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Arts & Culture

Marcia Chatelain PhD ’08 receives Pulitzer Prize for History for her book ‘Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America’

Brown alum shares her writing process, stumbles she took before becoming success story

By
Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 13, 2021

“You have to get out of your own way,” Chatelain explained, and not be afraid that someone else might have voiced the same ideas in a better way.

On Friday June 11, while feeding her infant son a bottle, Brown University alum and Georgetown University professor Marcia Chatelain PhD ’08 found out via Twitter that she had become a Pulitzer Prize winner in History for her second book, “Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America.” Chatelain has become the second-ever African American woman to claim the award in the History category. 

“I was so shocked. Who thinks that (they’re) going to win a Pulitzer prize? It was just so weird,” Chatelain recounted with a smile. With the country just beginning to emerge from the pandemic, the process of receiving the award has remained entirely virtual, making the experience all the more surreal, she added. 

While her initial reaction may have been of disbelief for such incredible success, it was also an exhilarating, deeply meaningful moment of recognition that Chatelain felt immensely proud of and grateful for. “It was a beautiful, pleasant surprise,” Chatelain said, “and an opportunity to reflect on how grateful you are for the people who have supported you and can celebrate with you.”

Following the 2015 publication of her debut book, “South Side Girls: Growing Up in the Great Migration,” Chatelain’s “Franchise” offers an illuminating exploration of the complex relationship between McDonald’s and African-American communities. “Franchise” incisively depicts how corporate greed has historically been interwoven into the fast-food franchise’s role in civil rights activism, exploring the corporate greed and fundamental government neglect that drove inner cities toward the private sector for basic resources. 

Beginning with the post-war boom of white patrons in suburban Southern California, the roadside fast-food restaurants quickly became the scene of sit-ins against racial segregation for customers in the Jim Crow South. Under the pressure of petitioning activists, McDonald’s reluctantly began the installment of Black franchise owners in predominantly Black neighborhoods. 

But, with the exodus of middle-class white patrons from racially diverse communities during the social unrest following the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., McDonald’s storefronts were left standing empty in largely Black, inner-city communities. The franchise soon saw that hiring Black franchise owners served as an opportunity to consolidate local trust and broaden its customer base at a low cost. 

At this historical turning point, the fast-food chain began serving a prominent role in Black communities. Where public services fell short in the most impoverished inner-city neighborhoods, the franchise took up the slack, providing cheap, accessible food choices, jobs and even sponsorships for youth sports, college scholarships and grants for the NAACP. 

In “Franchise,” Chatelain takes on a critical viewpoint of the McDonald’s franchise’s presence in predominantly Black communities; she diverts from prevailing public health perspectives that allege that higher rates of obesity and heart disease in predominantly Black communities are due to a natural preference for fast foods among Black Americans. Instead, she argues that capitalist exploits are often interlinked with a rare avenue towards financial independence.

Though there may be many books aiming to take down a whole corporation, Chatelain said, she wants readers to “think through the logics that allow corporations to be so powerful and to be thoughtful about the strategies that we imagine for people to take their power back and make sure their communities have the things they need.” 

Chatelain, who graduated from Brown with a master’s and PhD in American Civilization (now known as American Studies), recalled that her experience at the University set her on a path not only to have an academic career, but to establish a stronger focus on the study of race and gender in the United States. 

As a graduate student, Chatelain was associated with the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America and received a Black Studies Dissertation Fellowship from the University of California, Santa Barbara, for her dissertation, “The Most Interesting Girl of this Country is the Colored Girl: Girls and Radical Uplift in Great Migration Chicago, 1899-1950.”

It was at Brown that she cultivated a deep interest in issues related to food justice and budding activist strategies that sought to improve food options for communities with little access to grocery stores or food items essential to a nutritious diet. What began as an academic interest at Brown eventually evolved into the Pulitzer Prize-winning project of “Franchise.”

On her writing experience, Chatelain admitted that it has been a journey of continuous growth. “I struggled through parts of graduate school in my early career to become a writer who is really clear and really researches topics deeply,” she said.

She further acknowledged that while stories are often told of people at their most successful moments, every stride a person takes toward growing their career counts. “For every accomplishment I have in my resume, I have a story of something that didn’t work out, didn’t go as planned,” she said. “The Pulitzer Prize is a recognition of tenacity that I really value.”

Now, every time she sits down to write a book, Chatelain thinks about an entry point and exit point. In many ways, it is similar to writing an academic essay, she said, in that she tries to find the most illustrative, symbolic aspect that a person can think about — the anecdote that would bring people into a common space so that they could think with her on different issues in a larger story. 

Still, according to Chatelain, writing a book demands great levels of self-discipline and intuition, of trusting your gut. “You have to get out of your own way,” Chatelain explained, and not be afraid that someone else might have voiced the same ideas in a better way. 

Regardless of the topic you are writing on, no matter if it is something people have never broached or something that has been written about a million times, Chatelain said, no one will have the same kind of perspective or reference points and imagination that you have.

Chatelain felt that the Pulitzer Prize was all the more invaluable as recognition for a project uniquely her own, especially coming from the renowned historians who were part of the deliberation process. “They know how hard it is to get into archives, the night-to-dawn days of looking through documents,” she said. 

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