From the Director: Soulful Foodways and Literary Connections

As the new Director of The Rosenbach, and as someone who enjoys writing and thinking about history even in my spare time, I’m delighted to be sharing with you a monthly blog about my own discoveries in The Rosenbach’s collection.  

The Rosenbach’s collection is vast, and while I’ve worked here for seven years, I’m still relatively new to the collection. We do tend to look at and celebrate the most well-known items—and for good reason, people tend to gravitate toward what they know and love already. But I’d like to take some of your time each month to go beyond the most discussed and well-known items and examine what’s just beneath the surface. Often, that is where truly great stories can be found. I hope you’ll join me on this adventure. 

“Have you ever when attempting to eat a large, luscious orange, been forcibly reminded that it is very hard to grab the great opportunities of life?” 

—W.E.B. Du Bois 

Talking about food isn’t always just talking about food. Talking about food—its preparation, its ingredients, its taste—can communicate many unsaid things. Talking about how we prepare a meal, with whom we’ve enjoyed that meal, where the recipe originated, and how far back we can remember eating it can convey the history of an entire community and the footprint of a whole people.  

The study of “foodways” is the study of history, and U.S. history can become more alive, more tangible, by studying the food we grow, prepare, and eat. In particular, the study of African-American food history conveys events, movements, memories, and culture of a people whose history has not been equally recorded and saved.  

This fall I am teaching my first Reading Course at The Rosenbach, a virtual course on African-American Foodways, with my friend and mentor Psyche Williams-Forson of the University of Maryland. One might ask: what does The Rosenbach’s collection have to do with African-American foodways?  

First, a step back to why I chose this topic.  

A few years ago when I worked in the Birmingham Public Library archives I began studying a group of oral interviews. This group of interviews was taken between 1979 and 1981 in the all-Black community of Gee’s Bend, Alabama (you may be familiar with Gee’s Bend because of its well-known quilting tradition). This community of approximately one hundred families was made up entirely of descendants of people enslaved on the same property, who then became tenant farmers following emancipation. Around the time of the Great Depression, the white owner of the properties, who lived across the Alabama River from Gee’s Bend, suddenly and forcibly removed all the agricultural supplies—seeds, tools, farm equipment, food, and livestock—from the properties of all one hundred Gee’s Bend families.  

The sudden catastrophic event caused a crisis that served as a community unifier of sorts; it created a collective memory the residents talked about repeatedly with their interviewer even though many of them were small children when the incident occurred. The community memory had become an essential part of a strong collective narrative—an identifier of the place and the people who lived there. In addition to this incident, interviewer and interviewees discussed related topics that were a substantial part of Gee’s Bend history including the New Deal, the Great Migration(s), and the Civil Rights Movement(s); all of these discussions were encouraged and enhanced by “foodtalk”. How the community grew food together, cooked together, and ate together was all entwined with these movements and community ideas of freedom, power, and ownership. Food, in this case, became a signifier of catastrophe, community evolution, and change.  

Now back to The Rosenbach’s collection: The Rosenbach has a very strong U.S. history collection, but a growing one in terms of African-American writing and philosophy about the Diaspora. In this course we are going to look at African-American foodways against the philosophies of two 20th-century writers who cared very much about the dissemination and/or assimilation of African culture and art in the U.S.: W.E.B. Du Bois and Alain Locke. Locke’s seminal publication, a collection of essays entitled The New Negro, helped launch the African-American arts and culture movement, The Harlem Renaissance, in 1925. The Rosenbach now holds a first edition of The New Negro in its collection.  

Alain Locke had what you might call a philosophical rival (it was actually pretty intense!) and that person is W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the founders of the NAACP and a philosopher more well-known today than Locke. While the two shared some ideas about the philosophy of the African Diaspora, they had some significant differences, which we’ll explore in this course. Mostly, though, we’ll discover and discuss what these two (both Philadelphians for a time) believed about the African Diaspora, the African aesthetic movement, and African-American culinary history (termed “Soul Food” after the Harlem Renaissance).  

In this course we will treat foodways as art, which in my opinion is exactly how it should be treated. Foodways is a creative expression of culture, as well as a means for sustenance and survival. The evolution of African-American foodways reflects the expansion of the African Diaspora, a tangible example of the philosophies of Du Bois and Locke. We will also examine the historical evolution of Soul Food by reading the works of important historians such as Michael C. Twitty, Jessica B. Harris, and my co-instructor Psyche Williams-Forson. We will look at these very readable histories as we examine the words and ideas of Du Bois and Locke, and others like Alice Walker and the residents of Gee’s Bend, Alabama.   

The study of foodways can signify broad national trends as well as the culture and history of a single community. Soul Food is particularly like this: when define Soul Food we might think of collard greens or barbeque. Going back in time and a little further south, we might think of rice, chitterlings (“chitlins”), and other offal. Study a community like Gee’s Bend, and you’ll find out about Tom Thumbs (a little “pack” of spice rolled into a thumb-sized piece of pork intestine used to flavor soups and stews) that are seemingly specific to Gee’s Bend. It’s fascinating to discover what an individual, a community, or a region grows and eats, and thereby trace the evolution of Soul Food from Africa to its melding with Native American and European American foodways in the Southern U.S., to its dissemination across the country. The study of Soul Food, then, is the study of American history itself.  

Join the virtual course: Soulful Foodways: African-American Culinary History beginning on October 18 at 6:30pm. Register.