BUILDING HOUSES OUT OF CHICKEN LEGS Black Women, Food and Power
AUTHOR: PSYCHE A. WILLIAMS-FORSON
Chicken, by its presence and its absence, reflects how food was used in this struggle over the means to define self as female, black and having class. – Psyche A. Williams-Forson
The English idiom, “don’t judge a book by its cover,” is a metaphorical phrase which means one should not prejudge the worth or value of something. It may be literally applied in this instance because “Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs”, with a picture of a ‘mammy-like’ character on the cover, might initially provoke additional stereotypical images, creating a bias that is difficult to bypass. Nevertheless, these blockages and or conflicting thoughts seem to disappear almost immediately, once engaged. Ms. Williams-Forson approaches myths associated with African Americans by defining them in a most clinical sense utilizing the relationship of black women and their affinity with food (particularly chicken), then attacks the misconceptions and places emphasis on factual realizations which, heretofore, may have been inconceivable. She develops a historical layering of the importance chicken has held for many African-American women, covering a range of depictions that are actual or literature-based. Her intellectual prowess in this revolutionary approach evokes laughter, tears and, in so many instances, a grand sense of pride.
Raise your hand if you have ever thought of a slave as being an entrepreneur. Well, it is a fact that some of the women were able to legitimately accumulate a variety of foods, crafts and sell them in local markets. The money pocketed was used to provide nutritious fare for their families and sometimes their freedom but, more importantly, afforded a slave a sense of power and self-worth. As time went on and freed slaves moved north, many of the women became ‘waiter carriers’ which meant they prepared chicken, ham and all the trimmings, went to a train depot and sold their fare to passengers. This was the means by which they fed, clothed and housed their families. Ms. Williams-Forson systemically takes the reader from these meager beginnings to historical representations as to how cultural forms surrounding the use of a meal in the African-American community may denote a feeling of belonging (or not), well-being and a sense of dignity. She carefully provides an awareness of the complexity of this culture, forging a bond between traditions and practices that assist in defining a black woman. The reader is introduced to vocabulary which is explored in a clinical, attitudinal manner, again, dispelling misunderstandings. The joining of gender, race, cultural distinctions and food provide an integrated profile that annihilates the stereotypes and celebrates this association.
The stereotypical bias that was referred to initially is now considered to be close to moronic by this reviewer. The depth of this chronicle is beyond description and is not easily captured. Ms. Williams-Forson begs us to open our eyes, minds and souls to concepts that are compelling, the consumption of which is long overdue. It seems that judgement has too often been of the ‘cover’ and seldom the worth therein.