WGS/BU's inaugural Lunch Discussion of the 2016-17 academic year featured multi-media presentations by Vrinda Varma, Fulbright-Nehru Doctoral Research Fellow, and Diana Garvin, Visiting Scholar. This event was hosted at The Center for Gender, Sexuality & Activism of BU and co-sponsored by GaIDI (Gender & International Development Initiatives) of the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis.
The speakers were introduced by Dr. Brenda Gael McSweeney, UNITWIN Director at WGS/BU, and the talks were followed by lively interactions with Fellows of the Hubert H. Humphrey Program at BU hailing from six countries, Resident Scholars of the Brandeis Women's Studies Research Center (WSRC), WGS Faculty, interested BU students, and greater Boston community members.
Vrinda Varma's work on food narratives from Kerala informed her lunch discussion presentation on September 21st. By situating the emergence of food and cooking narratives in print media, Vrinda deciphered the politics of textually creating a “woman’s place,” in the Kerala of the early 20th century. The late 19th and early 20th centuries are largely seen as periods of ‘modernism’ and ‘renaissance’ in Kerala Society. However, as is the case with history from across the world, this project of modernism and reformation seems to, by and large, ignore women. Vrinda says that at a time when Kerala society was transforming itself and ridding itself of ancient practices of caste, untouchability and problematic land-lease arrangements along with certain practices of marriage and conjugality, women’s needs and wants took a back seat. In the void created between the demands for a better society (for men) and the largely silent/silenced voices of women, emerged a new textuality— that of domesticity. This new domesticity sought to define the ideal mother, ideal wife and textualized ideals of femininity and womanliness within the private space of the home. Vrinda elaborated on how this new domesticity, hitherto alien to a majority in Kerala, was established through food narratives, recipes and other allied discussions on food as love, care and motherhood.
Diana Garvin's presentation on East African women's domestic labor in Fascist-period Italy was complemented by dramatic photographs illustrating the themes in her talk entitled: Black Milk: Colonial Foodways and Intimate Imperialism. Diana shared the following summary of her talk's main points:
This talk uses original Italian and Ethiopian sources to examine breastfeeding in the colonial marketplace as a key plank in the social construction of race and racism. Specifically, I will examine the Italian Fascist regime’s propagandistic newsreels and unpublished photographs of Ethiopian markets in Addis Ababa, Harrar, Quórum, and Asmara in relation with postcolonial oral histories and architectural studies of these spaces. While breastfeeding represented a significant arena of political struggle over the care and nourishment of future generations in the colonies, contemporary historical studies rarely examine this practice as a primary component of imperial foodways. This stance builds on Kyla Wazana Tompkins’ assertion that food confuses physical borders between the self and racial others. My talk contributes an intersectional approach to the discipline by using breastfeeding in the marketplace to investigate the Fascist regime’s twinned seizure of food and women’s bodies, a mode of cultural erasure that bell hooks refers to as “eating the other.” Interweaving the voices of vendors, customers, architects, and government officials in this image-based study of Ethiopian marketplaces not only helps to untangle the filmic decisions and techniques that directors used to construct race and racism through mass media, but also offers a more cohesive portrait of women’s daily lives in Italian East Africa under Fascism. Ultimately, I contend that the marketplace provided a powerful symbolic arena for forming, shaping, and perpetuating the racial thinking that defined Ethiopian and Italian people, markets, and foodways in terms of black and white.
Why Breastfeeding Matters to the Study of the History of Gender and Race:
Breastmilk is almost every human being’s first food, and it is certainly mankind’s oldest. No time, space, or additional actors stand between the food producer and the food consumer. The mother feeds as the infant eats – because these actions are simultaneous, breastfeeding simplifies and essentializes all other foodways. Although we rarely think of breastmilk as a food or breastfeeding as a foodchain, they most certainly are. Investigating breastfeeding as a foodway – or, to coin a term, as milkways, distills the complexity of local, regional, and national foodways down to the most elemental form: a one-to-one exchange of nutrients, fats, and proteins. Just as breastfeeding provides a key to unlock the meaning of foodways, milkways can also be used to denaturalize breastfeeding as a cozy, domestic act insulated from political meaning. Economic, social, and political concerns do not stop at the transom of the home, but rather intensify as they are enacted through cooking, feeding, and eating. This talk provides a historical case study analyzing breastfeeding as a foodway, an approach that demonstrates how public and the private spheres of life merge at the level of the everyday.
Italian Breastfeeding Photography as a Case Study for the Creation, Dissemination, Use, and Afterlife of Racist Tropes:
Italian portrayals of both Black wetnursing and breastfeeding speak to larger issues of how race and racism are constructed and consumed. Eroticism and anthropology constitute two planks of this racist platform. But I believe that there is one more element in these images that helps to explain how these images shaped and propagated racism: these images are, ultimately, about intimate forms of feeding. Their focus on the nutritive capacity of the Black female body points to both a fear, and a desire to ‘eat the other.’ In her essay of the same title, bell hooks figures this concept as the modern-day equivalent of ancient religious practices, wherein one person could embody the spirit and traits of another by consuming her heart. Applying this concept to Italian representations of Black and White, I argue that nourishing and feeding across racial lines unravels all bodily essentialisms, and ultimately reveals the constructed nature of race. French gastronome Brillat-Savarin said, and Italian epicure Artusi repeated, “Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you who you are.” And therein lies the root of the Fascist regime’s fear: how different were the colonizers from the colonized, if white bodies drank black milk?
L to R: WGS's Dr. Diane Balser, a BU Humphrey Fellow, Dr. Ellen Rovner of the Brandeis WSRC, and WGS Visiting Scholar Dr. Diana Garvin; standing, Fulbright-Nehru Research Fellow, Vrinda Varma