[Music Clip, Jet by Yung Kartz]
Carolyn Mason (00:14):
Hello and welcome to Bigger Fish to Fry, a podcast that dives deep into the health and diet of enslaved people in the antebellum South. We’ll be focusing on how enslaved people cooked for themselves as well as how would they ate was reflected in their health. I’m your host, Carolyn Mason, and I’m so excited to share this project with you. Each episode of this series will discuss important aspect of the broader subject of enslaved foodways and their effect on people. Food history, nutrition, and the legacy of these topics on modern populations are all subjects that we’re going to cover over the course of this series. These episodes are by no means comprehensive, but I hope that they will give you just a taste of the research and information that is available about the diet health and legacy of enslaved people. As I mentioned in the first episode, my purpose is to create something that illuminates what the lives of enslaved people were like. Their lives deserve to be discussed in all their complexity, not only to honor them, but also to give the descendants more information about their ancestors. In the last episode, I focused on the nutrition of enslaved people. I wanted to answer questions like was their diet enough for them to survive and thrive upon? How were different groups of enslaved people affected by rationing? These questions brought up new ones that I’ll address in this episode. What was the legacy of slavery on descendant populations? What is their health like? In today’s episode, we’ll start to dive deep into the structural and individual legacies of slavery and discrimination against people today. Now let’s discuss!
Carolyn Mason (01:43):
As we have discussed at length in the last few episodes, slavery affected every part of enslaved people’s lives. Where enslaved people slept, who they slept with, what they ate and how they ate were all controlled by plantation owners and overseers. The effects of malnutrition and the backbreaking labor resulted in disease and developmental delays that left its mark on enslaved people long after the institution of slavery supposedly ended. The trauma of slavery did not just go away. It left its mark on the structures and the people in this country, leading to over a century of discrimination. The idea that trauma can mark places and people and be transferred across time and generations is a concept known as intergenerational trauma. It has been a recent topic of discussion related to the experiences of descendants of those involved in terrible tragedies, such as Holocaust victims, survivors of the Rwandan genocide and enslaved people in the U. S. In an article titled “The Legacy of Trauma,” published by the American Psychological Association, the effects of intergenerational trauma are described as not only psychological, but familial, social, cultural, neuro-biological, and possibly even genetic.
Carolyn Mason (02:47):
The use of food as a coping mechanism, definitely falls under this category. Food is integral to culture around the world. It brings people closer together and transmits cultural knowledge. Recipes and ingredients, as we have learned, do not just come from the mind of one person in their journey. It comes from the journeys and experiences of many, with additions and changes made along the way that creates something familiar and wonderful for people to enjoy. For American black people, food brings us together and often culturally unites us when we have very little other positive history to look back upon. For white people, Southern cooking is often a way to make the past palatable and justify modern claims to history. Historically, the mistress of the plantation kept a recipe book, as well as the keys to ingredients kept on the plantation. These recipe books served as a symbol of adulthood for Southern white women who inherited their family’s recipe books when they married. Although these books, which were in the hands of white women, contained the recipes for the food that would eventually become good Southern cooking, it was still black cooks, mainly enslaved women, who were creating these meals. Literacy being illegal for enslaved people, they most likely did not read the book themselves, allowing them to take certain liberties with seasonings and manners of preparation for recipes that allowed them to make the dishes their own. However, at the end of slavery, the influence that black cooks had over Southern recipes was largely erased by the historical record. The recipe books did not include the names of black cooks or any of their notes about how to cook or seasoned certain dishes. It was white women who carried the tangible legacy of Southern cooking.
Carolyn Mason (04:12):
This erasure made it easy for culinary icons, a word which I use here loosely, like Paula Dean to build their careers on being stereotypical, traditional good Southern cook. I’m not trying to suggest that white people can not be Southern chefs or specialize in Southern cooking, but when the model of a good Southern cook is a white woman who has admitted to repeatedly using the N word, it makes you question where the place is for black people in this food genre, although by all accounts, it would not exist without them. If it was black hands and black ingredients that shaped these recipes into what they are today, but white mouths who eat and claim them, who does the legacy of Southern cooking really belong to on the national stage?
