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A group of Black women hold signs showing a picture of Black Panthers Party co-founder Huey P. Newton at a protest in 1969.
Black women have stood at the center of the social justice movement for generations, including as part of the Black Panthers Party, which made food a crucial form of protest. Here, women take part in a 1969 BPP demonstration in San Francisco.
Robert Alman/Getty Images

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‘If You Want to Experience Liberation, Black Women Must Be at the Table’

From the Montgomery bus boycott to the Black Lives Matter movement, Black women have made food a central part of protest

Food is a protest that has community care and radical self-preservation at its core. And now, during an uprising in the midst of a pandemic, we must dig deep into our history and present resources to honor and elevate the relationship that food and protest have always shared.

Each day we get reports of more deaths in our community: The violence of white supremacy and the racialized impact of COVID-19 takes our breath away, literally and figuratively. As we initiate our mutual aid support systems, our instincts and cultural traditions are clear: prioritizing tending to the communities at the greatest risk of being overlooked or harmed, meaning the disabled, trans, elders, and houseless; increasing food accessibility; holding space for collective grieving, prayer, and joy; adapting protest actions to meet the needs of physical distancing; creatively expressing resistance in ways that include song, art, and unlearning; and showing up for each other because our liberation is intertwined.

But at a time when it’s not possible for large groups to gather inside, what shifts are required to heal, and to protect our community?

This question is on my heart every day. As a co-founder of People’s Kitchen Collective (PKC) and founder of JUSTUS Kitchen, two social justice food projects based in Oakland, California, much of my work focuses on bringing people together. I steward projects that contribute radical hospitality and beloved community to the social justice movement — and in doing so, hold a safer and braver space for folks of color to have healing food experiences that incorporate cultural and spiritual significance.

Several people stand behind a long table under a white tent, serving food from large chafing dishes.
People’s Kitchen Collective volunteers and co-founder Jocelyn Jackson (third from left) serve food at the 50th anniversary of the Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast Program, held at Oakland’s Life is Living Festival in October 2019.
Sana Javeri Kadri

As a Black woman in a racist and sexist world, I make two distinct choices on an ongoing basis: one is what I believe; the other is how I feel about those beliefs. As someone whose lineage after Africa reaches back to Mississippi and Kentucky, my family stories include the DNA of survival, and I choose to believe that my ancestors planned my presence for this very moment. Each time I get to feed my community, I feel the sacredness of this path I’ve chosen, one of social justice food projects bent on collective liberation.

In her dissertation, “Soul Food as Healing: A Restorying of African American Food Systems and Foodways,” the sustainable food systems scholar Lindsey Lunsford asks, “How does food reveal the vulnerabilities and strengths of African Americans?” She also poses a question to the Black elders she interviews: “What does cultural and spiritual health mean to you?” In so many ways, her conclusion and the responses from her interviewees were that soul food offers freedom to claim autonomy from, as she writes, “the white supremacist demonization of soul food” as unhealthy and inferior. “The ‘first soul food,’” she adds, “was a Black woman’s breast milk.” So this protest is one of the longest you can imagine.

In each generation, the movement has tended to the question of food. On the one hand, there is food as a form of mutual aid distributed to sustain activists; on the other, there is food as the actual mode of protest. From generation to generation, the legacy of food as protest is filled with stories of Black women who were of service in one, or often both, of these spheres.

As the daughter of Frances and granddaughter of Aquilla and Viola Mae, the largest lesson I’ve learned is that if you want to experience liberation, Black women must be at the table. So to answer the question of what must be done to gather, heal, and protect our community, I decided to use my imagination to host a time-bending For Us By Us council of Black woman food activists from the past and present. Each one of them used their love of the community to activate their passion for civil rights, cooking, farming, cooperative economics, historical stewardship, sustainable food systems, and food access.

Sitting at this figurative table of multidisciplinary food activists are ancestors Georgia Gilmore, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Ruth Beckford, along with contemporaries Adrian Lipscombe, Thérèse Nelson, Lindsey Lunsford, and Adrionna Fike. Some of these women you may already be familiar with, but my hope is that if you don’t know them, this story will send you in their direction and beyond.

In my mother’s family we have the tradition of singing before our meals to bless the food. I’ve continued this tradition with both People’s Kitchen Collective and JUSTUS Kitchen. A sung blessing has the power to settle one’s heart and make you fully present in preparation for the power of a shared meal.

So now, I’d like to invite you to this table with the refrain from “Ella’s Song” by Sweet Honey in the Rock:

We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes

The Civil Rights activist Georgia Gilmore adjusts her hat
Photographed after testifying as a defense witness in the 1956 Montgomery bus boycott trial of Martin Luther King Jr., Georgia Gilmore was a cafeteria worker, midwife, and civil rights activist who sold food to raise critical funds in support of the 381-day bus boycott.
AP Photo / Getty

Georgia Gilmore was born in 1920. A cafeteria worker, midwife, and single mom, she started fundraising for the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) in 1956 by selling food and organizing other cooks under the cover of the name Club from Nowhere. Together, they raised essential funds to support the Montgomery bus boycott that began on December 5, 1955, and lasted for 381 days. Although the boycott was catalyzed by the arrest of Rosa Parks, many people, including Georgia, had started their own bus boycotts months earlier to protest abusive and unequal treatment. During the Montgomery boycott, Georgia would often sing a song as she distributed the hundreds of dollars in jangling coins and folded bills into the collection plate at the weekly MIA community rallies.

