I can’t figure out how to talk about what black is, but I do know what black shouldn’t be: Black shouldn’t be about letting what racists think about you dictate how you think about yourself, what you say, and how you live your life.
Recently there was a big controversy over a Burger King commercial featuring Mary J. Blige singing about Crispy Chicken Strips. When I first saw the commercial I almost fell out of my chair laughing. It was hilarious to see a Grammy-winning superstar singing about fast food. I’d have found it funny no matter who the star was, even if it was Justin Timberlake or Britney Spears. The sunglasses, the lyrics describing the ingredients, how sincerely she was emoting, all for food, it was a hoot.
When the commercial went viral and everyone started clowning her, the thought of racism never even went through my head. I just figured everyone was just making fun at the overall ridiculousness of a superstar serenading a menu item, period. When I discovered people were actually offended because they found it racist, I was shocked and disappointed in my fellow black people.
What is wrong if a black person wants to be openly associated with fried chicken? What if Mary J. Blige sincerely, in her heart, loves that crispy chicken wrap? Is she not supposed to endorse it simply because of a stereotype? And so what if a major corporation associates fried chicken with blacks? Blacks did create modern fried chicken as we currently know it. Why should blacks balk at being given credit for creating something insanely good and popular, or being considered experts in it?
Once you reach the point where you feel black people can’t admit liking something because of a racist stereotype, you are letting racists run your life. Think about it, you’re not empowering black people with that attitude, you’re empowering racists. Their stereotypes are shaping how you’re allowed to express yourself and what you’re allowed to publicly enjoy.
Sicilian-Americans are stereotyped as loving pasta and pizza. How often does that stop a Sicilian-American from endorsing or being associated with pasta and pizza? Never! They’re proud of their contribution to the American and international foodscape. They should be! Would a Japanese person be ashamed to publicly endorse sushi?
What you have to realize is this: Fried chicken had traditionally been stigmatized in American culture because it was associated with black people. It’s been a part of black culture going back to pre-slave trade West Africa, and blacks in America pioneered it into the form we know it today. It’s a food that is so good it transcended being just a black dish to becoming a southern dish to becoming an American dish to becoming a billion-dollar industry to becoming an international staple food phenomenon. It’s as internationally ubiquitous as pizza, curry and hamburgers. That’s quite an accomplishment. It’s one to be proud of, something black people should celebrate the way Sicilians unabashedly show pride in pizza and pasta and Jamaicans brag about jerk chicken.
Fried chicken got its negative stigma from minstrel shows and other stereotypical media created by racist whites. But if fried chicken was stigmatized by racist whites because black people of a certain era liked and created it, and then black people end up internalizing the idea that fried chicken is something to be ashamed of, then blacks are unintentionally endorsing the same idea that racist whites have: that anything traditionally associated with being blacks of a certain era is something to be ashamed about. They’re letting white racists determine what they should feel about their ancestors and their cultural contributions. That’s self-loathing disguised as pride and self-love, and that’s the most insidious, corrosive form of self-loathing there is.
People should read the Wikipedia article on fried chicken. It’s a true testament to black American ingenuity and resourcefulness. Slaves and post-slavery blacks made the best of what they could afford and were allowed to have and created a glorious dish out of it that tastes damn good and is loved by all races around the globe. Celebrity chefs like David Chang make it an attraction at their restaurants, highbrow restaurants like Blue Ribbon highlight it on their menus, and urban trendspotting publications for white liberals like New York magazine profile the places to get the best fried chicken in New York on a regular basis.
If a nonblack person ever asks you why black people love fried chicken so much, don’t hem and haw and try to deny, defend, or justify. Tell them “Because it’s damn good! Why wouldn’t anyone like fried chicken, unless they’re some kind of freak?” No one asks Sicilians why they like pizza or Japanese people why they like sushi or ask Jamaicans why they like beef patties, and if someone did they’d think that person was mentally defective. The last thing they’d do is feel shame in any form. So why should black Americans?
Last year Questlove from the Roots got upset when he was in the NBC commissary and saw fried chicken on the menu for Black History Month. He took a picture, tweeted it everywhere with the caption “Hmm HR?” and it went viral as many black people and liberal whites shared in the outrage. NBC took down the sign and apologized, which I found even more insane. And then it turned out that the cook who put it on the menu was black, and to her credit, she stuck by her decision and didn’t back down or apologize at all. I was very proud of her for that and that she refused to feel ashamed for acknowledging that yes, fried chicken is a major cultural contribution by Black Americans, is part of their history, and is something to be damn proud of.
I’m black and I’m damn proud to say I love fried chicken.
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