There are deep racial and economic food disparities in every community in this country. Yet, with all the many ways communities come together to try to address these disparities, they usually miss a fundamental component. Inequity is by its very nature, historic, and flows from generations of policies, institutional actions, and individual decisions that have privileged some people at the expense of others. Although there is excellent scholarship on structural inequality and the inequities that result from it, as well as powerful oral traditions and lived testimony of its impacts, most of this history is hidden to the average person and largely absent from public dialogues. Critical histories, the ones that highlight stories of oppression and resistance, of privilege and power, do not live in our history textbooks (or if they do, they are far too simplified and sanitized to provide real complexity and meaning). Nor are they prominent in the mainstream media or in our public monuments or commemorations. In their absence, we do not collectively develop the references and critical thinking skills needed to make sense of the deep inequality in our community and to develop the new institutional forms and power relationships necessary to come together and work towards a more equitable future. In so many ways, our collective “not-knowing” has consequences.
Local History Matters
Creating new histories is the first step in a process of truth and reconciliation that is needed in every place in America, and at every level of governance and community life. New public narratives and counternarratives need to be sought out, unveiled, and discussed. To share these histories is both a process of reckoning with the past and of reorienting how we think about change. As we seek true food justice and more equitable food systems, it is necessary to tell different stories about how we got here, and to wrestle deeply with the legacy of colonialism, white supremacy, and a food system that relies on the exploitation of workers, animals, and the earth. In this endeavor, it is important to recognize that inequality is a relationship, whereby some people are systemically advantaged and others disadvantaged over the course of generations. However, a person or a community cannot be defined solely in terms of victimhood or deprivation, and so this narrative highlight the acts of individual and collective resistance, contribution, and humanity of groups that have been historically marginalized.
With that in mind, the values of a local critical history are worth acknowledging. While we are all influenced by broad political, economic, and cultural systems, we all live locally. Hence, a local history has the ability to highlight the significance of individual and institutional actors and key moments of agency. A local history also illustrates how macro-level forces are both shaped and reshaped by community-level factors, such as community-based organizations, individual networks, and interpersonal connections. Further, putting this history into a local context builds a new set of resonant shared narratives. When history is grounded in the land, neighborhoods, institutions, and people we know, it deepens our attention and emotional response.
Insight Beyond Durham
While this is a story about Durham, most places in the U.S. will have similar experiences of the core themes shared within. We intend this history to travel widely across Durham, but also want it to spark conversations and commitments for other communities to follow suit and do their own critical investigations of how we got here. We also recognize that no historical account is ever complete, and hope that this work will be expanded upon and added to in the years to come. Lastly, we ask all who may read this, who are we as history makers? And what legacy are we leaving for the next generation? There are no easy answers, but there is power in the asking.
This snapshot of Durham's Food History, completed in 2020, was developed as part of the Durham Food Justice Project. This report was researched and written by historian Melissa Norton.