Every month is black history month. But of course, throughout the designated month that we, black people have, (still wondering if it's ironic that it also happens to be the shortest month of the year...) I'm really excited to share little bits of black history related to food, stories that exist outside of the traditional history we're told. You know, beyond Martin Luther King Jr. and the I Have a Dream Speech, Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Barack Obama and his legacy as the first African-American president, etc. There is an incredible amount of black history to devour; I feel I will spend the rest of my life catching up.
So. The Black Panther Party.
I didn't realize the significance at the time, but during a site visit to Phat Beets in Oakland (before my trip abroad last year, exactly around this time), I had somehow managed to be enshrined within a site that had powerful historical significance, where some 50-ish years ago, a political revolution(ary) was brewing. The Black Panther Party was running and organizing, in the nearby community center, the Free Breakfast for Children Program.
Before I talk about the role of food in the Panther's organizing work, I must (I must, I must, I must) preface this. I really do hope that your memories of the Black Panther Party are not consumed with images of militant, black, men and women bearing arms with black berets and ammunition, standing up to police in cities like Oakland. That was definitely part of it. But they were so much more than that; the Black Panther Party members were Marxists and understood the detrimental nature of capitalism on the black body. Education and consciousness raising for the general public was crucial and much of this was done through their elaborate newspapers. They were also advocates for international solidarity with other movements, looking beyond the scope of exploitation and oppression of black and brown bodies in America.
So food. I share this because I think people are confused at times when I talk about food. It's just food. No. No no no. No. Food is an incredibly powerful tool; it can be used to empower and it can be used to destroy. Given its presence or absence. Or abundance. (Also just think physiologically. We literally need food to survive. We need it. We orient our days, typically 3 times a day, around food. So what ways can society, can people manipulate our access to find food? What effect does that have on our body? On Our mind? On that process of self-actualization that is reminiscent of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs?) The Black Panther Party understood this and understood the importance of feeding people. Feeding children. (So did Fannie Lou Hamer, who will be the star of my next post.)
The Free Breakfast for Children Program was in full effect by 1969, serving breakfast to nearly 20,000 school children in 19 cities around the U.S. The program was only one of nearly 60 other programs meant to serve the needs of the communities they were working in. In providing breakfast for students, the Panther's were addressing to critical issues many blacks were inflicted by; poverty and hunger. (Each a result, I would argue, of capitalism. As Malik Yakini said at the Community Food Systems Conference, "You cannot be anti-hunger and pro-capitalism.") The work the Panther's were doing actually caught the eye of the federal government; the organization was deemed a threat to society (I am sitting here laughing, because how ironic, taking out a group who was simply protecting black people from the abusive relations we have had with this country since we step foot on this continent some 400 years ago) and was a main target for COINTELPRO, a counterintelligence program initiated by FBI chief by J. Edgar Hoover to suppress political dissidents. A rain of attacks fell on Panther members across the country. #TheFBIKilledFredHampton.
Following the Panther's breakfast program for children, the federal government then officially passed the 1975 School Breakfast Program, where now, nearly 14.57 million (as of 2016) children are fed. (This is not to be confused with the National School Lunch Act, passed by Harry Truman in 1946 that gave free or reduced lunches at school.) I can bet they're not citing The Black Panther Party for inspiration in pushing this legislation. Better kids are fed by the federal government, without all the talk of black power, etc. than by the Black Panther Party. Probably not, because if you've seen the breakfast provided, they too are...
Food for Thought:
Is hunger a product of capitalism? If not, what lies at the core of why some people have little access to food and others an abundance?
Revolutionary Suicide by Huey P. Newton