Saturday, July 25, 2015

“Eating the Other”: The Commodification of Edible Black Bodies

Mary Barr. Friends Disappear: The Battle for Racial Equality in Evanston, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014. 

      In Friends Disappear, Barr tells the story of the civil rights movement in Evanston as schools were desegregating in the 1960s. On the cover is a photo taken in November 1974. It captures a group of friends sitting on a porch after their eight-grade commencement. In the moments after the photo was taken, these friends and their surrounding environment are affected by school desegregation and busing which further divided this society especially these friends by race, education, and class. Barr traveled back to her hometown to reminisce with friends, recovering the stories of their youth. Throughout the narrative it is apparent that white privilege provided the white friends in the group with many opportunities while the black friends were not so fortunate. The title Friends Disappear, speaks to not only the natural occurrence of people growing up and growing a part, but also to the reality of addiction, police brutality and harassment.    
      The absence of black women in the photo as well as the larger narrative speaks to the labors black girls and women were performing at that moment. Barr’s family “live in” help, Zelma Dunlap reminds me of the black women in Hunter’s To ‘Joy My Freedom. After finishing her work for the day, she would retire to her room for the night to smoke and drink her gin “to live,” her way of enjoying her freedom (11). Dunlap’s brief story conjures up the stories of numerous other black women who at the end of the nineteenth century through the late twentieth century worked as domestics and keeping up with their preferred terms “live in” and “live out” servants. Dunlap’s story as well as Hunter’s work fit in the historiography of black women’s labor and their everyday lives. Other works that explore these stories are Georgina Hickey, Hope and Danger in the New South City: Working-Class Women and UrbanDevelopment in Atlanta, 1890-1940, Jacqueline Jones, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family from Slavery to the Present, Elizabeth Clark-Lewis, Living In, Living Out: African American Domestics in Washington, D.C., 1910-1940, and Lisa Boehm, Making a Way Out of No Way: African American Women and the Second Great Migration.
     The title “Eating the Other” derives from bell hooks’ essay “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance” in Black Looks: Race and Representation. In this essay she states, “cultural, ethnic, and racial differences will be continually commodified and offered up as new dishes to enhance the white palate” (39). The other is ‘eaten’ as whites consume aspects of the other’s culture such as music, language, and even the body. One of the things that stuck out to me was the song “Black Boys” by Hair. Barr states that the song lyrics represented the “commodification of an edible black body” (7). This statement evokes thoughts of Saartjie Baartman also known as the “Hottentot Venus.”In life and in death, Saartjie’s body was highly eroticized and fetishized by white audiences. She was a Khoikhoi woman who was taken from her homeland of South Africa and paraded around and exhibited in Great Britain as a freak show due to her voluminous rear end and elongated genitalia. She was sold to a French animal trainer who also put her on exhibit for the public consumption of French audiences. After death, her pickled brain and genitalia were placed on display at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris until 1974. Suzan Lori-Parks’ 1996 play entitled “Venus” explores how whites have associated black women’s bodies with food. At one point in the play, Venus is given chocolates by her lover who as she eats them, he watches and masturbates. She questions if he thinks her body reminds him of the chocolate.
      This association of black women’s bodies as food can be seen in recent examples of public consumption of black women’s bodies. In 2012, Sweden’s Minister of Culture, Lena Adelsohn Litjeroth celebrated World Art Day by cutting and eating a cake of a naked black woman that clearly looks like a minstrel caricature. Responding to the racist backlash, the artist stated that this piece of “art” was to bring awareness to female circumcision. One cannot help but to see the blatant racism in this so-called art as white people stand around, take photos of the cake and then consume it. 

  Another example of the public consumption of black women’s bodies can be seen in 2Chainz 2012 music video, “Birthday Song” where he raps, “All I want for my birthday is a big booty hoe.” His birthday cake is the backside of woman’s bottom wearing a thong. This video also has Swedish connections as the director Andreas Nilsson is based in Sweden.  

* If you are interested in the film on Saartjie Baartman, here is the link to the film. The movie plays on the site:

** Here is the link to the “Black Boys” song

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