” school of American sociology at the University of Chicago, which has dominated how we think about black life and urban studies for nearly a century. (But others like Earl Wright II have shown that actually W. E. B. DuBois founded the first American school of sociology at Atlanta University.) So “this ain’t Chicago” is like the descendants of those African Americans who never left the South, for Chicago or anywhere else, talking back to the descendants of those migrants who have made up the majority of the stories about black life in sociology since WWII, as well as talking back to scholars and others who have ignored the contemporary black southern experience.
PS: What do you mean by a “Post-Soul South?”
Post-soul is a term popularized by the cultural critic Nelson George and expounded upon by Mark Anthony Neal to delineate the contours of the cultural moment after the civil rights movement. For me, “soul” is a cultural shorthand for the music, art, and ideas in black culture between WWII and the assassination of King. King’s assassination is like a scratch across that long soul record that shuts down the party, and though the music began again, it did so with a new aesthetic influenced by the massive social and political changes that came about as a result of the civil rights acts, the deployment and then rolling back of affirmative action, the crack epidemic and mass incarceration, further disinvestment in black neighborhoods, and a host of other deliberate practices that sought to limit the rights of black folks in America. The art produced in and influenced by this context is “post-soul.”
While the South experienced the changes sweeping across all of America beginning in the 1970s—the effects of deindustrialization and globalization, the entrenchment of neoliberalism, suburbanization and destabilization in the urban core, etc.—the notion of a post-industrial, post-soul, or post-civil rights moment means something different in the place where rural patterns of government and industry prevailed, the blues was still being created and lived, and government officials had publicly declared segregation forever. Further, the legacy of slavery, evangelical religiosity, higher black-to-white population ratios, and the expansion of plantation power affected how southerners experience the historical and cultural moment after King’s assassination as well.
PS: Why do you believe Memphis is an ideal place for discussing the American South’s racial and regional identity?
As my colleague and sociologist Wanda Rushing argues, Memphis is “neither Old South or New South,” by which she means it doesn’t have a legitimate legacy of the Old South like your major slave ports on the eastern seaboard with their towering plantation homes and wealth, nor does it have the glitz and progressive shine of a bustling New South metropolis like Dallas or Atlanta. For me, Memphis sits at the intersection of soul and post-soul, rural and urban, civil rights, and post-civil rights. It is the site of the creation of some of the most important soul music ever, which is now sampled in the post-soul era all throughout hip-hop and R&B music and beyond, all over the world. It is symbolically, historically and geographically linked to the Mississippi Delta, which historian Jim Cobb has aptly called “the most southern place on Earth,” and the city is populated with country folks who make and are re-made by the southern urban landscape here. And it is a place where King was assassinated and today the African American infant mortality rate is amongst the highest in the nation. The social justice goals that need to be met here—addressing poverty, investing in children and human capital, eliminating health disparities, challenging environmental racism, amongst others—are directly related to the unfinished legacy of King. They also echo throughout the South, where negative outcomes abound for the most vulnerable groups. Essentially, Memphis is a place where you can examine snippets of “old” and “new” South as they collide with one another in urban space. It’s where the things that we popularly think make southerners southern intersect with the things that we popularly think make black folks black.
PS: Since this is a blog that examines the South in popular culture, how does your book engage with popular culture?
This Ain’t Chicago is really about my love affair with popular culture, and black southern popular culture in particular. In the middle of an analysis of some ethnographic data you’ll find gestures towards Outkast lyrics. At first, I set out to write an urban sociological text, one that inserted a southern city into the urban sociological landscape to shake us out of our disciplinary deference to Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. But my background in literary criticism, as well as the fact that it was in popular culture where the work on the contemporary black South was being done, meant that This Ain’t Chicago became much more about the relationship between people’s ideas and popular culture representations of their experiences. I take popular culture just as seriously as “data” as I take my respondents’ sentiments. In fact, it is black southern popular culture, and hip-hop in particular, that was doing the ethnographic work about the South when sociologists were not. Three Six Mafia, Gangsta Boo, 8-Ball and MJG, Arrested Development, Ludacris, T.I., Outkast, Nappy Roots—the list goes on and on—were giving us a visual and lyrical ethnographic analysis of the post-soul South through their music and music videos while sociologists were still talking about Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles and historians were talking about everything before King’s assassination. So popular culture is really a starting place for me in thinking through questions about racial and regional identity, and I bring analyses of hip-hop, film, and other popular culture artifacts to the fore in the book.
