The Social Construction and Comfort of Soul Food

Did you know that “gumbo” is “okra” in the Bantu dialect of the peoples in southern and central Africa? That’s just one of the tidbits I learned from this fascinating new documentary which I would encourage university libraries to carry and for faculty to use in the classroom. Soul Food Junkies chronicles the social history and contemporary experience of consuming foods originally created by African Americans from slavery through emancipation, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Era through today. It’s a fascinating journey for anyone who learns effectively through visual and experiential means, and it can be an effective tool to help students understand the way race works in the structures of our society both historically and in the present.

Use of food as a way to introduce cultural diversity is more difficult than it sounds. On the surface few would pass up the opportunity to explore new flavors, colorful plates, and unfamiliar ingredients. But the deceptive problem occurs when we leave the discussion of food and culture to our consumptive likes and dislikes. Instead, the use of food needs to be more instructional: what are the origins of these dishes? How is this cuisine tied to the history of the US? How are social structures and inequalities reflected and how are they relevant today?

Soul food is one example of what sociologists describe as material culture, the physical components of a group that signify values, norms, and social conditions of a group. An instructor can help students better understand the impact of migration, the context of reception of new people groups, and how those people groups adapt to their new surroundings. Okra for example was a vegetable common to many Africans who were brought to the US as chattel slaves. Obviously taking what food they could would be a source of comfort during the harrowing journey across the Atlantic and the brutal conditions of slavery in the American South. Through soul food, we can learn that the meals of most slaves consisted of the remainders of crops and the scraps of meat product like chitterlings, a word originating from the European Middle Ages to describe the less desirable parts of pigs consumed by peasants. Given the absence of education for the majority of slaves, it comes as no surprise that this term would eventually be called “chittlins”. More so, the fact of the low quality of the food given to chattel slaves speaks volumes to the value accorded to this people group. What is a source of sustenance for the oppressed is the afterthought of the oppressor.

With emancipation little changed in the dietary patterns of freed blacks due to institutionalized segregation. With little access to the resources of southern whites, southern blacks made do with the foods they were accustomed to prior to their liberation. After the Civil War, African Americans were politically equal to whites, but in the South, state laws, first called the Black Codes, and later the Jim Crow laws defined the social boundaries that ensured that federally protected equality would have no bearing on the day-to-day lives of whites and blacks. Clearly aware of this inequality and their very survival day to day, it should not be a surprise that soul food retained its comfort significance.

The Civil Rights Movement, whose crowning achievement, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, was recently gutted by the Supreme Court, augured new hope for African Americans. New hope called for celebration, and a new sense of empowerment and pride in one’s people. “Soul food” received its name around this time when various elements of African American culture suddenly had “soul” attached to it to distinguish itself from the spiritual emptiness of white-dominated mainstream society. But just as progress appeared in the political realm, the economy changed once again, and African American socioeconomic conditions fared no better than before the 1960s. Jobs that required little education were exported to developing nations and were replaced by service sector jobs which paid very little and demanded little physical exertion. The stress of not being able to make ends meet in addition to sedentary work increases the health risk put on by soul food consumption. Moreover as America remains highly segregated spatially, the availability of healthy food options grows scarce where poverty is concentrated. So even as the documentary showed the possibilities of healthier soul food, such potential may only be available to higher income African Americans.

Through the use of the Soul Food Junkies documentary, one can teach about the ways in which social structures in American society have a racial inflection that has had forward repercussions on African Americans today. The meaning of soul food is inextricably tied to the history of African Americans, and thus an important part in the education of all young Americans. With new visual education like Soul Food Junkies and mindful teachers everywhere, we can introduce new students (and not a few older ones too) to the social history of race in US society and what it means for us all today.


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