[Music Clip, Jet by Yung Kartz]
Carolyn Mason (04:51):
Despite the reverence paid to the food and flavors of black people in the South, there have been many anecdotal suggestions that food is responsible for the many woes of black people today. Soul food and good Southern cooking have been named as the culprits of high rates of hypertension, heart disease, and obesity in black people. But is this true? To be the suspected culprit of health problems, Southern cooking must be a staple in the day to day diet of people, right? The truth is a little more complicated. Most popular Southern dishes like baked mac and cheese, and chitlins are fairly labor intensive and take well over an hour to prepare. Today where recipe books and delivery services boast easy meals to make in 30 minutes, there isn’t the demand for Southern meals every day in no small part, because of the lack of time for such labor intensive recipes. As I record this Thanksgiving is fast approaching and is one of the only times of year that my family puts in the effort to make these kinds of dishes. All this is not to say that Southern cooking has no effect on the health of black people. In an NPR article called “Southern Diet Blamed For High Rates Of Hypertension Among Black Americans,” researchers found that black people were more likely to eat a Southern style diet than white people. It seems like a social legacy is being passed generations leading to an increase in consumption of foods that were quote “fried, [and] overly salted.” Fast food is the genre food I’m getting at here, which has a lot of research associated with race and the health consequences of eating it. For example, in an article called “Fast Food, Race/Ethnicity, and Income,” published in the American Journal for Preventative Health, researchers examine the association between black and low income neighborhoods and fast food restaurants in New Orleans. Unsurprisingly, they found that fast food restaurants are more commonly found in these areas, meaning that their presence may be linked to the higher prevalence of obesity in these populations.
Carolyn Mason (06:31):
Now don’t get me wrong. Americans in general, eat a lot of fast food, but it is no coincidence that black and low income people in neighborhoods, which in some cases may overlap, are the targets of a lot of rhetoric about fast food and general nutrition. According to a Vox interview with Marcia Chatelain, a history professor who wrote the book “Franchise: the Golden Arches in Black America,” quote, “people who are concerned about nutrition and health would talk about the relationships of communities of color, to fast food as if these are inevitable affinities that were in people’s blood. There’s this weird idea about biological predisposition to certain types of food, rather than the social construction of what choices people have.” The choices that she’s referring to are the lack of other options people have for food, let alone healthy alternatives.
Carolyn Mason (07:13):
Food deserts are one reason for the lack of options that many people have and what they eat. Food deserts are defined by Tulane university and the American Nutrition Association as places where there is a lack of sufficient supply of fresh vegetables, fruits, and healthful, affordable whole foods. This means that people do not have easy or affordable access to fresh foods, which are often associated with healthier meals, forcing them to rely on the food that is around them, such as fast food. Here comes the part where I ask you to add a visual component to this audio medium. On the website, BiggerFishtoFrypodcast.com, I have linked the map of America showing the areas most affected by food deserts and the lack of fresh produce. I have also linked a map from Rural Health Info.org showing the percent of the population that is black in the U S from 2018. Just a glance at these two maps side by side, will show you that the overlap between where food deserts are most common and where black people live is striking. And black people aren’t the only minority groups that are affected. At first glance. I noticed that the four corners region of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah, where a great deal of Native American people live is made up of many food deserts. Generally minority groups are at a disadvantage for making healthy food choices because they simply do not have the same resources as other groups.