After being fired from the National Lunch Company because of her outspoken activism during the boycott, Georgia ran a restaurant out of her home to feed protesters and other organizers, including Martin Luther King, Jr., who was one of her benefactors. It was a place where they knew the food was going to be delicious — but more importantly, safe.

Georgia died in 1990, on the 25th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery March. The food she prepared before she passed away that morning fed the protesters at the commemorative march that day.

Some 25 years later, on the 50th anniversary of the march, Lindsey Lunsford found herself on the bridge to Selma at a pit stop, eating the most restorative soul food of her life as she nursed the blisters on her feet from the 40-mile walk. As I spoke to Lindsey about her connection to Georgia’s legacy, what became clear is that she, like Georgia, knows that food is the basis of identity, healing, and liberation within the Black community. Lindsey’s role as a Sustainable Food Systems Resource Specialist at Tuskegee University is what I imagine Georgia’s role was to her community: innovating on the mission of resourcing and caretaking her people in the face of unchecked racism.

For Lindsey, that work includes facilitating public community dialogues where, she says, “residents of the Black Belt are able to share their food traditions and feel supported in reclaiming them.” At each of these dialogues, Lindsey provides the soul food that is proven to uplift the social and cultural wellness of her community. Georgia would be proud.

Georgia’s legacy has also influenced Thérèse Nelson, who this past February wrote the Southern Living article “The Story of Georgia Gilmore.” In it, she stated that “hospitality professionals provided practices and strategies that became the most effective tools of resistance.” Thérèse would know: Like Georgia, she is a caterer and private chef, and claimed that expression for her cooking skills because it gave her, she tells me, “the power to have full autonomy over [my] practice” in the food industry. “It is one of the most dexterous opportunities in business,” she adds. “And we wouldn’t have the network of food supporting protests if [we] didn’t have the [catering] skill set.”

As she navigated the sociopolitical realities of the food community, Thérèse felt strongly that there was more she needed to learn, or rather unlearn. That led her to begin researching and reclaiming our Black food stories with Black Culinary History, the organization she founded in 2008. Ever since, she’s made the connections between past and present and cultivated networks around the food skills and technology necessary for Black liberation. Those she has worked with and learned from range from young ones with a burgeoning interest in food to cutting-edge chefs to land-based food projects like Soul Fire Farm, Black Urban Growers, and Black Church Food Security Network.

Today, Thérèse imagines a future where these projects are shared and thriving. “During the civil rights era, the leaders were so intentional and connected,” she says. “I hope history sees our movement in the same way.”

The activist Fannie Lou Hamer poses for a photo at the 1964 National Democratic Convention in front of a sign reading “HUMAN RIGHTS No American can rest while any American is denied his rights...”
Photographed at the 1964 National Democratic Convention, Fannie Lou Hamer was a renowned voting rights activist who was also responsible for some of the 20th century’s most influential land sovereignty work.
Getty Images / Bettmann Archive

Although she remains much loved for her impassioned devotion to voting rights, Fannie Lou Hamer was also responsible for some of the last century’s most successful food sovereignty work — initiatives that created the foundation for many of today’s social justice food projects.

Born in 1917 in Mississippi, a state that has both weathered some of the country’s most continuous eruptions of race-based violence and been the site of some of its most powerful expressions of Black liberation, Fannie Lou was tireless in her pursuit of justice and equality.

At a critical point in her activism, she turned toward collective land stewardship as a more viable alternative to directly combatting state-sanctioned systemic racism. In the late 1960s, she founded the Freedom Farms Cooperative (FFC), a 680-acre agriculture cooperative in the Mississippi Delta. Part of Fannie Lou’s battle for land reacquisition, FFC used food as a means of self-empowerment: Fannie Lou knew that if she and her community could grow their own food, their freedom could be won more solidly on their terms.

During the nearly 10 years that the FFC thrived, it was home to many of Fannie Lou’s supplementary initiatives. One of the most innovative was the pig bank: With financial backing from the National Council of Negro Women, Fannie Lou organized a system in which families would raise a piglet for two years and then return it to the bank to breed. Two of its offspring would remain in the bank to be given to other families in the cooperative; the others could be mated, sold, or slaughtered for food. In this instance, food was its own protest — a direct action to reclaim food traditions and access — and the message was self-determination.

