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Building Houses out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power Paperback – May 29, 2006

ISBN-13: 978-0807856864 ISBN-10: 080785686X Edition: 1St Edition

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press; 1St Edition edition (May 29, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 080785686X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0807856864
  • Product Dimensions: 1 x 6.8 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #915,168 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Despite stereotypes of black people as chicken lovers to the point of thievery, Williams--Forson offers a fresh perspective, one that features chickens at the center of acts of affection and self-identity as well as efforts at advancement. As the preparers of the chicken for families, church dinners, activist meals, and commercial enterprises of all sizes, black women have managed to express and self-identify through food beyond nourishment. Acknowledging that women's cooking is often marginalized in the greater society, Williams-Forson explores the complexities of food, gender, and race. Along with fascinating interviews with black women, Williams-Forson relies on travel narratives, film, art, literature, and historic documents and ephemera, including racist depictions in advertisements. She recalls chicken dinners prepared to feed families on long trips when they could not stop to eat in restaurants, dinners sold to support families and communities, and communities that developed among black women in the kitchen. Beyond the place of chicken as racial stereotype and in soul-food gatherings, Williams-Forson offers intriguing interpretations of black history, culture, and feminism. Vanessa Bush
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Richard R. Wilk on August 21, 2007
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I am truly surprised that nobody else has submitted a review of this book! It certainly deserves to be widely read as an original contribution to African-American studies, to food studies in general, to cultural studies, and most importantly, by anyone who wants to understand how sterotyping works as part of the process of oppression. I also learned a great deal about what 'signifying' means, and how it can be used as an analytical tool.

This is not a perfect book. Sometimes I found it moved to quickly from the general to the specific and vice versa. But Williams-Forson has taken a really tough topic - the way Chicken has been attached to African American women, and she treats it with sensitivity, creativity, wit and an eclectic set of tools from literature, social science and history. In the process she gets to the heart of how stereotypes cut in a lot of different directions; they reveal weaknesses and strengths, solidarities and divisions. She is not interested in passive victimology, nor does she ignore the violence and pain of slavery and prejudice.

The result is a book which really does teach you something new about the Black experience. It is the opening, I hope, of a new generation of black history which shakes off some of the old narratives which have served their purposes, and gets into really complex terrain. I look forward to more complex counterpoint with the work being done in the Caribbean and on the Black experience elsewhere in the Americas. I will certainly be using this book in the classroom, and I hope it gets the broader readership it deserves!
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By A. Harper on July 9, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I highly suggest this read to ANYONE interested in understanding how gender, race, and food are integral to understanding and debunking the stereotype about black people and "their 'natural' propensity to want chicken." It is very rare that food studies books even look at how racism impacts one's relationship to and with food. I am glad that Dr. Williams-Forson wrote this book!

I could not put this book down. This woman is brilliant. She was able to turn a dissertation into a book that is easy and fun to read (which can be a challenge for most dissertations in which the authors want to turn into a book). Her analysis of the movie Soul Food was something I have thought about all the time, but wondered why no one ever brought it up. Basically, she is asking why the health problems of Big Mama are NEVER linked to the type of Soul Food that she eats all the time.

If you are a fan of MacArthur Genius, Kara Walker, you will enjoy Williams-Forson's critique of how chicken is depicted in Walker's art work.

I await for her to come out with more books!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Alicia Crumpton on October 17, 2013
Format: Paperback
I LOVED this book for so many reasons and found the NY Times review of this book quite informative: [...]

Kudos to Dr. Williams-Forson for her book! I grew up in a family where chicken - fried or baked was next to Godliness in its importance. LOL. I have a favorite memory of hauling hay all day with my brothers, we were exhausted. We walked up from the barn into Granny's house and soon realized she had a fried chicken dinner ready. It was hilarious how renewed we were simply anticipating the goodness of that chicken!

The title's byline: Black women, food, and power provide the true focus of this book which describes gender, race, class, biases, assumptions, values, and ways of life. Not since reading Patricia Hills Collins book on Black Feminist Thought have I experienced a read so powerfully. In some parts, and this may sound weird, I felt as though I was eavesdropping on a conversation that I had no business listening to. This was particularly true in Ch2 - Black Men, Visual Imagery, and the Ideology of Fear. I have no explanation for my experience except to say the content presented was painful in its truth and just my felt sadness at how biased and ignorant we humans can be in our perceptions.

I laughed out loud reading about the Chicken Bone Express - my Mom would make fried chicken for any road trip because we could always find a place to stop and eat, chicken was finger food, and it was just so darned good. Ch 5 discussion of signifying and church food included a valuable discussion of the importance of knowing culture and expected etiquette around hospitality and food practices.

I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in exploring gender roles, power, race, and class through the lens of food practices.
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8 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Matthew J. Ripley on March 7, 2010
Format: Paperback
First, let me say this was not a poorly written, researched, or executed book. Where I have a problem comes with the way the publishing company has chosen to label it. If you were to go into this book expecting a book covering foodways or folklore you have no choice but to give this book one star. Her folklore methods are shaky at best, and she spends entirely too much time covering literature, popular culture, and advertising when a folklorist would be talking to real people who take part in the tradition. The second major bone to pick (pun intended) is that this book is not food or food ways scholarship. This book is about the marginalization of women and the power struggles they go through with regards to black men and white women. Chicken just happens to be something that allows Dr. Williams - Forson to tie those two things together. From the point of view of a folklorist and a food scholar this book just didn't deliver. If you are looking for a classic literary and popular culture approach to power and gender,and you happen to want that tied tenuously to fried chicken this is the book for you. For everyone this book tries to appeal to, just read Kathy Neustadt's "Clambake" instead.
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