Food, and its links to African traditions, Black diasporan histories, climate chaos, and social justice, will be the subject of the 43rd Annual Marion Thompson Wright Lecture Series on February 18th at the Newark Museum.
And an array of dishes, from African American regional cuisine to New Orleans and Caribbean food, will be served. They will also be the subject of scholarly lectures with mass appeal, which is what the MTW series does best.
Speakers this year include New Orleans food writer and critic Lolis Eric Elie, author of Smokestack Lightning: Adventures in the Heart of Barbecue Country and Treme: Stories and Recipes from the Heart of New Orleans; and legendary culinary historian Jessica B. Harris, a leading authority on food of the African Diaspora and author of New York Times bestseller High on the Hog, the basis for the acclaimed Netflix series.
The title of this year’s event is Beans, Greens, Tomatoes: Food Accessibility and Justice in the Black Diaspora. In addition to listening to lectures about food, attendees are invited to share their own food memories and what they reveal about family and culture. Said Lacey P. Hunter, organizer of the series, “This is a rare opportunity to engage with a group of leading, high-impact scholars of food and food justice.”
Speakers include Dr. Psyche Williams-Forson, cultural historian, professor, and chair of the Department of American Studies at the University of Maryland College Park. She is the author of Eating While Black: Food Shaming and Race in America; Building Houses out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power, and co-editor of Taking Food Public: Redefining Food in a Changing World.
Also speaking will be Dr. Edda L. Fields-Black, specialist in the trans-national history of West African rice farmers, peasant farmers in pre-colonial Upper Guinea Coast and enslaved laborers on rice plantations in the South Carolina and Georgia Low country during the antebellum period. Author of Deep Roots: Rice Farmers in West Africa and the African Diaspora, forthcoming book ‘Combee’: Harriet Tubman, the Combahee River Raid, and Black Freedom during the Civil War, and co-author of Rice: Global Networks and New Histories.
The series is sponsored and organized by the Clement A. Price Institute on Ethnicity, Culture and the Modern Experience at Rutgers-Newark.
The MTW series, founded by the renowned Rutgers-Newark historians Clement A. Price and Giles Wright, was created to bring top-notch academics to speak in an accessible way to everyone, from college professors to everyday residents of Newark and beyond.
“From the beginning, the founders knew that people were incredibly thirsty to get this kind of history and backstory to place their lives in perspective,’’ said Jack Tchen, historian and director of the institute.
Hunter, the institute’s interim associate director and a lecturer of African-American and African history, said food is a universal and unifying theme. “It’s important to speak across Black diasporic bridges,’’ she explained.
The lack of access to plentiful, healthy food, locally and globally, and the effects of climate change on food production, will also be explored. Newark groups who work with community gardens and provide food for residents who are food insecure, as well as local schools, will be part of the series as well. Those efforts will extend throughout the year, said Honnee Foster, program coordinator for the series.
A mission of the series has always been to explore African American and diasporic histories and how it’s embodied in culture and daily life.
Hunter mentions how African-American food traditions are often “mocked” but sprang from lack of resources and should be celebrated for their creativity.
“So much of it comes from what we had access to.” said Hunter. That includes using parts of animals that were discarded after butchering, such as oxtails and chitlins, and using molasses when other sweeteners weren’t available.
The lecture series is named for East Orange native Marion Thompson Wright, who became the first Black historian to receive a Ph.D. from Columbia University. Her doctoral thesis, “The Education of the Negro,’’ documented school segregation in New Jersey, despite an 1881 law that outlawed racial discrimination in public schools.
Her work helped to provide the NAACP with hard data in its court challenge to the “separate but equal” doctrine, which was overturned by the Supreme Court in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling.