"Down with the Chitterling": Hypertension, Race, and Popular Culture in the 1970s

Saturday, January 5, 2019: 3:30 PM
Stevens C-6 (Hilton Chicago)
Jerome Dotson, University of Arizona
The leading cause of death for African Americans in the early 1970s was hypertension. While discussions linking African Americans to higher rates of high blood pressure dated back to the 1940s, it was only in the 1970s that hypertension came to highlight a medical state of emergency for black Americans. Black medical experts like Dr. James A. Mays and Dr. Alvenia Fulton spread the word about hypertension and the need for dietary reform in black communities. Fulton helped inspire comedian Dick Gregory's vegetable-based diet, and Mays's research helped shape an episode of “Good Times” that addressed hypertension and diet in black communities. Further, Mays raised awareness about high blood pressure by organizing hypertension clinics in South-Central Los Angeles and through a telethon that included black celebrities from Hollywood. They were joined by Elijah Muhammad, who published a two-volume work on dietary reform that encouraged black Americans to embrace moderation in eating and to break away from older modes of consumption that endangered the black body. This paper explores the connection between body politics and diet to show how "food narratives" developed by black nationalists, black Hollywood, and black physicians influenced efforts to curtail hypertension and establish new norms for wellness among African Americans in the 1970s.
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