Another case of well-intentioned thinking has gone wrong yet again, with NBC being the latest culprit. The drama began yesterday when The Roots drummer Questlove posted a picture on Twitter of the NBC cafeteria’s “Black History Month” menu, which included white rice with black eyed peas and collard greens. But what everyone is really upset over is the fried chicken.
After the photo was posted, a racial brouhaha ensued all over Twitter with some calling for a protest of NBC. Of course, NBC immediately took down the menu – although it continued to serve the food – and sent an apology via Twitter.
It should be mentioned that the menu was put together by Leslie Calhoun, a black chef in the cafeteria, who told theGrio that she’s been seeking approval to have such a menu for years, and was told last year that she could create the menu every Thursday during February.
The NBC commissary is not the first establish to touch on this racial faux pas; just a couple of weeks ago the Denver public school system got into the some trouble for creating a similar lunch menu for its students in celebration of Dr. King’s birthday.
Apparently, many food establishments around the country have adapted fried chicken as the staple of their Black History Month celebrations. While many African-Americans with Southern roots enjoy fried chicken, going back to the days of slavery, the opposition to these menus are coming from the fact that there is still a racial stereotype that all black people eat fried chicken, as not all Southern blacks eat fried chicken. Nonetheless, based on longstanding historical and pop culture imagery, many of these stereotypes have sustained themselves.
The long history of chicken and blacks goes back to slavery, when slave owners gave their slaves left over meats that were deemed unsuitable for the master’s dinner table. At the turn of the last century, inventor Thomas Edison made silent films, showing white actors in blackface who steal chickens out of their coops and celebrate their spoils while dancing and eating watermelons. Those images and the many other films leading up to the civil rights movement have been permanently marked in our society, leading to the association that blacks who eat fried chicken are less than intelligent and not worthy of better foods.
Not all blacks living in the United States have culinary roots with fried chicken. “Soul food” is actually a cornucopia of diverse foods from Africa, the Caribbean and the Americas. Being Jamaican-American, curried goat and oxtail are more likely to be on my dinner table. I remember an embarrassing situation once when a former white co-worker brought a bucket of fried chicken for myself and my Trinidadian and Nigerian colleagues for lunch, automatically assuming that this is the kind of food we like eating. We had to give our white co-worker a quick history lesson on foods of the African Diaspora.
While I understand why some black people are offended by the food gesture, I don’t think taking the soul food items off the menu will solve the problem either. In addition to keeping the menu (with curried goat, roti and Nigerian meat pies now added on), people thinking to serve fried chicken to commemorate Black History Month should use this as an opportunity to put it into context and host a discussion about the history and significance of certain foods within black communities. Quite frankly, our history goes beyond fried chicken, and when you don’t discuss these historical problems out in the open or pretend the problem didn’t happen, they tend to fester and create bigger problems later down the line.
There is nothing wrong with fried chicken, but when you don’t understand its history, it can be hard to swallow.