Why Popeyes markets its chicken sandwich to African AmericansRoundup
tags: civil rights, African American history, food history, Race, Popeyes, chicken
Marcia Chatelain is a Provost’s distinguished associate professor of history at Georgetown University.
The return of the Popeyes chicken sandwich this week is cause for celebration for fast-food lovers across the country. Although chicken sandwiches have long been a staple of drive-through menus, the Popeyes brioche-bun offering that debuted this summer (and the subsequent run on the spicy special) sparked excitement, long lines, a custom pair of NFL cleats and fierce debate about the best fast-food chicken sandwich.
The chicken craze should, however, have stirred another conversation — about the uneasy relationship among marketing, race and food stereotypes, and the way that these factors have combined to contribute to significant health consequences for African Americans.
While the origins of fried chicken in the United States are blurry, some argue that enslaved people perfected the techniques to make it. We know that the practice originated in the South, and that former slaves later turned their skill at frying chickens into successful entrepreneurship, which led to a long association between fried birds and African American food culture.
Despite these positive connotations, fried chicken has also often been used as a prop in popular culture to degrade black people. D.W. Griffith’s 1915 celebration of the Ku Klux Klan, “The Birth of a Nation,” included a scene featuring Reconstruction-era black legislators feasting on chicken during a formal proceeding. This pejorative stereotype has remained part of our popular culture — on multiple occasions during his career, peers have made tasteless fried chicken jokes about Tiger Woods, for example.
Ironically, given this context, it was the removal of discriminatory barriers by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that helped forge a relationship between African Americans and fast food.
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