Marcia Chatelain, professor of History and African American Studies
Category: Faculty, Georgetown Magazine, Spring 2022

Title:The power of history

Author: Bhriana Smith
Date Published: April 26, 2022

Q&A with Pulitzer Prize-winner Marcia Chatelain, on her career at Georgetown, her research, and what it means to be a Hoya

Marcia Chatelain, professor of History and African American Studies, received Georgetown’s 2022 Distinguished Leader Award. In 2021, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in History for her book Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America.

What drew you to teach at Georgetown University?

When I came to Georgetown, I was yearning for a place that could support my research. I wanted a place that not only had the intel- lectual contributions of faculty, but a place that truly believed in making those contributions, not just in the academic space but in the public space and in a broader context.

How did you become interested in history and in food as a reflection of racial inequality?

I’ve always had a general interest in storytelling and a deep interest in history. I enjoy studying the context in which people emerge and the ways that history can be an active tool for social change.

In the early 2000s, I was introduced to many food justice projects at Brown University, while I was earning my doctorate. I started to learn from people who were grappling with this issue. I saw that many had policy solutions and other ideas, but they never seemed to use history as a way to understand the conditions in which people were forced to make decisions about what to eat.

What could be a viable solution to the problems of food selection within lower socioeconomic communities?

We have to understand that the way we eat is a direct result of the way we live our lives. Having an economic disadvantage puts so much pressure on every decision. Why don’t we start with the end of starvation wages? Why don’t we have an eight-hour workday, high-quality public housing, access to health care, good schools, free college, and free child care?

Typically, when I ask these questions, people will respond “Well, you didn’t talk about food,” but these are all of the things you really need to have in order for food to be a conscientious choice. You won’t have the ability to follow the diet your doctor wants you to follow, or to exercise as much as you’re supposed to, if you’re living in this highly stressful environment where your economic viability is always in question. The more resources that everyone has access to, the more thoughtful decisions people can make about what they eat.

What would you like to see Georgetown do to further highlight racial injustices and promote inclusivity within the university?

Georgetown has made some bold and important steps around the issue of the university’s history and slaveholding. Considering that it has been seven years since that work was initiated, I think it’s time to evaluate some of those plans and to implement a university-wide course for all students to help them understand what it means to be a Georgetown student. What does it mean for us today to benefit from this incredible and heartbreaking human sacrifice? How does that inspire us to learn from and relate to each other in a more thoughtful way?