Everyone can breathe a collective sigh of relief now that Mary J. Blige has released a statement explaining the fried faux pas with Burger King, which according to both parties was an unauthorized release. The statement reflected the grace of her years in the business and her commitment to fans. But in the midst of responses that resulted from the original release of the clip, it is evident that the commercial struck a nerve with more than Mary’s music fans; this almost immediately became an issue about Black people, Black women, and food. Although the ad for the fried chicken wrap has been pulled, there is still much to discuss. An opportunity is present for us to engage in a more meaningful dialogue about health in our communities.
Part of the social media and web backlash this commercial generated played on the historical references, of what Patricia Hill Collins calls the “controlling images of Black women,” where you have a happy Black woman, singing and swinging over fried food. Others quickly built the correlation between the increasingly high rates of diet-related disease in the U.S. and the marketing of fast food and soul food to Black communities.
Fried chicken is a staple item in the culture of American food with its roots in southern cooking. A vast majority of Black folks in the U.S. can trace their family lineage to the South. Chicken is not a staple item for marketing because we are Black; it is because we are American. Soul food is an American style of cooking made from a recipe of years in food conservation in the midst of oppression, living in survival mode, turning leftovers into lunch; it also blends African along with Native American/First Nations’ styles and traditions. The soul food menu was born out of a mentality of survival based on economics and environment. For more on the rich history of soul food and culture, check out award-winning documentarian Bryon Hurt ( of “Hip Hop Beyond Beats and Rhymes”) and his new project Soul Food Junkies
Although the plantation and agricultural conditions for the majority of Black people in this country have changed since the turn of the century, the need to survive environment and economics has not. When friends with dietary restrictions, such as no red meat or pork, ask me how I was raised, I tell them: “I eat all forms of well-cooked dead animal.” That’s just how it was growing up. It is a luxury when a family can forgo cost analysis to be highly selective or picky when it comes to food, especially for those growing up in a working-class family like I did. And I think that is a critical issue when we are talking about food: economics. It’s a central reason why Black health is in its current condition in the U.S. today.
It is not just traditional soul food that is causing increased diabetes or the rise of childhood obesity. It’s the increasingly sedentary lifestyle that we lead, setting examples for our kids while we sit for hours on end in front of the television, computer, and/or playing video games daily. Regarding food, it’s the dollar menu for dinner or other cheap and easy meal solutions like fast food three nights out of the week because that is all mommy and daddy can afford. It’s making a decision between buying those ready-made foods that are very unhealthy versus fresh foods that one might have to come home and prepare. It is the four carry-outs in six blocks in your neighborhood when the nearest good grocery store is clear across town. FYI: that’s called a food desert. It’s also the decision to buy from a local grocery store or market, when there is one, and finding low-quality, damaged goods at outrageous prices within your own community. Having that experience, it is reasonable to conclude that it’s not a real choice for you and your family.
This is an increasing issue in urban cities where there are higher percentages of families that are living below the poverty line and in middle-to-low income areas without physical or economic access to fresh foods. It’s an economic justice issue. It’s an environmental justice issue that more Black people, more young people, and more families need to get involved in. Instead of rallying around “offensive” commercials, we can rally around food justice, food access and urban farming solutions like bringing a vegetable co-opt to your neighborhood. We all want and deserve fresh, filling foods to feed our families with love and with soul.
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