In This Episode
DeRay Mckesson: Hey, this is DeRay. And welcome to Pod Save the People. In this episode, it’s me, De’Ara and Myles talking about all the news is you don’t know from the last week, and then I sit down with the one and only Dr. Marcia Chatelain to talk about her book about the relationship between the McDonald’s franchise and the Black community. This whole episode, I learned something every single second of this episode, cannot wait to share with you. My advice for this week is to listen and learn. And like I’ve been in a learning mode for the past week, have been lucky to work with friends and talk with friends on some new projects and some new plans, and like, at every moment, I’m like, Oh my God, I learned so much, I learned so much. I’ll never stop being a learner. I hope you aren’t either. Here we go.
De’Ara Balenger: Family, welcome. Another episode of Pod Save the People. I’m De’Ara Balenger, you can find me on Instagram and Twitter @DeAra Balenger.
Myles E. Johnson: I am Myles E. Johnson. You can find me on Instagram or Twitter @rapture.
DeRay Mckesson: I’m DeRay at @Deray on Twitter.
De’Ara Balenger: Awesome. So lot’s happened this week, but I think what’s been top of mind for everyone and what there’s been a lot of feedback, controversy, discussion around is Dave Chappelle’s most recent special on Netflix. So, you know, I watched the first 20 minutes and then actually had to step away. Well, I had to cut it off. I had to cut it off. And then went back to it, actually this afternoon and got through probably the last 30 minutes. I’m sure there’s some that I missed, but those first 20 minutes were actually pretty unbearable. Like just first of all, it wasn’t funny. Like even when you are being your most offensive self like it, just I think there’s usually like an insightfulness that Dave Chappelle, that can be gleaned. But in this particular special, there was none of that. It was just like an utter defensiveness that, I don’t know. It just, it just didn’t sit well for so many reasons. I think it’s difficult for me because I’m a DC person and Dave Chappelle has been such a hero of DC. But yeah, I’m interested to hear y’all’s thoughts because even in the even when he tries to be humanizing around the LGBTQ community, particularly trans folks, it just lands so wrong. It just, I mean, I also think I want to hear from y’all too just as Black men, because I think so much of this is the challenge of Dave Chappelle kept, you know, he kept making the gay community, trans community, synonymous with white people as if there were no people of color in the queer community. And so it was always this like, this tension between, you know, now white people are being white supremacists through the lens of being queer. So I don’t, I mean, I’ll just keep rambling. What, what have you been hearing? What did y’all think? Did you see it? All the things.
Myles E. Johnson: I definitely watched all of it. So this is a really good time to, for me, I guess in a weird way, like, I guess I come out like another closet as somebody who definitely does not self-identify as a cis man. Now that I’ve done these things. And, but I love that you like, entered it that way of saying to because I think in that moment when I was watching him perform it, I realized I occupied a really interesting space because I saw that he was actually seeing white people and seeing, and seeing a certain type of whiteness performance or even solidarity with whiteness. Even when he mentioned it to like muscular Black dude as like, these are the type of people who I’m opposing, or these, or this or LGBT QI plus-ness came with a raise. And I told myself I was like, Wait, 1) I already knew that I was like a non-binary queer Black person living in this. But then also, I had to allow my heart to break because living in Georgia, I was a humongous Dave Chappelle fan. I remember some of the formative experiences that I had in my life. Me and my mother, who is a Black lesbian woman—we got all the gays, all the LGBT queer folks in the family—but she’s a black lesbian woman, and we went to the movie theater in rural Georgia to go see Dave Chappelle’s Block Party. And I remember before—because I’m 30 years old and I’m just now figuring out language to articulate my gender—but Dave Chappelle’s Block Party scene Jill Scott, Kanye West, The Fugees reunited, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott praising Erica Badu, Mos Def— these were the, these were the people who helped me articulate my blackness outside of a type of brutality or a type of civil rights slavery narrative. They gave me the images of what it can be, and Dave Chappelle was instrumental in that. So he was probably one of the reasons why I’m sitting here having this conversation in Brooklyn. And I under, what I understood while I was watching the stand-up act was that your art thinks and your art calls you and your art calls you to develop. And I think what I was watching was somebody who simply refused to develop, simply refused it. And I think, and I think when you do refuse to develop as an artist and when you refuse to let your art help you grow, the people who love your art observe a death, they observe a stillness. They observe, they observe something, and you mourn, and you mourn it. Because what he was saying was not sophisticated. It wasn’t interesting. It wasn’t, it wasn’t inventive. It wasn’t provocative. It was vitriolic and it was, and it was bigotry. And he’s extremely intelligent so he’s able to anticipate me saying this and then say what, and say something that makes what I’m saying not true. But, but I know, but I know somebody who sits down and listens to Q-Tip and Mos Def and Common and who has thought deeply about money and race could not come to agreement with people who are Trump supporters. Like, there’s a disconnect. You know, when you when you come to certain agreements in certain ideas in your head and then you look up and you are agreeing with people who get their news from Facebook, then you have to, like you have to invite yourself to maybe think things differently. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m not seeing these things differently. And I think that this moment for every Black person happened in between, it happened in my guts, in my personal living, but I think it happens for cis people, trans people, every person, all Black people in this particular cultural political moment have been asked to deepen what they think is Black, what they think is Black movement, Black for movement, and it cannot be the static thing that is a race over here in LGBT over here and all these over here—they are all swimming together and they’re all in conversations with each other and they’re all, and they’re all being actively developed if there’s any form moving that actually can be made. And Dave Chappelle is refusing to do that homework. And I think, and before I step off my soapbox, my Black soapbox from the bodega down the street in my Flatbush apartments—because that’s the thing too, right? I’m a sissy who lives in Flatbush, who wears ankhs and Egyptian things and who listens to the same music you do, and a Dave Chappelle fan and you can’t think all these things coexist at one time. Bt here I am, and I’m existing. And you’re making it seem like I am an anomaly and I don’t exist, and we do exist. I have very and he’s, and considering that makes, it’s just too complicated of a consideration. And the punch line gets skewed. It’s no longer a punch line if I, I kind of warp the punch line, if in somebody’s imagination that can exist. But the last thing I was going to say is it’s interesting because one of the times that I mostly looked up to Dave Chappelle with two times. That wasn’t on the stage or during the documentary, it’s when he sat down with Maya Angelou and he sat down with Oprah, I’m telling you, I’m a big fan. Like, I like, like, love, love, love that brother. Like, big fan. And he sat down with both of those people. And I was really moved that he said no to that money because I knew, and when you’re a queer kid, you kind of look for all these codes that somebody is on your side, even if they won’t say blatantly. And something about him saying no to those white people giving him all that money made him feel like he was on my side and he was on the side of what I understood. And there was something about him being on stage and then saying yes to even more money then he said no to 20 years ago. So the same white devil coming back with more green, and he said yes to it. And now you’re actually being a mouthpiece for the very ideas that support the bigotry that has so many people who are vulnerable feeling even more vulnerable, that had the whole moment of four years of Trump. Like you’re feeding that. So you’re still being used for the same thing just in a different time. And now your mind has been shifted enough that you actually think you’re some way being provocative or transgressive when you’re not, you’re just being stagnant and old and refusing to develop your, to develop your mind. And again, just to close it out, I just think that everybody’s art does talk and speak to them. And I think that is our decision as artists to say yes to where it’s going to take us. And a lot of times that means we have to be no, we have to be wrong, and we have to put down things that we once believed that maybe served us, that just are antiquated. And I think a lot of people have a hard time doing that. And these moments are the birth of that.
De’Ara Balenger: All right. My news this week is from NPR. My fav. And it’s about a mountaineering group, a Black mountaineering group: the first all-Black team to climb Mount Everest. And so I just wanted to, I keep, I feel like I keep doing these firsts, like these alleged first pieces, but just bear with me, OK? I saw this. I got excited. I’ve been on this kick, too, about Black people being in nature and like, how important that is. And so I want everyone to check out this piece, but it’s just incredible. These nine climbers, they’re outdoorsmen and mountaineers, and they have 30 years of experience between them—also, a another indicator that they may not be the first people to do something since they’ve been climbing mountains and things for 30 years. Bet nevertheless, just wanted to bring this to the pod because something else that this highlights is numbers. And DeRay, I know you love the numbers, but there’s a huge racial gap between white folks and Black folks when it comes to enjoying the outdoors, enjoying outdoor spaces, and participating in outdoor activities. So nearly 70% of visitors to national parks, forests and wildlife preserves are white. Black people visit these sites the least out of any group, according to this National Health Foundation report. Of course we know—and this is what this piece points out—we, you know, we know some reasons for that. Of course, racism plays a factor, segregation, Black folks not feeling, unwelcome in these particular spaces, and you know, you know, I think we, this kind of harkens back to what we saw, you know, last—was it, I don’t know, time anymore—last year, but the brother that was, you know, watching the birds in Central Park and got the po-pos called on him—you know, like, I think the spaces for us, these particular public spaces, you know, spaces in nature aren’t necessarily safe for us, but we’re probably the most in need for these spaces. But I don’t know. I just, I thought this to be so, so fascinating and how they are more, more groups now that are exploring the outdoors. So Outdoor Afro helps Black outdoorsmen and women connect in hosts meet ups. There’s the Black Outside, which aims to diversify the outdoors. Black Girls Trekking inspires thousands of Black girls and women to get outside and connect with nature. You know, in this climbing group, you know, they’re trying to inspire the community. And their website explains that the first American group reached the top of Everest in 1963, the same year Dr. King delivered his “I have a dream” speech. And so just kind of the the connective tissue between those two seemingly disparate but connected events. So I don’t know. I just thought this was an interesting one, and a one that also, you know, just kind of, you know, throws out the window he fact that, you know, Black people don’t like outside and you know all that we—you know, Myles, a few weeks ago, we covered this really amazing story about Black surfers. So, you know, I just wanted to bring this one. I thought it was, I thought it was fascinating.
