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food Black Dinners Matter

Food was a weapon of control by slaveholders, most often used as a mechanism for domination and exploitation. The story of African American food has also been a story about self-determination and ownership.

Aurélia Durand

In the films Moonlight, Do the Right Thing and The Color Purple, the dinner table is erected as a potent metaphor for ownership and communion. Can the details of these meals — from the food served — show us what it takes to rebuild connections and safe spaces that have been lost to or compromised by white supremacy? With four centuries of slavery as the backdrop, what’s eaten and where depicts how enslaved Africans and their descendants reclaimed their agency, had it stripped away, and in some cases, even participated in supremacist structures like patriarchy. We begin with Do The Right Thing, when Mookie, the film’s protagonist portrayed by Spike Lee, throws a trash can through a pizza parlor window, signaling a violent transition into a new world. Much intelligent analysis has been written about this scene since the film premiered in 1989, but here, let’s focus on the pizzeria, that hermetically sealed sanctuary of whiteness, which during this climax is suddenly ripped open and exposed to the elements. Until that point, Mookie, the pizzeria’s delivery person and sole ally in the majority Black neighborhood, got to traverse both realms — he thought — freely. After all of his hemming and hawing about where his allegiances lie, Mookie throws that trash can and repudiates white supremacy once and for all.

That’s why this feels so powerful: Up until this point, the residents of this fictitious version of Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood settle for eating at this pizza parlor, a space that was not their own to define. Radio Raheem’s attempt to order food while his boombox blasts Public Enemy’s Fight the Power is a perfect example of this. The music is treated like an intrusive foreign body, and he can’t order until he shuts it off. “You come into Sal’s, there’s no music. No rap, no music, no music, no music,” says Sal Fragione, the owner of the restaurant.

When the film came out, the Howard Beach incident, in which a group of young Black men were violently harassed out of a pizza parlor in Queens by white men, was still fresh on our minds. One of the men, Michael Griffith, was chased onto the Belt Parkway and fatally struck by a car. Echoing this assault, Lee shows us how easily the veneer of civility can be shed, and the ensuing riot and violence highlight the fragility of it all.

This concept of spatial ownership and mastery is also integral to The Color Purple. Trapped in a marriage at 14, protagonist Celie is condemned to a life of drudgery. In a montage sequence, she struggles to wrangle her new husband’s badly behaved children, clean up his trashed house, and feed them all. She gradually improves and reclaims the space, and yet when her husband, Albert, comes home, he sits at the clean dinner table and rests his muddy, booted feet right on top of it. This is a power move, signaling to Celie that she owns nothing in the house, not even her own labor. Intoxicated by his rule over Celie, Albert is indifferent to her unless something she does displeases him. Within patriarchy, the woman’s realm is the home, especially the kitchen. Though Celie may certainly take pride in that work, a hallmark of patriarchy is that it’s the man of the house who ultimately owns everything. He is entitled to women’s labor by virtue of his position in the gender hierarchy.

When Celie, Albert, and Albert’s children actually eat at that table, the scene is total chaos. The children scream and cry, Celie attempts to maintain order, and her husband fumes with resentment towards them all. The situation doesn’t improve when they have visitors. The stakes just get higher. Anxious to please the guests, Albert terrorizes Celie, who must perform perfectly as a cook and maid. At dinner, he dominates the conversation, bullying Celie into silence. Unlike the pizzeria in Do the Right Thing, this is a Black- owned space, but one that is so poisoned by patriarchy that the notion of it being a nourishing space is impossible. Instead, it’s a cage.

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In Moonlight, Chiron’s mother doesn’t feed him. Instead, as a boy, he is fed by her drug dealer, Juan, who drives him to a fast food joint when they first meet. Throughout Chiron’s childhood, he’s fed by Juan and his partner, Teresa. At their house, plates of soul food, served tenderly, coax him into opening up to them. Surrounded by scenes of stress and chaos — of Chiron’s abusive mother and macho, bullying peers — these scenes around the table are a reprieve for both the viewer and the character. It is a space for difficult conversations and emotional honesty, where we see Juan and Teresa doing their best to intervene with the child they’ve informally adopted.

“Stop putting your head down in my house,” Teresa tells a teenaged Chiron as he slouches over his plate. “You know my rules: it’s all love and all pride in this house.” This is their space, and they are free to define it as they wish. Stripped of music and devoid of any indulgent close-ups of the food, the scenes demonstrate that, with Juan and Teresa, what happens around the table is the most important part of these meals. The tonal contrast in these scenes encapsulate Chiron’s inherent conflict, constantly torn between his need for human connection and a desire to live up to a stoic masculine ideal.

Much of what he faces throughout the film fits the description of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, a condition coined by educator and author Dr. Joy DeGruy to name the psychological obstacles faced by African-American communities after generations of chattel slavery and oppression. That history, which transpired without any meaningful therapeutic interventions or social acknowledgement of the scale of that trauma, has led to a host of negative residual impacts. Hopelessness, extreme feelings of suspicion and paranoia, depression, anxious hyper- masculinity and racialized self-hatred are among the symptoms addressed in her book. The point she makes again and again is that African-American communities were repeatedly brutalized by white society both during and after slavery, then invalidated and blamed for their troubles.

If you’re told that the residual, generationally compounded effects of centuries of oppression are just “your culture,” why would you seek help for that trauma? How do you even begin? Moon- light offers another way. More than anything, the table scenes are a demonstration of what it means to truly check in with each other, to slowly and precisely heal a traumatized psyche.

