What is American culture? The bald eagle. Betsy Ross. Uncle Sam. The White House. Competitiveness. Republicanism. Apple pie. Christianity. These are all things associated with the American way of life. But wait, aren’t there people from everywhere on Earth in America? Thus, every region around the globe has influenced American culture. So, to understand all the white ethnocentrism, we must look backward, which is the whole point here, isn’t it? As the English began winning the European relay race in the 1600s to colonize North America, they became the de facto dominant culture. America cast itself in the mold of Europe, which is why you learned about ancient Greece and Shakespeare as a default. But make no mistake, people from all over the world have pollinated America with their ideas, influencing everything. The language of America. The traditions and rituals of America. What America eats. What it wears and how it is worn. All of this is passed down through a reservoir of history. Acknowledged or not, we are a nation built on intercultural metamorphosis rather than the stasis of white Americanism. We are a mosaic, but America would rather melt you in its pot until you’re indistinguishable. So, the idea of pluralism, more than a century old, has never been fully embraced. But that doesn’t change the fact that plurality is the biography of America. In denial, America forgets to cite its sources, especially when it comes to Black people.
Let us move to another question then: What is Black culture? Much of what has been given the name, isn’t. American capitalism has so thoroughly wedded itself to the idea of “Black” that corporations would dig up the bones of James Brown and sell them if they thought it would make a profit. Far from naïve, many Black artists sought to get what they could from the tedious relationship between Black art and white dollars. “Being a Negro writer these days is a racket,” said Harlem Renaissance novelist Wallace Thurman, “and I’m going to make the most of it while it lasts. About twice a year I sell a story. It is acclaimed. I am a genius in the making. Thank God for this Negro literary renaissance. Long may it flourish.”
I don’t blame him for capitalizing on the demand, but it is self-evident that Black culture is distorted by the toxins of commercialization. It is mutated for the masses. It becomes not what it once was, but what executives think might sell to the largest swath of the white demographic. So thorough is this concept that it has long been considered an achievement to cross over. This meant that your music, art, or writing made it past the racial borderlands to the embrace of white audiences. Black artists dodged stereotypes, but without power in the decision-making process and the need to sell to white executives and audiences, some fed into a myopic view of Blackness. How? By mimicking the same stereotypes that they thought “making it” would free them from. The global ubiquity of rap music has obliterated the notion of crossing over. But this just means that to do anything other than what is considered Black is not considered Black and thereby is invisible. What has been defined as Black culture is merely what fuels the pop culture machine, an apparatus that absorbs a predefined Black culture and discards Black people. What we end up with is what America thinks Black sounds like, walks like, and acts like.
In even more words, people think you can stand in a line for three hours to buy Blackness off a shoe rack. Or that the spirit of Blackness resides in the clenched-fisted Afro pick. Or that Blackness is a bite of golden, flaky, fried chicken. But therein lies the problem: America only bought into what it thought was Black. The man who designed and patented the enduring icon of Black hair, an Afro comb handle with a raised Black fist, was a white-Italian man named Anthony R. Romani. And the Scottish, not African-descended people, were the first to think of dipping the domesticated fowl into hot grease. What many assume to be Black culture is a set of assumptions about Black people.
So, again, what is Black culture? What is it when divorced from the commercial? What is its essence? My theory is that the best of the Black cultural tradition, the star stuff of Black existence, that has in kind powered American culture is contrasting creativity. It is the understanding that Black humanity will likely never be mainstream in a nation constructed on the bones of our ancestors. So long as America defines itself through white ethnocentrism, you will die trying to blend your unblendable skin, or you can still live and be and create in defiance of that reality. And within those pockets of creativity, in that space of contrast to the mainstream, that is where Black culture has been created throughout American history.
