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Education Higher Education

“All the Slaves Ate Together”: African American Foodways and the Colonial Era

About the Module

Author

Psyche Williams-Forson is associate professor and chair of the Department of American Studies at the University of Maryland College Park, and an affiliate faculty member of the women’s studies and African American studies departments and the Consortium on Race, Gender, and Ethnicity. She is co-editor (with Carole Counihan) of Taking Food Public: Redefining Foodways in a Changing World (Routledge 2011) and author of Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006). Her research focuses on the ways in which race, gender, class, and region affect food security/insecurity among African Americans. She also uses her training in material culture and museum scholarship in her research and teaching to explain the complexities of food and culture.

Suggested Use

The “All the Slaves Ate Together” module is a companion to the website Fire and Freedom: Food and Enslavement in Early America. It is designed to introduce students not only to aspects of the evolution of African American foodways, but also to the interconnectedness between food, race, and oppression. Using various food events—from the transatlantic slave trade to daily life in early American slave communities—the module classes are designed to inform and challenge students about how and why it was difficult for African Americans to obtain food. The module is also designed to illustrate the ingenuity and creativity that can ensue when food insecurity is present. By presenting students with these food events, opportunities are created to debunk oversimplifications about the food cultures of African Americans. Additionally, students are challenged to think critically about how food operates as more than sustenance and can be instead, a tool for wielding power and control, as well as used as a ruse for obtaining freedom. This module is designed for educators interested in making broad connections in the classroom by using primary and secondary sources, films, and other texts “to get at” more holistic narratives about the function of food(s) in the lives of African Americans.

Because the literature on slavery is vast, educators can use this module as one of many means of entering the discussion of what was often called the “peculiar institution.” Using food as a lens, instructors can teach about gender, region, archeology, history, literature, and even popular culture. For this reason, the module is necessarily interdisciplinary. Educators can use this module to convey to students the horror of the slave trade and the uncompromising positions of bondage heaped upon African Americans for over three centuries. Teachers can also use it as a starting point for educating about life on slave ships from the perspective of the enslaved, slave traders, and other passengers. Educators can also use the module to challenge students to think about how the enslaved used their environment to feed and to medicate themselves, using grasses, weeds, and garden surplus, when available. This might also encourage students to question the many other ways enslaved people inhabited their environment. Ultimately, this module provides a broad template for helping educators encourage students to think about issues that are sometimes overlooked in conceptualizing the lifeways of the enslaved.

The primary and secondly sources, overviews, and questions provided here are designed to challenge students to think about why African Americans, like other racial and ethnic communities, adhere so strongly to their food cultures. Borne out of a history of regulation and scarcity, African Americans developed food cultures that were imbricated in a need for freedom and justice. This need did not end with slavery. Rather, it began with this horrific experience. Tying contemporary food consumption to a diet of “scraps” is not only unfounded, but also detrimental to recognizing the levels of ingenuity, initiative, and resourcefulness that goes into ensuring that everyone in the family is able to eat. Armed with this knowledge, students can begin to think about current food crises, the ways that different racial and ethnic groups acquire food differently, and the ways that current discourses about health and wellness for African Americans must be tied intricately to historical oppression and centuries (still) of inequality.

Objectives

At the conclusion of a unit or an entire module, students are expected to:

  • Demonstrate an ability to critically analyze both primary and secondary sources
  • Draw on the literature to think complexly about the intersections of food and race in history and in the present
  • Describe the various foods that African culture contributed to the New World
  • Detail the myriad ways that Africans, and generations later, African Americans modified, adapted, and fused native foods in New World environments to create new food cultures
  • Discuss how slavery had a profound impact upon African American food cultures
  • Analyze how food can reveal and conceal the tensions of bondage and oppression
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