Carolyn Mason (08:26):
The combination of fast food places being more predominant in areas where black people live and parts of the country with high amounts of food deserts is no coincidence. Fast food companies have moved into such neighborhoods as a way to capitalize on the black and low income market. Targeted campaigns and ads entice black people in, including with menu choices, such as the quote neighborhood KFC campaign in the 1990s, as well as hiring choices, such as giving black franchise owners the opportunity to work, to improve their own communities. Whether or not these fast food chains are simply after the money that the black market had to offer or truly embrace the country’s move towards diversity, equity and inclusion isn’t quite relevant in this case. What is, is the enduring connection between black people and fast food that has resulted in the targeting of black people for making poor health choices. In reality, as I spoke about before, making a choice about the food you eat is much more complicated. Food deserts, time available to cook and a simple historical legacy, all predispose black people to eat fast food or Southern cooking, even before we get into the individual likelihood of making certain food choices, the choices that black people make do not exist in a vacuum, but that doesn’t mean that they’re biologically or genetically selected for or predetermined as many scholars and laymen have suggested. Let’s talk about racial medicine.
[Music Clip, Jet by Yung Kartz]
Carolyn Mason (09:42):
One of the first things that I learned in college was that there is no biological basis for race. Although people have a wide range of phenotypic differences, meaning differences in how they look, genetically we are not dissimilar enough to be racially distinct. In fact, there’s more variation within a racial group than there is between racial groups. This is a fairly new idea, however, and racial differences are still a point of contention for the general public and scientists alike. Historically, there’s been a lot made of supposed differences between races, which resulted in eugenic practices that culminated in genocide. Faulty science served only to justify the false sense of superiority that many white and European people had/have. It seemed that these kinds of assumptions had been put to bed, or at least become the minority point of view, when more robust scientific research was done, but as DNA and genetic analysis have advanced, there’s been a resurgence in the amount of racialized science and medicine being performed.
Carolyn Mason (10:35):
Following the line of thinking that genes are responsible for the woes of certain groups, it is a popular misconception that black people have inherited traits that cause poor health due to the selective pressures of slavery. One that I have heard repeated in my own family is that the prevalence of high blood pressure or hypertension in American black people is due to a gene that promotes salt retention that allowed enslaved people to be more likely to survive the middle passage. This concept is known as the slavery hypertension hypothesis. Although there has been very little research evidence to support the hypothesis, it still remains quite popular. Such hypotheses should just that there are distinct and tangible differences between racial groups, which have we had discussed. Isn’t true. Many people have relied upon the fact that some genes are sometimes found to be correlated with social racial groups, which they then use to justify the fact that there may be inherent differences between these groups. This is a dangerous path to follow. Associating certain genes with only one group can lead to all sorts of poor health outcomes. Genes may be assumed to be the cause of a disease when it presents in a certain group without proof and those who may suffer from a genetic condition may be overlooked because they do not fall into a certain racial category. This doesn’t even get into the fact that there are many people who do not physically appear to be a part of their social racial group who could easily slip through the cracks when practicing this kind of assumptive, racialized medicine. As Graves and Rose say in their article quote “Against Racialized Medicine,” human, genetic variation is real. Individuals with ancestry in particular geographic regions are more likely to share genes with other individuals from the same region, but the overall amount of measured genetic differentiation between human populations is meager.”
Carolyn Mason (12:07):
I think we often forget that so-called racial differences are often a result of the social treatment of certain races. Both enslaved people and poor whites face malnutrition in the antebellum South, which resulted in poor health outcomes. Only comparing enslaved black people to plantation owners and wealthy white people may suggest that there’s an association between race and health disparities. But the reality is that these disparities have greater association with poverty and poor social treatment. Poverty is not unique to any one race, but what distinguished the institution of slavery as particularly heinous was the lack of agency that it encouraged in black people, the violence perpetrated and the psychological trauma caused by being singled out for your race. Ruqaiijah Yearby, a professor at the St. Louis school of law and a specialist in racial disparities and healthcare, discusses it more in my interview with her.
Carolyn Mason (In Interview) (12:53):
I know in my family, there’s the perception that I can’t exactly say what it is, but that enslaved people had a gene or something that made them like more susceptible to hypertension because they needed the salt because of the enslaved ships. And I don’t know, like how much is just like folklore and what families say versus what’s an actual, like are black people just sickly?
