Story by Taylor Soule
The Black History Month Dinner menu at Hubbell Dining Hall on Wednesday night left some Drake University faculty, alumni and students feeling hurt. The menu featured fried chicken, “pot likker” collard greens, black-eyed peas, jalapeno cornbread and okra.
2013 Drake graduate and former Coalition of Black Students member Alexis Davis said she saw a photo of the menu on Facebook and couldn’t believe it, particularly after a like incident happened in California a week earlier.
A private high school in northern California faced backlash in early February after serving a lunch of cornbread, fried chicken and watermelon to celebrate Black History Month.
“I was just so, not angry, but hurt that that was my university that had let this happen after the whole California thing,” Davis said. “It was just like, ‘No, this is not happening at Drake.’”
In past years, Sodexo has collaborated with CBS to plan a Black History Month Dinner menu and related educational component.
This year, however, the two didn’t collaborate, and Sodexo created the menu without university input. Drake released a statement Wednesday night apologizing for the menu: “While clearly a well-intentioned effort to celebrate African-Americans’ cultural history, the result is inappropriate and misguided.” Sodexo released its own statement Thursday night.
The Sodexo statement announced plans to hold a second Black History Month Dinner, this time in partnership with CBS. Davis praised CBS’ immediate and collaborative response to the menu.
“I just wanted CBS and the black community at Drake to be proactive about it because it wasn’t OK,” Davis said. “They weren’t quiet. They weren’t silent, so I’m happy.”
Drake President David Maxwell also praised the civil response of CBS President Tess Montgomery, Sodexo and faculty members.
“I think it was a big misstep,” Maxwell said. “It shouldn’t have happened, but it did. I am very proud of the way everybody responded. I think Tess Montgomery showed real leadership and thoughtfulness with CBS in responding, and some of the faculty members and others who stepped in to address this. I think they responded to it with all of the thoughtfulness and civility that we pride ourselves on at Drake. I think it’s a learning experience for Sodexo, and I think as we go forward, I don’t expect this kind of mistake to happen again.”
For members of Drake’s African-American community, though, the mistake has a lasting impact beyond Black History Month.
Sophomore JaShay Fisher-Fowler, a member of the CBS executive board, said the menu left her feeling “uncomfortable” at Drake.
“Everything that Drake stands for and tries to do kind of got contradicted, and it also shows that Drake, as a university, isn’t as progressive as they thought they were in their motives and what they’re trying to do and what they’re trying to pursue,” Fisher-Fowler said. “In the African-American community, it has a big impact on us because it makes us feel more uncomfortable being on Drake’s campus.”
Renee Cramer, an associate professor law, politics and society, echoed Fisher-Fowler’s concern that the menu trivialized the richness and diversity in African-American culture around the world and at Drake.
“I very strongly believe that the intention of the Sodexo staff was a good one, the celebration of Black History Month,” Cramer said in an email. “I also understand the ways in which the menu could be read, to constitute micro-aggression against students of color on campus.”
For Stacey Treat, an instructor of rhetoric and communications, the menu provided an opportunity to evaluate global and multicultural understanding at Drake.
“It is certainly very embarrassing, at the very least,” Treat said in an email. “It also shows that we have much work to do in creating true intercultural understanding, awareness and cooperation. I do not think ill harm was meant at all by this menu, but I do think we must be very diligent in our communicative and representational activities to respect and embrace diversity in all its forms.”
Davis, a 2013 alumna of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, said the misguided menu provided a lesson in the power of dialogue and education.
“Collaborate and educate, and educate themselves first,” Davis said. “Sometimes, we try to put things together, and there’s no education before it. If you have the educational component, then it would make it better. You can’t throw something together. You don’t know anything about it. Collaboration, having an educational component. Do their research first. That would definitely make things better.”
Drake sophomore Katrina Nelson also criticized the lack of communication.
“Hubbell could have just served that food and not put a label on it. If they were going to celebrate Black History Month, they should have run their menu by the rest of Drake, because the incident reflects badly on our school,” Nelson said. “I mean, it got us on the news.”
The menu caught the attention of national media, including NBC.
Though the incident garnered national attention, sophomore Casey Ambrosius said the response from Drake faculty, alumni and students showed increased awareness of stereotyping.
“I also think it shows that we’ve become really sensitive to stereotypes,” Ambrosius said. “If the same thing would have happened 30 years ago, I don’t think it would have been such a huge deal.”
Despite the negative backlash on and beyond campus, Fisher-Fowler, a CBS executive board member, said the incident is an opportunity to reflect on and improve Drake’s sensitivity toward minority students across cultures.
“Be more thoughtful of everyone, and not just the majority,” Fisher-Fowler said. “Be more thoughtful of minority students because we also are here just like the majority are. Once again, be accountable, and take responsibility of your actions.”