It happens when Black people are, as Toni Morrison defined it in one of her book titles, Playing in the Dark (1992). So, it is not limited to fried chicken generalizations and watermelon stereotypes. It reveals itself where Black creativity is forged in America’s trial by fire. It is the coiled hairstyle antagonizing white social norms. It is the blues created in the landscape of Southern poverty and racial trauma. It is the soul bursting with love in the face of hate. It is the fight for democracy when they say you’re not human, embedding that message in their laws and systems. It is turning food scraps into a forkful of the divine. It is the survival of the story, dance, and music after the brutality of the Middle Passage. It is fluid, reforming itself to meet the needs of every Black individual in America. It is creativity forged in the heat of fires so hot they’re measured in kelvins. It is also Black at once unwelcomed and yet in synergy with the European. Like the musical compositions of Nina Simone. Or the patented inventiveness of Granville T. Woods. Or the plaster of Edmonia Lewis. Or the first feature-length film of Oscar Micheaux. Black culture is the spray can of Jean-Michel Basquiat. It is the brilliance of our souls manifested on Earth. Black history is the tattered fabric of America. Black culture is what threads that history into the present and future.
The problem is that the ways in which Black people have transformed the food, language, religion, beliefs, art, rituals, attitudes, and customs of America have very often gone uncredited. At times, it has been outright stolen and presented as blue-eyed soul. But the foundation of American culture is the interplay of African, indigenous, and European influences combined to create something unique. Though well understood, but less acknowledged, is how America has mined the products of Black culture while keeping Black humanity on the periphery, because America has embraced the brilliance of Black creativity but not the complex humanity from which it springs.
A Heaping of History
Pork chitlins washed and clean. Pig’s feet cut in half lengthwise. Collard greens cooked with smoked turkey legs. Hog maws brought to a rapid boil, then cooked for hours until tender. Baked candied yams. Black-eyed peas. Every single bite thoroughly seasoned. Flavors sprout like spring after slow cooking. Patience. A watched pot never boils. The role of Black food culture warrants some discussion here, because food has been one of the greatest sources of sustenance and joy. I, too, stand in awe of the contrasting creativity that allowed Black people to render scraps into palatable dishes. From the forgotten corners of the African continent, Citrullus lanatus—the fat, green, striped fruit also known as watermelon—made its way across the Atlantic Ocean. Black-eyed peas, peanuts, okra, yams, and coffee also came with us. But so-called Black foods have been seasoned with racism. Seen as less nutritious, yielding less, and inferior to foods of other people who came from Europe. And yet, a cookbook titled White House Cook Book, written in 1887 by F. L. Gillette, which was used to cook for several presidents, included a recipe for watermelon rind pickles. Fannie Farmer’s 1896 Boston Cooking-School Cookbook contained watermelon recipes such as stewed watermelon rind and watermelon ice cream.
So, how did the food become associated with a racial stereotype? The racist and stereotypical references to Black people and watermelon really began proliferating in the 1860s, making their way into minstrel shows and other popular entertainment. But if we move beyond the stereotypes, we see how those foods sustained Black people and had a huge impact on American culture. Ham, turkey, fowl, beef, puddings, and jellies were served up to an enthusiastic George Washington. Brilliant Black cooks like Emmanuel Jones used his skills to transition out of slavery into a cooking career, while others working in kitchens and pantries nourished the nation.
Black food culture helped America survive. Sorghum, which came to America with colonists in the seventeenth century, has been Africa’s culinary contribution to the world and is one of five plants that provide 85 percent of all human energy. Botanists believe that the peanut—which isn’t a nut, it is a legume—made its way to Africa via the Portuguese, and then from Africa to North America on those slave ships. Now peanut butter, with its deep roasted aroma and flavor, is more American than apple pie, finding its way into 75 percent of American pantries.
In the Lowcountry of coastal South Carolina and Georgia, rice stalks shot up out of the fertile, swampy soil. From the 1750s to 1860s, rice was a dominant economic force, the massive wealth of the area created by a tiny grain. There are scholars who suggest that it was through Black knowledge and labor that America was able to eat and survive. Bringing over their knowledge of rice cultivation from the regions around Sierra Leone, they knew that rice required a lot of fresh water and periodic flooding to kill weeds and invasive plants. One can only imagine the longing as their new environment shared similarities with the mangrove swamps and riverain grasslands of their homeland. Sweating in the heat of the sun, they built earthen embankments, reservoirs, dikes, causeways, and handcrafted wooden floodgates to control the flow of water. They planted hundreds of thousands of acres of rice—the geographical evidence of their work can still be seen by plane if you know what to look for. There may have been no other group in the United States that hung on to more of their African heritage than the Gullah people (sometimes referred to as Gullah Geechee).
