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Georgetown Professor Wins James Beard Award for Story of Black America Told Through Fast Food

Georgetown historian Marcia Chatelain won the James Beard Award for her book Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America. Published in 2020, Franchise not only examines the prevalence of fast-food chains in Black communities, but examines the mechanisms and environments by which they spread and were established. 

“I’m incredibly honored and privileged to receive such recognition,” Chatelain says. “My goal with Franchise was to add nuance and history to our current conversations about race, health and injustice, and to add a new dimension to civil rights history by thinking about the role of business in imagining a racially just future.”  

Black Business, Black Society

Starting in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, Chatelain’s book traces the interplay between Black capitalists, civil rights leaders, federal lending policies and fast food companies. As momentum propelling activists lost steam, Chatelain shows how pro-business policies led to wealth creation, and expanding franchises, within Black communities across America. 

“I have always been interested in food culture, cooking and the politics of the culinary world,” says Chatelain. “I love the way that food can bring people together, and how it can be used as a lens to explore so many dimensions of the human experience.”

Beyond the economics of fast food franchises as a vehicle for capital, Chatelain questioned how these spaces acted as fulcrums for community involvement in the second half of the 20th century and into the new millennium. 

“Part of what I was most interested in was the social aspect of the fast-food restaurant as a place where people gather, as a source of underwriting for youth sports, for different activities, for the community,  a place for people to access wifi and for senior citizens to hang out,” Chatelain says. “When we talk about fast food, we have to understand that the relationships people form with it are much bigger than the food that they provide.”

It’s Awards Season Every Season

Since its publication, Franchise has received numerous accolades. Last year, it won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for history and was selected as the Organization of American Historians’ (OAH) 2021 Lawrence W. Levine Award Winner. It was also selected as the winner of the 2021 Hagley Prize in Business History and named by New York Times critic Jenifer Szalai as Top Book of the Year in 2020.

A professor in the Department of History and the Department of African American Studies, Chatelain credits the community at Georgetown for its conducive environment for research. 

“I’ve benefited from the support of Georgetown colleagues and students in the research and writing process,” Chatelain says. “This book, in many ways, was a collective effort.”

Chatelain, who also wrote South Side Girls: Growing Up in the Great Migration, is active outside of her academic career. She delivers lectures and workshops on inclusive teaching, social movements and food justice on and off Georgetown’s campus. 

-by Hayden Frye (C’17)

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