Ashanté M. Reese

Black Food Geographies: Race, Self-Reliance, and Food Access in Washington, D.C.

University of North Carolina Press, 2019

184 Pages


Reviewed by Lindsey Holmes

In Black Food Geographies: Race, Self-Reliance, and Food Access in Washington, D.C., Ashanté Reese traces the multilayered spaces and histories that form relations of foodways, individuals, and nourishment in the community of Deanwood. Trained as an anthropologist, Reese’s dedication to Black feminist theory shines through on every page of her multis-scalar study of how residents of Deanwood continually navigate and (re)imagine Black food geographies. Both the scale of the project and the methods on display make visible the kinds of spaces and stories that traditional food studies research often ignores. Thus, Reese’s book is a must-read not only for those doing work in food studies but also for anyone interested in how Black agency and storytelling can reclaim the material and ideological worlds of communities that have overwhelmingly been previously considered solely by racism and chronic economic divestment. Reese’s acknowledgment of the imaginative and narrative aspects of Black food geographies offers a crucial intervention in a field that, in its albeit well-intentioned efforts to ‘fix’ struggling communities by beating the drum of increased access, ignores how individuals feel about and navigate foodways.

In the introduction, Reese draws attention to how terminology in the field often functions to erase the agency of communities and reinscribe Black communities as broken or ontologically lacking, and she offers a timely intervention. She points to the differing political scales inherent in the decision whether to use the term food ‘desert’ versus food’ apartheid:’ the former term connotes a landscape devoid of value and nourishment. In contrast, the latter term points to larger structural and ideological forces that have come together to produce uneven geographies of nourishment. However, Reese goes even further in her study by showcasing Black agency in Black Food Geographies. Each chapter of the volume makes it clear that individuals and communities repeatedly flourish and nourish each other, even amid constraint and food’ apartheid.’

Reese explains that her engagement with geographic scale is itself multivalent: she is as concerned with the macro scales of supermarket chains as she is with the micro scales of ‘quiet refusals,’ of what individuals are doing with their home gardens or how they imagine local Black-owned businesses in conversations with friends. These disparate geographies come together in the first chapter, which outlines the history of foodways in Deanwood and puts into relation the historical accounts of food vendors and grocery stores, the rise of Black and Jewish owned markets, and white and middle-class Black flight and ensuing structural inequities and economic divestment from the area. Reese uplifts the lives that navigated these challenges in lovely, evocative prose, observing how, for instance, “the south showed up in [Deanwood residents’] gardens” who had recently arrived as part of the Great Migration north. Multiple scales are evident in the book’s use of the term ‘self-reliance:’ “When I use the term “geographies of self-reliance,” Reese writes, “I am referring to both how residents physically navigate the food landscape—where to shop and how to get there, for example—and more phenomenological concerns: memory, nostalgia, personal and communal priorities, hope, engagements with history, and racialized responsibility.” How food and foodways are navigated and imagined is just as geographically significant as the food vendors’ material record.

Chapters Three through Five come together to form the literal and figurative heart of the book. Chapter Three focuses on how nostalgia and individual and collective memory function as a part of Black food geographies, offering another crucial intervention in a field that often privileges the material over the metaphorical. Through her interviews with residents, Reese shows how nostalgia and memory are not just backdrops to food geographies but also form a significant component of how residents go about procuring food daily. Remarking on an interview, Reese notes how residents’ “narrative[s] of the spatiality of grocery stores are not merely about where they are but about how the present is filtered through stories of the past.” For other residents, memories of “across the street” come into view as symbolic and spatial markers of prior community cohesion and loss. While the work of Katherine McKittrick explicitly foregrounds the beginning of the chapter, it also runs through the entire study is the way Black agency and Black life can trouble dominant narratives of racism and white supremacy as the primary lens through which Deanwood residents viewed and interpreted the past, present and the future of their community.

The final two chapters are especially beautiful in how they showcase Reese’s methodological investments and innovations within the theoretical framework of Black feminism. Throughout the study, readers might find themselves wondering why Reese makes the seams of her method so visible. Why foreground the method by including all the seemingly trivial talk with residents, the minutiae of how leads on interview respondents’ snowball’ from word of mouth, of how interviews work? Why are readers made privy to the nature of Reese’s relationship with respondents themselves? What becomes clear is that these details are not extraneous but part of the fabric of the study itself, part and parcel of the Black food geographies of Deanwood.

Chapters Four and Five center on two ‘alternative’ spaces in Deanwood’s food geographies and the individuals who inhabit and curate them: the Community Market, owned and operated by Mr. Jones; and the community garden, maintained by Mr. Harris with the administrative assistance of Ms. Johnson. Reese is emphatic that the space of the garden and the community market contain multiple meanings: both are symbolic spaces of community and nourishment. Likewise, both the market and the garden function as nexus or hinge spaces, bringing together the contradictions of racial capitalism (as well as residents’ own contradictions inherent in relying on self-reliance as a trope), and it is this network of relations that Reese succeeds handily in making visible. These spaces—especially The Community Market—are complex and contradictory, neither safe haven nor irretrievably flawed ‘deserts’ yet Reese’s study reveals how the idea of shopping at Black-owned businesses demonstrates the multiple ways stores like Mr. Jones nourish people’, not just materially but through alternative practices of care and refusal that nourish the soul.

Likewise, the community garden in Chapter Five is more than a garden. It also houses multiple meanings, functioning as a space where community issues are addressed, individuals and children gather, and future obstacles like construction debris are literally dumped into plain view. The final chapter, centered on Mr. Harris’ garden, brings home Reese’s argument that so much about Black food geographies is necessarily dynamic rather than static or passive. Research questions should honor the dignity of this dynamism by asking not only how residents shape and reimagine their foodways but also how they curate and bring forth these foodways themselves. These questions should more deeply inquire into what ‘feeding’ means. What does it mean, fully, to feed a community? How do we nourish each other and ourselves? How do we find nourishment in our communities when dominant narratives write this nourishment out of existence? Reese’s Black feminist methodological approach that foregrounds Black agency does not work to ignore racism but rather better reveals the structural constraints by addressing what is structurally and materially important to the residents. Lastly, Reese makes the invaluable insight that far from rehashing old tropes of the discrete and isolated ‘self,’ Black food geographies reveal how the concept of ‘self’ is also a site of reimagination, with a new/Black definition of ‘self’ as one more fully enmeshed in community and mutual care. If, as Stuart Hall argues, drawing on Antonio Gramsci, that societies are “necessarily complexly structured totalities with different levels of articulation in different combinations, [with] each giving rise to different configurations of social forces and [processes of] social development,” then Reese’s book functions as a contemporary exemplar of this critical reorientation and overwhelmingly meets this call.