Over the last few weeks, chicken went viral. Popeyes launched a new chicken sandwich Aug. 12, people went crazy for it, and it sold out in two weeks. It became immediate fodder for pundits, social media influencers, and the generally opinionated. The resulting memes or GIFs covered topics as wide as the merits of Popeyes versus Chick-fil-A, historically black colleges and universities categorized as different types of chicken sandwiches, and the implications of paying more attention to chicken than to the catastrophe of the Amazon rain forest wildfires.
I, too, partook in what I considered my black festivus, whereby black people push back against the racist stereotype linking us to fried chicken that might shame some of us out of enjoying the food. I walked from Chester Avenue to the nearest Popeyes on Woodland to grab a bite of this newly vainglorious sandwich.
After standing in a pretty long line, I learned they were out of sandwiches. So I tried again the next day, this time ordering through a delivery app. The sandwich was subpar, but the joy and pain it stirred up are seasonings come alive. It evoked for me a time of effortless smiles and laughter, reminding me of growing up when the Electric Slide would come on at a cookout and guests would dance in sync, enjoying a cultural moment.
In today’s viral cultural moments, online observers quickly pounce to lay out social divisions of class, race, and respectability politics. During the Popeyes frenzy, some social media posts suggested that anyone enjoying the distraction is being duped, captivated by gross capitalism. Or that lighter-skinned people have an affinity for Chick-fil-A, while darker-skinned black people have one for Popeyes. Continue to look and you’ll see posts, including one from actress and singer Janelle Monáe, suggesting that black people care more about this sandwich than they do about voting. The sad part: This judgmental analysis ends up creating the same undue burden that often gets placed on the shoulders of black working communities.
Over the summer, Philadelphia has seen a spate of gun violence, largely affecting black communities. These events get met with claims like “black people are killing black people” and “we need more policing." Both tropes feed antiblack narratives suggesting that violence is inherent to the racial identity of the communities it in fact most harms, or that safety will come from the institutions that have criminalized black and brown young people. They ignore the role of the deep poverty that has taken root in many neglected communities, which depend on fast food chains for employment and affordable sustenance because workers aren’t paid a living wage.
Just as these conversations are not really just about gun violence, the criticism of Popeyes-mania is about more than chicken. It’s about how working-class black people are expected to perform in public spaces.
Pushback against the sandwich craze, dismissing it as capitalistic fodder or distraction from so-called Real Issues, reminds me of the lifelong difficulty I have faced as a black person when expressing joy in public. It reminds me of last September, when a white woman called the cops on a black family barbecuing in Oakland because their mere presence left her “really scared"— and the many other documented cases of authorities being called in on black people who are babysitting, or sleeping in their own dorm room, or waiting at Starbucks.
Black people are viewed with suspicion when we voice or celebrate in pleasure, and often ignored when we vocalize our pain. Even discussing something as simple as fried chicken, we’re admonished to talk about democracy and voting. The message I get: Black people can’t be all of themselves — publicly or privately — at all times, at least not without someone policing them.
When I am met with the tension of carrying the reality of crises facing black communities, and the joy of participating in black cultural production on social media — including maybe eating a chicken sandwich — I choose to do both. Being liberated means we can be all of ourselves, all the time. We can all at once be globally conscious, locally ratchet, and critically aware.
If Neiman Marcus could sell “gentrified” $66 collard greens, blackness can openly embrace fried chicken joy. Just like the Maze song says, black people can — judgment on social media and in real life be damned — embrace “joy and pain,” just as we endure sunshine and rain.