- Building Houses out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power
In this provocative and nuanced exploration of the relationship between African-American women and their foodways, Psyche A. Williams-Forson addresses issues extending beyond that group and genre to the broader human condition. Williams-Forson's book considers the role of the commonplace and the seemingly trivial in constructing and performing identity, the disjuncture between emic and etic perceptions of meaning, the diversity of experiences and interpretations within what has historically been treated as a homogenous group, and the agency with which groups and individuals simultaneously challenge and affirm subtle structures of oppression. Building Houses out of Chicken Legs adds a much-needed voice to scholarship in foodways, folklore, and African-American studies that speaks of things usually left unsaid and unheard.
Drawing upon theories and methods in folklore, history, American studies, cultural studies, and literary analysis, Williams-Forson recognizes the multiplicity of histories and the layers of meaning that chicken holds for African-American women. Rich in description and covering a wide range of data, her book has drawn together every imaginable tidbit in the biography of that relationship. Of particular relevance to folklorists is her exploration of personal narratives involving individual and creative responses to the racist stereotypes attached to chicken. Unlike other foods that have been re-appropriated and used in counter-hegemonic [End Page 358] ways—as with menudo in south Texas or crawfish in Cajun Louisiana—chicken has not had its meaning recuperated, Williams-Forson claims. Many black women did raise chickens, selling eggs and meat to supplement, if not support, the family income, hence the phrase "building houses out of chicken legs." However, the mass-mediated, racist images of these women—usually as the stereotypically large and maternal but unsexed and scolding "Mammy" serving a heaping platter of chicken, happily chewing on a chicken bone, or bargaining for a live chicken in the market—bombarded the larger cultural consciousness, invading black women's perceptions of self. Some women took to heart these images, and they often perpetuated these mispresentations in their own attempts to better their lives. Adapting Tommy Lott's concept of cultural malpractice, in which cultural misrepresentations are acted upon as truth ("Black Vernacular Representation and Cultural Malpractice," in The Invention of Race: Black Culture and the Politics of Representation, pp. 85-110, Blackwell, 1999), Williams-Forson claims that black women have suffered "gender malpractice" in that they have been misrepresented by both the white culture and by black men; neither has allowed them to speak for themselves.
Williams-Forson's scholarship is admirable. She utilizes a wide range of sources, including historical records, popular culture (literature, advertising, music, film), and ethnographic accounts. She also draws upon her own experiences growing up as a black woman, testing her ideas against the resonance of her own life. In doing so, she unpacks layers within black culture, exploring the complexities of balancing social mobility with social identity.
The book is neatly divided into two parts. The first, "Encounters with the Bird," explores the historical relationship between chicken and African-Americans as a whole. Beginning with the place of chicken in the political economy of slavery, Williams-Forson suggests that the marketplace offered a liminal and carnivalesque venue in which the slave could defy the master—or at least negotiate with him and demonstrate superior wit and knowledge. Similarly, black women, referred to as "waiter carriers," often earned money by selling fried chicken and other homemade foods to train passengers. Unfortunately, in both cases the popular imagination often interpreted this entrepreneurship as the result of thievery and slyness.
I n this section, Williams-Forson also shows how the imagery of black men and chicken was particularly skewed, focusing on cockfighting, chicken stealing, and buffoonery. One of Williams-Forson's main points, however, is that there are many voices in the black community. For example, the chapter "Gnawing on a Chicken Bone in My Own House" explores...