Food As a Weapon: An excerpt from “Food Power Politics”

This week for Black History Month, we’re sharing an excerpt from the introduction of Food Power Politics: The Food Story of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement by Bobby J. Smith II which was the first book in our Black Food Justice Series.

“[Smith] shows how the struggles of the region’s Black communities laid the groundwork for the modern food justice movement. Sadly, access to fresh, unprocessed meals still elude many Black Americans today, but this little-known narrative reconstructed by Smith offers key lessons that could inform the current challenges.”

Civil Eats

Food has been used as a weapon to reinforce racial dominance since the beginning of slavery in America. In their memoirs, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs recalled how slave masters would withhold food to control enslaved people and starve them into submission. Enslaved people used food as a form of resistance to these tactics by creating and maintaining open and hidden garden plots on plantations in the face of inhumane social conditions. These kinds of practices that used food coercively and in liberatory ways occurred regularly through the Jim Crow era in the South when white political and economic actors controlled access to food as a means to undermine Black life. By the civil rights and Black power movements of the 1960s and 1970s, Black activists in the South and beyond created their own food mechanisms to shield themselves from the weaponization of food that sought to control their food realities. In the Chicago Freedom Movement, for example, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s (SCLC) “Operation Breadbasket” campaign commissioned a food “inspection team” of Black mothers to evaluate the quality of food in grocery stores in Black neighborhoods to ensure that members of these communities would have affordable and adequate nutritious food to purchase for their families. Throughout the nation, chapters of the Black Panther Party created food distribution initiatives ranging from a free breakfast program for children to community-based free food programs with Black political thought at the center. Black religious communities like the Nation of Islam created farms, bakeries, restaurants, and grocery stores to adhere to their own dietary needs and control every aspect of their food lives.

Food has been used as a weapon to reinforce racial dominance since the beginning of slavery in America.

These previous Black struggles over food in times of racial conflict raise historical and sociological questions about how we define and understand the concept of “power.” Who decides the terms by which Black people access food? What conditions shape these terms? How do Black people navigate these terms and conditions? What happens when they decide to reformulate these terms and conditions? These questions challenge us to think about how power shapes historical and contemporary relationships between Black people and food, especially in social, political, and economic struggle. Power is one of the most highly debated concepts in the social sciences—creating a theoretical minefield to navigate in making sense of the concept in the context of food. What is common among these debates, though, is that power can be understood dialectically in social relationships shaped by particular social, political, and economic structures.

Building on this line of thinking about power vis-à-vis food struggles, the language of historians, legal scholars, and political scientists is helpful. They use the term “food power” to describe how food is weaponized and used as a form of control between nations in times of international conflict and war. Food power is exercised when one nation or group withholds food (or the means to access or produce it) from another nation or group to manipulate the outcome of the conflict. For one nation to wield food power over another, it must operate within a hierarchical world system that enables that nation to control the other nation’s food supply, thus impacting the other nation’s ability to access food. Such macro power dynamics operate beyond a hierarchical world system and trickle down into everyday life, thus shaping micro-power relations between people and surrounding food accessibility. In the context of Black life, specifically, micro-power relations are shaped by questions of domination, that is, as bell hooks argues, a system of politics—struggles for power—that creates and maintains racial hierarchies and structures built on ideologies that white people are superior and Black people are inferior. This is what is meant by power “over” a social actor or group in the social sciences. Food, as a weapon used against Black people in times of social conflict, is designed to exert power over Black people to control them and ensure that Black people remain at the bottom of a racialized social hierarchy.

While the concept of food power is useful for interpreting how food was used as a weapon against Black people, it fails to interpret how they responded to such oppression. I argue that Black people engaged in a process that enabled them to reconfigure and reimagine what it meant to weaponize food through emancipatory terms—what I call “emancipatory food power.” This scenario situates power as the capacity or the ability of social actors or groups to shape and control their entire lives. Put differently, this is what is meant by power “to” or “with” people. Emancipatory food power can be situated in how activist Kwame Ture (formerly known as Stokely Carmichael), and Charles V. Hamilton defined power in the context of Black life. In Black Power, Ture and Hamilton argued that power is the capacity of Black people to create their own terms by which they define themselves in relation to society. Power in the hands of Black people is also about having these terms recognized by society, which assumes that society will have to be restructured or dismantled altogether to accept these terms. Placing food into this context amplifies the ways in which emancipatory food power shows up in Black life as Black people march toward an emancipatory future where they control when, where, and how they produce, consume, distribute, and access food. Put differently, emancipatory food power mobilizes Black people to fight against domination, as exercised by food power while struggling to emancipate themselves from a racialized social hierarchy and building a movement to control and shape their food realities. As such, the pursuit of emancipatory food power is always relational to food power because the concept of power is dynamic and context dependent. I theorize this relationship as “food power politics”—any set of interactions during times of conflict, whether formal or informal, between social actors who strategically use food in oppressive or emancipatory ways to mitigate the impact of the conflict.

Food, as a weapon used against Black people in times of social conflict, is designed to exert power over Black people to control them and ensure that Black people remain at the bottom of a racialized social hierarchy.

In this book, Food Power Politics: The Food Story of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement, I argue that what I call the food story of the Mississippi civil rights movement in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta provides a quintessential perspective on understanding food power politics in Black life. Activists, writers, and scholars have hinted at this food story by shedding a crucial light on activist Fannie Lou Hamer’s Freedom Farms Cooperative and its impact on the food realities of poor rural Black communities in the region. But Hamer’s work is one moment in a larger food story about the movement. The food story I tell spans across at least four moments from the civil rights era to today: the 1962–63 Greenwood Food Blockade, an understudied food stamp campaign ignited by white grocery store owners, the development of the North Bolivar County Farm Cooperative (NBCFC), and the contemporary food justice efforts of a group of rural Black youth in the North Bolivar County Good Food Revolution (NBCGFR). Together these moments—often precluded from our historical memory of the movement—unearth a food story that shows how power struggles over food between Black sharecropping communities and white political and economic opposition to the civil rights movement inform current struggles for food justice in rural Black communities in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta. The Delta, as the majority Black and rural area is colloquially known, consists of eighteen counties that make up the 200-mile-long, seventy-mile-wide massive agricultural region between Memphis, Tennessee, and Vicksburg, Mississippi. The region is known historically for its fertile soil and occupies a space in the American memory as “the most southern place on earth.” This moniker was born out of the Delta’s legacy of plantation agriculture and racial conflicts motivated by organized white opposition to Black social movements designed to secure political and economic power for Black people.

Bobby J. Smith II is assistant professor of African American studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.