Reviewed by Mary Rizzo (Women's and Gender Studies Department, The College of New Jersey)
Published on H-1960s (June, 2005)
Who Was Aunt Jemima?
The subtitle of Doris Witt's Black Hunger is telling. It is not "Soul Food in America," but "Soul Food and America," a small change that points to the direction of Witt's analysis: how soul food has intersected with the construction of gendered African-American identities in the imagining of the American nation, especially in the 1960s and 1970s. As Witt notes, she "works from the premise that the connection between and frequent conflation of African-American women and food has functioned as a central structuring dynamic of twentieth-century U.S. psychic, cultural, sociopolitical, and economic life" (p. 4).
This association between black women and food has taken a variety of forms and has resulted in both the "valorization of a primarily black (grand) mother-daughter practice ... [and] the concurrent vilification of African-American women as castrating matriarchs" (p. 6). In this wide-ranging work, Witt uses cookbooks, literature, and film to examine how a variety of individuals and groups, including politically radical black men, queer white men, and privileged white women have used the conflation of black women and food to construct their identities from the late-nineteenth century to the present day. In this way, Witt's book is less about black women than about the construction of masculinity and whiteness. However, Witt is careful never to deny agency to black women, who use poetry, fiction, art, and cooking to resist the often demeaning images created of them.
Black Hunger is organized into three sections. Part 1 ("Servant Problems") examines the turn of the twentieth century as a constitutive moment in the construction of normative identity formations. Through foods such as pancakes and biscuits, the mammy cook became a mutable symbol used by "white and nonwhite Americans to formulate identities in a multiethnic national landscape" (p. 14). Witt's opening chapter on Aunt Jemima is both representative and her most successful. This piece, which draws together the history of Aunt Jemima as a corporate trademark with blackface minstrelsy and urban immigrant labor, works beautifully to illuminate the ways in which food became a method of erasing black female labor and allowing "American" identities to develop. In the second, less-convincing chapter, Witt moves into the 1960s through a discussion of food writer Craig Claiborne, although she shifts fully into this era only in the second section of the book.
Part 2 ("Soul Food and Black Masculinity") looks at the discourse about "soul food" by black males in the 1960s and 1970s. This section pairs interestingly with other scholarship on the use of food in this time period, such as Warren Belasco's Appetite for Change. While Belasco examines the politics of food within the white counterculture, Witt focuses on the men involved in the Black Power, Black Nationalist, and Black Arts movements: Eldridge Cleaver, Amiri Baraka, Elijah Muhammad, and Dick Gregory. She begins this section with the question of how chitlins, or pig intestines, came to represent soul food and, by extension, blackness. As she notes, chitlins are literally the passageway between the inner and outer and are fraught with implications about filth. While privileged blacks and whites in this era valorized chitlins as representative of authentic "blackness" due to their links with the diets of slaves, the Black Arts and Black Power movements reinterpreted chitlins negatively through associations with black male homosexuality and, especially, black femininity.
This process of intraracial othering continued with the food practices of the Nation of Islam, which specifically outlawed certain foods while at the same time making proscriptions about gender and sexual roles. "My main line of argument," writes Witt, "will be that Muhammad used food as part of his effort to formulate a model of black male selfhood in which 'filth' was displaced onto not white but black femininity and thus articulated within African-American culture via discourses of gender and sexuality rather than class" (p. 104). Black male selfhood thus relied on distorted images of black femininity in order to place black men in the same power structure as white men. Similarly, but with critical distinctions, comedian and fruitarian Dick Gregory also corporealized his radical politics through a strict diet. Unlike the Nation of Islam, however, his food ideology "positioned him at the nexus of counterculture, black nationalist, second-wave feminist, and gay liberation politics" although it tended to rely on naturalized images of black maternity (p. 132).
