BAR Book Forum: Naa Oyo Kwate’s “Burgers in Blackface” / Photo by Naa Oyo A. Kwate
Racist restaurants cater to America’s nostalgia for a racial past of blatant white supremacy.
“Racism is woven into tradition, into fun, into the places people gather with friends and family.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Naa Oyo A. Kwate. Kwate is Associate Professor of Africana studies and human ecology at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Her book is Burgers in Blackface: Anti-Black Restaurants Then and Now.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Naa Oyo Kwate: When I was working on the project a year ago, the kinds of racial caricatures that are central to the restaurant branding I examine in the book kept making the news. A prominent incident was the racist cartoon of Serena Williams at the U.S. Open published in the Australian newspaper The Herald Sun. Once the book was finished and in production, a seemingly infinite stream of new instances occurred. For example, there were multiple blackface controversies, including that involving the governor of Virginia. So, I think the book helps BAR readers understand the current climate because it’s one in which deeply embedded racist tropes remain part of public discourse and consciousness. The current climate allows people to engage the kinds of images and stereotypes that subtend the Coon Chicken Inn and Mammy’s Cupboard with little social sanction. The blackface and other incidents reveal the book’s core arguments—that America continues to harbor nostalgia for a racial past of blatant white supremacy. The themes that undergird the restaurants I analyze in the text are with us still. The success of racist restaurants mirrors not only an ugly past, but the present moment’s contempt for Black humanity.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
As someone who studies African American health, that is perhaps my immediate thought about activism. There is a great deal of public and scholarly discourse about food environments and the health impact of insufficient access to health-supportive food retail. These inequities are correctly understood as manifestations of racism. The book looks at literal racism in retail food; how the restaurants are themselves explicitly racist, not just an exemplar of broader racist processes. So one thing I hope folks would take away from the book is to think capaciously about what we think are health risks. In this case, it’s not necessarily about the physical health risks from what is served in the restaurant; it’s psychic assaults from their existence in the first place.
“The restaurants are themselves explicitly racist, not just an exemplar of broader racist processes.”
Racist restaurants and the willful ignorance that their fans engage in remind public health advocates, researchers, and practitioners that we cannot forget what we know to be true, that we cannot allow complacency to shade the work we do. Especially in the current social and political climate. Racist restaurants matter for public health because they hold up a mirror to the society in which we work, and the deep investment this country retains in racism. These restaurants mark out the racial empathy gap that scholars such as David Williams have argued undergird the lack of political will to foster health equity. As well, racist restaurants matter for public health because the kinds of stereotypes in which they traffic end up shaping policy.
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?
One thing I hope people will un-learn is that racism is exceptional, unusual, a mark of characterological deficiency, or else only vengeful hateful violence. These restaurants show that racism is very much part and parcel of how this country does business—in this case literally. Racism is woven into tradition, into fun, into the places people gather with friends and family. Because it organizes much of the way we live, people can resist its undoing. We see this in the deep attachment people have to the racist depictions that are the crux of these restaurant brands.
Another ideology to dismantle is that racism is primarily about intent. Lawrence Bobo wrote that just after the 2016 election, Pamela Ramsey, an official in West Virginia, posted on Facebook that “It will be refreshing to have a classy, beautiful, dignified First Lady in the White House. I’m tired of seeing an Ape in heels.” After a public outcry, Whaling resigned, but also stated, “My comment was not intended to be racist at all….I would like to apologize for this getting out of hand.” As is so often the case, once these plainly racist statements saw the light of day, the speaker denied the unequivocal meaning behind them. In other words, it was possible to call the First Lady an ape, with all the racist history that language carries, as long as it was not intended to be racist. This project of making racism into poorly expressed but otherwise benign attitudes shears away centuries of shared meaning.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
This book is a departure from my previous work, so I was inspired by different thinkers. A couple of the scholars whose work had a direct influence on the book are Psyche Williams-Forson and Donald Bogle. But more broadly, I was inspired by diverse intellectual works that spoke to the project. For example, artist Simone Leigh describes her work as an exploration of Black female subjectivity and Black women are the primary audience for her work. In her exhibition at Luhring Augustine last fall, she included several pieces that referenced, and contested Mammy’s Cupboard. Also, in the book I cite Kara Walker’s 2014 public art installation, a 40-foot Black female sphinx made out of sugar. The full title of the work was, “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant.” Where Walker’s work was a critique and interrogation of Black women’s commodification in the structure of slavery and capitalism, Mammy’s Cupboard is an enshrinement of it. These works inspired me to go hard in my analysis of Mammy’s Cupboard and the other restaurants. Finally, I would say fiction has been an inspiration. After years of being consigned to reading only journal articles, I rediscovered fiction about six years ago. Reading novels stimulates my creativity, makes my mind sharper, and my writing better.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
I don’t know if it does. Unfortunately, I think it’s a grim reminder of how much of the U.S. remains firmly anchored in old and repetitive worlds. If the book helps imagine a new world it’s by making plain how much work we need to do to get there.
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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