Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power

Psyche A. Williams-Forson, Author . Univ. of North Carolina $19.95 (317p) ISBN 978-0-8078-5686-4

The humble chicken has possessed complicated associations for African-Americans from earliest slavery times, especially for women, who traditionally had to cook the bird for white kitchens. Moreover, hawking chicken by "waiter carriers" became a key source of income for poor disenfranchised blacks, while stealing chickens reflected a kinship with African-American "trickster heroism," according to Williams-Forson, an American studies professor at the University of Maryland. In her valuable though dense and scholarly study, Williams-Forson explores how the power of food images advanced the rhetoric of black stereotypes in lore and literature, for example, as portrayed in "coon" songs like Paul Laurence Dunbar's popular "Who Dat Say Chicken in Dis Crowd" and characterizations of mammies in advertisements in upscale magazines. With the Great Migration, blacks took their cultural practices with them, literally, in shoe boxes containing fried chicken, and their route became known as the "chicken bone express." The author discusses chicken as "the gospel bird" in African-American churches (the strength of one's cooking skills elevated one's status with the preacher), and how eating chicken (or eschewing it) provides a way for blacks to "signify" class and status. Following her hard-going study is a staggeringly thorough bibliography. (June)

Reviewed on: 04/03/2006
Release date: 06/01/2006
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Hardcover - 317 pages - 978-0-8078-3022-2
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