Ruqaiijah Yearby (13:17):
Um, I would say, um, it’s a folklore that is tied to racial hierarchy and inferiority, right? And so if we weren’t strong, if we weren’t exceptional, then we would never have been brought over here as slaves. Uh, we would not be able to withstand, uh, the 500 years of, um, just supremacy. And so the belief that somehow we have a genetic flaw is problematic, but as steeped in, again, this white supremacy and belief that somehow we are less than, and it does a disservice to us, but it also disservice the other communities that suffer from these issues. Right. And so when we look at diabetes, one could argue, um, that African-Americans are predisposed because of some genetic flaw, which is incorrect. And I talk about that more a little bit later, but then that forces us, um, or hides the fact that, um, many whites suffer from these issues too. Um, so do Latinos and so do other groups. And so if you just say it’s blacks because of some genetic inferiority, then you ignore the other populations that suffer from these issues. And really the key to diabetes or hypertension is not about just genetics, right? It’s about the environment. Um, and even if you were going to say it’s genetics, um, we interact within environment and the environment changes our genetics, um, not only within ourselves, but changes it in a way that can be passed on to others. And so the increased rates of hypertension, um, and to behavior that increases hypertension, diabetes, cancer is really linked to living in a place, um, that has founded and, um, continues to oppress people.
Ruqaiijah Yearby (15:25):
And so research has shown that actually experiencing racism increases on unhealthy behaviors, uh, that lead to cancer, right, to smoking to obesity. And they’ve shown that across all racial groups, that it increases the unhealthy behaviors of all racial groups. So it’s not genetic, it’s just the oppression that we face. Um, going back to diabetes a little bit, when we look at some of the data, um, like in Maryland, they talk about, um, that populations that have an increased rate of diabetes are African-Americans, poor. Uh, but also whites who are in urban areas. Now what’s interesting about sometimes when we look at those things, is that for blacks, we blame it on genetics and behavior. Um, but when, when we look at poor whites, we say, oh, well, they can’t get to transportation. They don’t have the money for food. Right. And that’s true for all of us. And so again, I would just say, um, if we’re going to talk about genetics, that just reinforces this story, that somehow, uh, we’re not doing what we’re supposed to, right. We’re not eating the way we’re supposed to. And I think in the South, you often see that is that poor whites and blacks have the same, um, health outcomes. Why? Cause they have the same poverty they’re living under the same condition, same oppression. And so, um, then you see the same thing.
[Music Clip, Jet by Yung Kartz]
Carolyn Mason (17:00):
The racialization of healthcare is not new. Many black people today are well aware of the prejudice that they may face in the modern healthcare system stemming from modern health disparities, as well as the historical legacy of unethical and heinous treatment of black people that extends all the way back to slavery. This treatment took the form of being used as experimental test subjects, as well as practice dummies for procedures to be performed on white people. While the Tuskegee Syphilis Trial is the most infamous of the experiments performed on black people in the U.S. there are many, many others that have taken place. Some especially cruel experiments were performed by Dr. James Marion Sims on enslaved women and children. The experiments are horrifying and although I think they are worth knowing about to truly understand the modern relationship that black people have with doctors. I understand that the vivid description may be disturbing to some listeners. Please skip ahead around 30 to 40 seconds to avoid this part.
Carolyn Mason (17:51):
Some of the experiments conducted by Sims as described in the book, “Medical Apartheid” by Harriet Washington included the prying apart of an infant skull with cobbler’s tools in order to treat a neuromuscular disease later found to be a result of poor nutrition. When the infant died, his mother and the midwives caring for them were blamed for his death, citing their ignorance as the cause. Another terrible experiment Sims performed was practicing surgical techniques on enslaved women aimed at fixing a complication related to childbirth called vesicovaginal fistula. I’m not a doctor or a medical specialist. So I won’t describe the condition in detail but the procedures were done without any kind of anesthesia or privacy being given to the enslaved women being experimented on. I don’t call out Sims to highlight how one doctor abused and enslaved women but instead to highlight that the medical system in America is built on the abuse and torture of enslaved people and people of color.
