Dominatrixes of the Kitchen
Soul Food as a Shaper of Black Identity
By Paal Juliussen


©Photo by Tom Robertson

Paal Juliussen
A transplanted Winnipegger now living in Montreal
 Free-lance writer trained in philosophy and journalism
  Likes food and contemporary culture
 Musician and avid cyclist
Teaches English as a Second Language


Doris Witt’s "Black Hunger - Soul Food and America" is a psychoanalytically informed culinary history of blacks and the food they have traditionally eaten. Exploring nineteenth century domestic food preparation, Witt proceeds to discuss that enduring advertising image of the Quaker Oats Company’s Aunt Jemima, an archetypal black mother figure invented by whites to peddle pancake flour.



 

Witt sees the connection between black women and food as “a central structuring dynamic of twentieth century U.S. life.”  In formulating the eventual final scope and purview of "Black Hunger," she asked herself “about how the concept of culinary authenticity operates in the construction of racialized subjectivities,”  and she draws on interdisciplinary relations between history, social studies, anthropology and biographies of contemporary prominent blacks including Louis Farrakhan and Dick Gregory.

Witt can write a mean sentence. In her preamble to the subject-matter of chapter two, she writes: “This chapter explores how the postbellum psychosexual narratives used to construct black women as dominatrixes of the kitchen have been continually recuperated to obscure not only the roles of capitalism and patriarchy in mistress-servant relationships, but also the disavowal of interracial homoerotic desire through which (southern) white manhood has historically been articulated.”

The marrow of "Black Hunger" was revealed to Witt but gradually: “…one of my main goals all along, had I only realized it, was to formulate “a situated psychoanalysis – a culturally contextualized psychoanalysis that is simultaneously a psychoanalytically informed history. Since food is fundamental not only to the global economy but also to Kristeva’s initial theorization of abjection, it offers a particularly apt vehicle for exploring these mutual exclusions of psychoanalysis and Marxist political economy alike.”

In her construction of this psychoanalysis, Witt draws on the well-known writings of Julia Kristeva.


Julia Kristeva

Kristeva, born in Bulgaria (1941), went to Paris in 1966 to finish her dissertation on French literature. She worked with Roland Barthes and Lucien Goldmann and became a professor of linguistics who championed the concept of “abjection.” She is the darling doyenne of contemporary deconstructionist literary theorists. Abjection is the state of feeling threatened, and simultaneously being attracted by, self-dissolution.

Deconstructionism, a literary methodology of analysis, attempts to contradict the na´ve belief that reality can be understood and defined for all people in all historical and cultural contexts, and further, that this generalizing by faith in a basic reality is actually a form of domination. This domination results in the degradation of minorities, such as women, blacks, and homosexuals. Centralizing all persons’ realities is thus a mistaken endeavor, and what has to be done instead is seeing and acting at an individual level without benefit of a visual one-size-fits-all template.

Witt explores the history of reaction to the advertising image of Aunt Jemima, the quintessential “Big Mamma” who rules the household with tough love and with generous dollops of delicious, whopping meals, all prepared with hard work and cherished heirloom recipes. Aunt Jemima was a character in early vaudeville skits, a character appropriated by the Quaker Oats company for its packaged pancake mix. The World’s Fair of 1893 featured an exhibit with the character of Aunt Jemima prominent. Actors portraying Aunt Jemima toured the United States giving pancake-making demonstrations.



"Black Hunger" reminds us: “the semiotic production and consumption of Aunt Jemima iconography was inextricably linked to the material production and consumption of Aunt Jemima pancake mix in a rapidly expanding commodity system, a system that itself relied on an influx of exploitable labor and the development of new markets to achieve its profits.”

In discussing “Soul Food,” Witt draws on Kristeva to highlight "Black Hunger’s" thesis that the individual’s feeling of abjection becomes transferred to the ethnic food of choice: chitterlings. Chitterlings (pronounced “chitlins”) are the intestines of young hogs, cleaned and stewed until they are no longer tough. They are often battered, then fried.

