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Racist Spite and Residential Segregation: Housing and the Color Line in Inter-War Indianapolis

The Meriwethers’ future home at 2257 North Capitol (at red arrow) was about a decade old when it appeared on this 1898 Sanborn Insurance map.

On July 15, 1920 massive fences were erected on each side of Lucien Meriwethers’ home at 2257 North Capitol Avenue: to the south, Gabriel and Goldie Slutzky erected a 10’ high fence, and to the north Mary Grooms built a six-foot fence. Meriwether was an African-American dentist, and his purchase of the property in May 1920 made his family the first people of color to settle on North Capitol. The Meriwethers’ White neighbors instantly banded together to form the North Capitol Protective Association, one of many inter-war neighborhood collectives championing residential segregation. These little neighborhood groups rarely figure prominently in histories of racism in Indianapolis, which have tended to justifiably focus on the Ku Klux Klan’s rapid growth and collapse in the 1920s (compare Emma Lou Thornbrough’s 1961 Klan analysis; Kenneth T. Jackson’s 1967 study, The Ku Klux Klan in the City, 1915-1930; and the definitive Indiana study, Leonard Moore’s 1997 Citizen Klansmen: The Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, 1921-1928). Nevertheless, these rather anonymous neighborhood associations were influential advocates for segregation in the 1920s and 1930s.

In October 1907 this five-foot high concrete “spite fence” separating Woodruff Place from modest neighboring homes appeared in The Indianapolis Star.

The newly organized North Capitol Avenue neighbors initially tried to discourage the Meriwethers from moving in by making Lucien Meriwether “an offer exceeding [the] price he paid for it.” However, Meriwether and his family rebuffed the Protective Association’s offer, and the Association admitted to the Indianapolis Star that they financed the “spite fences” around the Meriwethers’ home. The fences surrounding the Meriwethers’ home were a novel mechanism to discourage African-American residential integration. Most examples of “spite fences” were the product of feuding neighbors rather than racist division (for instance, compare this 1902 case on Dugdale Street, a 1904 case on Indianapolis’ south side, and this very early Boston example dated to 1852). At least one early 20th-century Indianapolis wall was intended to separate bourgeois homes from surrounding working-class housing: in 1907 a five-foot concrete wall topped with an iron fence was built separating the wealthy residents of Woodruff Place from newly built cottages on Tecumseh Street.

The North Capitol Avenue neighborhood along Fall Creek began to be subdivided and developed in about 1889, and it was a uniformly White residential neighborhood in 1920. The Meriwethers’ arrival triggered a frenzied defense of the neighborhoods’ exclusivity, even though the Meriwethers were African-American bourgeoisie. Lucien Meriwether’s mother Ella Wilcox Meriwether moved her children to Indianapolis from Kentucky in 1908 after the death of her husband. Ella had been a teacher in Guthrie, Kentucky, and she brought her family to Indianapolis seeking a better education for her children. The family would indeed become enormously well-educated, with six of the children earning Master’s degrees. Lucien Meriwether, for instance, trained at the Indiana University School of Dentistry and became a dentist, as did his brother Sirdastion, and the brothers served in World War One; the four Meriwether daughters all became teachers.

After the enormous fences were built around the Meriwether home, Lucien Meriwether took the Slutzkys and Mary Grooms to court, suing his neighbors for $10,000, and he secured an injunction against fences taller than six feet. Grooms, though, was undeterred by the injunction, and she extended the height of her fence several feet the day after an Indianapolis court barred further construction. As the case awaited a hearing the Protective Association’s President, Ira Holmes, told the Indianapolis Star that “another house in the same block has been sold to a colored family…. [and] should the residents be unable to prevent the sale, more fencing methods will be attempted.” Two days later, fences began to be erected around that second African-American home at 2246 North Capitol, where Allen Charles Simms had moved. The Simms’ eight-room home across the street from the Meriwether home had been advertised for sale in early June, and when Simms rebuffed the neighbors’ effort to purchase the property they began to erect fences around the Simms’ home.

In April 1921 The Indianapolis Star reported that the fences around the Meriwethers’ home must be removed.

In April 1921 a judge ruled in favor of Meriwether and awarded him $150 from Grooms and $350 from the Slutzkys. The court ruled that the fences must be reduced to six-feet in height by the following day. Ira Holmes defiantly declared that “the Capitol Avenue Protective Association would stand behind the fight to prevent colored people from moving northward on North Capitol avenue, and the appeal of the decision … was but one of the steps to be taken to uphold the stand of the organization against the colored citizens.” However, Grooms and the Slutzkys’ appeal to have their case reviewed failed in January 1923, and the Meriwether family would remain in the home until the 1960s.

The 1920s have a well-deserved reputation for Ku Klux Klan influence in Indianapolis, but much of the lobbying for residential segregation was conducted by rather typical men and women like the Meriwethers’ neighbors. For instance, the Meriwethers’ fence-building neighbor Gabriel Slutzky did not seem to be a stereotypical Klan foot soldier. Slutzky’s parents migrated from Russia in about 1882, and Gabriel Slutzky was born in 1884, when his family was living on South Meridian Street in Indianapolis. Gabriel’s father Henry was a charter member of Knesses Israel synagogue, which began construction of its synagogue at Eddy and Merrill Streets in April 1892 with Henry Slutzky as a member of the “committee on decoration.” Knesses Israel, sometimes referred to as the “Russian Shul” because of its predominately Russian membership, was among a handful of Orthodox southside synagogues until it closed in 1961, eventually merging with Sharah Tefilla and Ezras Achim to form the United Orthodox Hebrew Congregation in 1966.

After bartending in his father’s saloon, Gabriel opened his own liquor store and saloon in 1912 on the overwhelmingly African-American Indiana Avenue. Gabriel advertised his new liquor store in the African-American newspaper the Indianapolis Recorder and indicated that “I respectfully ask the colored men of the city to come in and inspect my place and the goods and prices offered” (the enterprise went bankrupt in March 1917). In March, 1940 (10 years after Slutzky’s death) an Indianapolis Recorder article pointed out the irony of Slutzky managing a business in the African-American near-Westside and then resisting an African-American neighbor: “Many years ago [in] the case of Mary Grooms, et al. versus Meriwether … one Gabriel Slutsky [sic], a Jew who had allegedly operated a business establishment in Indiana Avenue at one time, catering particularly to colored, objected to Dr. Lucian B. Meriwether as a neighbor and built a high fence about his home.”

North Capitol Protective Association President Ira M. Holmes had a more problematic history. Holmes was a criminal defense lawyer who began to practice in 1898, and a 1950 obituary described him as “Among the last of the old school of legal stalwarts, who often resorted to fisticuffs to back up their contention.” Holmes was living at 2164 North Capitol Street in 1921, and he was just a few doors away from Lucien Meriwether’s family in 1922 at 2149 North Capitol (he eventually moved to 510 North Meridian in 1924). Holmes defended “hundreds of bootleggers” during Prohibition, but his most infamous client was D.C. Stephenson. Indiana Klan Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson had spearheaded the Indiana Klan’s rapid growth and wide-reaching influence in the early 1920s, but his downfall came after a March, 1925 rape, kidnapping, and assault that ended in the death of Madge Oberholtzer in April 1925. Holmes served as Stephenson’s criminal defense lawyer in his 1925 trial, which ended with a 2nd-degree murder conviction against Stephenson in November 1925 (Holmes also defended Stephenson’s bodyguards Earl Klinck and Earl Gentry in the same Oberholtzer trial, both of whom were found innocent).

Like nearly all of the inter-war neighborhood associations, the Capitol Avenue Protective Association was a very short-lived group; they joined with the Mapleton Civic Organization and North Central Civic Association in December, 1920 advocating racial segregation of the school system, but after their unsuccessful defense of residential segregation the Capitol Avenue Protective Association disappeared; nearly all of its members had moved to other exclusively White neighborhoods.

In December 1922 Daisydean Deeds’ White Supremacy League advertised a membership meeting in the Ku Klux Klan newspaper The Fiery Cross.

Yet another group, the White Supremacy League, first appeared in the local press in June, 1922, when they and the Mapleton Civic Association jointly appeared before the Indianapolis school board urging public school segregation. The founder of the White Supremacy League was Mrs. Otto Deeds, who wrote poetry under her own name, Daisydean Deeds. She held membership meetings in her home with her son Paul serving as Secretary, and in December, 1922 a meeting of the group at the Deeds’ home was covered by the Klan’s newspaper, The Fiery Cross. The Klan newspaper reported that the League was “in need of some big, red-blooded all white gentlemen to serve on its board … We already have lawyers, merchants, court Judges, governors, United States and state senators, and several splendid, fearless white men who are members and have welcomed such an opportunity–that of membership in the White Supremacy League–to express themselves.” In a long January 1923 defense of White supremacy and segregation, Deeds wrote in The Fiery Cross that an appropriate resolution to “the race problem …  will fittingly confine both races separately into their own distinctive realms of literacy, morality, sociology and politics. It can be accomplished no other way.” Members of the White Supremacy League pledged not to employ Blacks or shop at stores that employed Blacks, a pledge that the Mapleton Civic Association also agreed to in March, 1924. However, Deeds’ organization appeared to fall inactive in 1923.

In January 1926 The Indianapolis Recorder published the names of the officers of the White People’s Protective League.

In January 1926 another neighborhood collective was formed to defend the segregation of a neighborhood just north of the Meriwethers’ home. Circulars were sent to realtors by a group of residents along West 29th and 30th Streets calling themselves the White Peoples’ Protective League and indicating that “the purpose of the league was for segregation of races.” A White resident along West 29th Street had reached an agreement to sell their home to an African American, and the White Peoples’ Protective League was formed to advocate for segregation. The group’s Vice-President, Omer S. Whiteman, acknowledged to The Indianapolis News that it sent “out a statement to real estate dealers, lawyers and others, designed to reflect conditions as we find them. There are about 30,000 white people in the territory immediately affected. Believing that it is good for neither the whites nor the blacks for the two races to commingle, we are interested in creating sentiment against the introduction of black citizens into white territory. …. All the people, more than 1,000 in number, who have already signed the league’s declaration are peace-lovers, headed by the ministers in their communities.”

Many of the White Peoples’ League members were certainly affiliated with or at least sympathetic to the Klan, but in January 1926 the Klan was in a moment of transition in Indiana. On the one hand, they were fresh off a clean sweep of the 1925 Indianapolis elections, led by Klan-backed Mayor John Duvall (Duvall quickly began installing Klan members in appointments; e.g., he named the Exalted Cyclops of Marion County Klan No. 3 George Elliott the new Superintendent of Parks). On the other hand, two weeks after the election former Indiana Klan Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson was convicted of murder for the March, 1925 Madge Oberholtzer sexual assault and murder. The unrepentant Stephenson eroded much of the Klan’s support, and he fully expected Klan-backed Governor Edward L. Jackson to intercede and release him from jail. When he was not released, Stephenson publicly revealed the extent of graft he had engineered in city and state government. A series of 1927 newspaper stories resulted in Duvall being convicted of accepting illegal campaign contributions and resigning from office, and it was revealed that the Mayor had agreed that Stephenson would have the right to review and approve all his appointees. Duvall’s attorney was Ira Holmes, the North Capitol Protective Association President who also defended Stephenson, and Holmes made an unsuccessful attempt to fill the vacated Mayoral position after Duvall’s resignation. Governor Edward Jackson was accused of bribery, but he escaped conviction and completed his term.

A 1901 history of famous men of Jay County, Indiana included this picture of future White Peoples’ Protective League President Omer S. Whiteman.

The most vocal member of the White Peoples’ Protective League may have been Vice-President Omer Whiteman, an Indiana University-trained lawyer from a prominent Jay County, Indiana family. He was a public school advocate, a member of the Presbyterian Church in his hometown of Portland Indiana as well as Tabernacle Presbyterian in Indianapolis, and a lifelong temperance champion (he ran for Governor on a “Dry” ticket in 1940). In January 1926 he was living at 354 West 29th Street, not far from the League President Royal B. Spellman at 506 West 29th Street; Vice-President Ada Colvin Booth lived a street away at 145 West 30th Street.

The White Peoples’ Protective League attempted to legalize segregation by championing an ordinance decreeing that in a majority White or Black neighborhood a prospective buyer from the minority racial group was required to secure the consent of their neighbors (more or less the same approach was first tried in Baltimore in 1910 in a code often known as the West Ordinance, which was among a series of similar codes declared unconstitutional in 1917).

The White Peoples’ Protective League proposed an approach that was not substantively different than Baltimore’s, arguing that a new resident must win the approval of their neighbors before they could actually live in a home they had otherwise purchased legally. The Protective League began to draft legislation in early 1926, eager to prevent an African American from moving into a home purchased on West 29th Street (directly across the street from Royal Spellman’s home). On February 9, 1926 Omer Whiteman wrote to The Indianapolis News and reported that “A suit in damages has been filed against a white seller and the colored buyer by a near-by property owner. It is contended that while a white person may have the right to sell his property in a white neighborhood to a colored person, and the colored person may have the right to buy, each is liable to all the property owners in the neighborhood if depreciation in values of properties follows.” Royal Spellman was quoted in the Indianapolis Recorder arguing that “`Passage of the ordinance will stabilize real estate values, and give honest citizens confidence in city officials.’”