DeRay Mckesson: I will say, you know, this reminded me that there is a, something really powerful that happens when the internet changes our ability to connect with each other and with the world around us. And I think about this moment that’s happening in a host of sports or recreational things where Black people just don’t have access. Like it was, whether you wanted to climb the mountain or not, you to know how to get to the mountain. How did you, how would you, even if you were an extra climber how would you find other climbers? Hard to do, right? And all of a sudden, this conversation about access is completely different. We can participate in things that we would have been structurally prohibited from, even if not from a just straight-up Black people aren’t allowed. It’s like from the, from the resources. Like the hiking gear, the practice, like all the things, you need to be able to do it at a high level. And what’s incredible about this story? De’Ara is not that they are the first Black people to go to the mountain. They are not. There have been, I think, 10 Black people. But to get an entire team of people at, an entire Black team at one time, the different roles that you need in the hiking world to be able to do it is actually both impressive in this moment. And you’re like, I know there’s a lot of people, there’s a lot of people I grew up with who couldn’t stop climbing the things around us in very different circumstances, and they just needed a field trip to go somewhere with Myles and go up the mountain. I went to school in Maine and we went hiking and it was like, You know what? I don’t need to do this every so often, but I totally get it. And let’s be one with nature. Hallelujah, amen. But yeah, I was like, Wow, this is like a conversation about exercise. You know, I’m interested to see what the next five years looks like, especially as people grow in their understanding of race and to see Black people just participate in a range of sports that we weren’t, like not only do we not necessarily care about, but people just didn’t even know. You’re like, What is? You like I’m not, where am I going to practice that at? I don’t know? But basketball is in every neighborhood, in every community, so thanks for bringing this. I had no clue that this was a thing.
Hey, you’re listening to Pod Save the People. Stay tuned. There’s more to come.
Myles E. Johnson: So my news, you know, I’d like to start—well, you don’t know, this is my second week—I do like to start things with stories. It means a lot to me. Things matter when they’re attached to a story, it makes me care. But one thing that my mother told me when I was really young was, I don’t care what you do, just don’t embarrass me. So one of the reasons, and I know everybody loves Toni Morrison, but one of the reasons I’ve really loved Toni Morrison outside of like the obvious is because I said, Well, her mother must be in heaven really proud because I’ve never seen Toni Morrison do something that was embarrassing. And I find that amazing. If you search long enough, you can find somebody who is the most respected, beloved figure, let alone Black figure who has definitely embarrassed their mama. Or maybe only their mama and their grandmother was willing to have split cornbread with them that Sunday. And Toni Morrison, as much as I dig, she just has always gotten it right. And one part that I really have always admired around Toni Morrison is even how she is taking the moment that may be seen as provocative or failures, that they actually feel really beautiful. I remember watching her talk to Angela Davis and how Miss Angela—I think I’m grown saying Angela Davis, Miss Angela Davis. I remember seeing her talk to Miss Angela Davis and talk about when she, how her book Paradise got rejected from the prisons, so it was actually banned from the prison system because it was seen to be able to incite riots and how she framed that letter and put it in her bathroom. And I thought to myself when I saw that something kind of clicked to me that I was like, Oh, it may not be that she’s never done anything that wasn’t provocative or seen as a failure, but her gaze on it is her own gaze so the ownership of it is really fascinating with me. So that leads me into my news because it just feels really interconnected, that like solidarity with being provocative and in literature in the prison system. No-Name opened her radical public library. I’m super fascinated with this young, this young person in the world doing something and creating spaces because the libraries aren’t just spaces where people go to read books, specifically not this one. It’s where free access activities can happen, events, and it could be a safe space for the community. I’m really fascinated with the way this library is happening. I’m really fascinated with there being a quote unquote “fuck the police” section. I’m really fascinated with the fact that there’s parts that are specifically for anti-capitalist text. And this is all, and it feels really good, specifically from my generation. I don’t say this as like a way that I separate myself from older folks, but just to really take accountability from my generation does—we’re the idea, theory-heavy generation, you know, if it doesn’t involve too much, we’re internet generation so if we just plug in and do it, we’re all there for it. As soon as it takes them bricks and doing a movement where I’ve noticed that it’s a little bit, and if it’s not as reactive, it’s a little bit slower. And that’s for reasons that are our fault and the reason that, like, totally surpass us, that we couldn’t be responsible for. So it really felt good to see this person who I kind of actively saw get radicalized on the internet, take her platform, take her resources and create a thing. Like A to Z. And it feels integrity to what she has learned, A to Z, you know? And of course, the critiques and the criticisms and all these other things come with it, but the fact is that there is something being added. This library is not just one that’s helping the community that people are participating the library, there’s also this intentional connection to getting people who are in prison, books and resources and tools. So both radicalize their brain—because I do think that no matter what kind of situation you’re in, when you understand the situation, you then that’s a level to unlock to be able to transcend the situation, even if it’s only happening in your mind. It got my juices flowing, specifically again as somebody generationally that’s gotten things taken away via recessions and the elections. I’m like, OK, so what are we generating? What, what’s being created. Even though a library is a library, it feels like a really big deal, and it feels if it feels like a win for people who maybe have been a little bit jaded by the current cultural moment.
