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

Thinking in public demands knowledge, eloquence, and courage. In this interview series, we hear from public scholars about how they found their path and how they communicate to a wide audience.
“Being in community with people and teaching and learning outside of the confines of our classroom: I still actually really believe in that.”

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 Undisclosed, The 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.

I did that because I liked the idea of having a conversation to help faculty then be able to have better conversations with students. And then I guest hosted and appeared on some podcasts, but when I did Undisclosed: “The Killing of Freddie Gray,” that was probably the greatest writing training I ever had. I did 16 weeks of a podcast that is classified as true crime, but it is in that vein of the wrongful conviction or the murky prosecution situation.

But they took a little bit of a break from it and did a mini-arc about the killing of Freddie Gray, by the Baltimore Police Department. And that was one of the greatest experiences I had, because it required me to think about writing for an audio platform in which my voice was the only tool with which to illustrate. It also helped me think about citational practices for an audience that isn’t used to listening to academic texts as citations.

So, the audience for Undisclosed and a lot of true crime is middle-aged white women. How do I talk to an audience about the complexities of race and policing, about the long history of African Americans and the City of Baltimore, and activism with only my voice and with very limited reference points? The audience for Undisclosed probably did not read the same things I read—but what were some of the ideas that I wanted to help them understand?

That podcast was really, really hard to do, because it required us to write a new script every week, and I was on the show with two investigative reporters and a lawyer. Sometimes the investigation would shape the direction of the show with very little notice. So it got me really prepared to write a little bit faster than I was used to, but also to think about what needed to be explained and what could not be explained within the confines of the medium in order to tell a story. And that really helped in the writing of Franchise.


A Black Counternarrative

By Jehan Roberson

SP: Your first book is all about centering the history of the Great Migration on the subject of Black girlhood, and of Black girls in Chicago, in particular. That was the forefront of what has now become a wave of work in Black girlhood studies. Tell me about your choice to focus on women subjects in the first book and what feminism as a method might mean to Franchise, which is a book that on its surface looks really different.


MC: The connective tissue for the books is really grappling with archives. And I often say this about both of my books: I don’t know if the ideas are sound, but I am proving the point about archives and about the danger in suggesting that there is only one way to think about archives or to create archives for African American history.

So for the first book, I was really proud just to get the sources. They weren’t deeply hidden sources, but they weren’t used, because of the misogyny of multiple fields. That was a function of historians being slow to think about age as a category of analysis; the same with researchers in other fields.

With South Side Girls, what was really important to me was to say, well, we can actually imagine an archive of Black girlhood because, as subjects, Black girls were studied. It is just that there was no apparatus of power that leveraged the scholarship. In many ways, that was my feminist intervention: to say that when we are interrogating a project, what we are actually doing is interrogating the power that allows some knowledge to rise to the surface and other types of knowledge not to.

And with Franchise, I felt very much the same way: doing a corporate history without the permission or the compliance of a corporation is a question about structure and how we engage history. By centering the Black experience of McDonald’s for this project, I found that the archive is actually really rich and very full (and that McDonald’s has tons of material all over the place), but we don’t see it as the archive. And that is the same way that the feminist practice developed in an earlier period had to find and make archives, whether it was literary recovery or asking questions about how gender impacted particular moments.

I have really felt more comfortable with thinking about the dynamics that allow archives to be formed in order to think about a project, instead of saying, “Here is the archive, and these are the only projects that are available because of it.”


SP: You have podcasts where you address some of these questions. But you also talk on PBS and have gone on speaking tours across the country to discuss racial justice and reparations and the relationship between slavery and the university, particularly at your own university, Georgetown. What is your experience of being public, of going public as an expert, being tagged as an expert, especially on social justice and universities?

MC: Oh, that’s a great question, because it’s a frequency-range issue. Expertise for the purpose of television—it’s not the deepest. I am not saying that a lot of these projects aren’t carefully researched, but … I grew up watching a lot of television, and that’s where I learned about everything. I have a deep appreciation for the way that TV is a place of first encounter: I don’t have childhood memories of going to museums or going to galleries. I just didn’t do things like that. I went to public libraries and I watched television all the time.

So, for me, it is an incredible honor to do TV, because I know, as a kid, if I saw something on TV, I could look it up in our encyclopedia set or I could go to the library and go to the card catalogue. And the idea that with television now—and especially with documentaries on public television—and Twitter, someone could watch something and if they have a question about it, they can ask me about it, that’s incredible.

It would be wildly irresponsible for me not to participate in these public forums when I am comfortable, because so much of my own educational-career trajectory has been publicly funded and publicly subsidized. And I actually do think that we miss the opportunity to demonstrate to a large population—because most people in the United States do not go to college—what it means to have an academic career. There are a lot of feelings that people have about it, but each and every time that I am asked to be a talking head or an expert, what I really am is just a person issuing an invitation for someone to go deeper or to think about something. I really like that.

On the road, I mostly am speaking at colleges and universities. But often I get the chance to talk at churches or to community groups; it is just the opportunity to bring high-quality teaching to communities where time for teaching and time for learning isn’t at the center of the day like it is for us in academia. It is so fun, it is fantastic—sometimes it is overwhelming.


