African-American Ethnic Identity and the Post-Slavery Diet
By Krislyn Placide —
There were many ways that European slave-owners subjugated their slaves. Beatings, excruciatingly long work hours, tattered and stark living conditions are essentially given in any written depiction of this dark time in our nation’s history. However, oppression through foodways is in most cases an untold story, despite food being such a big part of ethnic narrative. Fried chicken, collard greens baked in animal fat and chitlins find their way into much of black modern day popular culture, from movies to Internet memes.
Though these foods are specific to the American South, the stereotype stipulates that all Black people from all other regions, including native Africans and Caribbean islanders, eat the same foods. This static image of the Black diet is oppressive not only because it implies that culture does not change over time and fails to recognizes the dynamism of a creolized material culture, but also limits the foodway options for Black people today. Furthermore, the African-American diet in popular culture is made up of foods and cooking styles that doctors, nutritionists and health professionals often discourage. It is no surprise that in health news, one often reads about studies that point out that African-Americans are more prone to heart disease, colon cancer, diabetes, and other afflictions that are connected to genetics, but are also largely the result of a poor diet.
Defining Being Black
To understand ethnicity through diet, the researcher will take a post-processualist stance. This project’s operational definition for ethnicity comes from Frederik Barth as cited in the work of Randall McGuire (1981:160):
A categorical ascription is an ethnic ascription when it classifies a person in terms of his basic, most general identity, presumptively determined by his origin and background. To the extent that actors use ethnic identities to categorize themselves and others for the purpose of interaction, they form ethnic groups in this organizational sense.
Mcguire builds on this definition to show not only that ethnicity is determined by a group, but also by outsider groups in relation to power dynamics. His theory of ethnic boundary maintenance, enforced by both the dominant groups and minority groups, drives this case study. For marginalized groups, ethnicity can become a means to “gain access to critical resources and power (161).
To add another dimension, groups can also use ethnicity as a way to reject the material culture of the dominant society. In Mark Warner’s speech, he discussed material culture associated with Whiteness, matched sets of ceramics, and how he found that both African-Americans and Indians rejected this culture. “Thus what we have are the consumer actions of individuals that almost certainly would have had no connection with each other…there is a suggestion of a form of multi-minority rejection or modification of White material behavior.” When applied to foodways, the interaction of cultures could push African-American post-slavery diets in multiple directions, arguably being one of many causes of Black dietary variation. Perhaps African-Americans would choose to integrate European diets into their own to access White freedom. Perhaps they would completely reject the European diet so as to distance themselves from Whites. Still another possibility is that Blacks reclaimed parts of their previous diet as a way to reconnect to the West African past. Furthermore, all three of these scenarios may be coming into play simultaneously.
Madame H.M. Taylor lived at 819 Foster in the last years of her life according to the 1910 U.S. Census that lists her living there. She died at age 75 in 1917 as a widowed caterer. She had no children but had boarders living in her house. She had come a long way from her modest beginnings. Taylor was born Josephine Harper, a slave in Louisville, Kentucky. She was one of eight children in Thomas and Mary Harper’s household (Census, 1850). Stolen away from slavery and brought to the Chicago area as a young child, she eventually moved to Evanston as a servant for the J.D. Easter, James H. Raymond and J.J. Parkhurst families according to her obituary (Craven).
By 1880, Madame Taylor had plans for her own business in the works. No longer a servant, Taylor had space in the Evanston Directory advertising wigs, waves, switches, curls, coquettes, frizettes, etc (Evanston Directory 1880-1) (Figure 5). Meanwhile, she was using some of her profits to fund the Ebenezer A.M.E. Church of which she was a founding member (History 1965). In the mid-1890s, Taylor’s business shifted from hairdressing to catering (Evanston 1895) which suggests that she not only had control over her own food choices, but had a stake in those of others as well.
In the Shorefront Legacy Center’s research files, a few newspaper articles point out the class status of Madame H.M. Taylor—she seemed to be accepted in popular and educated, middle class circles of both Black and White groups. She was president of the Union Social Club. When she delivered a speech about slavery at Union Hall, a reporter covering the event wrote of her:
Mrs. H. is a lady of good culture and showed on that evening that she was thoroughly conversant with her theme. She related a number of incidents of slave life which helped her hearers to adjust conception of the barbarities of slavery. All she asked for her people, was, a fair chance in the race of life (Craven).
