Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Story Behind The Stereotype Of Black People & Fried Chicken

Edited by Azizi Powell

The verbal sparring between golfers Sergio Garcia and Tiger Woods became more ostensibly racial on May 21, 2013 when Garcia "joked" that he would invite golfer Tiger Woods over his house for fried chicken. Tiger Wood's response was that the comment was "wrong, hurtful and clearly inappropriate." According to a news article about this comment (which Garcia quickly apologized for) that remark was "reminiscent of when Fuzzy Zoeller made a similar comment about Woods after he won the 1997 Masters, becoming the first player of black heritage to win a major."

This news items begs the questions "Why is fried chicken associated with African Americans and why is that association considered to be negative?"

A short answer would be that Southern fried chicken is by its very name associated with the Southern region of the United States. And for many Americans the Southern region of the United States is closely associated with Black Americans and Black people are associated with slavery and Black Americans are also associated with black-faced minstrelsy. All of these associations-including the word "Southern"- have negative connotations to many Americans. There's a reason why the fast food franchise "Kentucky Fried Chicken" changed its name to "KFC". And it wasn't just because some people consider fried foods to be unhealthy. Southern living not only evokes negative memories of slavery. It also carries negative connotations of what some Americans call "rednecks" and "hillbillies".

Here's an American history 101 explanation from a political blog post about the problem with Sergio Garcia's comment:
"Just why is the fried chicken stereotype racist? There are a number of reasons, some of them old and some of them current. Fried chicken was a dish commonly made by slaves, and it persisted among free blacks who were, at the time, too poor to afford more expensive meats. During prolonged American apartheid, fried chicken played well in black communities, as it was easy to make and even easier to refrigerate. Black people then had to worry about those things, as a meal at most restaurants was outside their reach.

Fried chicken references were often a part of racist blackface productions and other hideous minstrel shows. Later, many fast-food chicken restaurants used caricatures of black people as mascots for their restaurants. To say that fried chicken has persisted as a racist meme is an understatement, and this is nothing new." by Gizzard

The negative association of Black people and Southern fried chicken is further compounded because of the reference in late 19th century & early 20th century songs to Black people stealing chickens.

For instance, African American professor & folklorist Thomas W. Talley's now classic 1922 book Negro Folk Rhymes: Wise & Otherwise includes several songs about Black folks stealing chickens and watermelons. It's possible that those songs could have been originally composed by White people as part of black faced minstrelsy. However, their inclusion in Talley's collection & other collections of early 20th century Black American secular music, means that those songs were sung by Black Americans. Those songs helped create and reinforce White Americans' stereotypes of Black people as lazy, childish, foolish, comical, self-indulgent, thieving coons.

However, it's important to note that stealing chickens and taking watermelons were survival strategies that were used to help supplement the insufficient food rations that were allotted to enslaved African Americans or to help supplement the insufficient food budgets of poor and working class post slavery African Americans.

Also, it's important to add that no song in Talley's collection or in any other collection of Black American secular songs from the late 19th century or early 20th century directly mention fried chicken. And those examples that do mention chicken parts (such as the thigh or the wing) may be post-United States slavery. Furthermore, it appears from Talley's collection that chicken was usually served in the form of a pie. This makes sense because not only was it quicker to cook chicken pies than to fry chicken, but serving that poultry in the form of a pie helped stretch the chicken and vegetables that were used to make that meal.
UPDATE: February 22, 2015
A previous version of this post included a link to a page on my now retired website. That page provided information and examples of the food and beverages that are mentioned in Thomas W. Talley's 1922 collection Negro Folk Rhymes: Wise & Otherwise. I intend to republish a version of that page on pancocojams and a link to that post will be added here. Suffice it now to say that no rhyme in that collection refers to what now are considered "soul food" dishes such as collard greens, cornbread, sweet potato pie, black eye peas, hoppin john, or fried chicken. However, Talley's Negro Folk Rhymes does mention watermelon, and chicken pie.

