@Bittman, Beyonce, and @ByronHurt

via nytimes.com

via nytimes.com

A few weeks ago, food writer and New York Times columnist Mark Bittman dipped his toe into the sea of pop culture studies with his column on Beyonce’s PepsiCo deal, “Why Do Stars Think It’s O.K. to Sell Soda?” In the piece, Bittman’s eponymous question proves to be rhetorical. Instead of exploring why “stars think it’s o.k. to sell soda,” he explains why they shouldn’t: because soda’s empty calories “directly cause weight gain” and are linked to “obesity and [therefore] early death”.

Bittman’s piece focuses on superstar Beyonce’s enormous endorsement deal from Pepsi in compensation for her performance at the Pepsi Superbowl Halftime Show and her image being emblazened on limited-edition Pepsi cans, an effort on which Pepsi is spending $50 million. In this column and elsewhere, Bittman advocates for legal limitations on soda (for example, making food stamps ineligible for soda purchases), and so he has a clear sense that Beyonce’s choice is a bad one for the health of her fans. He writes that “Knowles is renting her image to a product that may one day be ranked with cigarettes as a killer we were too slow to rein in.”

But  Bittman misses an opportunity to understand this Beyonce deal when he rushes to moralize it. Given Beyonce’s political activism, even her advocacy for Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign, Bittman see’s her choice to pose for Pepsi as mere hypocrisy. To Bittman, soda is an obvious killer, an ingestible non-food that should be regulated with “anti-tobacco-style legislation and [tried in the court of] public opinion.” Looking at Britney’s Pepsi ad above, for example, it clearly markets Pepsi as hip, aspirational, youthful, energetic, democratic, carefree, and sexy. Those are still characteristics fans associate with Beyonce, and her acceptance of the Pepsi deal suggests that Pepsi still reads hip, youthful and fun – what may be the bigger shift here from Britney days is not that Pepsi has changed but that a black woman can be the face of hip, youthful, sexy and fun.

Bittman’s equivalence between soda and cigarettes is a false one precisely because of their differences in the eyes of contemporary American consumers.  Beyonce has accepted an endorsement deal from Pepsi without damaging her image of “success, health, talent, fitness, and glamour” (Center for Science in the Public Interest qtd in Bittman). This speaks not only to the strength of Beyonce’s star image but also indicates that soda is not perceived by most as it is by Mark Bittman. He laments that “Seemingly, no celebrities turn down endorsement deals for ethical reasons,” but of course we know that Beyonce would turn down any endorsement deal, no matter the payday, with a cigarette company. She doesn’t even shell for alcohol. (Carcinogenic cosmetics are another story.) Beyonce’s proud acceptance of this deal is an indicator of public opinion on soda: we don’t see it as a killer, not yet. Bittman would do better to understand the meaning of her choice and what it means about soda’s public image.

(Side note: While we’re here, though, let me praise Mark Bittman. That the food-centric writings of a cookbook author are so incisively political speaks to the centrality of food and food policy to many national debates and struggles. His writings on food politics cut to the core of so many facets of American life, government, and community right now: public health disaster, big business corruption, pollution and global warming, revolving doors between government agencies and corporate board rooms, and–let’s not forget this–the thousands of grass roots movements in food, community, and sustainability taking hold across the country every day.)

Byron Hurt’s new documentary, Soul Food, is streaming on PBS.org until January 22. It uses the death of Hurt’s father as a jumping-off point to an exploration of how food health and security impact African American community. Most interesting to me in the film were folks’ contrasting responses to soul food’s roots in slavery: some people took eating the chicken feet white folks wouldn’t eat as a badge of honor, while others rejected slave foods for their association with enslavement. The film is a great exploration of so many foods we think of as plain American: mac n’cheese, fried chicken, stewed greens, but put in the context of African-American history, experience, and culture.

The film was also a surprising compliment to Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, which (as a story of the Great Migration) is a book about travel, about eating on the go, and about the movements of traditions and cultures of which food is a huge part. Anyway, check out the film and let me know what you think!

