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Fried chicken, watermelon, and the origins of racist food stereotypes

Fried chicken, watermelon, and the origins of racist food stereotypes
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“I’ve been advocating for African Americans to take the sting out of these things by showing the complicated history of these foods but then showing how African Americans made a significant contribution to making these things that people love,” Adrian Miller, a culinary historian and the author of “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time,” told me during an interview. “By perpetuating the shame, we’re giving that stereotype further power. I’m saying, ‘Let stop being shameful about it.’”

Of course, that can be easier said than done.

On my first trip to Italy years ago, my friends and I did something we’d never dared before — we ate watermelon in public, purchased from a street vendor in Rome. It was both delicious and deliciously subversive. Outside America, we believed ourselves immune to the ugly stereotypes about Black people and watermelon we’d heard all of our lives.

What we didn’t know then, and many still don’t know now, is the origin of those stereotypes.

With the Confederacy’s defeat and slavery’s end, early Black entrepreneurship was bolstered by women selling their fried chicken and other home-cooked foods to hungry white railroad passengers at train stops. Likewise, watermelon was a cash crop and a token of financial independence for the formerly enslaved. But white Southerners viewed any modicum of Black success as an affront to their own sense of dominance.

It wasn’t long before grotesque caricatures of Black people with the same foods they used to empower themselves appeared on silverware, sheet music, and salt-and-pepper shakers. Syndicated cartoons in newspapers meant that racist imagery that began in the South didn’t stay in the South. Those renderings also emphasized that since fried chicken and watermelon are traditionally eaten with the hands, Black people and these foods were uncouth and unclean.

“What racist whites did was wield their ‘soft power’ and start a culture war,” said Miller, whose most recent book is “Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue.” White people “used entertainment, media, and other things to start putting out these disparaging images of African Americans and the message was this — these people are less than human, they’re childlike. Why in the world would you ever give them full rights?”

Adrian Miller, whose books include “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine.”Tim Ryan

Never mind that white people also enjoyed these foods. These same items were never used as evidence of white people’s unworthiness to be full participants in American society. Meanwhile, D.W. Griffith’s Klan-glorifying 1915 film “Birth of a Nation” portrayed Black people (white actors in blackface) as elected officials barefooted and eating fried chicken in Congress.

Those stereotypes remain pervasive. Tiger Woods has twice been targeted by fellow golfers. The reigning winner of the Masters tournament sets the menu for the following year’s Champions Dinner. And when Woods won his first Masters in 1997, Fuzzy Zoeller told reporters to “tell him not to serve fried chicken next year. . . . Or collard greens or whatever the hell they serve.” More than a decade later, Sergio Garcia was slammed for saying he would invite Woods, then his rival, to dinner and “serve fried chicken.”

Some foods have been twisted into such painful racist tropes, Miller said, that he has encountered “high-profile African American chefs who refuse to make fried chicken and other soul food because of the stigma.”

“If you were to ask your typical foodie to name someone associated with fried chicken, they’re more likely to say Thomas Keller or David Chang than any African American,” he said. “And those dudes are making loot off of something we were known for. We were the standard bearers for fried chicken excellence.”

Certainly that’s a story students should know. But schools get it wrong by simply serving fried chicken without historical context or, as Xaverian Brothers High School officials did, discussing these foods only as a feel-good tale of Black empowerment. Don’t leave the white part silent. Tell the whole story, even if it causes some people discomfort.

“This can be a teachable moment, and it can be a time for celebration,” Miller said. “But these institutions have to first do outreach [to Black parents and students] and listen. And you have to do the food well — because who wants to go through all of this for some nasty fried chicken?”


Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her @reneeygraham.





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