It seems to me that it makes sense that people with little time and resources would prepare chicken in a pie rather than fry pieces of chicken. Making chicken pies is less time consuming than frying chicken. Also, more people could be fed with chicken served in a "pot pie" (as we refer to it today), then as individual pieces of chicken.

The Wikipedia article about fried chicken provides more historical information about the connection between "Southern fried chicken" and Black people.* Here are some excerpts from that article:
"A number of West African cuisines featured dishes where chicken was fried, typically in palm oil, sometimes having been battered before. These would be served on special occasions in some areas, or sometimes sold in the streets as snacks in others.[6][7][8] This provided some means of independent economy for enslaved and segregated African American women, who became noted sellers of poultry (live or cooked) as early as the 1730s. Because of this and the expensive nature of the ingredients, it was, despite popular perception, a rare and special dish in the African-American community.**

Since most slaves were unable to raise expensive meats, but generally allowed to keep chickens, frying chicken on special occasions continued in the African American communities of the South. It endured the fall of slavery and gradually passed into common use as a general Southern dish. Since fried chicken traveled well in hot weather before refrigeration was commonplace, it gained further favor in the periods of American history when segregation closed off most restaurants to the black population. Fried chicken continues to be among this region's top choices for "Sunday dinner" among both blacks and whites.*** Holidays such as Independence Day and other gatherings often feature this dish.[11]

...Since the American Civil War, traditional slave foods like fried chicken, watermelon, and chitterlings have suffered a strong association with African American stereotypes and blackface minstrelsy.[10] This was commercialized for the first half of the 20th century by restaurants like Sambo's and Coon Chicken Inn, which selected exaggerated depictions of blacks as mascots, implying quality by their association with the stereotype. Although also being acknowledged positively as "soul food" today, the affinity that African American culture has for fried chicken has been considered a delicate, often pejorative issue. While the perception of fried chicken as an ethnic dish has been fading for several decades, with the ubiquity of fried chicken dishes in the United States, it persists as a racial stereotype."
*Notice that although this stereotype about Black people and fried chicken originated regarding African Americans, it has been extended to other Black people world wide. One excample of this is said to be the Australian KFC ad which is reposted below as video example #2.

**Italics were added by me to highlight the point that historical documents of enslaved African Americans including recollections, songs, and rhymes indicate or suggest that fried chicken and chicken pies were special treats, and not common dishes among those enslaved African Americans.

***However, even when Black people were able to fully use those restaurants, it was -and still is- commonplace for some African Americans (and some other Americans) to cook fried chicken at home prior to going on a trip and eat that home cooked chicken while traveling rather than purchase much more expensive meals for sale at stores or restaurants.


Example #1: All Black people Love to Eat Chicken and Watermelons

DukePowell, Uploaded on Oct 8, 2009

Me and Chicken go back like America and slavery (i don't know what that means)

All black people apparently love to eat chicken and watermelons. This is not true, but some people think that this is bad. What do you guys think about this topic. I dont have anything against chicken or watermelons lol

Tell me what you guys think about this topic
DukePowell (no relation to me) brings up another point that might explain why chicken has come to be associated with African Americans & other Black people - Chicken is a relatively inexpensive source of protein. However, the stereotype isn't about Black people and chicken. It's about Black people and Southern fried chicken. That's why I think that the history of Black people, slavery, and the stealing chickens associations are crucial to a real understanding of this negative meme.

Example #2: Racist KFC advertisement?

ThunderCurlsUploaded on Dec 12, 2009

How do you survive a crowd of "awkward" black people? According to KFC's latest advertisement a bucket of fried chicken will do the trick.


Thanks to those whose information I quoted. Thanks also to the YouTube publishers of these ads.

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Visitor comments are welcome.


  1. There was a lively discussion about whether the Australian KFC commercial that you closed with was racist or whether Americans were too ethnocentric.

  2. Thanks Umlud for sharing that link to that 2010 post.

    Here's the hyperlink:

    I should mention that one of the commenters there said that KFC pulled that ad because of complaints about racism.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.