DeRay Mckesson: So the thing that really that, this reminded me as an organizer is that political education is such a key part of the organizing work, that so much of what we are trying to do as organizers is make sure people have the information about what the world could be. Make sure people have the information about how we got to where we are. Make sure that people can access resources unfiltered by supremacist structures. Like all of those things have to happen, and the internet is a big part of that for a lot of people, but not everybody. That there are so many people who will access this information in a host of ways. My father is not somebody who is sitting on Twitter learning, but when I tell you that the book Caste by Isabel Wilkerson changed that man’s life. He called me, like DeRay, did you know that the racism!? I’m like, Yes. And he’s like, and the other thing is da da da da da. I mean, that book literally is the, is single handedly responsible for his awakening about race. It wasn’t me in the street. He sort of like, you know, he has his complaints about the police and some like that but that book was the text that helped him realize, like the systemic nature of white supremacy. It wasn’t Twitter, it wasn’t a Facebook video, it wasn’t documentary, it was the book. And when Noname opened this, it reminded me that like, we will have to democratize, that the internet will, it will do its part around democratizing information but it will not be the only thing. That they is a generation of people and a host of people, whether generationally not, who need to access information differently. And the work of political education is like a legitimate, that is a actual organizing tactic. It is real. We got to do it. The other thing is that we covered this a while ago—and Myles you weren’t here then—about the political role that libraries play in this moment, that a lot of people go to libraries to get services, that there are a lot of people who have traditional housing who use libraries as a means to have a stable communication hub, that libraries actually function as community centers in ways that go unrecognized when we talk about traditional community centers, but when you look at the functions, libraries actually hold most of those. And that there have been a lot of librarians who actually are being trained to deliver Naloxone and Narcan, which is the overdose drug, and that librarians are undergoing a host of what would traditionally be called like social service sort of trainings but because they interact with so many cross-sections of society in a way that very few other institutions do on a daily basis. So mine is actually not from right now, as from last summer, but it’s new to me and I don’t know, we definitely haven’t covered it on the pod, but this is a story about the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum that reopened in Massachusetts, and there’s an exhibition that was cut short called Boston’s Apollo. And this was completed in 1921, and it is a portrayal of white gods and goddesses dancing and playing music. And what is interesting about it is that it’s all, like it’s a, it’s a ton of white people who are being painted. And there’s a curator of this was going through a drawer of pages and realized that John Singer Sargent, who is the artist, that there were 10 works on paper that like he hadn’t seen before. So as he’s looking through them, he realizes that they were sketches for one of the murals called Apollo and the Muses. And I would just quote him, the guy who is the curator. Mr. Silver, he says, “the man in the drawings was Black, and all the figures on the ceiling were white and I thought, What’s going on here? I want to know more about this man and his role in the creation of one of the public works.” So he goes to a three-year long journey and he identifies the Black man who was the muse and his name was Thomas Mackellar. And the reason that stuck out to me is that it was just fascinating to learn about McKellar, who left Wilmington, North Carolina as a teenager in the south in the 1910s, came to Boston looking for stuff, and that he was this artist’s muse about a host of paintings, a Black man, but in all of the art, he was white. Like he is white in every single piece that he is a muse for, and it just blew my mind. It was like another way, it was another way so clearly that Black people get erased in this moment around artistic things, that Black people become both the muses, the inspiration, become the figures for the things that become cultural icons, but actually get removed from the process. And as you can imagine, the artist has paid $40,000 for the mural. At the MFA, McKellar received only $30—wild—for being the muse. And this was the type of recovering that I think will happen more and more as people start to sort of historically analyzw what’s going on with art. And I don’t know if you saw—this is not what I put in for my news—but I don’t know if you saw that one of the French museums is giving back, is giving back art. They’re like giving back art, one the French museums, and they have thousands of pieces. And I think that today they announced that they’re giving back 26 pieces, and you’re like, OK, y’all have like tons of stolen art from all over the world, mostly from Africa—yeah, it’s out of 70,000 stolen artifacts, France is giving back 26. And it’s like the more and more that this historical analysis comes, I think that we will see that, we will see even more that what became the cultural icons and the defining pieces of art, were in some way stolen from people of color.
Myles E. Johnson: Yeah. When I read the article, the first thing that came to my mind and what I thought, and the question that was presented to me in my consciousness was who gets to be divine? And although we’re talking about like the, because what I can tell by the figure, like he was presented as a man, not a god or an angel, but I’ve always been really curious about what happens to somebody who’s psychologically has gone their whole life being seen as an angel or a god or a representation of that. And I think that even by the time a lot of Black people encounter specifically, you know, Black people who are on the western side of things encounter their own deification via art that they, that a lot of the damage has already been done, so, so, so heavily.