In March, 1926 the Indianapolis City Council passed an ordinance that in neighborhoods occupied principally by White or Black residents a property could not be sold without the consent of the other property owners. The law began to work its way through judicial reviews, and in February 1927 Whiteman orchestrated a meeting at Tomlinson Hall in favor of the enacted segregation ordinance, where speakers championing the ordinance included Rev. Harvey H. Sheldon, pastor of the Fountain Street Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Rev. Joseph Granville Moore, pastor of the Capitol Avenue M. E. Church. The Indianapolis ordinance was modeled on a New Orleans law, and in March 1927 that New Orleans law was struck down by the Supreme Court. Indianapolis ordinance proponents recognized their law likewise became illegal.

On July 9, 1927 the real estate sales listings included this notice for the sale of 501 West 29th Street.

With the segregation ordinance rejected, on July 10, 1927 Horace O. Wright purchased a home at 501 West 29th Street. Wright was a White realtor who apparently purchased the West 29th Street home for $5000 from owner Louis Escol on behalf of an African-American couple, William and Dona Hill Goodwin. When Escol’s neighbors learned that he was planning to sell the home, Escol received a series of letters “from the White People’s Protective League concerning the sale of the property to Negro buyers. … And these letters ranged from threats of intimidation, to entreaties to Mr. Escol, not to sell the property to Negroes. Mr. Escol also stated in substance that members of the White People’s Protective League had pledged themselves not to permit Negroes to live on, or North of Twenty-ninth St.” Nevertheless, on July 10th Escol sold the property to Wright.

William Goodwin was born in Alabama in about 1885 and came to Indianapolis around the turn of the century. Goodwin married another Alabama migrant Tempie Marks in Indianapolis in 1903, but the couple had divorced by 1910. Ohio-born Dona Hill came to Indianapolis around 1910, where she married William in August 1911. William became a fireman in 1922, when the couple was living in an apartment house at the corner of Boulevard Place and 21st Street (where the Ruth Lilly Health Education Center is located today).

Within a week of moving into their new home, on July 18th the Goodwins’ home was fire-bombed by an explosive thrown from the window of a passing car. By July 30th the Indianapolis Recorder complained that the Indianapolis Police had made no efforts to identify the bombers and “started a Citizens’ Investigation Fund. And if the people are interested enough in a matter that concerns all citizens, soon or late, it is expected a sufficient fund will be raised shortly to make a private investigation that will lead to the arrest and conviction of the guilty parties.” However, the bombers were never identified. In October, 1927 Royal and Mary Spellman sued the Goodwins as well as Horace O. Wright, Louis Escol, and the Lorenz Schmidt and Sons realty firm, but by month’s end the Spellmans’ case was dismissed. William Goodwin was living in the home at his death in 1933, and his wife Dona would manage a catering business from the home and lived there until shortly before her death in 1973.

In July 1929 the founder of the White Supremacy League was managing a beauty shop from her home on East Michigan Street.

Many of the people who directed and fueled neighborhood segregation returned to rather normal everyday lives in which their histories were apparently never examined. For instance, when the White Supremacy League dissolved Daisydean Deeds began to manage a beauty shop in 1929 from her home at 2507 East Michigan Street. She ran for office unsuccessfully three times: in 1930 as State Representative on a fiercely Republican dry platform; again in 1942; and once more in 1944. She contributed recipes to newspapers as early as 1930, had a recipe appear in a nationally syndicated column in 1931, was featured in a 1954 Indianapolis News cooking column, and had a recipe reprinted in The Indianapolis News in 1992, 32 years after her death. Deeds wrote an enormous number of Letters to the Editor of Indianapolis newspapers throughout her life, sounding in on relaxed divorce codes in 1935; decrying “anti-American” speech by communists, National Socialists, and fascists in 1938; advocating deportation of all suspected communists and other “un-American” groups including labor union leaders in 1939; championing Native American fishing rights in 1939; complaining about sugar rationing in 1946; and celebrating in 1952 that prayer had fueled Republican election victories and ended the “long 20 years’ stretch of arbitrary, un-American and unconstitutional Democratic dictatorship that won this election” (leading one reader to respond that “If eating well and having money in the bank is un-American, then perhaps she is right”). At her death in 1960, the Indianapolis Star called Deeds a “civic leader” and did not include the White Supremacy League in her lifework.

The diligent if not violent defense of homogeneous White neighborhoods was repeated throughout Indianapolis throughout the 20th century. A host of rather prosaic men and women in otherwise un-spectacular neighborhoods were the vanguard of residential segregation, conducting cycles of violence, failed suits and legislation, devious real estate practices, and federal policy. Ultimately they failed to absolutely stop African-American neighborhoods’ expansion, but they shaped 20th-century residential patterns in ways that continue to shape the 21st-century landscape.



