Auburn Gresham native Karen Ford was in the midst of explaining her frustration with the fact that the same smattering of prominent black voices are always called upon to comment on issues affecting the black community—voices such as Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. Al Sharpton, Dr. Cornel West, all men and none, according to Ford, representative of her South Side community. Then, Ford paused: she was trying to think of a black woman whom the media might ask for comment instead, and she couldn’t conjure a single name. The closest she got was Beverly Daniel Tatum, the president of Spelman College, but Ford couldn’t remember Tatum’s name, only her title.
The moment exemplified the dire situation that her book, Thoughts of a Fried Chicken Watermelon Woman, responds to. The book’s tagline, “A Black Woman’s Thoughts on Issues of the Day,” is less a simple description than a grave reminder of how often America ignores such thoughts.
“We’re invisible,” Ford said. “If white women think they’re invisible, they don’t know invisibility. Not like black women.”
In defiance of this status quo, Ford has published a collection of short essays, most of them just a few pages, on topics ranging from white privilege to her views on abortion (pro-choice, though she dislikes the rhetoric of “pro-choice” and “pro-life”) to her opinion of 50 Shades of Grey. About a third of the essays come from posts on her blog, Caviar & Grits, which she started after her husband encouraged her to write down the opinions she put forth during their heated discussions on controversial issues. The rest are original pieces written specifically for the book.
Ford, a longtime freelance journalist and a Vice President of the National Writers Union, writes in informal, emphatic prose that feels as personal and direct as if she were talking directly to you. She seasons her sentences not with figurative language but with specific names and places, idioms, and unabashed humor, all of which give the book the flavor of a political debate between friends over lunch. In print as well as in person, Ford delves into political issues and offers a clear, unwavering opinion.
The title is explained in Ford’s introductory essay. Ford’s late friend Eyvonne was once told by a man in a grocery store that she reminded him of fried chicken and watermelon. Eyvonne and Ford began to refer to themselves as Fried Chicken Watermelon Women: “Big, Black women…known for their cooking skills, their mothering skills, their common sense, and their strength,” someone who “knows she is the sexiest thing walking.” The introduction tells a warm, vibrant story of Ford developing her own physical and intellectual self-confidence as a self-proclaimed Fried Chicken Watermelon Woman.
The book is divided into three sections: the first concerned mostly with race, the second with various other political issues, and the third with Ford’s personal history and musings on daily life. Ford said the ordering was intentional, so that people could read her controversial thoughts on race first and decide if they wanted to continue. She prides herself on being to-the-point, willing to offend, and intentionally not politically correct—if her book or blog provoke disagreement and debate, that’s what she’s aiming for.
She also said the essays on race were among those that came most naturally.
“People are so afraid of that little four letter word because it evokes so much,” she said. “But because that is something I have to deal with on a regular basis—every day, from the moment I came out of the womb—it was probably the easiest.”
Ford’s ease and eagerness when it comes to writing about race shines through her work and infuses the essays with a pointed honesty. However, the risk of having a book with so many short essays (thirty-one) on so many topics is that they don’t all necessarily complement one another, and some emerge stronger than others. Ford’s essay that muses on annoying public transportation riders is relatable, but not as captivating as her straightforward commentary on white privilege, her exploration of the damage that society’s Caucasian beauty standards have done to black women’s self-esteem, or her searing account of a dehumanizing experience at the unemployment office. One begins to wonder whether they all belong in the same book.
Ford is at her most poignant when she transcends her own thematic divisions and writes about how her personal life informs her views on race. In “The All-American Kid Next Door,” Ford recalls her son’s career as a child model, and the time that a diaper company rejected the photos his agents sent in for a TV commercial because the company was looking for an “all-American child.” What was it that made her Chicago-born son less-than-American, asks Ford? In the same essay, Ford also deconstructs the colloquial term “boy/girl next door.” Some actors, like Matt Damon and Sandra Bullock, are said to look like the person next door, but don’t look like Ford’s neighbors. She notes, “My neighbors look more like Will Smith and Gabrielle Union. Why are neither of them mentioned as the folks next door?” She concludes, “Maybe just because our doors don’t count.”
