Searching for Roots in African Soil

Black Power and the Politics of Heritage Cooking

Debby Esmeé de Vlugt

 

This paper examines the importance of Black Power ideology in African cookbooks written by African American women from the 1970s to the 1990s. It argues that the authors of these books consciously invested in and reflected on the identity politics of the movement by discussing the importance of rediscovering African food. By doing this, they contributed to the construction of a transnational identity network.

Every aspect of black identity was unraveled and reconstructed in these cookbooks, which eventually led to a threefold identity consciousness. Firstly, by studying African cuisine as a piece of their cultural heritage, these authors confronted their legacy as people of African descent. This was also apparent in their writing about African cultures and histories, through which they explored their physical and imagined connections to the continent. This complies with a constructivist view of diasporic identities, as these efforts can be seen as a conscious attempt at establishing a collective identity based on a shared homeland.

Secondly, these cookbook authors explored the possibility of using foodways to unite diasporic Africans around the Atlantic into a Pan-African community. Although they did acknowledge the hybridity of black cuisines, they primarily focused on similarities: from cooking styles to ingredients, and from terminology to everyday rituals. Besides writing about continental African cuisines, these women also discussed their experiences with food in black communities in other (post)colonial regions, such as the Caribbean, Latin America, and urban centers in Europe, which reflects on the Black Power principle of solidarity and familyhood.

Thirdly, the authors of these cookbooks often reflected on womanist ideology in their culinary writing, thus placing themselves into a tradition of powerful African women. Their praise for the African matriarch indicates that they were engaged with black feminist discussions and were searching for a way to establish themselves as part of a tradition of influential agents.
Although food historians have studied the relationship between Black Power and diet before, an in-depth analysis of the African cookbook trend in this period is difficult to find. Instead, many have focused on the popularization of soul food and specific diets such as Elijah Muhammad’s How to Eat to Live.

This paper argues that African cookbooks were written to provide a more radical alternative to soul food, since the latter had been influenced by white/European cultures and was associated with enslavement. Either way, these different attitudes towards food in the Black Power movement show that foodways were approached as a source of cultural identity and resistance, and were ultimately used to negotiate a new black identity. This paper will be based on a dissertation originally written for the master’s program in US History at the University of Oxford in 2017.