Chapter Four, Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Chapter Four of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is the eponymous chapter, and it takes us deep into, as many scholars and critics have discussed, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s ideas about domesticity, family and personhood - that is, the right of every human to have feelings and thus political rights.

When I began to write about that chapter as a graduate student I was caught by how Stowe used the language of food to talk about racial difference. I noticed that food was used to describe slave bodies with a kind of familiarity and intimacy that evoked both desire - that slave bodies were sweet and thus, perhaps, delicious - but also disgust - that the language of food in the chapter also allowed for a kind of distancing from those characters, as though they were both desirable and less-than-human.

How has the language of food come to be attached to race in America? When I began to study and write about food I was living a double and triple life: as a graduate student, as someone very active in anti-racist and anti-violence movements, and as a die-hard aesthete and food writer. In many senses, writing Racial Indigestion has been about answering the question: why are people willing to eat food that is somehow linked to or representative of the same people they might never know, or for that matter, love? What is it about eating that allows for that contradiction?

In Racial Indigestion I try to get at some answers to those questions by thinking about eating as a historical act, that is, an act that often seems as natural, as universal, a mode of relating to the world as one could possibly imagine. Everyone eats, right? But then again, perhaps eating is an act, a gesture, a behavior, that has a story to tell about how this thing we call a self, the “me” that is apparently contained inside of my body and skin, relates to everything and everyone that is outside of it.

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