DeRay Mckesson: I love this idea of like who gets to be, who gets to be an angel, who gets to be a God. And the political significance of that, right? Like, what does it mean to take a Black body, to use the body but refuse to allow that person to be divine in the art, I think is beautiful.
Myles E. Johnson: Thank you. Thank you.
DeRay Mckesson: Beautiful question.
Don’t go anywhere. More Pod Save the People is coming.
DeRay Mckesson: Dr. Marcia Chatelain has a book called Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America. It won the Pulitzer. It’s about the nuanced, complicated role of the fast food industry plays in African-American communities. You have to listen. Have to read it. Here we are.
DeRay Mckesson: Professor Chapman, thanks so much for joining us today on Pod Save the People.
Marcia Chatelain: It’s great to be here.
DeRay Mckesson: Now, I remember when I first came across your book and in reading it and in preparing to talk to you today, I was just fascinated. So I’ll start with how did you even get like, how did you get to this as a topic of study? What was, what’s your story?
Marcia Chatelain: So I like many kids of the 1980s, I went to McDonald’s quite a bit in my young years and growing up in Chicago, I just remember that the local chapter of the National Black McDonald’s Operators Association was everywhere. It wasn’t just that this group of people franchised McDonald’s, you know, these were the people who were brought on to Black radio to be interviewed. They were the people who would sponsor the prizes for the local, you know, Black History Month activity. And as I was training to be a historian and I was thinking a lot about the ways that people talk about food and race and access and health, this group of people, and I think that their outsized influence in Black communities was always something I returned to because I think that we have this kind of common sense understanding about fast food as in all-bad presence in Black communities. But I think we really take a step back and think about, well, how did that happen? How does you know something like fast food that is so associated with the suburbs, how does it become a fixture in Black communities? And so I think that was the starting point for me exploring this relationship.
DeRay Mckesson: There’s so many things that I learned in the process. One was like, I didn’t even, you talk about Cleveland, right, in this whole sort of story in Cleveland around the boycott, but also sort of around huff. Can you, how did you even find that story? Like, how did you even figure out this story about McDonald’s in Cleveland? Like, how did you come across that?
Marcia Chatelain: So when you start a project like this one and you say, OK, I’m going to write about McDonald’s, the first roadblock you hit is that McDonald’s as a corporation, has a closed archive. So they have a historian just like me on staff collecting their materials and—
DeRay Mckesson: Really!?
Marcia Chatelain: —and curating their internal museum. Oh yeah, but I’m not about to get access. So there’s no access for someone like me to do it. And I think that’s, part of my kind of spirit is a little bit of a relentlessness. And so I was like, OK, fine, I don’t need your papers. Let me refocus this story to really think about the places where Black people interact politically and socially and where McDonald’s appears. And so I had heard a story about this Black man who wanted to franchise a McDonald’s in Cleveland, and there was a rumor that he was murdered because he was pursuing this. I have no evidence to say that there was a connection. Let me just say that. But this rumor was so intriguing to me, this idea that this business opportunity was so high-stakes that people would associate it with a crime that I started digging into the files of Operation Black Unity, which was a Black nationalist group that was in Cleveland, that was an umbrella organization for Core, the NAACP, the Urban League, and they were boycotting McDonald’s in Cleveland. Amd unlike the other boycotts that were familiar with from the 1960s, it wasn’t because Black people weren’t being served at McDonald’s, it’s because they felt like Black people should own McDonald’s because they should be the ones profiting from Black dollars. So in their files, there are all of these wild stories about the boycott, about people being threatened about, you know, an armed confrontation in the offices of Mayor Carl Stokes, the first Black mayor of Cleveland. So like all of these things are unfolding and the more and more I would dig, [unclear] the more and more I started to look into this history, the more dramatic and really deep these stories were about the alignment of Black political causes and access to ownership of McDonald’s.
DeRay Mckesson: I legitimately had no clue about any of that before I read this. And also that there was like, that the first flier for the boycott was McDonald’s hamburger core v. Black people. This was like, I mean, you really this, I read this like, where is the movie? Like how have we not heard this before?
Marcia Chatelain: Well, the thing that I think—and this is where I start to speculate a little bit—so the other topic that I found really fascinating for the research process was that McDonald’s was the target of some of the activities of groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to stop segregated dining practices. So McDonald’s in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, McDonald’s in Durham, North Carolina, McDonald’s in Memphis, they’re targets in the same way as Woolworth’s lunch counters are targets but that history is like completely erased. So when we think about the old school fight for civil rights, the sit-in movement, McDonald’s never appears in our consciousness and I think the reason why that happens is because shortly after Martin Luther King Jr. assassination, McDonald’s starts doing this outreach to Black communities and hiring more Black managers and putting Black franchise owners in Black communities and so very quickly, they start to say that this outgrowth into Black communities is their way of being part of the progressive movement of the period. And so I think it kind of erases this earlier period where McDonald’s was a really contentious site for a lot of Black consumers because they were segregated from participating fully in that consumer experience.
