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Chicken can be baked, deep-fried, pan-seared or seasoned and sauced up to one’s delight.

The bird is so versatile that it can even tell United Kingdom citizens to quit stabbing one another. At least, that’s what the British government expected when it spent nearly $70,000 on distributing 321,000 chicken boxes to three chain restaurants earlier this month.

How the government has gone about executing its message has drawn ire from critics who see the marketing tactic as a gross way to target minority groups through seemingly racist stereotypes.

Politician David Lammy told the Guardian that the Home Office was using taxpayer money to fund an “age-old trope.” “Boris Johnson has already called black people ‘piccaninnies with watermelon smiles,’ " Lammy said. “Now his government is pushing the stereotype that black people love fried chicken. This ridiculous stunt is either explicitly racist, or at best, unfathomably stupid.”

But when did black people and chicken become linked?

Deep roots

The complicated answer is rooted in special skills of enslaved Africans and media, said Psyche Williams-Forson, an associate professor and chair of the Department of American Studies at the University of Maryland at College Park. Africans were enslaved because of their low cost, subhuman status and agricultural skills, Williams-Forson said.

One part of their agricultural prowess was their knowledge of chicken, which was a common yet sacred farm animal in West Africa. Whites of the colonial era were more accustomed to eating other variations of poultry, leaving chicken as somewhat of an afterthought.

European visitors who were either fascinated or curious about the institution of slavery noted the relationship between the enslaved Africans and chicken.

Polish poet Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz visited George Washington’s Mount Vernon home in 1798, writing in his diary that the only thing slaves living on Washington’s property seemed to enjoy were the free-roaming chickens.

“That is the only pleasure allowed to the negroes: they are not permitted to keep either ducks or geese or pigs,” he wrote.

George Washington’s slaves also sold their chickens in Alexandria, and Washington bought from his slaves, according to an excerpt written by research historian Mary V. Thompson.

The enslaved still faced hurdles in this miniature form of entrepreneurialism.

Yet, laws regarding slaves and trading existed well before Washington had his visitor, stretching all the way back to 1600s.

In 1692, the General Assembly of Virginia outlawed slaves from owning horses, cattle and hogs. The law had no mention of chickens.

Slaves who were allowed to raise and sell chickens were sometimes able to purchase amenities for themselves and, in rare cases, buy their freedom. African American women were usually the ones who would prepare chicken dishes on plantations.

In her book, “Building Houses out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power,” Williams-Forson points to the Virginia General Assembly law in the 1600s that made it illegal for trading with “another man’s servant.” The punishment included up to a month of incarceration.

“A narrative began to shape that African Americans were thieves of chicken or chicken stealers,” said Williams-Forson, who has extensively studied history, culture and food.

In the 20th century, black women would travel to different train depots selling goods such as chicken dinners, and many black churches would hold chicken dinners. Because chicken was cheap and traveled well, it was also the lunch of many who got on the train as part of the Great Migration, Williams-Forson said, pointing to an excerpt of Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings":

“Our parents had decided to put an end to their calamitous marriage, and Father shipped us home to his mother. A porter had been charged with our welfare — he got off the train the next day in Arizona — and our tickets were pinned to my brother’s inside coat pocket.

I don’t remember much of the trip, but after we reached the segregated southern part of the journey, things must have looked up. Negro passengers, who always traveled with loaded lunch boxes, felt sorry for “the poor little motherless darlings" and plied us with cold fried chicken and potato salad."

Media also exacerbated minstrel images of black people with chicken and watermelon.

Aunt Jemima was introduced as a pancake mix and syrup in the late 1890s. The Coon Chicken Inn, a restaurant chain with a black minstrel character as its mascot, opened in the 1920s and remained open for more than 30 years.


In this photo from University of Maryland associate professor Psyche Williams-Forson's collection, a man holds two watermelons as a chicken passes by, circa 1904. (Psyche Williams-Forson)

Williams-Forson describes an image from that period of an African American man with two watermelons under his arm and a chicken in front of him. The text on the card says he can’t decide whether he should put down the watermelons to pick up the chicken. Europeans traveling to slave states in America and sending postcards overseas also spread minstrel images, she said.

Around the world

These images were spreading all over the western world, even in the United Kingdom.

David Olusoga has written about black presence in the United Kingdom in his work “Black and British: A Forgotten History.”

Thinking of stereotypes, such as black people liking chicken, as only an American trope dismisses transatlantic history. Minstrel shows, for instance, were as popular in London in as early as the 1840s as much as they were in the United States, performing some of their own versions of stereotypes, Olusoga said.

He also noted that he could remember “The Black and White Minstrel Show,” a British television show in his own childhood. The show didn’t go off the air until 1978, but it went strong with stage adaptations 10 years after it was taken off the air.

“The transmission of these ideas have been part of British culture since the 1850s,” he said. “It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that these ideas are under the surface and can percolate through.”

#knifefree

The current campaign in the United Kingdom is aimed at quelling a rise in knife attacks throughout the country, which is at an all-time high, increasing from around 30,000 in 2011 to nearly 44,000 in the 12 months ending in March.

The majority of knife or sharp-object crimes are used for assault and robbery, according to a BBC analysis of government data. Black and other ethnic minority boys and men were more likely to be both victims and offenders, according to the report.

The inside of the boxes included real-life stories from people affected by knife crime, in addition to featuring the hashtag #knifefree.


In this photo illustration, a food container featuring anti-knife-crime messaging from a Morleys Chicken shop on Tuesday in London. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

A group of young professionals is trying to push back on the Home Office decisions to place anti-knifing messages on chicken boxes. The three-person crew asked people on the streets of London to offer anti-knifing solutions on the same boxes the Home Office distributed. They plan to deliver the boxes to the Home Office on Tuesday.

YouTuber Elijah Quashie, better known as the Chicken Connoisseur, told the BBC that he could see the racist connotation with the boxes, and that the government could do more, such as understanding why knife attacks are happening or examining the circumstances of knife-crime perpetrators.

“There should be someone who has a deeper train of thought than ‘Black people, they eat chicken. We can intersect the black people who kill each other at a chicken shop with the chicken boxes,’ ” he said to the BBC earlier this week.

Read more:

The 1619 Project and the far-right fear of history

Americans don’t agree on what is racist

Perspective: Dear fellow white people: Here’s what to do when you’re called racist.