In Conversation: Psyche Williams-Forson and Tracey Deutsch

Prof. Psyche Williams-Forson


Prof. Psyche Williams-Forsonrecently gave an exciting talk, “Your Intent, My Resentment: When Impact and Intent Result in Black People’s Food Shaming.” Tracey Deutsch sat down with Prof. Williams-Forson to learn more about her path as a feminist food studies scholar and her upcoming project, Eating While Black: Food Shaming and Food Policing in African-American Communities.

T: How did you come to be interested in food at all, as an object of study?

P: I became interested in food…from being a researcher for Hasia Diner.  I originally came to Maryland with an interest in material culture, but mostly in new historicism. I have a literary background so my excitement was not just the literary word, but the literary word in its historical context. When I went to Maryland and learned that studying objects was a thing, I became excited. I was working for Hasia (who was working on an article about Jewish peddlers).

When I was doing research for her, I came across the term “foodways.” I wondered, did African-Americans have this word? I had never heard it before. Most of my research resulted in cookbooks, in one form or another. From these, I learned a lot about what [African Americans] apparently eat, but not “why.” I asked myself“why are these particular foods associated with African-American people?”  So that was the beginning of my entry into food studies

T: You mentioned at your talk that you feel food is still not taken seriously in the academy. Do you want to elaborate?

P: Twenty-five years ago, the Chronicle of Higher Education did an article where they seized on this new area of food studies. They argued that it was scholarship-lite. Some of the earliest contributors to the field, Warren Belasco, Amy Bentley, Carol Counihan, Ken Albala, started publishing ferociously. Since then you have had the evolution of all these societies and meetings—e.g., the Association for the Study of Food and Society and journals [e.g. Food & Society, Gastronomica, Food and Foodways].  All of that has all given legitimacy to the field. But as a whole, it doesn’t get the attention it should…Some of this is because it is a sub-field in many disciplines. For example, American Studies, History, Sociology, Philosophy, Communication, and others are starting to recognize food as a critical lens of inquiry. But, Anthropology, folklore, and Archeology, have long sense recognized the value of studying this aspect of the material world. That being said, few seem to recognize that food studies, is and of itself, an area of study. It’s starting to pick up, but even as this is happening, the part that doesn’t get the legitimacy is the intersectional conversation. People discuss food from their disciplinary vantage point, but often without interdisciplinary or intersectional analysis.

T: One of the common responses I get from people when I tell them what I work on is, “that must be fun! You must have the best time in your classes.”

P: Right, like people think you eat a lot in the classes. And that is always a misconception with our students. The first thing I say to them is that you will not be eating [in this course], unless you bring food. It’s very interesting: I wrote an article two years ago where I explained that I absolutely do not cook for my students. One of the editors was really taken aback, and I said, as a woman of color, that would place me in line with so many stereotypes. When I taught at a small liberal arts college and taught the Freshman Seminar, I arranged for a student lunch. We had that catered but aside from that, I do not cook for my students. But it’s not just me, I was with a woman awhile back who said she felt that she didn’t feel like her colleagues take her work seriously. She mentioned that she does cook [for classes] and that she often also has her colleagues over to her home and she cooks for them because she enjoys it. She seemed not to connect her interests in nurturing and caring for her students and colleagues with her identity as a food scholar or a woman of color; even when I asked if she saw a connection….

T: It’s interesting that food illuminates that conversation about the politics of reproductive labor. The person that does the work [of cooking meals], is not the person you need to take seriously.

P: That’s right, and people don’t correlate inside the home and outside the home. Both the reproductive and intellectual labor…The amount of time it took to coordinate a massive Sunday meal, from thinking it through, to production, to service, to clean up, is an incredible enterprise. How much do we tend to disregard the work that goes into the food that sits in front of us?

T: I think sometimes even the people doing the labor discount it

P: Totally, and … in doing so we reinforce the elision of this particular [intellectual and reproductive] labor

T: Do you want to tell us about your experience of writing Building Houses out of Chicken Legs?

P: It was my dissertation and though I knew I wanted to write about women and food, I didn’t know what food I would focus on. In late-1990s, three things happened that brought me to chicken. First, Tiger Woods won the Masters in 1997 and Fuzzy Zoeller made a racist jokeabout serving fried chicken to Woods. Second, there was a new commercial out with an animated Colonel Sanders.  Third, a fraternity had a party and advertised it on MLK Jr Day with a bucket of chicken. So I started out writing about the persistence of the stereotype of African Americans and chicken. But six months in, I was zapped, because it was so demoralizing and draining. A colleague, Marcie Ferris sent me a clipping of a fried chicken festival, which I stuffed away in a folder. I was still exploring what direction to go…sheet music, literature, a number of different texts when I went back and looked at that image and my material culture skills kicked in. I recognized that the image was not a re-enactment. I started to pull that thread…and it led me to Gordonsville, VA where the festival had just occurred. I went to a small historical society that year, and found a group of women who were being celebrated that year as the first group of African-American female entrepreneurs in the city. After reading that story, I decided this was the story I wanted to tell. So, I incorporated those stories into the narrative that I was writing. I knew I wanted to hear from African-American women themselves about what [chicken] meant to them, and I explored that through a variety of texts to glean some understanding not what people were saying about African-Americans and chicken, but what these women were saying themselves.

T: One of the wonderful things about that book…was that because it relies upon the words of African-American women, it complicates the notion that you can make generalizations. [Instead, it shows] that food is embedded in hierarchies within social circles and the function [of food] for the people that are making it and using it and serving it.

P: That analysis is the very thing I want this new book to do. To show the contradictions between women and men, between socio-economic classes of African-Americans, between regional populations…this new project I really want to broaden and hone in on the differences within African-American communities; which makes it impossible to make homogeneous any racial or ethnic group.

T: Do you have a working title for the book?

P: The working title is Eating While Black: Food Shaming and Food Policing in African-American Communities. That may change. I had this title prior to the current dialogue on “doing everything while Black.” I am wedded to Eating while Black because it is one of those things that in this cultural model could run afoul of so many arbiters of surveillance.

T: The surveillance around food is increasing and enormous.

P: It is enormous…not just around Black and Brown people… this is applicable to every single culture. But because of the dynamics of African-American culture, and our histories and the fact that seemingly everything we do is under a microscope, we might experience [eating] differently…because of how our food cultures have been maligned, you are going to get a different reading than you would with another racial or ethnic group. That is where this new book is trying to go.

T: Thank you for sharing your work with our campus and community. We look forward to reading more.