Today, Adrian Lipscombe is actively taking on the mantle of land stewardship in La Crosse, Wisconsin. As the chef and owner of Uptowne Cafe and Bakery, she is intimately familiar with food as both a mode of protest and a form of mutual aid to sustain activists. In 2016, she knew she needed to leverage her skills on behalf of the Dakota Access Pipeline activists at Standing Rock. “With a community call to action,” she says, “I was able to get the volunteers and supplies necessary to bake thousands of rolls of bread.” Adrian sent those 5,000 rolls to the activists to serve at what some folks call the National Day of Mourning and others call Thanksgiving. Eight months pregnant at the time, she wasn’t able to travel to Standing Rock herself, but felt it was still crucial to bear witness and respond to the desecration of sacred land and the violation of indigenous rights by both private and government entities.

Now, as Black folks across the world receive newfound support and uplift as individuals redistribute their wealth in response to the violent impacts of white supremacy and systemic racism, Adrian is using this attention to start fundraising for an ambitious and timely initiative called the 40 Acres and a Mule Project. Adrian, who is also a city planner and architect, and the granddaughter of a Black Texas landowner, conceived of it as a collective land project similar to the work of Fannie Lou Hamer; its purpose is to teach agricultural traditions, honor Black foodways, and develop strong cross-sectorial networks. With it, Adrian is channeling all of her experience to once again affirm the inalienable right to, and necessity of, land for food sovereignty and self-determination.

The dancer and activist Ruth Beckford stands smiling next to a porch column in front of a house.
A dancer and social worker, Ruth Beckford was the unaffiliated co-founder of the Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast Program for Children. Her efforts helped the program to grow over the years, serving 20,000 nationwide at its height.

Radical self-determination was one of the touchstones of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, which was founded in 1966. Three years later, Ruth Beckford became the unaffiliated co-founder of its Free Breakfast Program for Children at St. Augustine’s church in Oakland. One of the most highly regarded of the Black Panther Party’s more than 40 Survival Programs, it manifested the organization’s belief that empowering children with a nourishing, culturally relevant breakfast was essential to helping the Black community survive the brutalities of systemic racism. A nourished mind is one that is able to learn and celebrate one’s culture and claim one’s power.

Ruth, who became an ancestor just last year, was a dancer and a social worker who exchanged all her social currency to ensure the free breakfast program’s viability. Much loved by her dance students and their families, she turned to them to volunteer to cook and clean for the program, and to donate food. Partly as a result of her efforts, the program grew from feeding a dozen children on its first day to more than 20,000 nationwide at its height. In this case, the children were the protesters who were being fed, and the food they ate was its own protest against the federal government’s continued mistreatment of the Black community. With this food protest, the Black Panther Party shamed the government into starting a long-overdue nationwide school food program.

Today, my own People’s Kitchen Collective is honored to continue a small part of the Black Panther Party’s and Ruth’s important legacy: For more than a decade, we’ve hosted a free breakfast every year at West Oakland’s Life is Living Festival, serving hot, organic, and locally grown meals. Elsewhere in West Oakland, that legacy influences the work that Adrionna Fike, a worker-owner at the Mandela Grocery cooperative, does in caring for activists and community, especially during this pandemic and social unrest. In the eight years that Adrionna has been with Mandela Grocery, the cooperative’s commitment to mutual aid has flourished in the form of cooking classes, partnerships with community resource groups, and mentoring worker-owners at a neighboring coop. “Mutual aid is mutual,” she emphasizes. “By caring for others we are also cared for.”

When asked why she was called to do this work, Adrionna acknowledges the presence of spirit in her decision, which she made as she worked in a Harlem community garden after college. Her studies of anthropology and modes of community consumption also turned her in the direction of Black cooperative ownership structures and economics. “The legacy is proven,” she says. “We own our business, we have the ability to create wealth among ourselves and our community, and have better quality of life and clearer food politics. We are fulfilling that need.”

At the end of this For Us By Us council, I imagine that all eight of us are at the table holding hands as we recommit to this powerful legacy of feeding our community and supporting Black autonomy. And then Ruth gets the entire table of beautiful Black women to stand up and begin to dance, because what’s a revolution without celebration?

I believe Black women have historically taken on this work of food and protest because we are the original caregivers and leaders. We know that our survival is found in our relationships to one another and the land. Our lived experience teaches us that we must develop many different kinds of intelligence to be prepared for a world that often descends into chaos, brutality, and inequity.

We stand on a very specific threshold of healing from the inequities of racism, sexism, and classism. Broader communities of people are prepared to hear and receive what is needed to make a collective shift toward liberation. Black women have taken the responsibility of building many of the liberated systems that will replace the ones currently festering with these social ills. All the work our Black woman ancestors in the food community have done on our behalf is a forever legacy of liberation. We will follow the path they’ve laid out for us, one of protest that is seeded with the nourishment of their wisdom.

Jocelyn Jackson is the founder of JUSTUS Kitchen (@JUSTUSKitchen), a project that creates healing food experiences that inspire people to reconnect with themselves, the earth, and one another, with the goal of collective liberation. She is also a co-founder of People’s Kitchen Collective (@510PK), an Oakland-based large-scale community dining project that uses food and art to address the critical issues of our time while centering the lived experiences of Black and brown folks.

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