Food was a weapon of control by slaveholders, most often used as a mechanism for domination and exploitation. In addition to being fed inadequate weekly rations — which Adrian Miller, author of Soul Food writes consisted of “five pounds of starch (cornmeal, rice or sweet potatoes); a couple pounds of cured meat, and 1 jug of molasses” — to be enslaved meant prohibition from foods like flour and sugar, to distinguish between classes. Though some slaveholders did use the denial of food as a means of punishment, there were also those that feared mass revolt.

After working in servitude, from sunup to sundown, enslaved Africans were further demeaned by slaveholders at mealtimes. Meals were served out of troughs, and those brought to the fields came in buckets filled with slop. There were no utensils, and eating and drinking water were both done by hand. The idea of eating together as a community, in leisure or with any sense of enjoyment, was completely unimaginable; it was survival. It is nothing short of miraculous that “Soul Food” — a byproduct of the Black liberation movement — exists at all. It is even more miraculous to know that South- ern food, like jazz, is a defining American marker of culture, not just for African-Americans, but for all Americans. Though it has tried for 400 years, white supremacy has been unable to stifle the Black imagination.

From the 17th century onward, enslaved Africans in some areas of the South were permitted to sell and trade livestock, as well as grow food on small plots of land, commonly known as provision grounds. This was no act of goodwill by slave- holders, who by and large allocated barely arable land for those purposes—rather, they saw it as a hands-off way to cut down on the food bill. Yet that is where we begin to see food as a precursor to liberation and autonomy for enslaved Africans. They began to claim Sundays for cooking finer meals than what they were allotted during the rest of the week. This meant that for the first time since they had been taken captive, meals could be for enjoying, solidifying cultural identity and offering one another some type of reprieve from the cruelty of their captivity. Provision grounds undermined the infantilizing stereotype that Africans were incapable of autonomy. As Adrian Miller writes, on the basis of these provisional plots alone, “the ideological justification for slavery” had been usurped.

That sort of “soft” rebellion, that of simply enjoying a meal, is key to Celie’s narrative in The Color Purple. After a heavy first act, she slowly reclaims her sense of self by moving within the bounds of her role. It’s a delicate dance. We see this in her initial interaction with Shug Avery, a club singer who is also Albert’s first love. When Shug arrives at their house, she’s taken in with an illness and is confined to an upstairs room. Albert uncharacteristically takes over the kitchen, fumbling along as Celie watches. He may own the kitchen, but it’s obvious he has no idea how to make sense of it. The film quickly cuts to the breakfast he produces, which is literally on fire as he brings it upstairs. The tray is violently rejected, thrown against the wall outside of Shug’s room and reduced to a bloody-looking smear. Meanwhile Albert, the macho patriarch, cowers in terror. This is a moment when the order of things is upside- down. Celie takes the opportunity to make her own version of the tray. A close-up shot of the food as it cooks — a sizzling slice of cured ham, three sunny-side-up eggs and fresh pancakes — emphasizes its beauty and luxuriousness. The shot of Celie carrying the tray upstairs is framed just like the shot of Albert doing the same, but here the finished tray is overfilled with biscuits, grits, coffee and even a small flower vase. Though Celie hides when she delivers the tray to Shug, it’s accepted without protest. This is the first moment of tenderness in the film since the very first act. It doesn’t feel coincidental that it’s marked by a close-up of food that actually looks appetizing. Unlike the meals shared at the table down- stairs, this one is given as a gesture of kindness and sympathy. Shug is adult Celie’s first ally and friend, and it all begins with breakfast.

The iconic final meal in Moonlight shares many of those characteristics. It’s prepared by Kevin, Chiron’s childhood friend and former flame, in the diner where he works. Here, a plate of arroz con pollo is given star treatment. It’s almost un- precedented in media to see a Black man cook- ing for another Black man out of a sense of care for him. Perhaps this context explains the power and intensity of this scene. It’s intimate and slow, indulging in warmly lit close-up shots of Kevin’s hands chopping cilantro and molding white rice in a ramekin while intense chamber music plays in the background. After vignettes showing the hardness of Chiron’s adult life, in which he has adopted a tougher, more masculine persona, the generosity and sweetness in Kevin’s gesture is a disarming contrast. In this space that they’ve informally created together, two men can freely open up to each other without persecution. With this gesture, Kevin completes the work that Teresa and Juan began when Chiron was a closed-off, terrified child, and for Chiron, he is finally able to shed the persona he’d built around his tender, inner self.

The Black imagination offers a reprieve and a place of emotional and physical nourishment. The beauty of this gesture, and the way food stokes this imagination, is about ensuring one another’s immediate survival. It is almost as if to say, if only just for this moment — this Sunday, this Civil Rights march, this bus or train ride, this meal before you partake in your education, before you go, before you stay, because you survived, because you are deserving of joy and love — you have a place of belonging here. Even if shielding one another from larger oppressive forces is overwhelming, and seemingly futile, this powerful imagination is an inadvertent act of resistance. Within the constraints of white supremacist patriarchy, film is one way Black artists and creators have attempted to manifest their own visions of what it means to be Black in the United States. Food as a metaphor to tap into that particular strain of thought has centuries of work behind it.

From enslaved Africans hiding seeds in their hair to Celie building sisterhood with a basket of biscuits, the story of African American food has also been a story about self-determination and ownership. The struggle continues to this day, but so too does the work to reclaim the table: in the labor of Black farmers young and old, in the writings of scholars and cookbook authors who piece together histories from scraps of old recipes, in food programs like the Black Panther Free Breakfast program, and in every meal that the community shares together