January 23, 2020
Q. Your new book, Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America, chronicles the “somewhat bizarre but incredibly powerful marriage between a fast-food behemoth and the fight for civil rights.” How did you decide to delve into McDonald’s as it relates to African American history?
I’m always interested in finding new ways to talk about the complexity of race and capitalism. I focus on fast food because it’s ubiquitous in the United States, but its importance to civil rights history is hiding in plain sight. My book examines how the fast food industry capitalized on shifts in the priorities of civil rights organizations, federal investment in black business ownership, and the market aspirations of McDonald’s all converged in 1968. When these forces all met they radically transformed the wealth and health of black America. I love researching these moments in which unlikely characters are meeting and struggling together.
Q. The book describes the compromises and contradictions of a partnership that could be both helpful and stifling. What do you think is one of the most important takeaways for a reader?
I hope that readers understand that businesses can never replace a robust public sphere, which has the capacity to truly serve all people—if we want it to! I think that by showing the compromises that people are forced to make because of racial injustice, economic marginalization, and constrained choices, it allows the public to take a moment to think about how we allocate resources. I think it’s insufficient to believe that the private sector will fill the gaps for our society, or even worse, to force the poor and marginalized to rely on the beneficence of corporations. If we want healthy people in healthy communities, than we have to a healthy state ensuring they have good quality food, fair and livable wages, thoughtful schools for learners, and safe places for the vulnerable to live. Businesses can exist, but in my study of African Americans and McDonald’s, I caution that no business should do more than deliver goods and services to people.
Q. Besides being an author, you also teach at Georgetown and lecture to various audiences about social issues, the history of slavery, and activist movements. What kinds of social issues are you focusing on currently?
I try to focus my work on people and communities that have been targets of contempt and victims of misunderstanding—girls, the poor, people of color. So, although my books are about seemingly different topics (African American girls during the mass migration of Southerners to the urban North in the U.S., black fast food franchise owners), the unifying theme is the hidden stories that animate our current conversations. My next book is about higher education and the history of the idea that this sector can be an engine for remedying social inequality. By writing a social history of first-generation college students, I’m exploring why people in the United States have such strong feelings and opinions about college attendance, an experience the majority of people in the nation don’t have.
Q. What made you decide to go into academia, and what do you find most rewarding about the field?
I’ve always enjoyed the energy of academia. I have the pleasure of being present for the intellectual journey of people. The growth I see in my students over a few short years is amazing. I also like that I am always learning; I can teach the same thing year after year, and depending on the political or social climate of the moment, students understand it so differently. I love studying and learning history because it provides all of us critical thinking tools to better understand our world and ourselves.
Q. You were named a French-American Foundation Young Leader in 2015. What were some highlights of your experience as a Young Leader?
We had a special lunch about food matters while on my trip to Denver, and I listened carefully to how different the U.S. and French fellows understood the issue of health and wellness. The divide in perspective was curious to me, and it informed how I wanted to approach this book. I wanted my U.S. comrades to acknowledge history more, and I appreciated my French colleagues for believing in the importance of quality food for all. I also really enjoyed visiting the Clayford Still Museum; what a treat to see a city from the perspective of FAF locals!