Growing up in a rural, predominantly white community, food options, including grocery stores and fast food restaurants were at least a 20-minute drive away. Despite their distance, fast food restaurants still have a prominent place in my childhood and teen memories; albeit, these memories are intertwined with my racial and socioeconomic privilege. In elementary school, I remember collecting stickers for books I read, and dutifully placing them on a circular pin, knowing I would be rewarded with a personal pan pizza at Pizza Hut once I read 10. I remember receiving coupons for a free milkshake at McDonald’s after my dental appointments when I was a member of the “Cavity-Free Club” (the irony isn’t lost on me, here), and I still prefer my Wendy’s chocolate frosty with French fries for dipping; something I learned from my mom. My first job was at a Pizza Hut, where I worked for five years, first washing dishes and then making pizzas. Marcia Chatelain’s Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America, had me reflecting on my own experiences with the fast food industry as a whole, and McDonald’s in particular.
The Original McDonald’s in San Bernardino, CA. Photo Credit: Cogart Strangehill via Wikimedia Commons
The book takes an engaging, thorough, and honest look at the history of McDonald’s in Black America, from McDonald’s beginnings, to its role in the civil rights movement and contemporary social justice and activism. The author explores the relationship to Black capitalism and the franchise’s identity as a “culprit among the research on high rates of obesity, diabetes, and hypertension among blacks” (introduction). Throughout the book, Chatelain tells a story of McDonald’s that not only encourages one to critically reflect on the pervasiveness of the fast food industry, but that also raises important questions about choices—“who has them and who creates them” (introduction). As Chatelain puts it, “Ultimately, history encourages us to be more compassionate toward individuals navigating few choices and history cautions us to be far more critical of the institutions and structures that have the power to take choices away” (introduction). Through her telling of McDonald’s history, Chatelain cautions readers to be critical of capitalism masked as equality.
In her conclusion, “Bigger than a Hamburger,” Chatelain asks readers, and food justice advocates in particular, to look beyond the surface of fast food franchises to better understand how they gained so much prominence in poor, Black communities in the first place. She writes: “In our contemporary fight to ensure the health and wealth of people relegated to the margins, all does not begin and end with the presence of the drive-thru” (265). Chatelain re-emphasizes the importance of what her book does so well– looking at, focusing on, and understanding the history of McDonald’s as a franchise and its role in perpetuating systemic and structural racism. Her conclusion incorporates ideas from social critic Naomi Klein, food writer Michael Pollan, and late activist Ella Baker (whose words are reflected in the title) to make clear how the fast food industry has been able to capitalize on “racial unrest to infiltrate black communities” (265). She also reiterates how food choices are imbued with sexism, racism, and other systemic issues not at the fault of the individual.
In her acknowledgments, readers see Chatelain’s personal connection to McDonald’s–she grew up on it and has many fond memories of the fast food chain, especially the chocolate-banana birthday cake, which can be found at a McDonald’s in Chicago. We also get a glimpse into her extensive research practices–the seven major U.S. cities she visited, the archival research she undertook, and the multitude of interviews she conducted with people who work with, for, and are affiliated with McDonald’s.
Author Dr. Marcia Chatelain. Image Source: Marcia-Chatelain-RESIZED-1.jpg
In addition to the words that can be found within the pages, Marcia Chatelain’s book has received a fair amount of attention from various media including The New York Times, Slate, Vox, and NPR’s “Code Switch”. You can also listen to an interview with Dr. Chatelain on “All Things Considered” (the Vox and “Code Switch” pieces include interview excerpts, as well), or watch this video from Georgetown University where she talks briefly about the book. This attention speaks to the relevance and thought-provoking nature of Franchise; the press coverage is worth a look and/or listen if you’re interested to learn more, as well as hear from Dr. Chatelain herself, and her book is definitely worth a read.
While I could see the book fitting easily into a Social Histories or African American Studies course, as a researcher in Composition and Rhetoric with interests in feminist rhetoric and language politics, I found Chapter Five: “Black America, Brought to You By…” to be of particular interest. The chapter describes advertising tactics used by McDonald’s to appeal to Black consumers beginning in the 1970s, including the use of “black vernacular and slang,” as well as attempts to challenge negative familial stereotypes stemming from the Moynihan Report.