Finally, Part 3 ("Black Female Hunger") explores black female discourses around food and eating. In particular, Witt unpacks Vertamae Grosvenor's mutable identity as a diasporic cookbook author. Grosvenor, whose use of a number of different names mirrors her desire to occupy a variety of subject positions, utilized food and cooking to move between Black Nationalist discourses on soul food and the white feminist movement of the 1970s. Most interestingly, she did so by connecting soul food to a transatlantic diaspora, internationalizing the conception of soul food. Witt's final chapter begins with the intriguing premise that the lack of discussion of African-American women's eating disorders is a result of the naturalization of black female appetite, and can be linked as well to the policing of black female bodies, especially when pregnant. However, this chapter focuses on fiction by black women rather than an analysis of the social science or feminist literature on eating disorders.
Black Hunger is of most interest to scholars of the Black Power movements of the 1960s and 70s. While Witt does not add historically to the information on Black Power, Black Nationalism, or the Nation of Islam, her close reading of the discourses produced by these groups does offer insights into the politics of gender and sexuality that accompany nationalist movements. While there is an extensive literature that examines the centrality of black masculinity and heterosexuality in black nationalist movements, Witt's use of food allows her to examine more concretely the construction of black selfhood in these movements by placing it in conversation with other discourses in the era, such as that of black female artists as well as white and black bourgeois slummers. It also serves as a potent reminder that a great deal of the radicalism in this era took place through bodily practices, such as eating.
To approach these issues, Witt ably uses literary and psychoanalytic theory, especially Julia Kristeva's concept of abjection and Hortense Spillers's work on African-American feminist theory. For example, Witt uses abjection to argue for the primal importance of food in understanding the construction of personal and social identities. Then she deconstructs the idea of 'appetite' as it has been applied to black women, using it to frame her work as a whole. While she begins with Aunt Jemima, who "foregrounds one axis of U.S. desire for African American women to be the ever-smiling producers of food, to be nurturers who themselves have no appetite and make no demands," she ends with a discussion of the naturalization of black female appetites and "U.S. fear of what black women consume" (p. 23).
At times, the use of theory is heavy-handed, as in the chapter on New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne. Witt uses Claiborne's writing on food and his southern boyhood to analyze the ways in which white masculinity in the 1960s was created through reference to black female labor. However, Witt focuses too heavily on Claiborne's sexualized relationship with his Southern belle mother and wasted gentleman father. In an unsuccessful attempt to move away from political economy, she argues that Claiborne's fixation on the beating of biscuits intersects with homosexual desire in the confines of the "triangulated family romance" (p. 66). While Witt includes snippets from other plantation school writers to validate her point, her emphasis on Claiborne and his family drama ultimately distracts from the wider social implications of her provocative argument.
The focus on literary analysis also means a lack of historicizing that becomes problematic at times. In the chapter on the Nation of Islam, Witt transitions from discussing Elijah Muhammad in the 1960s and 1970s to the contemporary rhetoric and policies of the Nation of Islam without acknowledging the important changes the intervening decades have wrought. Surely they deserve as much emphasis as the continuity within the Nation of Islam.
Ultimately, Black Hunger is an essential book for anyone interested in the study of food, especially as it demonstrates how cultural theory can be applied to this discipline, which has tended to focus on anthropological and historical methods. Of particular interest is her extensive bibliography and chronological bibliography of African-American cookbooks. Scholars of the 1960s who are amenable to a cultural studies approach will also find her work on Black Power and gender illuminating. The book is a model of how to use cultural theory to write a compelling and, for the most part, enlightening analysis of the ways in which difference is constructed.
. Warren Belasco, Appetite for Change: How the Counterculture Took on the Food Industry (New York: Pantheon, 1990).
. See, for example, Cynthia Enloe, Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).
. Witt's bibliography offers numerous citations that discuss the intersection of masculinity and Black Nationalism. In addition, please see Chela Sandoval, Methodology of the Oppressed (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000). Sandoval works from a women of color/third world feminist perspective to critique the gender politics of nationalism.
 Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982); Hortense Spillers, "Mamaâ??s Baby, Papaâ??s Maybe: An American Grammar Book," Diacritics 17 (1987): pp. 65-81.
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Mary Rizzo. Review of Witt, Doris, Black Hunger: Soul Food and America.
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