For the past few years, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day has been inevitably stirring controversy not in politics nor protest, but on the plate. From cafeterias at NBC, Denver public school system, Atlantic City casino, UC Irvine, St. Luke’s hospital, Northern California private school, and more, MLK Day and Black History Month menus featuring fried chicken have gone viral.
In defense, administrations often cite a beloved and respected history of Soul Food, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s supposed favorite foods as fried chicken and pecan pie, and the Civil Rights Movement’s regular meetings over Southern classics at Atlanta restaurant Paschal’s.
The desire to celebrate a holiday with food is certainly a natural one. We pass heaping platters that trigger our nostalgia, encourage tableside generosity, and smell like home. Is there any more tangible way to find shared identity?
So we eat barbecue for July Fourth, turkey on Thanksgiving, and chocolate for Valentine’s Day, and these symbols feel comforting. Regardless of historical accuracy or co-opted commercialization, the foods we eat to represent our holidays take on a life of their own. The act of consuming becomes culture itself.
But what happens when those symbols are stereotypes? Fried chicken may in itself seem benign. It’s a legitimate emblem of American Southern cuisine, and it’s freaking delicious. However, much like how dry cleaners or noses are not independently offensive, they still carry the weight of historical prejudice, signifiers that were used to designate the other. If anything, the power of the casual stereotype to infiltrate advertisements and popular media is more relevant to our “PC” discourse today, where an off-color joke still subjugates when references to blood libel or rape would not be tolerated.
Where did the “black people love fried chicken” stereotype come from? There are origin theories based on West African cuisines where chicken is battered and fried in palm oil, historical propaganda of black Americans stealing chickens, and the visual implications of eating food with one’s hands. Many sources cite a scene in the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, where black Americans have taken control of the House of Representatives and cause a chaotic scene, eating fried chicken and propping bare feet up while passing politically-threatening laws.
To this day, there are still questionable KFC commercials, disturbing Obama memes, and disparaging Tiger Woods remarks. By reducing people to symbols like fried chicken, they too become objects — easily identified, categorized, and possessed.
But how can we celebrate a holiday without symbols? How can we infuse our festivities with nuance? Is MLK Day in itself problematically reductionist? We have personified an entire movement with a single saint. We love the humanity of the personal details, until we learn of his mistresses or vices.
Martin Luther King, Jr. may have indeed loved fried chicken, but would he choose it today to empower his people, or would he instead opt for the lentil soup of Dead Prez? What does it mean in 2015 when Oberlin’s black student union includes more fried chicken as one of their petitioned demands regarding race on campus?
Perhaps rather than demonizing the fried chicken, we push ourselves to understand these symbols in context. We honor history not by oversimplification nor omission, but instead by reveling in the questions that make us uncomfortable. We put Bill Thomas & the Fendells on, nourish the bodies and the souls of our communities, and we celebrate each other.