DeRay Mckesson: Yeah, I literally had never heard, like not one moment where I was like, wow, they were boycotting McDonald’s. I obviously knew about Woolworths. And that was like the extent to which I understand this. So can you help us understand what happened in Cleveland? So I won’t give away that chapters about this but can you for the people that are going to read the book—and everybody you need to read the book because it’s that good—can you help paint the picture for Cleveland?
Marcia Chatelain: So the story really takes off after King’s assassination in ’68, and we know that many cities experienced all sorts of uprisings after his death. There’s confrontations with police. There’s property damage. There’s a sense of chaos. And I think that King’s death really hastened a process of reflection among the movement about what’s the next step, like, what’s the move now? And so for some people who are involved in the movement, they really wanted to pivot towards private business, this idea of Black capitalism, because what they were seeing repeatedly was the failure of the federal government to deliver on the promises of the war on poverty, to protect people’s civil rights, to really commit to open housing and fair schools and good jobs. And so the Nixon administration really catches wind of this. And Nixon was like not down with civil rights at all, but he was not dumb and so what he decided to do was to say, Look Black people. I’ll give you Black businesses. I will give you federal money to open Black-owned businesses. Don’t talk to me about integration or school bussing or housing, this is what I’ll give you. And some people said, OK, this is what we’ll take. And so McDonalds at the time was also dealing with the fact that they had white franchise owners who didn’t want to do business in Black communities anymore after the uprisings. So people didn’t want to be in Chicago, they didn’t want to be in Detroit. And so McDonald’s said, Look, if you leave these stores, we’ll put Black franchise owners in them. And the thing that was really interesting about Cleveland and that boycott was that McDonald’s was very successful in Black neighborhoods in Cleveland but people really started to feel, you know, some kind of way about the ways that all of these white business owners were profiting off of Black people. So that boycott was one of a handful of very successful challenges to McDonald’s and their earning potential in Black communities by saying, We’re not going to continue to patronize businesses that don’t invest in the local community and don’t allow our own people to profit from the growth potential of McDonald’s. And so this kicks off a boycott in Cleveland. And at the same time, you know, Carl Stokes is trying to get reelected, and he’s trying to show Black people he’s with them, but he’s also showing white voters that he can be a mayor for all people. And we know the script so well for Black politics, how hard it is for Black politicians to make that case.
DeRay Mckesson: The other thing that, like truly, I read this and I was like, what, what is going on? Is in the, in the Miracle of the Golden Arches, like literally blew my mind about the relationship between McDonald’s and the L.A. ’92 riots.
Marcia Chatelain: Yeah. So this was probably one of the things that led me to write this book because I found it very wild. So after the 1992 rebellion, McDonald’s issued this press release and essentially what they say is, you know, with all the chaos and all the things that happened in L.A., you know that week in May, just, you know, no McDonald’s restaurant in South Los Angeles were harmed. And it’s because we’ve made, you know, socially progressive investments in Black franchises, in Black managers, in Black customers and essentially, like, we’re part of the family, so Black people don’t retaliate against us. And when I saw that, I was like, That’s really awkward. I can’t believe they issued this statement. But it took me down this rabbit hole of trying to actually verify that because I felt like what that claim was suggesting was that Black people and McDonald’s had an understanding. And I wanted to understand how McDonald’s came to that conclusion and where it started. And it started in ’68 after King’s assassination and this move to bring more Black franchise owners. And you know, I opened the book with the McDonald’s in Ferguson because again, we have this major moment of racial unrest and division and chaos, and there is this fast-food institution planted in the background.
DeRay Mckesson: And you know, what’s fascinating to me was just how sort of simple, right, it was in some places like, where you write in the beginning of that chapter about, if I remember correctly, it was the guy who like, donated Happy Meal, right? That idea that it was, it seems to be that at every level, the McDonald’s folks were mobilized, right? It was the corporate people, it was the franchisees that like—and why do you think that is? Like, what, do you think it was purely a business interest? Do you think that it was, you know, there were Black owners now of these franchises in their own community who were like, let me leverage the resources that I have access to, that not just money, but also goods, right? Food, for good, like what’s your read of that?
