Eating, Tasting, and Making Race in the United States, 1920s–960s

AHA Session 121
Saturday, January 7, 2012: 9:00 AM-11:00 AM
Superior Room B (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Erica J. Peters, independent scholar

Session Abstract

This panel on food and racial formation highlights how food contributes to the creation, reinforcement, and inscription of racial and ethnic differences, as well as how food can serve as a tool for resistance and interracial exchange. Drawing on cultural, social, and sensory history, the three papers shed new light on the American construction of racial and ethnic identities from the interwar period to the 1960s.

The interwar period witnessed a shift in the legal and popular understanding of race and ethnicity. The passage of the 1924 immigration quota laws and the consequent dearth of new European arrivals accelerated the “manufacture of Caucasian.” While the category of whiteness expanded through working-class solidarity and the emergence of the concept of ethnicity, the racial lines between blacks and whites hardened. Yet, as David Roediger astutely put it, the process of “becoming white” was “messy.”[1] This panel explores how food played into the “messy” racial taxonomy of the interwar period and beyond. A classic distinction is between food as a prideful symbol of identity and as a potentially offensive tool.  This dichotomy needs to be nuanced in view of the cultural history scholarship that highlights how, to be fully erected, the line between the producers of racial discourse and the perceived other needs to be crossed, twisted, tested.

Professor Simone Cinnotto’s research on Italian, Puerto Rican and African American food in New York’s East Harlem neighbourhood provides a close study of this raced food milieu as he examines how food entered in the dialogic construction of the other in a situation of conflict and urban change. He maps out the sensory and symbolic spheres of encounters between communities and highlight how sensory slumming could be a way to negotiate the shifting racial ground of 20th century America. Beatrice Wayne’s presentation concentrates a seldom acknowledged agent of this raced food environment, namely African American women. She considers their role in food production and explores how this empowering position placed them at the center of the black Diaspora’s renewed cultural identity. Building on Cinnotto’s attention to the dialectic construction of racial identities through food and Wayne’s focus on gender and production, Camille Bégin shift the geographical focus to the 1930s Southwest. Her sensory narrative highlights the way in which the development of the tourist industry contributed to the establishment of the taste of Mexican food as an authentic taste of place for this modern American region. The construction of a domestic yet exotic taste was part of a process of sensory heritage-making that informed social interaction, racial representation, and the taste of southwestern food. Building on her expertise on the cultural history of food stereotypes and the triangular relationship between black women, food and power, Professor Psyche Williams-Forson will provide comments and highlight potential topics for further research.

[1]Roediger, David R., and James R Barrett. "Inbetween Peoples: Race, Nationality and The "New Immigrant" Working Class." Journal of American Ethnic History 16, no. 3 (1997), 12

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