University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill: Black history viewed through fast-food lens

Marcia Chatelain offered an expansive view of African American history since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. through the innovative lens of the McDonald’s restaurant chain, during the 36th annual African American History Month Lecture on Feb. 9.

The lecture is an annual event supported by departments and units from across the campus. The Office of the Chancellor, the College of Arts & Sciences’ history department and the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History provided support.

Chatelain, a professor of history and African American studies at Georgetown University, spoke by Zoom about her book “Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America,” which won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in history.

Born in the 1940s in California, McDonald’s is one of the huge success stories of the 20th century. At the end of 2021, it reported more than $112 billion in annual sales from 38,000 locations worldwide.

“What was most interesting to me in telling the story of McDonald’s, its origin story, was to think about the ways that the fast-food industry was predicated on the same institutions that excluded Black people from the promises of post-World War II — financial as well as social mobility,” Chatelain said.

At the same time, Chatelain turns that lens around. She doesn’t just look at McDonald’s through Black history. Through her research, she also looks at Black history in the postwar era through the lens of McDonald’s. The stories overlap in several ways, including whether business opportunity is a cure for racial unrest.

For instance, McDonald’s first African American franchisee opened in December 1968, just eight months after King’s assassination. But, she said, the “impulse to respond to racial unrest with business opportunity is one that has been with us for many, many years.”

African American franchisees soon became, like Black funeral home directors or Black bankers in an earlier era, “unelected officials and ambassadors to the Black community … who were able to broker levels of negotiation and power with white power structures,” she said. These franchisees were “celebrated as not only breaking barriers in corporate America but playing a role in the community. Because, ultimately, the idea was the franchise would be the lever of opportunity in places that had been left behind by deindustrialization, by the war on poverty, and its turn away toward the urban core, as well as a way of trying to prevent another instance of racial unrest.”

Chatelain said she originally thought that the book would be a broad consideration of food during the civil rights movement, but an editor encouraged her to focus on McDonald’s. “And that sent me on a course of really thinking about the proximity of McDonald’s and racial social unrest since 1968,” she said.

She spoke about Black celebrities opening up franchise restaurants in the 1970s and how McDonald’s became a major sponsor of the push to make King’s birthday a holiday.

Telling the story of America in the post-King years from the perspective of McDonald’s “provided … an opportunity to think in a really interdisciplinary way not only about civil rights history, but business history, the history of marketing, the history of the arts, as well as a history of how we have crafted in the United States a series of responses to racial unrest that fundamentally missed the point of why we have so much unfinished business.”

The book was published in early 2020. That year’s racial unrest, following the murder of George Floyd, made Chatelain wonder “whether or not we find ourselves in 20- or 50-year cycles of trying to answer the questions of what is missing in the discourse about racial inequality in America.”

Chatelain said she hopes her book opens up new lines of thinking when society considers the intertwined stories of McDonald’s and Black America.

“What I hope this book has been able to do is really highlight the incredible place of African American history and African American studies in telling deeper and nuanced stories about contemporary social problems,” she said. “When we talk about fast food and race … we are often fixated on these questions about health and nutrition [and] marketing to children.” Those issues are important, she said, as are the serious labor-related issues of worker rights, compensation and safety in the fast-food industry.

But, Chatelain encouraged her audience to take a broader view, to acknowledge the role of history and the complicated ways that consumer citizenship and Black capitalism, as well as the deep desire for inclusion into something — for good and for bad — have animated more than the choice by people to buy from McDonald’s.

We must also, she said, think “about where McDonald’s fits within a landscape of a federal government that has yet to fully account not only for the incredible damages wrought by slavery, let alone repair the breaches of the contemporary period, [but] how the corporation still appears as a beacon of hope, in light of all that we know of the unfinished business of racial reconciliation.”

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