Witt quotes Kristeva: “Why does corporeal waste, menstrual blood and excrement, or everything that is assimilated to them … represent - like a metaphor that would have become incarnate - the objective frailty of the symbolic order?” The fascination with, and the disgust engendered by chitterlings, becomes a dividing line for blacks looking for identity through their food. Eating chitterlings, as the quintessential soul food, can be viewed as either a return to a traditional black diet, or it can be seen as something which has defined blackness through the white man’s stereotyping and exploitation. This “psychoanalytically informed” model for Black fascination with hog bowels shows, for Witt, the paucity of the black bourgeois fascination with “soul food.”

In the chapter “Nation of Islam,” Witt explores how food is central to American Black Islamic selfhood. Elijah Muhammad’s rules of diet, at variance with the “soul food” of the bourgeois middle-class black, can be viewed as one mechanism, according to Witt, to “offer a cross-class strategy of resistance to white racist stereotypes about black people.”  While in prison, Malcolm X surprised the white convicts in his refusal to eat pork, a food considered by whites as a mainstay of the black diet.


                      Malcolm X

Both southern black food and white food were rejected by Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam.

 

Louis Farrakhan

Witt reminds us: “It is important to recognize, therefore, that the foods associated with soul were stigmatized by Muhammad at least in part because they operated through, and perhaps even contributed to, the cultural dominance of his nemesis, black Christianity.”
          Elijah Muhammad
founder of the Nation of Islam

Elijah Muhammad’s commitment to heterosexual patriarchy includes avoiding food prepared by black women as mothers. Witt quotes Muhammad: “Do not eat the swine – do not even touch it. Just stop eating the swine flesh and your life will be expanded. Stay off that grandmother’s old fashioned corn bread and black-eyed peas, and those quick 15 minute biscuits made with baking powder.”

Witt writes: “Eating calls into question more than the boundaries of the self (“do not even touch it”). It calls into question the origins of self in the mother and grandmother, who are rescripted by Muhammad as takers rather than givers of life.”

Witt’s chapter on Dick Gregory illustrates the difficulty which social commentators have in appraising Gregory’s move from stand-up comic to political activist. Gregory’s “America is my momma” calls for fundamental changes to the state; a state which ideally stands as a macrocosm of the family.


                    Dick Gregory

Gregory’s “hunger” originates not only from lack of food in early childhood, but from the absence of a father as a financial provider. In “The Shadow That Scares Me,” Gregory rebuts the Johnson Administration’s proclivity to blame black women, and not white racists, in long-standing African American inequality. Witt concludes that Gregory has not, however, adequately dealt with the social and economic subordination of African American women to African American men. However, one reason for white discomfort with Gregory is his ongoing destruction of black stereotyping by whites: “One source of their (the critics’) agitation, though, is readily apparent: he was wreaking havoc on the era’s fascination with a hyperbolically phallicized black masculinity.”

Witt’s overarching concern in the concluding chapter “How Mamma Started to Get Large” is how the connection between black women and food has informed white feminist politics in two arenas: eating disorders and reproductive rights. Witt asks herself why African American women are largely absent from studies on anorexia nervosa and bulimia. In her investigations, Witt encounters the belief that black women are immune to these conditions, a belief that leads her to examine the role of black women in film and literature, notably Gloria Naylor’s "Linden Hills."



This 1985 novel is about perceived hypocrisy in a group of middle and upper-class blacks who have assimilated equivalent white concerns. The group, essentially childless, emphasizes the break with traditional black roots which is their lot and their undoing.

In "Black Hunger," Witt explores how food and discussions on food have carried political agendas behind those food choices and the discourse. The nostalgic desire for a return to an idealized traditional lifestyle, free of unrest, has heavily influenced black attitudes on food, motherhood and sexuality. As a mechanism for reshaping the United States into embodying a more equitable social arena, blacks and their food have had enormous influence: both as shapers of culture, and as external signs of unstated fears, needs and philosophies. 


Contact: Paal Juliussen


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