Georgetown professor, historian, and author Marcia Chatelain had two influential institutions growing up: the library and McDonald’s.
“The reason I’m conversant in [race, social justice, and public policy] topics is because it all started at the library,” she told those gathered for the Association for Library Collections and Technical Services President’s Program at the American Library Association’s 2019 Annual Conference in Washington, D.C., on June 24.
Chatelain reminisced about being dropping off by her mom for the entire day at Chicago Public Library’s Rogers Park branch, basking in the air conditioning and participating in the summer reading challenge. “It one of the few places that is available to anyone,” she said.
She also recalled her fondness for Mickey D’s: “It was where I held my birthday parties because my apartment was too small. It was where I would talk with my friends in high school.” Chatelain’s hometown would serve as the inspiration for her forthcoming book, Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America (January 2020), about the convergence of fast-food corporations and African-American culture.
“Growing up in Chicago,” she said, “I would see things like this plaque in Woodlawn”—a plaque that commemorated December 21, 1968, as the day a McDonald’s restaurant was franchised to an African-American owner for the first time.
“What if I wrote a history about African Americans and fast food that had little to do with food and more to do with the cultural relationship?” Chatelain thought. “What happens when a fast-food corporation replaces the resources of the state in a community?” She was particularly interested in the concept of franchises, which tends to promise owners: “If you follow the rules of the system, you can be a millionaire or billionaire.”
“Even though they give you the infrastructure,” Chatelain said, “you have to put in the hard work.”
Her book chapters tackle different aspects of the larger-than-life relationship McDonald’s has had with the black community: students in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, planning sit-ins at McDonald’s at a time when African Americans were being rejected from the lunch counters at Rexall and Woolworth’s; white flight in the late 1960s, which led to McDonald’s installing black franchise owners in black neighborhoods; the era of “Black McCulture” in the 1980s, when the corporation got its reputation for employing black youth, sponsoring gospel performances and athletic endeavors, and even leading the charge for a federal holiday in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Chatelain also touched on the influence the McDonald’s location in Ferguson, Missouri, had after Michael Brown was killed. “McDonald’s was, in many ways, the epicenter of the crisis,” she said; it’s where the police refueled, protesters bought milk to soothe their tear-gassed eyes, and journalists used the wi-fi to file their news stories.
One of the most interesting aspects of Chatelain’s book are the archives, collections, and papers she consulted to write it. She joked that McDonald’s official response was, “Oh, you’re writing a book about us? Good luck, have a great day!,” which led her on a hunt for material. Ultimately she ended up referencing the Unofficial McDonald’s Museum in San Bernadino, California; the Western Reserve Historical Society in Ohio; the Carl Stokes Papers in Cleveland; the Vivian G, Harsh Research Collection at the Carter G. Woodson Regional Library Chicago; the Archives Center at the National Museum of American History; and many other sources.
“Our stories are there,” said Chatelain. “They may be submerged, they may be hidden, but our stories are there.”
When asked what her personal feelings about McDonald’s are now that she’s an adult, Chatelain responded: “I just don’t like when people don’t have all the choices in our communities. … [We need to invest] in the public good: schools, hospitals, libraries. We need to have institutions that are untouched by corporations.”
She also admitted she tries to avoid McDonald’s to curb her fast-food habit: “You don’t go to McDonald’s to buy a salad.”