SP: Yes!


MC: But because a lot of this type of work has been monetized—whether in speaking fees or book sales—it has been painted with such a negative brush. Academics really struggle with the idea of being a public intellectual as a slur, or as being unserious or being exploitative. And all of these things could possibly be true.

But at the end of the day, being in community with people and teaching and learning outside of the confines of our classroom—I still really believe in that. Having had the opportunity to do it has informed my practice not just as an educator but also as a person who thinks that we work in an industry that could actually do some good. We need to translate the importance of that industry to as many people as possible.


SP: As [someone] who grew up around the same time as you, I have a similar relationship to PBS. And now I can add my relationship to watching PBS as a parent. The PBS app is great and has all these nature documentaries with academic scientists, and my son is obsessed with reptiles, and now I watch and learn too.


Saboteurs in the Modern Academy

By Sophia Booth Magnone

MC: Exactly!


SP: What do you think universities can do to help encourage different kinds of engagement by their faculties, either on the administrative side or in writing? One of the things that still lingers in the elitism around public scholarship is this idea that it won’t get you tenure.


MC: What I tell junior people about this is, at the end of the day, you have to decide what’s going to be at the center of your practice. Most of us, those of us who had the privilege of higher education, were told that we go to school to learn how to do something in order to have a career. But we rarely tell young people how to create something at the center of their life, so that every part of their life can be an animation of that thing that’s at the center.

We both have seen complete meltdowns in the economy several times over the course of our very short lifetimes, so I take nothing for granted and I question anything someone tells me is secure. Tenure, while it’s supposed to be very secure, can’t ultimately untether us from this global reality. I just don’t think it works like that.

So it’s important to ask ourselves: What will be the center of my practice? And to imagine all of the different ways that practice can be animated in the world.

For me—whether I’m doing history in a traditional academic setting or I decide to do it in another place—at the center of it is this question: How can I bring as many people as possible to this question of racial and economic justice, and how can it be applied in the ways that they live and make choices?

So, all of that is to say that universities are using these really draconian methods of impact and making a difference and rigor and scholarship, but they don’t use them in a consistent way. We see that the system is always blowing up when we see high-profile tenure denials. There is always a crack in the system, because it’s deeply flawed and discriminatory. Moving forward, the academy broadly defined has to adjust to the economic and racial realities of its students, not its fantasies about what intellect should be, because it will continue to not only disappoint the people who believe in it but also constantly underserve and be a target of animus if it can’t, at the very least, translate to a wider public what it does and why it’s helpful. Then we have to say, Okay, where are the places where we can always shift and be most dynamic? I don’t know. It’s hard to see a place that values intellect so deeply and then doesn’t leverage that intellect for the flexibility and change that’s necessary for its own survival.


SP: And you are now working on a third book on this topic, on the university—which will, like Franchise, be public facing. This is the one you won the Carnegie Fellowship to write. Tell us a little bit more about your third project and about your commitment to first-generation college students. Do you see it as of a piece with Franchise and with South Side Girls?


MC: For the majority of my life, I have lived with the rhythm of the academic calendar. And every different place I found myself has been as a result of going to college.

But the more and more I’ve engaged in the question of universities and slavery, the more and more I’ve engaged faculty about teaching practices, the more and more I spend time with students who are now under the umbrella of “first-generation, low income,” I am struck with this question: Why have we come to this idea that higher education can actually be a lever in closing social distance?

Nothing about higher education indicates that it is particularly democratic or particularly concerned with righting any injustice or even really wanting to intervene in the question of inequality. Everything about it is counter to that. But there has been an ideological shift on education and a college education that is really fascinating.

So, this latest book: some of it is an intellectual history of the changing expectations of higher education and the public good. How does the system transform from the cultivation ground of the elite to a space that intervenes on behalf of complex social problems like civil rights and economic inequality? Some of it is a study of college presidents and their role in shifting our ideas about college, because after World War II, the expansion of veterans on campus and the early higher education desegregation cases inspired leaders to think about how campuses could contribute to Cold War patriotism and suppress social uprisings. And it is also a book about a set of experiences that links back to South Side Girls, about outsiders—often young people who are subjects or, rather, objects of contempt, and how they are supposed to navigate spaces that are constantly at odds about their presence. I felt that very much with South Side Girls, when I wrote about girls from the South going to school in the North, and they were going regularly for the first time, and the teachers were just thinking, What are we supposed to do with these girls who are so deeply unprepared to be here?

I also think about the presence of McDonald’s in Black communities as this place that is supposed to respond to all of these problems—economic isolation, the need for jobs, food deserts, and the opportunity to create a sense of Black ownership—that no business could ever respond to. And then that inspires me to think about higher education as an actor, as a political actor, in the lives of vulnerable people.

I’ve just always been fascinated that we often think of colleges as doing the right thing by admitting students and we don’t think about reforming policies as employers, as nontaxpaying bodies, as developers. Somehow, we think giving 30 kids a full scholarship actually alleviates any of these problems.


This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus. icon

Featured image: Marcia Chatelain (2017). New America / Flickr