“Deserts are natural phenomena, but the lack of food services in Black communities is a systemic, man-made evil.
“The unequal distribution of food resources is more evidence that this society is fucked.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Ashanté Reese.Reese is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Spelman College. Her book is Black Food Geographies: Race, Self-Reliance, and Food Access in Washington, D.C.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Ashanté Reese: I think we are in a moment where shit is fucked up. I don’t say that lightly. Because of activists, thinkers, researchers, and artists, we’re able to see how fucked up things are. But I also think because of activists, thinkers, some researchers, and artists, we’re able to start furrowing out paths towards other ways of being and relating. I think Black Food Geographies helps us see how deeply entrenched anti-Blackness is in the U.S. and that intent (read here as supermarkets’ reasons for why they choose or don’t choose to locate in certain neighborhoods), doesn’t matter. The unequal distribution of food resources is more evidence that this society is fucked. But then there’s this part where I hope Black Food Geographies helps readers understand that the social climate isn’t solely dictated by all that is wrong. There are always ways people resist and refuse. There are always ways that some of us, many of us, continue to live and survive in spite of the systems designed to take us out. I can’t think of a more apt way to capture this – the systems designed to kill usand the strategies we use to survive – than studying food. We literally have to have it to survive.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
I don’t think activists and community organizers need “proof” that their work is valuable, but I do hope they find it as a useful tool for thinking through some of the hows and whys of their work. I hope that Black Food Geographies provides some additional language and data to support their (our) work.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
I’m looking forward to people not using the term “food desert” anymore. I write about its ineffectiveness in the book, and I have also offered comments on it publicly via twitter.
I think there are other things I would like it to do, but honestly, I think readers get to decide their un-learning. I would be interested to hear what readers say they un-learned.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
Eeek! This question makes me nervous, because I know I may leave someone out if I try to list them all, so I won’t even try. I will just name a few. While I was writing, I read Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake for the first time, and it had a profound impact on me as a writer, thinker, and a person who wants to live ethically in this world. Zora Neale Hurston makes me believe I have a right to find my own voice and being and that if there is not enough room for me, I should go where there is. Saidiya Hartman’s writing, voice, and commitment to turning what we think of as “method” on its head challenges me to think, write, and encounter the world in ways that may not be captured in disciplinary terms. Dara Cooper, co-founder of the National Black Food and Justice Alliance (and also the person who wrote the forward to Black Food Geographies) inspires me daily. She is one of the sharpest thinkers and committed doers I know. Katherine McKittrick’s work took my book from a good idea to something that has a more solid theoretical foundation. Also, there’s a recent conversation between Robin D.G. Kelley and Fred Moten (moderated by Afua Cooper and Rinaldo Walcott) that was transcribed and printed in Critical Ethnic Studies. I find myself returning to it over and over, because it is beautiful – in content and form. The exchange is one example of how I’d like to engage my colleagues and any particular topic. They were thorough and thoughtful. Reading it, I feel like they are committed to process and not just producing something (a book, a talk, etc.). And lastly, while this may be cliché, the folks I engage in fieldwork are inspirations. I learn so much from them and I feel accountable to the communities I work within. If there is any reason why I do not completely despair about the state of our food system and the world, it is because I am connected to communities and organizations that refuse that despair, which helps me to refuse it as well.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
I love this question. In some ways, I think part of the work of imagining new worlds is understanding what we don’t want to replicate from this current one. Black Food Geographies does the work of laying out what is so problematic about our current food system. In the worlds I would like to see, no one has to wonder how or from where they will get food. Black Food Geographies lays out the texture of that kind of worry and it is my hope that it makes people pause to consider how absurd it is that we even have a world in which people do not have adequate access to the food they need or want to survive. The second thing I hope it does it provide some hope for what is possible. The chapter before the conclusion, for example, gives me so much hope. Not in corporate change or government. But in people’s willingness to create new worlds on a daily basis. We make a lot of World Making (capital W and M) – the grand narratives about what could be. That chapter and those gardeners teach me a lot about world making – the process and struggle of it being a daily practice that is not wholly dependent on the environments in which such occurs. They teach me to not wait for the grand but instead embody the practice of the everyday.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA. He also serves as the Outreach and Mentoring Coordinator for the Political Theology Network. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the new book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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