San Diego Professor and Pastor Looks to Communal History of Soul FoodHistorians in the News
tags: African American history, food history, Soul Food
Christopher Carter’s first steps toward exploring the intersections of food, racism and justice work began with his grandfather. His grandfather, born in Mississippi, was a migrant picker who worked in the fields with his mother and left home at 13 to work on farms full time.
“My grandfather’s stories of racism and exploitation helped me understand that even after emancipation, the American agricultural system depended upon the exploitation of Black bodies,” Carter says. “Exploring the farms and working conditions of farmworkers in Central California (after moving to attend graduate school in Claremont, Calif.) helped me realize that the exploitation my grandfather experienced has just been passed on to others.”
While working on his doctorate, his dissertation — “Eating Oppression: Food, Faith, and Liberation” — would be the foundation for his recent book, “The Spirit of Soul Food: Race, Faith, and Food Justice.” In recognizing the history of how Black culture and food intersect, and the systemic harms that current food systems have on Black people, “The Spirit of Soul Food” explores what soul food should look like today.
Carter, 40, is an assistant professor of theology and religious studies at the University of San Diego, and a pastor in the United Methodist Church. He lives in Clairemont with his wife, Gabrielle, a veterinary oncologist, and their son, Isaiah. He took some time to talk about his book, the ways that food has been used to marginalize non-White people, and how soul food has preserved Black history.
Q: Tell us about “The Spirit of Soul Food.”
A: The book is a story of my journey toward an answer to what I initially believed to be a simple question: Given the structural harms that our food system inflicts upon Black people, what should soul food look like today? In essence, the book is my attempt to reimagine what constitutes “soul food” through the study of the history and development of Black foodways (i.e. the intersection of Black food and Black culture).
I tell a brief history of African agriculture and animal husbandry, and how African farming techniques shaped American agriculture. I then explain how agricultural policies and practices have been developed to marginalize Black and Indigenous people and the poor. Religion has played a significant role in normalizing and moralizing the harms of our food system. We tend to believe that poor people are poor because they are lazy rather than examining how laws were designed to favor those who were already wealthy, and Black people were locked out of this system due to enslavement and Jim Crow segregation. I end the book suggesting that, as an act of love and justice, people should purchase and consume foods that upend this destructive system. The idea for what we call soul food emerged within communities of enslaved peoples as a way to preserve and promote the Black community — they had to eat in a way that would allow them to survive. Thus, the heartbeat of soul food is that it has always been a response to anti-Black racism. I suggest that, at its best, soul food carries on this tradition.
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