Must Read: The Warmth of Other Suns

A few weeks ago I finished Isabel Wilkerson’s magisterial The Warmth of Other Suns, about the Great Migration, in which four million African-Americans moved north and west from the Jim Crow south over six decades after World War I. I cannot recommend this book highly enough for anyone interested in African-American or really American history of the 20th century. The book uses copious interviews with migrants and members of the communities they left and joined, combined with coverage of older and a new body of reevaluative research on the migrants, to argue compellingly that southern migrant blacks were a resilient and hardworking group whose individual decisions culminated to change America’s cultural, economic, and geographical landscape, and in so doing pushed American history forward.

While I read I found myself noting the words that Wilkerson uses to describe the African American experience under Jim Crow that because of their over-affiliation with other events or our successful efforts to smooth out our own national history, we rarely read in popular accounts of American history. Words like apartheid, terrorism, human rights, and most notably, caste. Perhaps other folks are used to seeing caste used, but it surprised me. That’s not to say it’s inaccurate, but caste makes me think of India. How have we so successfully purged our language of correct usage of words? Because despite the fact that Jim Crow used violence to maintain caste distinctions that had become technically illegal, still we use words like “segregation” which connote “separate but equal.” There’s no equal in caste.

And, since this is a hiphop blog, I should note that this book does a great job of mentioning–throughout, but especially at the end–the way the Great Migration influenced the landscape of American music and culture.

Over time, the Migration would transform American music as we know it. The three most influential figures in jazz were all children of the Great Migration. Miles Davis was born in Alton, Illinois, after his family migrated from Arkansas. Thelonious Monk migrated with his family from North Carolina when he was five. John Coltrane left High Point, North Carolina for Philadelphia in 1943, when he was sixteen. Coltrane had never owned a saxophone before his mother bought him a used one once he got north. (529)

Many black parents who left the South got th eone thing they wanted just by leaving. Their children would have a chance to grow up free of Jim Crow and to be their fuller selves. It cannot be known what course the lives of people like Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, Michelle Obama, Jesse Owens, Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, Serena and Venus Williams, Bill Cosby, Condoleezza Rice, Nat King Cole, Oprah Winfrey, Berry Gordy (who founded Motown and signed children of the Migrantion to sing for it), the astronaut Mae Jemison, the artist Romare Bearden, the performers Jimi Hendrix, Michael Jacksn, Prince, Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, Whitney Houston, Mary J. Blige, Queen Latifa, the director Spike Lee, the playwright August Wilson, and countless others might have taken had their parents or grandparents not participated in the Great Migration and raised them in the North or West. All of them grew up to become among the best in their fields, changed them, really, and were among the first generation of blacks in their country to grow up free and unfettered because of the actions of their forebears. Millions of other children of the Migration grew up to lead productive, though anonymous, lives in quiet, everyday ways that few people will ever hear about. (535)

Green Street, later renamed Red Row, the Rocky Mount, North Carolina road on which Thelonious Monk's family lived, from his birth in 1917 until 1922. Photo by Jonathan Williams, 1970, Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Audio Project: Digging up Thelonious Monk’s Southern Roots

As a Chicagoan myself, this book filled in a huge part of my understanding of my city. One of the book’s three main characters, Ida Mae Gladney, moves to Chicago from Georgia and the changing Black Belt she sees out of her South Side window is as fascinating as how she got up there in the first place. I also loved how in Wilkerson’s language and especially her epigraphs, the book was shot through with influences from literature and music. A lot of Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, letters, newspapers, spirituals. It’s history, y’all. Anyway, read this book! I’ll end with another segment from the conclusion that sounded like it came out of a Nas song. Mind blown!

It is one of those circular facts of history that, in the three great receiving cities to which southern blacks fled–the cities that drew Ida Mae, George, and Robert–blacks had been among the first nonnatives to set foot on the soil and to establish settlements centuries before. Black mestizos were among the forty-four Mexican settlers arriving in 1781 at the pueblo that would become Los Angeles. Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, a fur trader born of an African slave woman in Haiti, built, in 1779, the first permanent settlement in what is now known as Chicago. Jan Rodrigues, a sailor of African descent working for and later abandoned by Dutch merchants on an untamed island in the New World, created the first trading post on what is now known as Manhattan, in 1613. (537)