Marcia Chatelain: So I think that a number of things are going on. So on one hand, McDonald’s has become McDonald’s by knowing when to pivot and when the consumer winds are shifting. And so I think in 1968 they really understood these demands that were being made about opening up opportunity, and they knew the ways that they could benefit from it because of these government programs. I think that, you know, what also happens in these communities is that for the first few classes of Black franchise owners, they are getting an opportunity that is unimaginable in the 1960s for a Black person who’s interested in entrepreneurship or business. Like this is unimaginable. You’re not just opening like your little shop, you are getting into McDonald’s, which is the first publicly-traded a fast food company. And so I think what does start to reveal itself as we get into some of these contentious battles about the presence of McDonald’s in Black neighborhoods is that the problems that they claimed that they could possibly solve through this business, can’t be solved. So yes, a lot of Black franchise owners make a lot of money. They’re very, very charitable. They give a lot of money to HBCU’s, they give a lot of money to the NAACP, you know, they do a lot of good on a very small level. But the realities of employment in the fast food industry and the realities of the ways that Black communities are left behind by our public system is something that no McDonald’s, no matter how successful they are, they really can’t respond to those needs. And so I think that the tension that I’m trying to really bring out in this book is, you know, the limits of private solutions to public problems. And from the vantage point of ’68, McDonald’s could maybe do that, but I think we start to realize that, you know, this is far more complex and deeper than just opening up these restaurants.
DeRay Mckesson: It also feels like McDonald’s intimately knew that with the confluence of—and totally push me if I’m wrong here, right—but with the confluence of poverty and, you know, gentrification and place-based racism, that people will need access to cheap food and that investing in Black communities or appearing to invest in Black communities would be like a long-term profit gaining situation. And I, and I say that because, you know, one of the other things that struck me about what you uncovered in the book is a “soul of a nation” thing. I’m sitting up here like they are just, they really are going out of their way to do legitimate programing, like not even like scammy programing that has no impact, which is what most people do. It seems like they funded—and I could be wrong, so please push—but it seems like they put money behind things that actually did in the end, have impact, even if it was for the profit motive of McDonald’s, the corporation.
Marcia Chatelain: Right. I mean, I think this is why this story has so many layers and, you know, people say to me, often they asked, you know, did you write this like the take takedown book? And I was like, this is not a takedown book of McDonald’s per se, it’s a takedown of a system that leaves Black people so vulnerable to the whims of the marketplace and to a federal government that does not respond to their needs. But one of the things that I found particularly illuminating in this research is that there is all of this Black cultural ephemera that’s underwritten largely by Black franchise owners, like Soul of the Nation, which was a Black history series that was broadcast in the 1970s to bring Black history into the fold during the United States bicentennial. There is the very early sponsorship of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. And I grew up watching, you know, the documentary series that’s funded by Black franchise owners about Dr. King with his assistant. And, you know, seeing that, you know, a few years after the federal holiday was a really big deal. You know, they’re partnering with the Negro Ensemble Theater of Harlem for a playwriting contest. And so there is a lot of cultural work that comes out of that sponsorship side. But also, you know, growing up, there weren’t a lot of Black people on TV, and I don’t know if I can fully capture what a big deal it was to watch a McDonald’s commercial that had all Black people in it and a lot of those young actors and actresses, you know, they later appear on shows like A Different World. You know, I think Tyrese in a very early McDonald’s commercial in his career. You know, like there is a way where Black creativity is actually made possible through this commercial enterprise. And I think on one hand, we can say, you know, like, Oh, this is definite corporate pandering, but when we think about the limited routes for Black performers and Black creatives to be somewhere, I think I came to a different appreciation or an understanding of what that provided.
DeRay Mckesson: And was there like a mastermind of this strategy inside McDonald’s, was there like an ad firm that really just got it? Or was it like a hidden champion that like just never got seen by the public, but was like the Black person on the inside who had a lot of power? Like, do we do we find out that?
Marcia Chatelain: Yeah, you know, there’s some really key people. There’s one guy who I had an opportunity to talk to named Roland Jones, and he was a Black McDonald’s manager in D.C. when King was assassinated and he had gone to Chicago to recruit the first Black franchise owners. There’s Burrell Communications, a Chicago-based ad agency that is doing all of the Black ads, those early Black ads that become really important for the consumer outreach part. And then there’s a market research firm that isn’t as well-known as Burrell Communications called Viewpoint, and they’re doing the focus groups on things like the chicken sandwich and what people think of, you know, McDonald’s in terms of a place to be, and a place to dine, what their kids think of it. And so there are all of these behind-the-scenes white-collar Black professionals who are also helping to gear this strategy and do the recruitment and the outreach. And then later, we’ll see, you know, more and more Black corporate executives and then eventually a Black CEO of McDonald’s, and Don Thompson. And so, you know, in the ’90s, when I was in high school and then college, you know, McDonald’s was considered one of these places for Black professionals to kind of, you know, cultivate, you know, their careers because they had been a little bit ahead of the other companies in the kind of diversity and inclusion space that we recognize in the form that it takes today.
DeRay Mckesson: I love it. How do you see the corporation in this moment, right? So, you know, the reason I even have a podcast is I was one of the people in 2014 that stood up and wanted to create this space around activism using a podcast, and we still organize in a host of police-related issues, but I, as an activist, don’t know if I’ve seen McDonald’s do anything that I would consider novel or interesting in this moment. But I also am not checking for McDonald’s every day for them to do something. But have you seen that same sort of spirit that essentially feels like it got them through the other hard moments in a racist country in the modern era—have you seen that commitment die or the energy die, or is it still there just different? What’s your read on today?
