Building Houses out of Chicken Legs

Black Women, Food, and Power

By Psyche A. Williams-Forson

336 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 42 illus., notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-8078-5686-4
    Published: May 2006
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-0-8078-7735-7
    Published: December 2006
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-8007-9
    Published: December 2006

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Awards & distinctions

2006 Elli Köngäs-Maranda Prize, American Folklore Society, Women’s Section

Chicken--both the bird and the food--has played multiple roles in the lives of African American women from the slavery era to the present. It has provided food and a source of income for their families, shaped a distinctive culture, and helped women define and exert themselves in racist and hostile environments. Psyche A. Williams-Forson examines the complexity of black women's legacies using food as a form of cultural work. While acknowledging the negative interpretations of black culture associated with chicken imagery, Williams-Forson focuses her analysis on the ways black women have forged their own self-definitions and relationships to the "gospel bird."

Exploring material ranging from personal interviews to the comedy of Chris Rock, from commercial advertisements to the art of Kara Walker, and from cookbooks to literature, Williams-Forson considers how black women arrive at degrees of self-definition and self-reliance using certain foods. She demonstrates how they defy conventional representations of blackness and exercise influence through food preparation and distribution. Understanding these complex relationships clarifies how present associations of blacks and chicken are rooted in a past that is fraught with both racism and agency. The traditions and practices of feminism, Williams-Forson argues, are inherent in the foods women prepare and serve.

About the Author

Psyche A. Williams-Forson is assistant professor of American studies at the University of Maryland, College Park.
For more information about Psyche A. Williams-Forson, visit the Author Page.


"I read eagerly Building Houses out of Chicken Legs, turning page after page as quickly as I could to see what new insight Williams-Forson would offer in her cultural analysis of chicken and the contexts in which it is eaten (or not), visually represented, or verbally referenced. I cannot recall an occasion on which I learned so much from a single text. While there are certainly other folkloristic and cultural studies of various African American practices, no other centers a discussion so fully—and justifiably—on a single item of food. I don't think I will ever again think of chicken as simply chicken."—Trudier Harris, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

"This is a wonderful book. Williams-Forson has taken a compelling, startlingly important topic in American history and culture and written a thoroughly researched, wonderfully conceptualized, and well-written study. Drawing from a variety of sources, she demonstrates in fine detail the long, often fraught history of black women and chicken."—Amy Bentley, New York University

Multimedia & Links

Watch: Williams-Forson joins the conversation about food, race, and gender in this segment of the Melissa Harris-Perry Show. (11/29/2014, running time 7:32)