Monday, March 23, 2009

Race, Food, and the Obamas

In all the discussion about the Obamas’ decision to convert part of the White House lawn to an organic garden (is organic gardening inherently elitist? Why no beets? Does the fact that Michele, not Barack, is in charge of the garden reinforce stereotypical gender roles?) one aspect utterly escaped me (and, I suspect, most food bloggers): the historical and symbolic significance of a black First Lady, descended from slaves, digging with a shovel on the White House grounds.

Obama Foodarama, typically, is all over it:

To remind, the White House was built primarily by slave labor, as was much of DC, including the Capitol, where Barack was sworn in as president. This was constantly referenced at The Inauguration, and the idea of how far we've come as a nation was one of the themes during Inauguration Week (although Attorney General Eric Holder dumped on this idea a month ago, when he pointed out, in a speech that caused much controversy, that we're still a nation of cowards when it comes to race). Michelle Obama's great-great-grandfather, Jim Robinson, was born around 1850 and lived as a slave at least until the Civil War, on a sprawling rice plantation outside Georgetown, South Carolina. But just two months into the Obama Era, it seems like now either no one cares about the politics of racial history anymore, or that no one is appreciating the hugeness of yesterday's events...or that it is still too charged to be addressed. Digging up a piece of the White House lawn to plant an organic garden as the first First Lady who is documented to be a descendant of slavery is a somewhat transgressive act in terms of making a statement about food politics, food policy, healthy eating, nutrition...and about cultural/racial history, when you consider that much of the agricultural work in this country was done by slaves, from the Founding through the Civil War, and even beyond the Emancipation. "Field Negros" as a crucial population of agricultural laborers did not vanish even after slaves were "freed."

It’s interesting to note that most of those who have criticized the Obamas’ gardening activities have had one of two polar reactions. The garden is either: a) Utterly elitist, an arugula-scented sign that the Obamas are out of tough with real Americans who don’t have the time or money to shop at Whole Foods or till and maintain their own politically correct patch of dirt; or b) Utterly low-class, one step away from installing an outhouse outside the West Wing. Both reactions reveal a profound uneasiness with the Obamas’ role as the first black First Couple, whether it’s manifested as disdain for their supposed elitism (“uppity Negroes”) or their supposed classlessness (the despicable “watermelon patch” meme).

Read Obama Foodarama’s whole take here.

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