Today, the African-infused Lowcountry Gullah Geechee culture is being strangled out of existence—gripped by the slender, well-kept left hand of gentrification and the bony, leathery right hand of poverty. Now generations flee to big cities, trying to escape America’s staggering racial wealth gap. Opportunity, now as then, is not equal for all US citizens. The Federal Reserve has shown that “Black families’ median and mean wealth is less than 15 percent that of white families, at $24,100 and $142,500, respectively.” With a long history of exposure to mosquito-borne illnesses, planters retreated to Charleston mansions during warm months, to escape disease infested swamps, leaving the enslaved alone for much of the year, which allowed them to retain their African culture. The Gullah Geechee people lived in relative isolation from white planters, who left them mostly unattended for fear of high humidity diseases. The law of unintended consequences reveals its truth here. Left alone, a unique hybrid culture blossomed, a Gullah Geechee dialect, beautiful handicrafts, foods, and customs. The serene lullaby “Kumbaya” was a musical gift given by the Gullah Geechee people, and their knowledge of food impacted American culture.
Black culinary traditions in America are an intersection of underappreciated cultural contribution, oppression, and liberation. Most people know that Coca-Cola once boasted cocaine as an ingredient, but lesser known is that the other half of the name represented an ingredient that came over as another import from Africa, the kola nut, with its caffeine and theobromine, which are also found in tea, coffee, and chocolate. It was used as a stimulant and a form of currency, as well as in religious ceremonies and to reinforce social contracts. Kola nuts were being shipped to the United States and Europe en masse in the nineteenth century as a staple of Coca-Cola, which touted “the combined active principles of Kola Nut and Coca Leaves.” Mass consumption of culinary products such as rice, sugar, coffee, and Coca-Cola fueled the massive extraction of wealth and labor from the African continent.
There are many who have thought Black food culture has been stereotyped to represent only the barest of minimums. Associating those high-fat, high-sodium, high-sugar, and starch-laden foods with capitalism’s inequality and the history of white control over the Black body. In 1948, food author Freda DeKnight argued against “a fallacy, long disproved, that Negro cooks, chefs, and caterers can adapt themselves only to the standard Southern dishes, such as fried chicken, greens, corn pone, hot breads, and so forth.” With her influential cookbook, A Date with a Dish: A Cook Book of American Negro Recipes, she helped the formerly enslaved find foods that better nurtured their bodies and minds. The Black Power movement rejected poverty-necessitated foods in the 1960s, focusing on Black health as a form of liberation.
I have childhood memories of the old-style American poverty that put government cheese and powdered eggs on my menu, but my current position affords me higher quality food than neckbones and gizzards. And yet, my updated palate still craves the intestinal delights called chitlins that were lovingly placed next to the candied yams on my Thanksgiving plate. So, I try not to think about Black Power on that day, not unless I want to apply a tinge of shame with the Frank’s RedHot (hot sauce). I’m only human. There is a real trivialization of poverty, though. Dispossessed people ate these foods out of necessity and likely would’ve rather had steak, shrimp, and healthier foods if they were affordable. The irony is that the wealthy continuously “discover” foods deemed inferior, plate them nicely, and eat them with a silver spoon. This is especially relevant as racial health disparities run deep, and Black people wrestle with the fact that an old Southern diet is contributing to high cholesterol and hypertension. Even more if you’re Black and poor, living in a neighborhood that struggles without a decent grocery store. But the creativity is at work as many Black people have turned back to their agricultural roots, planting community gardens and turning their roofs and windowsills into places to get fresh food. And in this way, Black culture, which is Black life, continues.
There were no limits to the contributions of Black American cultural influence on America, also no limits on how it has been co-opted, through carelessness, thoughtlessness, and borrowing with no intention of return. That is why, until recently, no one acknowledged that a Black man named Nathan Nearest Green created the recipe for the world’s most famous whiskey, Jack Daniel’s. Or that the so-called beatnik slang of the 1960s (square, cool, dig it) originated with Black people. Or that Tina Bell, a pioneer and co-creator of the 1980s Seattle grunge scene, helped to spark the genre. America has been content to strategically plunder and then distance itself from the gems created by Black people. But the best of Black cultural history is found, when we reach back to bring forward, paying homage to those brilliant expressions of Black life created in
the contrast. •