“The foods of different peoples, shaped by habitat and by our history, [became] a vivid marker of difference, symbols both of belonging and of being excluded.” –Sidney Mintz
As many of you know, I’m a doctoral candidate in my offline life. As a PhD-in-training, I’m expected to share about my research at conferences and in publications. Last week I attended Food for Black Thought at the University of Texas-Austin where I was able to share about the work I’m doing in D.C. Talking to Ricks, I realized I haven’t shared much (if anything) about the research I do on the blog, so here you go. Last Friday morning I was up way before sunrise in Austin, Texas thinking about the presentation I would give that day. I sat up in bed and wrote:
I’m awake in Austin, Texas. I present at Food for Black Thought today. I slept very little last night; maybe I’m anxious. What do I want people to know about Deanwood? About my research? I want them to know Deanwood is a place with history. It isn’t perfect but most of the people who live there-especially the elders love it precisely because of it’s history; because it has become the place that it is because of Nannie Helen Burroughs, Carter G. Woodson, and other black folks who invested time and money into it. I want them to know that it’s changing; that the city has prioritized Deanwood as a site for “revitalization” (read: gentrification), and retaining current residents is not high on the priority list. In five to ten years, Deanwood won’t look the way it looks now. As for food–it’s complicated. Just like other places that are labeled “food deserts” (I have a love-hate relationship with this term), it has the corner stores, the liquor stores, the fast food joints, and carry-outs. but we have to be careful of leaving the story there, because Deanwood also has a rich history of trading goods from gardens (long before community gardens were a “thing”), supporting hucksters selling door-to-door, and being a commercially vital neighborhood, earning it the nickname “a self-reliant” community). I don’t mean to idealize the space. This history primarily lives in the minds of residents and in the life of oral traditions, since there is very little written history about the neighborhood. These histories are threatened when we talk about food deserts as having no past and potentially no future. These spaces/places are always in flux and the changes are complicated, set in motion by a number of things: elders dying, rapid globalization that affected local industry, young professionals moving into the neighborhood, lack of economic investment, etc. etc. etc. And here we are in the present where the biggest thing I want people to know is food is never just about food. Deanwood is such a powerful example of what a neighborhood (complete with traditions and history) looks like after systematic disinvestment. Food is simply nestled within layers of power and culture and to meaningfully engage, those layers cannot be neglected.
So there you have it folks. This is the type of research I do. I’m very grateful for spaces like Food for Black Thought and colleagues like Naya and Michael Twitty (check out his blog http://www.afroculinaria.com). In that type of space, I don’t have to separate myself into different beings. I can bring my whole self, and I think because of that, I’m growing into a better scholar. That’s part of the reason I’m inspired to share here. Writing a dissertation is a big part of my life these days. Makes no sense not to share with our faithful readers, right?
I might start blogging more about research in the future, but for now, this is what I would like you and the world to know. For the readers who might be interested in food justice or health disparities, I hope this inspires you to start from the questions, who are the people I am invested in helping? and What is the history of this particular place? There is no one size fits all model for anything. To deny a place and people’s history is to exclude them from meaningful processes. Food is never just about food.
(P.S.–I was really cute at the symposium *two snaps*. Who says you have to wear a suit to look professional?”)
If you’re interested in learning more about Food for Black Thought, check them out on facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Food-for-Black-Thought/359534887456758. Also, check out this article about the event here: http://www.austin360.com/weblogs/relish-austin/2013/oct/08/food-black-thought-race-food-and-gentrification/
If you’re interested in the work I do, drop a line. Ask questions. I’m happy to share.