Rethinking Food, Rewriting Civil Rights: Food, Power, and Black Life in the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement

Seminar in Critical Development Studies hosted by Cornell Global Development and the Graduate Field of Development Studies
Speaker: Bobby J Smith II

How does our understanding of the American civil rights movement shift if food is the starting point? In this talk, Dr. Bobby J. Smith II discusses his forthcoming book, Food Power Politics: The Food Story of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement, to grapple with this question. Located at the intersection of multiple disciplines, including critical food studies, Black studies, history, sociology, agri-food studies, and southern studies, Food Power Politics recovers a food focus that is often diluted or muted in the historical retelling of the civil rights movement and the larger Black Freedom Struggle. This food focus uncovers a neglected stage of the movement that amplifies the overlooked and unacknowledged collaborative food efforts between Black working-class sharecroppers who joined arms with local and national activists to get food on their tables in the Mississippi Delta region of state of Mississippi. Such efforts reveal how food was a weapon, tool, tactic, and everyday preoccupation in power struggles over food during the movement and can help us theorize the past to inform contemporary social movements for food justice and food sovereignty in Black communities. They also show us how food shapes the relationship between inadequate access to food, structural inequalities, and social movements in Black life and beyond. This relationship creates a conversation between the study of the civil rights movement and research on the contemporary food justice movement, providing a space to rethink our ideas surrounding food while rewriting our understandings of one of the most celebrated social movements in American history—the civil rights movement.

About the speaker:

Dr. Bobby J. Smith II is a sociologist and Assistant Professor in the Department of African American Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His research uses sociohistorical and community-based approaches to analyze historical and contemporary struggles for food justice and food sovereignty in Black communities in the United States. Dr. Smith is currently working on a book manuscript, tentatively titled, Food Power Politics: The Food Story of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement (under contract, University of North Carolina (UNC) Press). He has been awarded fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, Special Collections and University Archives at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Institute in partnership with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

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