Public Thinker: Marcia Chatelain on Feminism, Fast Food, and First Gens

Historians in the News
tags: African American history, fast food, teaching history, Black capitalism

Marcia Chatelain is the hardest-working woman in history—as a scholar, a public intellectual, a teacher, and a force for social change. Her work includes a traditional historical monograph, 2015’s South Side Girls: Growing up in the Great Migration (Duke University Press), on Black girls in Chicago during the Great Migration era. In that book, Chatelain deftly weaves primary historical source material with theories of race, gender, and sexuality in a way that has blazed a path for girlhood studies in African American women’s history and literature. Chatelain traverses the country giving talks, doing workshops, penning op-eds, and appearing in podcasts on institutional diversity, slavery in college-campus history, police brutality, and first-generation college students. And she also has written a very different kind of book: a history of McDonald’s and Black America for a “trade” audience. Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America (Liveright, 2020) is the occasion for this interview.

What took Chatelain from a scholarly monograph to public history? What is it like to do history on the fly, for podcast and PBS documentary audiences? Below, we speak about Franchise; Chatelain’s experiences with public-facing work on podcasts such as UndisclosedThe Waves, and Office Hours; and her Carnegie Foundation Fellowship to write a forthcoming book on first-generation college students and the mythic status of universities as engines of social change and mobility. Her answers are equal parts thoughtful, funny, generous, and humble; they are also uniquely insightful about the relationship—and some would say tension—between scholarly work and public-facing writing.

In her latest book, Franchise, Chatelain examines how McDonald’s targeted Black communities after 1968, when concerns about continued social unrest led to the recruitment of Black franchise owners and specially crafted advertisements aimed at Black consumers. Franchise argues that contemporary concern about how Black people eat and the health consequences of fast-food-heavy diets needs to be met with a critique of capitalism and an understanding of how McDonald’s co-opted the rhetoric of civil rights to become a fixture in Black American life and culture.

Samantha Pinto (SP): Instead of a traditional academic book, with Franchise you’ve written a trade nonfiction book. Tell me about your decision to go public, to do public-facing scholarship—something you are going to continue with your third book, on first-generation students and the university.

Marcia Chatelain (MC): I actually don’t really understand the distinction between the two. People like myself who came up in traditional academia, we get such mixed messages about publishing, because there is a lack of clarity. You can’t get tenure with a trade book, you can get tenure with a trade book, et cetera.

I actually liked working with a traditional trade editor: someone who is working on the writing versus managing the project, as with an academic editor. For people who are questioning whether they want to take this route, I can say that for me, working with an agent who actually cultivates your proposal, also helps with the writing itself. That’s what I liked about trade publishing the most: that I worked with an agent who helped cultivate the proposal, and then worked with an editor who was there idea by idea.

SP: Your first book opened up the Great Migration from a new perspective, that of girls and women living through a massive social, political, and geographic shift. And your latest book, Franchise, shows how the civil rights movement and its aftermath were staged through racial capitalism and the upwardly mobile promises of small-business ownership and community employment. In other words: McDonald’s.

MC: That’s right.

SP: While you were writing this book and even pitching this book, you were a participant in and continued to be a producer of podcasts. I’m also curious about that medium and that engagement with public life. What’s the relationship between this podcast work and your scholarship, and what is the relationship between writing your book for a more public audience and the work that you do on The Waves, on Undisclosed, and with your own podcast, Office Hours?

MC: The reason I started podcasting with my students is that during 2014–2015, I was on the road a lot, talking on college campuses to a lot of student activists who had been mobilized by Black Lives Matter and wanted to change things on campus. And then, in 2015, we had the Mizzou [Chatelain’s alma mater] fall, with everything that happened at the University of Missouri and Yale.

What would often happen is I would meet these incredible student activists, and a lot of them were students of color who were not legible to faculty. They would be these really charismatic, outgoing students, and they would say, “Well, I don’t talk in class,” or “I don’t think my professor gets me.”

So I did Office Hours as a way to model to faculty how to have an appropriate but close relationship with students. And how to be comfortable talking to students when students are the authority, not only on their experiences but also on what is important or valuable to them.

Read entire article at Public Books

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