Carolyn Mason (18:43):
These types of cruel and sadistic experiments performed on black people are one large part of the reason that many black people today do not seek out treatment from the traditional biomedical system. The history of torture and abuse is just one way that the health of black people in America continues to be affected. Black people still experience the direct negative health effects of racism in their day-to-day lives. Racism doesn’t just come in the form of a white person calling a black person the N word. It also exists in the American infrastructure itself, such as with the school to prison pipeline, housing segregation, and food deserts. As we’ve mentioned, these infrastructures affect black people on a day-to-day basis causing stress at a disproportionate rate related to the anxiety of answering basic questions, such as where will my next meal come from? Am I safe in my neighborhood? Will the people who are supposed to uphold law and order actually protect me? We’ve all heard the old adage that stress isn’t good for you, but in the case of black people, as well as many other minority groups, this kind of chronic stress coupled with the racist infrastructure that inherently puts these groups at a disadvantage can truly affect their health. Arline Geronimus, a public health researcher at the University of Michigan, coined a term for this chronic stress- weathering. In a 2018 NPR interview she discussed how poor health outcomes are not just related to poor choices and genetics, neither of which as we discussed exists in a vacuum. Instead they are related to the erosion of health caused by constant stress. And these health outcomes are not simply fixed by going to a doctor, which isn’t always even an option.
Carolyn Mason (20:13):
Historically black people have been considered to feel less pain than other races, which was often a fact touted to justify the use of extreme brutality and cruelty against them. However, the legacy of this persists in the healthcare system today. Doctors continue to assume that black people are tougher and therefore have a higher pain threshold. In the article “Racial disparities in Health Care: Highlights From Focus Group Findings,” both patient and medical personnel who served as participants described the both overt and subtle experiences with racism in the healthcare system, including doctors suggesting unnecessary surgeries, patients receiving incorrect diagnoses, lack of respect to both doctors and patients of color, and assumptions about socioeconomic status based on race. With the current COVID-19 pandemic these disparities are all the more relevant and important to address. Black Americans are three times more likely to be diagnosed with COVID-19 than white Americans and the CDC lists discrimination, healthcare access and utilization, and educational, income, and wealth gaps as some of the factors that increase certain minority groups’ chances of getting sick and dying from COVID-19. These societal factors did not come from recent discriminatory practices. They are a legacy of the treatment of black people in America since well before its founding. It’s important that we recognize where these attitudes and behaviors come from so that we know what to dismantle and change to improve the health of black people in this country.
[Music Clip, Jet by Yung Kartz]
Carolyn Mason (21:35):
Knowledge is power and this podcast has been all about empowering black people specifically to embrace the culture of their ancestors and understand how that culture may affect them today. It’s been a true blessing to have the opportunity to do the research for this show as it has allowed me to connect with my own culture in new ways. I was able to be the architect of a narrative that connects all Americans in ways that do not trivialize the pain and suffering endured under slavery. Instead, I hope to celebrate the ingenuity and creativity that enslaved people possessed and passed down to their descendants rather than succumbing to the brutality and savagery with which they were treated. Black enslaved people kept moving and focused on the bigger fish they had to fry, surviving and thriving.
Carolyn Mason (22:15):
I want to thank my mentors, Dr. Kelly Shrum and Dr. Sarah Collini for all their help with this project from helping me to obtain a grant to offering helpful feedback and patience as I grappled with being a student and trying to produce a polished product that I could be proud of. And thank you to you all for joining me in this final episode of Bigger Fish to Fry. Find out more about me and this project, as well as sources and transcriptions on the Bigger Fish to Fry Website, BiggerFishtoFrypodcast.com. Remember that this episode deals with a small and generalized amount of information regarding the health of American black people. But we’ve got to start somewhere if we want things to change. Send me an email or leave a message on my site with what you thought the biggest take-away was for this episode- and then share with your friends, family and anyone who you think might be interested in learning about this subject. Thanks to Yung Kartz for use of his song “Jet” for the intro and outro of this program, and thanks again for listening to Bigger Fish to Fry.
[Music Clip, Jet by Yung Kartz]