In the late 1980s, a friend gave me a T-shirt emblazoned with the words "BLACK BY POPULAR DEMAND." That gift came during a time when strong expressions and affirmations of black identity enjoyed a surge of popularity not seen since the 1960s. I've been thinking a lot about that catch phrase in the context of the recent, vibrant discussions about the place of African-Americans in today's national food scene. For people of color who want to tell food stories, "Black by Popular Demand" poignantly exposes the twin challenges we face: getting the key decision-makers in mainstream food media (I call them "gatekeepers") to desire our stories, and getting our own communities to devour our work.
Except for those times we self-publish, food writers try to persuade gatekeepers to publish our work. Gatekeepers are those who determine what content will go in magazines, newspapers, radio shows or websites; those who decide which book manuscripts to purchase, publish and market; those who book speakers for events, and those who approve projects and book appearances for television shows. I've been involved in food media for a decade, and I've interacted with gatekeepers in all of the fields above. Overwhelmingly, the food media gatekeepers I've met and worked with are white.
Just because a gatekeeper is white doesn't mean a dead end for my food-writing endeavors. In fact, many have seen value in my work, and have given me opportunities to share my passion for African-American foodways. Though I fantasize about it, I certainly don't expect every gatekeeper to immediately fall in love with my ideas for content. Rejection is part of the game. Yet, collectively, these gatekeepers continue to do things that are frustrating. Things that unnecessarily limit the opportunities for writers who want to share diverse food stories with a broader audience. Things that remain puzzling in the year 2017. What follows bears on my experience as someone who writes about African-American foodways, but other food writers of color have shared similar experiences with me.
The first, and probably most pervasive, challenge is that writers of color are often limited to writing about their traditional foods, while white writers are given much more latitude to explore a wide variety of cuisines beyond their immediate expertise. This not only applies to writing assignments from an employer or freelance work, but to getting a food media job. An established food writer of color, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of jeopardizing her ability to get assignments from editors, shared with me a failed attempt to get a senior-level editing job at a major food magazine. Despite an excellent resume featuring this person's work experience as a trained chef, author and ghost-writer of several successful and award-winning cookbooks and freelance pieces on several types of cuisines, this person was turned down for the position. Why? Because the magazine's gatekeeper making the hiring decision said that the applicant's expertise in ethnic cuisine wasn't transferable to a mainstream publication.
My personal "favorite" is the pervading and persistent belief that the only appropriate time for disseminating African-American food stories is on the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday or during "Black History Month," which happens in February. I thought the word was out by now that black people, just like everyone else, cook and eat all year long. Perhaps not. Yet, other ethnic groups aren't so arbitrarily constrained. Imagine mostly reading about Chinese food around the lunar New Year celebration, about French food on Bastille Day, about Italian food on Columbus Day and about Mexican food on Cinco de Mayo. I have pitched stories that offered a roundup of black-owned restaurants in a particular city in order to highlight the diverse culinary expressions of African-heritage cuisines in that city's dining scene. In order to get a "hook" for their readers, editors have suggested running the piece in February. There's an entire world of food out there waiting to be explored, but we tend to hear about the same cuisines over and over again. This happens despite growing evidence that Americans are more curious about different cuisines than ever before. For the moment, diverse food writers take comfort that stories are getting published at all.