This essay is one of many that scrutinize pop culture’s representation, or lack thereof, of the black community. In “I Love Me Some Black Men,” Ford candidly talks about how attractive she finds black men, even though they are greatly outnumbered on TV by white men, whom Ford considers less attractive. She dryly notes that there must be so few black men on TV because “film and TV executives know that one pretty good looking Black man is worth at least four White men.” She then launches into a hilarious sequence in which she lists various white actors who’ve been named People‘s “Sexiest Man Alive” and critiques them (Channing Tatum and Matthew McConaughey get the seal of approval, but Johnny Depp “looks like he always needs a bath,” and Matt Damon is “cute okay, but sexy, not hardly”). But beneath the snark and the sexual humor are frustrating truths: Why are black characters so outnumbered by white characters on TV? How is it that People has only ever picked one black man—Denzel Washington—to be Sexiest Man Alive?
Ford’s arguments often appear so fundamental that it seems impossible not to think about them, yet many Americans don’t question them with her level of rigor. She has a knack for bringing such under-discussed issues to light, and for coming up with her own, novel ideas for solving societal problems (for example, she toys around with the idea of marriage as a contract that must be renewed every five years or naturally dissolved, to avoid the stigma and stress of divorce). While Ford does tackle more prominent issues like the NSA’s privacy invasions and the ubiquity of technology in society, she truly shines when discussing unique opinions. For example, consider her view on credentials of government employees, which she told me in person:
“Instead of hiring the guy who’s got a PhD from Harvard economics, what you’ve got to do is find the woman who’s working two jobs, feeding seven kids, and it’s just her, and she’s able to dress, feed and keep a roof over her head, and she has no money. That’s the person I want to run my economy because she knows how to manage money,” said Ford, who was generally critical of academia for not doing enough to appeal to a wide audience and to spread ideas beyond the ivory tower. This ties back to her criticism of dominant black voices, which include academics like Cornel West and Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
“If you have the conversation in academia, that’s not public. Because you’re preaching to the choir,” she said. “The conversation needs to happen on the corner of 63rd and Halsted. It needs to happen in Rogers Park. It needs to happen in Englewood. It needs to happen in Wrightwood. It needs to happen in Pilsen.”
Ford’s experience of living almost her entire life on the South Side also influences her work. She was born and raised in Englewood when it was a bustling commercial district, and she spoke to me about disparities in commercial activity between the North and South Sides. She blames her own generation and the one before it for not following up on the civil rights movement after Martin Luther King’s death and integration. With the acknowledgment that others her age wouldn’t own up to it, she called integration “the death knell of the black community in many ways,” since the black community’s ability to patronize white establishments led to the decline of black businesses, banks, and professionals—what she calls the “economic base”—in historically black communities like those on the South Side.
Ford knows that the dominant narratives in society resist many of her ideas: she ended many of her thoughts by saying, “I know I’m pissing in the wind.” But the clarity of her well-developed, non-mainstream views makes a compelling argument for widening mainstream discourse, or at least encouraging more people to look beyond it. Part of the aim of her book is to get people, as she says, to wake up, to make a difference, to be heard, to question everything. Her fundamental belief is that movements “move from the bottom up” and require the participation of the average person, not just famed leaders.
This belief in the contribution of the everyday individual is the crucial premise of Thoughts of a Fried Chicken Watermelon Woman, and of Ford’s vision of social change. We must reflect on society’s eagerness to lap up the words of certain famous public figures, and to assign official “spokesmen” to marginalized communities without questioning whose voices are missing. At the end of the day, why does Rev. Jesse Jackson’s opinion matter any more than that of a freelance writer from Auburn Gresham? Ford, in person and in writing, makes a convincing case that there’s no reason why it should.