Marcia Chatelain: So McDonald’s is kind of going through it on so many levels and I think for very good reason. So the ways that McDonald’s ingratiated itself to Black people in the ’70s and ’80s, partnership with the United Negro College Fund, you know, sponsorship of NAACP activities, a lot of that was the outgrowth, a lot of that was the outgrowth of negotiations between groups like Operation Push, National Action Network, you know, there would be selective boycotts of McDonald’s and then, you know, Reverend Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson, they would go in and they would negotiate, and it would help leverage Black McDonald’s operators to say, you know, we need more Black-owned franchises. And they would kind of, you know, the power would go back and forth. But I think what has happened over the past about 25 years is that McDonald’s criticism has gone from the type of critiques that were a little bit like inside business, where issues of Black franchisees were, you know, they were upset, there were accusations that they had been red-lined into certain communities—to kind of bigger issues around the quality of the jobs, the pay, their impact on the environment, their impact on childhood nutrition. And so they’ve been getting, you know, criticism from a lot of different activist fronts. And at the same time, that commitment to opening up opportunities to Black people, some argued that they kind of stopped that commitment. So this past summer, in the summer of 2020, they, you know, had tweeted out Black Lives Matter and I was like, Oh boy, here we go. And same time, they’re doing this, you know, they’re in the middle of this legal battle with more than 50 Black franchisees who are saying they’re being subject to red-lining, a lack of, you know, negotiation on their contracts, that they were, you know, acutely harmed by COVID, they are in neighborhoods and communities that are dealing with de-population or the waves of gentrification. You know, Black franchises are often in places where they have higher carrying costs because of insurance and security. And so what was really strange, you know, seeing all this back and forth is that, you know, there’s criticisms from kind of coming from inside the house and they don’t have that same presence, and they’re also, you know, making these deals with—oh man, I’m turning into my mom—who’s a young man, that they did the meal with?
DeRay Mckesson: Travis Scott?
Marcia Chatelain: Travis Scott. Oh my gosh, I’m like dating myself terribly.
DeRay Mckesson: The young man they did the meal with” was truly the best thing I heard today. [laughs]
Marcia Chatelain: [laughs] So, you know, they’re doing the Travis Scott meal, so, you know, they’re still operating on this level of optics. But I think more than ever, their racial discrimination issues are being kind of exposed a little bit more. And so I think that they are no longer symbolizing this kind of corporate vision of diversity and inclusion and they are no longer considered, you know, the industry leaders in that area.
DeRay Mckesson: What’s interesting is that like until literally hearing you talk today, I never even thought about Sweetie and Travis sort of existing in a game plan of McDonald’s, you know? Like a long term, not like a like a momentary thing, but like they are just the, the relationship between those two artists and McDonald’s is actually just the current iteration of a model that they crafted 50 years ago, you know?
Marcia Chatelain: Absolutely. And you know—gosh, here, here comes the aging machine—in my day it was the McDonald’s commercials with like, you know, Michael Jordan. That was a really big deal. Again, this is before Black people, you know, there wasn’t this other space of social media where, you know, fast food companies were, you know, tweeting and being really like, slick and clever and talking about chicken sandwiches. Like everything was about the TV commercial. And Michael Jordan for McDonald’s was a very big deal. Patti LaBelle for McDonald’s was a very big deal. Gladys Knight for McDonald’s was a really big deal because it was showing Black celebrity in these national ad campaigns when you usually just saw Black people in the highly kind of targeted ad campaigns that would only come on when Soul Train was on TV. [laughs] I don’t know of your viewers get these preference, or any of your listeners. So anyway, that’s the report from the middle-aged person.
DeRay Mckesson: I love it. Well, this has been amazing. Everybody, you need to go buy the book. Can you remind us the title of the book and where people can get it?
Marcia Chatelain: Yes, Franchise: The Golden Arches and Black America, published by Live Right. And the winner of the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in history is available wherever you buy books.
DeRay Mckesson: Woot Woot! That’s right. Well, this has been an honor. We could talk for so much longer. I still have a lot of questions. I hope that we can even, I’m trying to think now, like what is a campaign that I can work with you on because I’m so fascinated? Everybody get the book and thank you for your time today.
Marcia Chatelain: Thank you so much.
DeRay Mckesson: Well, that’s it. Thanks so much for tuning in to Pod Save the People this week. Tell your friends to check it out, make sure to rate it wherever you get your podcasts, whether it’s Apple Podcasts or somewhere else. And we’ll see you next week.
Pod Save the People is a production of Crooked Media. It’s produced by Brock Wilbur and mixed by Bill Lancz. Our executive producers are Jessica Cordova Kramer and myself. Special thanks to our weekly contributors Kaya Henderson, De’Ara Balenger and Sam Sinyangwe.