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"Why Black Folks Eat Chitlins in 2009..."

(Black History Month, 2009)

("Chitterlings" -- also, chitlings, chitlins -- the small intestines of hogs, usually served fried or in a sauce.)

Why do millions of black Americans eat chitterlings in 2009? Anyone who knows and understands black history should be able to answer this question. This is yet another reason why black Americans cannot afford to limit their study of their history to Black History Month. This is also to say that, while it may be important to know that the annual "Chitlin' Strut" held in Salley, South Carolina is the largest chitterling festival in America, the ultimate purpose of knowing and understanding black history is to know and understand who black Americans are today.

The subject of eating chitlins presents another opportunity for black Americans to "take a look at the people in the mirror." However, what we see is of little or no value, and may be detrimental, without knowledge of and the understanding of our history. But the image we see in 2009 can be made clearer with the answers to three questions. Why did black Americans begin eating "chitlins" in the first place? Why do black Americans eat chitlins in 2009? And how can the answers to these questions contribute to a better future for black America?

Before proceeding, it should be clearly stated that ignorance is the only excuse for making value judgements about people who "love" chitlins and those who "hate" chitlins. (There are very few people who can "take'em or leave'em.") There are blacks who are characterized as "bougie" (elitist) snobs who are not in touch with their black heritage -- some of them love chitlins. There are blacks who are characterized as "country" (hicks) who are unwilling or unable to eliminate "slave food" from their diets -- some of them hate chitlins and even the idea of other people eating them. It is also important to note that some white Americans eat chitlins. And it is important to note that animal "innards" have always been and continue to be consumed in most cultures – both out of necessity and as delicacies.

Now, the first question: Why did black Americans begin eating chitlins in the first place? Here are the simple facts. During Slavery, when hogs were butchered, slave owners kept the preferred cuts of meat. (Note the expression, eating or living "high on the hog.") On the other hand, the remaining parts of the hog -- the feet, ears, snout, neck bones, skin, intestines, etc. -- were given to slaves. With their ingenuity and cooking expertise, black Americans were able to create appetizing and fulfilling dishes using the least desirable plants and the animals parts that were usually discarded by non-slave owners. This was the origin of what is now generally known as "soul food."

The second question: Why do black Americans eat chitlins in 2009? (Or, as asked by a chitlins hater, why would anyone spend hours cleaning feces out of hog intestines, carefully preparing and cooking them to lessen the chances of bacterial diseases, endure the smell, and then eat them knowing that just a one cup serving contains more than half of one's daily requirement of fat and cholesterol?) While there may be other good answers to this question, the most obvious (and indeed the most relevant) answer is -- I was served chitlins as a child -- I liked them -- and I have been eating them ever since. If any further discussion is required, the chitlin lover can ask the chitlins hater about his or her eating and drinking habits, if he or she is or was a smoker, or how much money he or she spends on video games or clothes.

And there are questions that are even more relevant that both chitlin lovers and chitlin haters should be asked. "When was the last time you read a book, from cover to cover, simply for the pleasure of reading a book?" "When was the last time you read to your child or to some other black child?" "How many hours did you spend last year helping your child with homework or tutoring some black child who needed help with school work?" These questions are relevant because the reason why black Americans eat or do not eat chitlins in 2009 is the same reason why blacks are the least educated and the least knowledgeable people in America in 2009.

This is the point of the third and final question. How can a discussion about black Americans eating chitlins contribute to a better future for black America? As noted earlier, the purpose of knowing and, more importantly, understanding black history is to know and understand who black Americans are today -- and why they are the people they are today.

During 246 years of Slavery, black Americans ate chitlins because they had little or no choice but to do so. During 246 years of Slavery, it was illegal for whites to educate slaves and slaves were forbidden to educate themselves.

During the 103 years of the Jim Crow era that followed Slavery, black Americans ate chitlins because, after twelve generations of doing so, eating chitlins was a part of their culture -- and because chitlins were cheap, in many instances eating them was an economic necessity. During the Jim Crow era, educating black Americans was not illegal. However, "book learnin" was not a part of black culture -- it was something that white folks did. And the education that was available to blacks was inadequate and substandard. Also, because of economic necessity, going to school had to be given a lower priority than working to keep a roof over the family’s head and putting enough food on the table to survive.

In 2009, 40 years after the Jim Crow era, chitlins are no longer cheap -- they can be as expensive as some "high on the hog" cuts of meat. In 2009 black Americans eat chitlins because, after almost four centuries, eating them is an integral part of black culture. In 2009, education is no longer illegal, substandard, or economically impractical for black Americans. In 2009, black Americans, as a people, do not value and resolutely pursue formal education because doing so has not been an integral part of their culture for almost 400 years.

Black Americans must understand that a people can not separate their past from their present – and, even more importantly, from their future. History is not only something that happened 100 or 200 years ago -- history is also something that happened one month or two months ago – and, tomorrow, history will be what happened today. History is a continuum. In large measure, we are who we are because our parents are who they are -- and, in large measure, our parents are who they are because their parents were who they were -- and this is the case for all 19 generations of black Americans. And while we cannot alter our history, knowing and understanding our history is the only way to understand who we are today and what we must do to create a better, more desirable future. The assertion, that "a person who does not know of or understand mistakes made in the past is doomed to repeat them," is equally true for an entire people.

Finally, as would be expected, there are chitlin lovers and chitlin haters who have an unquenchable thirst for education and knowledge -- and there are chitlin lovers and chitlin haters who simple do not value formal education and knowledge. When it comes to eating chitlins, there may be religious considerations and there should be (as with all foods we consume) health and dietary considerations. However, eating or not eating chitlins will not be the ruination of black America.

On the other hand, valuing and pursuing education and knowledge can not be optional for black Americans in the 21st century. The irrefutable fact is that as long as black Americans remain the least educated and the least knowledgeable people in America, they will continue to be the people with the least amount of social and economic success in America.

Charles Sanford

"Project 2019" is a national movement by black Americans to reach educational parity (based on college degrees earned) -- by the year 2019 -- the 400th anniversary of the beginning of Slavery in America.

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