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Talking Points: Naa Oyo Kwate

In celebration of the book's one-year anniversary of publication, Points is delighted to welcome Naa Oyo A. Kwate, the author of White Burgers, Black Cash: Fast Food from Exclusion to Exploitation (University of Minnesota Press, 2023), a book that should be of interest of many historians of alcohol, drugs, and pharmacy, for reasons detailed below. Enjoy!

Please tell readers a little bit about yourself.

My family is from Ghana, and we came to the States in the early 1970s. I grew up in Chicago, and apparently the cold there wasn’t enough, because I went to Minnesota (Carleton College) for undergrad. I then regained my senses and moved to New York City for grad school (St. John’s University). Readers will probably be surprised to hear that I’m a psychologist, not a historian. I received my doctorate in clinical psychology fully intending to go on to a career of clinical practice in a large city hospital like the ones I trained in. But that experience turned things upside down, once I saw how burdened by chronic illness were the families I was treating. That in conjunction with the fact that clinical psychology had little to say about the material conditions in the neighborhoods where my patients lived and how that affected mental health. So I ended up moving away from entirely intrapsychic concerns to the social determinants of health more broadly, and after a postdoc in behavioral medicine I joined the faculty at Columbia University’s school of public health. In 2010 I came to Rutgers, and have turned into an interdisciplinary (undisciplined?) scholar with wide ranging interests in racial inequality and Black urban life.


What motivated you to write this book specifically?

The most precise moment would be in 2009, when my colleagues and I published a spatial analysis of fast food across New York City’s five boroughs. There were a lot of food environment studies coming out in public health at that time, and we were interested in how neighborhood demographics shaped the density of fast food in urban space. We found that the percentage of Black residents was the strongest predictor by far. Income had little do with it, contrary to most people’s expectations; and in another study on retail redlining, we found that neither were industry measurements of demand responsible. So I came to write the book because I wanted to understand how fast food, which started wanting nothing to do with Black people, came to be practically synonymous with Black communities. And I would say that even before these studies, just living in New York in the 1990s motivated me too. In 1996, for example, McDonald’s opened an outlet in Harlem Hospital, a contradiction that beggared belief.


Explain your book in a way your bartender won't find boring.

It’s pretty simple, really. Fast food started out in White urban neighborhoods in the early 1900s, with White workers, customers, and often even white buildings (e.g., White castle). Then it shifted in the 1950s to White suburbia (e.g., McDonald’s, KFC, Burger King), again avoiding Black consumers. So what happened to transform fast food from a product that excluded Black people to one that is disproportionately located in Black neighborhoods and relies on Blackness for its marketing?


Did you uncover anything particularly interesting or surprising during your work on this project?

One interesting aspect of Black franchising (both as franchisees and franchisors) is that it was entirely a financial instrument. Black entrepreneurs pursued fast food as a means of economic empowerment. To be sure, anyone opening a fast food outlet is doing so to make money—but what was striking to me was that the food was never mentioned. There was zero discussion of the food being tasty or anything like that. It was ancillary to what folks were trying to achieve.


Another surprising thing led me to publish a mini-book along the way: Burgers in Blackface: Anti-Black Restaurants Then and Now. It’s a short work under the University of Minnesota Press Forerunners Series. The text examines restaurants that use explicitly racist branding in their names, architecture, menus, etc. One was the Coon Chicken Inn, another was Sambo’s (which finally changed its name a few years ago). I came to the topic after stumbling upon one of these restaurants in the Yellow Pages. I was browsing an edition for the Chicago metro area in the 1960s, trying to identify fast food restaurant locations. As I paged through, I was shocked to come across an ad for Richard’s Restaurant and Slave Market in the Chicago suburb of Berwyn. That led to more research and eventually to the mini-book while I continued to research White Burgers, Black Cash.


What do you think is the most important takeaway from your book?

First, that fast food has always had an antagonistic relationship with Black people. The nature of that antagonism may have changed over time, but that was always the tenor. The book is organized in 3 parts: White Utopias, Racial Turnover, and Black Catastrophe. And in each of those you see how fast food always saw Blackness as problematic, but in different ways. Second, that Black people never had voracious demand for fast food. At no point in this long history were Black people clamoring for fast food, although public discourse generally makes Black consumption out as excessive and irresponsible. Third, that the racial change over time wasn’t linear, it wasn’t an on/off switch, and it was the result of push from the industry and federal government, as well as pull from certain sectors of the Black community.


Has this research led to your next endeavor—what else are you working on?

I’m currently writing a book that’s under contract at the University of Chicago Press with the working title, Terror’s Terroir: The Corner Liquor Store in Black Urban Life. The target publication date is Spring 2026. The book investigates the presence and impact of corner liquor stores in Black communities from the 1950s to date. Again, coming from a public health perspective, there’s a lot of research showing that liquor stores are disproportionately prevalent in Black communities, and there’s also research that documents the negative public health consequences, including increased alcohol consumption, higher mortality, and violence. What the literature has not really looked at is what else is at stake besides the most proximal outcomes. For example, how do liquor stores carry entrenched racial tropes? How do they perpetuate racial inequalities? Researching White Burgers, Black Cash did help lead me to this project because that was my first time doing archival research, and now I daresay I feel fairly comfortable with it. I’m also in the early stages of research for a second book that will be aimed at a trade audience, looking at one of the products you find inside the corner liquor store—cognac. This book will be somewhat similar to White Burgers, Black Cash in that it interrogates the racialization of this alcoholic beverage.


What got you interested in the history of alcohol, drugs, and pharmacy?

Kind of like the fast food book, while I was at Columbia, and living in New York, outdoor ads for alcohol were everywhere in Black neighborhoods such as Jamaica, Queens, Harlem, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights. Since alcohol intake is a risk factor for breast cancer, and I was doing a postdoc in cancer prevention and control, I wanted to study the determinants of the determinants, in this case, exposure to alcohol advertising. I published several studies on this topic, looking at how these advertisements were spatially clustered around schools, churches, and playgrounds; how the messages in the ads tended to draw on and reproduce pervasive negative representations about African Americans, (e.g., hypersexuality); and showing that ad exposure was associated with the odds of being a problem drinker (drinking suggestive of abuse/dependence) among Black women in Harlem.


Based on your research and experience, what do you see as the future of the field (of alcohol, drugs, and pharmacy history)?

I’m new to the field in terms of coming at it from a historical perspective, but it seems very much like there are important interrelationships between these three histories and also the history of food. There’s also a lot of overlap in some of the archives. For example, marketing guru Ernest Dichter, whose papers are at the Hagley, worked on a lot of different accounts, which include alcohol, drugs, and tobacco. Scholarship in the field has also been very generative for me. Keith Wailoo’s work on menthol (Pushing Cool ) was an important text for me while I was writing White Burgers, Black Cash. I recently started reading Hansen, Netherland, and Herzberg’s Whiteout, and even though the analysis centers opioids and other drugs, I can see how some of the ideas they’re advancing are going to be relevant for the liquor store book. So I think and hope that the future will bring a lot of cross-fertilization.


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