Her wedding day also made it into the Evanston Index, in which the reporter wrote, “About sixty witnessed the ceremony, and afterwards partook of a collation fit for the gods. A third of them represented the purest Anglo-Saxon blood we have got in the village.” Strange diction aside, one can gather that a good meal was served and respected White people attended. Even in her old age, when she began to take work as a maid as well as catering, Taylor maintained some social status. A reporter from the Evanston News-Index wrote in her Taylor’s obituary:
Since that time she has served various families but was always independent and would never work for a family that she thought did not “belong.” At one time she had charge of the catering for the Beta Theta Phi house and never was there a more popular cook among the students (Craven).
Not much more is known about Madame H.M. Taylor. The historical records of African-Americans living in Evanston in the late 19th and early 20th century are scant, even for business owners and entrepreneurs like Taylor. This purpose of this proposal, beyond understanding agency in terms of diet and nutrition, will be to focus attention back to an under-recorded history and underappreciated contributors to local and regional communities. The researcher will discuss this purpose more in-depth in the Significance and Engagement sections of this proposal.
This project will have significance on an academic and historical level, providing insight into a gap in history that really deserves mention. Madame H.M. Taylor and other entrepreneurs in Evanston helped build the town to what it is today and yet little is known about them. Furthermore, stereotypes of African-Americans extend beyond class and social status into some of the seemingly mundane aspects of life including food. Analyzing Taylor and her boarder’s food choices and nutrition will hopefully show the transitional effects of having control over food choices. This could have broader impacts for African-Americans and for the media at large. Even through health news recommends cutting fatty meat intake, it is rare to find West African vegetarian recipe recommendations. The creolized African-American diet could shift closer to Native West African diets to be healthier and more nutritious. To retain the standard American diet, despite increased general knowledge in the public about nutrition and diet, is to invite dietary oppression. Eating European staples like dairy and processed grains instead of native grains like rice, teff and millet is a modern form oppression.
A quick look at food desert studies and the USDA Food Desert Locator shows that African-Americans do not have access to the same health and nutrition that Whites do, despite having once consumed a diet based on whole grains and vegetables. Awareness of pre-slavery diets would open up food options and choices for African-Americans. Furthermore, it could dispel the myth of vegetarianism and veganism as White phenomena from which Blacks should distance themselves. This project will hopefully show how diets can shift in order to facilitate the implementation of this change. Communication with descendant communities will be crucial to spreading this awareness and gauge how ethnic identity in connection to diet can change within a group.
Engaging Descendant Communities
Though H.M. Taylor had no children, the African-American and Haitian-American populations in Evanston can be considered descendant communities in the context of this project. Black anthropology students will be encouraged to participate in the project, though students from all races will be accepted to work on the project, simply because there would be an inherent ethical issue in a group of White scholars instructing the Black community how to eat, native diet or not. The most important piece of engaging descendant communities is dialogue. Community meetings and potlucks can be the settings for discussion of the impact of African-American entrepreneurs like Madame H.M. Taylor and also the impact of a changing, creolized diet.
Even if the researchers may personally feel that the West African diet is healthier and should be incorporated more into the modern diet, this is a decision that the communities can make themselves after discussing the research and evidence for the project. Again, these community meetings and potlucks will not be exclusive to African-Americans despite taking place in predominantly Black neighborhoods. Members of all ethnic groups living in the Evanston and Chicago area will be free to participate. “This project and the historical and anthropological resource is represents, can only be enhanced when people with different agendas and ideologies enter into a deeper dialogue (Laroche 1997: 100).”
Note: This excerpted article is reprinted with permission from the full paper, Beyond Fried Chicken: African-American ethnic identity and the post-slavery diet, by Krislyn Placide. Northwestern University, Archaeology of Ethnicity. The article has been shortened for length. The complete text, with full citation, is available at the Shorefront Legacy Center.