PS: What projects are you working on next that followers of Pop South would find interesting?
I’m working on a project about black southern bohemians, sort of poking at the whiteness of the notion of bohemians in the South (Austin, TX, Athens, GA, Asheville, NC) and the New York-ness of the notion of black bohemians. In particular, I’m thinking about how black southerners create and maintain bohemian cultures that manifest in art, music, photography, and other aesthetic practices. And I’m also thinking about how race and regional identity affect black southern bohemianism. André 3000 of Outkast is often seen as sort of the black southern bohemian as if he is an anomaly of some sort. But there are other examples in popular culture and certainly on local black arts scenes that demonstrate that for black southerners, bohemianism is a cultural and aesthetic response to the constraints of race, class, and region on black life that many folks employ. So, I’m exploring these ideas through the same sort of mix of ethnograpy and popular cultural analysis that This Ain’t Chicago employs.
Check out Professor Robinson’s interview with Dr. Regina Bradley for her series Outkasted Conversations:
Duck Dynasty, the enormously popular reality television program produced by A&E, is under fire thanks to some eye-opening statements made by Phil Robertson, the family patriarch, in an interview with GQ magazine. That’s Gentleman’s Quarterly, in case you were wondering. And, the comments weren’t so, shall we say, gentlemanly.
Essentially, Daddy Duck equated homosexuality with being one train stop short of bestiality. And, he seems to believe that “the blacks” who worked for white farmers in his home state of Louisiana were “happy,” going so far as to say “I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field…. They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!” (from “The Gospel According to Phil,” GQ Blog, December 18, 2013). Since Robertson quacked the truth, he’s been suspended indefinitely from the show.
No one should be surprised by this and it was just a matter of time before we were going to hear it, if not from Phil, then perhaps one of his sons. We can expect religious conservatives to make negative comments about gays. We can also expect a white southerner of Phil’s generation to refer to African Americans as “the blacks,” as though they are a separate species. In that regard, he has something in common with Paula Deen.
Yet the focus has been on his statements about homosexuality. Gay advocacy groups like The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) have been been quick to call Robertson out for what it says are “anti-Christian” views. That’s red meat for conservatives, who have jumped to his defense saying that liberals are “hysterical” (Rush Limbaugh), or “intolerants” (Sarah Palin), and that Phil was just expressing his First Amendment Rights (Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal).
No one seems to have taken much issue with A&E who has crafted a statement distancing itself from Robertson’s remarks. Yet producers knew. Robertson was quoted in the GQ article as saying “we’re bible thumpers who just happened to end up on television.” The network understood this going into its contract (and re-negotiations) with the beards. And anyone paying attention knows that the more popular Duck Dynasty has become, the more free the family has been about sharing its conservative values and, in Phil’s case, strict interpretation of the bible.
For what it’s worth, I believe that Phil Robertson has a right to his opinions and his beliefs. The problem, of course, is that he’s on an enormously popular television show with millions of viewers over whom he has tremendous influence. And while he has since given a statement “I would never treat anyone with disrespect just because they are different from me,” what he fails to realize is that there are people who are fans of the show who would disrespect others. Or worse. And therein lies the problem.
Perhaps the profits for A&E have outweighed the risks. The network has certainly been down this path before with Dog the Bounty Hunter. Remember him? People may have forgotten that Dog was recorded using the “n-word” and not too long after, A&E cancelled the show. It may come to this, much to the chagrin of Duck Dynasty fans, but for now it will be played out as a culture war cast by conservatives as a battle royale between “defenders of free speech” and the “Gay Mafia.”
Let’s all grab some popcorn.
