There are a lot of opinions about the menu served at Central High School (CHS) on February 16th and just as many about the Superintendent’s reaction. Those sick of the attention the [Hopewell Valley Regional School] District is getting over what they see as a non-issue want the conversation to stop. Sorry, not just yet.
On February 16th, the District’s food service provider, Pomptonian, served a soul food menu “in celebration of Black History Month,” according to the five flyers posted in the upper cafeteria. The menu consisted of fried chicken, sweet potato casserole, sauteed spinach, macaroni and cheese, cornbread, and peach or apple crisp. Despite what NJ.com reported on February 20th, Pomptonian acknowledged that the administrators, including the high school principal, were unaware of the menu. In a letter to the superintendent on February 22nd, the food service company said it “would like to apologize for our recent menu promotion that brought so much unwanted attention to your community. We deeply regret the entree selection for Black History Month could be viewed as insensitive and inappropriate.”
One of the students that was offended by the menu tweeted a picture of the menu and it began to spread across social media. By 1p.m., Superintendent Dr. Tom Smith sent out an email to CHS parents stating, “The decision to include these items without any context or explanation, reinforces racial stereotypes and is not consistent with our district mission and efforts to improve cultural competency among our students and staff.”
If given the opportunity, Dr. Smith said, the district would have been happy to work with Pomptonian on an appropriate menu to honor the month while also educating students about the food’s history. In fact, for the past two years, eighth grade students at Timberlane Middle School have listened to speakers discuss African American history in Hopewell Valley and sampled a similar menu, though with baked and barbecued chicken, after learning the historical context of the food.
If the kitchen had served anything other than fried chicken (i.e. barbequed chicken, smothered pork chop, or fried fish) as the meat, the day might of passed by unnoticed. I didn’t believe for one minute that Pomptonian meant to offend anyone at the high school, but I grew up aware of the negative stereotype that could be flung at will towards African Americans, and cringed at the menu. The optics felt bad. For one thing, the high school has a mostly white student body.
Yes, fried chicken is absolutely part of African American culture, and many others… well, not the vegetarians… but serving it specifically in honor of Black History Month felt disrespectful to African Americans. Except, I wondered how it could be disrespectful if sold in soul food restaurants across the U.S. and served in many African American households? My head hurt trying to sort this out.
The term “soul food” refers to food of the deep south (Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi) that was cooked by African Americans and moved with them during the Great Migration (1916-1970) to the North, Midwest, and West. A typical menu would include a meat (smothered or fried chicken, smothered pork chop, pigs feet, oxtails, chitlins, ham hocks, pork necks, or fried fish), greens (cabbage, collards, mustard, turnip, and kale), a starchy vegetable (black eyed peas, sweet potatoes, red beans), and a starch (macaroni and cheese, biscuit, cornbread, rice). Much of the meat cooked is traditionally the “leftover” cuts (i.e. pigs feet) as was provided by slave masters to their African slaves. Much like foods of any other culture soul food is a source of pride and comfort. It is a food that tells the story of their survival from slavery and the oppressive Jim Crow south.
According to Claire Schmidt, University of Missouri Professor of Race and Folklore, the 1915 silent film Birth of a Nation, is to blame for starting the racial stereotype. The movie told a cautionary tale of what happens when African Americans are given too many rights and served as an effective recruiting tool for the Klu Klux Klan. In one scene, newly elected South Carolinian black legislators were portrayed as wild, uneducated drunks as they made laws and ate fried chicken. The negative association of African Americans and chicken stuck.
Despite the fact that the film is over one hundred years old, and that lots of Americans eat fried chicken, the negative association remains and is used as a weapon periodically by white people. In 2013, when golfer, Sergio Garcia, asked if he would have rival Tiger Woods over to dinner during the course of the then upcoming U.S. Open, Garcia stated, “We’ll have him ’round every night. We will serve fried chicken.” Woods said, “The comment that was made wasn’t silly. It was wrong, hurtful and clearly inappropriate. I’m confident that there is real regret that the remark was made.”
For Dr. Smith, publicly acknowledging the menu’s racial insensitivity was necessary and in line with increasing the District’s cultural competency. He doesn’t want students and staff to merely tolerate diversity, he wants them to embrace it and seek out opportunities for meaningful relationships. He wants to build more empathy in his students so they see others in themselves. In his viewpoint, serving a menu that lacked context, could potentially perpetuate a racial stereotype which works against the district’s mission.
Over the years, as shootings of black men, teens, and kids erupted in the news, Dr. Smith continued to expect some kind of reaction here in Hopewell Valley. To his dismay, there was none. Dr. Smith and Lisa Wolff, President of the Board of Education, theorize in their article entitled One District’s Willingness to Start a Conversation (to be published in the April issue of School Leader magazine) that it’s because of “disinterest stemmed from students who could not connect or relate their life experiences with a Ferguson teenager’s circumstances.”
The Board of Education determined that “in addition to our academic mission, we shoulder a responsibility to develop cultural competency in our students and staff.” To this end, Dr. Smith launched discussions among students, staff members, and the community, tackling such issues as race, class, and gender, topics normally shied away from in schools.
Then, in February 2016, Dr. Smith helped bring discussions countywide. As one of the lead organizers of Day of Dialogue: A Journey Into Race, Class, and Gender in our Schools held at Rider University, Dr. Smith encouraged ethnically and racially diverse students (10 students from each Mercer County high school) to listen to each other’s stories and attempt to walk in each other’s shoes. The hope was that the students would learn more about empathy, bring back what they learned, and share it with their larger school community.
Most recently, in November 2016, he started the Culture and Character Committee, composed of students, staff and parents. One of the committee’s goals is to establish grade-level expectations for the district’s character education programs.
Since the menu, tweet, and resulting email made news, a lot of conversations have taken place over the radio, between friends, over social media, dinner tables, and between participants of Hopewell Valley’s Race and Diversity Discussion group. All CHS history classes have discussed the racial stereotype associated with fried chicken. For some, what started out a discussion about food, became a conversation about racial stereotypes, which of course leads to broader discussions about race. With the district’s mission in mind, this is probably not such a bad thing.