IMPORTANT UPDATE: After tweeting Scott Brandon of the Brandon Agency about these offensive commercials, they have been removed from YouTube. Coincidence? I think Pop South as well as viewer comments must have gotten their attention. (4/19/2012)
I wonder if you have seen these commercials by Glory Foods? It’s a company out of Columbus, Ohio, that specializes in canned goods they call “Southern food with a soulful heritage.” In one, there’s a frustrated white housewife in the kitchen and she’s having trouble in preparing dinner for her guests. What’s she going to do? Not to worry, a black woman (known as “Shirley” on the company’s website) busts through the door to help! As she prepares the food, a can of Glory collard greens, the white woman can relax. Not only does she have a black woman working it out for her in her kitchen, she’s got food that already has its southern seasoning. Even better, Shirley plans to stay hidden in the kitchen as she shouts to the white woman “Now get on out there, and take all the Glory!”
I thought this was an unfortunate commercial, until I saw a second and related commercial. It’s the same white woman, although this time her two children are involved, shouting and banging their forks and knives on the table. Who’s going to rescue Miss White Lady now? You guessed it, the canned black domestic.* She’s going to set those mouthy children straight, make sure they eat their vegetables, and guess who gets to take “all the glory?” Miss White Lady.
I wonder what is going on here, because it looks like Glory Foods is taking its cues from The Help. But this isn’t 1960s Jackson, Mississippi. I went to the website of the company and that’s where I discovered that this is a black-owned business with an African American CEO who has an MBA from Duke University. So what gives?
Who is the company trying to reach with these commercials except, perhaps, all those white women who read The Help and are looking to recapture some of that for themselves? It’s certainly an interesting marketing ploy. Perhaps that is the point. And guess what?
The Brandon Agency, a South Carolina-based advertising agency with offices in Myrtle Beach, Charleston, and even Charlotte, North Carolina are behind the TV commercials. The agency was hired by Glory Foods back in February, which explains why these commercials have recently appeared in Charlotte. Take a look at the agency’s website and you’ll find something very interesting–the entire leadership team is white. That’s right. White “originalists” (the term the agency uses to describe company leaders and probably found in the bottom of a cocktail glass) from South Carolina came up with the Glory Food campaign featuring a modern-day Aunt Jemima.
However, this shouldn’t let Glory Foods off the hook. If this company were run by whites we’d be all over it with this analogy to The Help, which is why I don’t understand why Glory Foods and The Brandon Agency aren’t being called out for perpetuating this particular southern stereotype.
Maybe not enough people have seen these commercials or realize the underlying assumption (or history) of mammy in the kitchen. If they had, they’d be as concerned about this image of black women as I am.
If you were to drive south on I-77 and exit onto Arrowood Road in Charlotte, North Carolina, you would eventually run across a development called “Taragate Farms.” I had no idea it existed until recently, when I was invited to have dinner at a home in the neighborhood.
At first, I didn’t think too much about the sign that sets out in front announcing one is entering “Taragate.” However, as I followed directions on my Garmin I started noticing street names. Driving down “Scarlett Circle” my eyes were alerted to themes of Gone with the Wind and the Old South. In the same neighborhood, just off of Scarlett Circle is “Rhett Court” and “Rice Planters Road.” “Julep Lane” intersects with “Pitty Pat Court.” “Antebellum Drive” is just off of “Johnny Reb Lane,” and “Sherman Drive” (appropriately) crosses over “O’Hara Drive.”
Well, of course, I had to investigate. It turns out that sometime in the 1980s, Ryan Homes created Taragate and, hold on to your hoop skirts, “Twelve Oaks”–two neighboring housing developments in an area that is so far south of the city, one might call it the Deep South of Charlotte.
I have no idea to whom they were marketing these neighborhoods twenty-five years ago, but today the residents reflect a far more diverse population than one would expect to be living in a development with attachments to the Old South or Gone with the Wind. Indeed, my dinner hosts were African American, and their neighbors were both white and Asian.
On the one hand I was impressed by the extended marketing reach of the novel and the film, such that in the 1980s developers wanted to “recreate” Tara and Twelve Oaks. Yet, I also wondered what my dinner hosts thought about it–you know, with references to plantations and all. But while I was fascinated, they seemed unfazed.
Clearly, Gone with the Wind has lost some of its relevance, despite the big 75th anniversary celebrations of the book going on this year. Today, however, neither the book nor the film does the kind of damage it once did to the progress of race relations in the United States, even though the portrayals of African Americans remain offensive. Although people around the globe will be commemorating Margaret Mitchell’s tome on the Old South in 2011, at Taragate and Twelve Oaks there will be folks wondering what the fuss is all about.