Kenneth T. Jackson

1967 The Ku Klux Klan in the City, 1915-1930. Oxford University Press, New York.


Leonard J. Moore

1991 Citizen Klansmen: The Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, 1921-1928. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill.


Garrett Power

1983 Apartheid Baltimore Style: the Residential Segregation Ordinances of 1910-1913. Maryland Law Review 42(2):289-329.


Emma Lou Thornbrough

1961 Segregation in Indiana During the Klan Era of the 1920’s. Mississippi Valley Historical Review 47(4): 594-618.




Imagining the Racist Landscape

The Avenue of Oaks at Boone Hall Plantation (image Jonathan Lamb).

The Avenue of Oaks at Boone Hall Plantation (image Jonathan Lamb).

Boone Hall Plantation bills itself as “America’s most photographed plantation,” and the Mount Pleasant, South Carolina plantation’s moss-draped oak approach and grounds are indeed magnificent.  The most dramatic aesthetic feature of the plantation may be the nearly mile-long “Avenue of Oaks” approach, which is draped in southern oaks planted in 1743.  Photographed by a legion of tourists whose images crowd the likes of Pinterest, Instagram, and Trip Advisor, the space has also appeared in films including North and South and The Notebook.

Captives quareters at Boone Hall Plantation (image Rennett Stowe).

Captives quarters at Boone Hall Plantation (image Rennett Stowe).

In April the visitors photographing the Boone Hall landscape included Dylann Roof, who later murdered nine African Americans in a Charleston church on June 17th.  In March and April Roof visited a series of South Carolina historic sites such as Boone Hall and included the images on a website accompanying a racist manifesto.  We may find it impossible to fathom the mind of a racist killer and determine how he went from the mimicry of xenophobic talking points to mass murder, but his historic site visits illuminate the somewhat “placeless” historic landscape of the racist imagination.  Dylann Roof’s imagination of these historic spaces is impossible to conclusively interpret, and his online manifesto and pictures did not deny the historical narratives of African-American heritage sites as much as he simply evaded them.  It appears that Roof ignored the complex heritage of all these places even as he felt strangely compelled to visit them. Read the rest of this entry

The Archaeology of Paula Deen’s Kitchen

PaulaDeen2011The heart of Paula Deen’s popularity–and the enmity for her–likely lies in her populist image: Deen’s Southern drawl, unpretentious and expansive personality, and embrace of a rich diet of comfort foods resonates with many people alienated by haute cuisine, bourgeois foodies, dietary crusaders, and Gordon Ramsey’s emotional brutality.  Deen’s acclaim is firmly rooted in the sentiment that she is like a lot of us:  Deen seems apparently unaffected by celebrity in her celebration of her Southern drawl, the love for delicious if fatty foods, a personal style far removed from high fashion, and her heartfelt affection for her family and friends.  Regardless of how we each feel about the pitched battle over her unrenewed contract with Food Network, much of the depth of feeling for Deen can be illuminated by examining the material culture of Deen and thinking critically about us, our own kitchens, and our deep-seated feelings about the South, the color line, and food.

Deen’s youth in the Jim Crow South may well have been confirmed by her admission that she has used the N word and a variety of racist language, and she may have engaged in discriminatory employment practices.  Yet much of the zealous pleasure taken in Deen’s apparent undoing is targeting her public materialization of a Southern culture whose real and perceived racism, poverty, and desire unsettle bourgeois notions of 21st century society.  In a historical moment when public sentiments are often governed by ironic detachment, Deen’s inflated sincerity, expansive if not tacky style, and personal intimacy evoke key dimensions of what we might circumspectly call a “Southern personality.”  W.J. Cash’s 1941 study The Mind of the South gathered together a series of prescient if rhetorical 1929-1937 essays outlining the Southern personality.  Cash painted Southerners as romantics who were expressive, emotional, and wary of intellectual rationality.  In his telling, Southerners embraced their desire, celebrated spontaneity, and lived for the moment as fierce individualists who were polite, conservative, and apprehensive of difference.

The degree to which her media presentation is the “real” Paula Deen may be irrelevant: what does matter is people’s genuine feelings about Deen’s sincerity (witness fans’ assault on the Food Network’s facebook page) and the strong sense of hypocrisy some observers seem to cast on Deen.  Television reality shows carefully construct emotionally involving characters rooted in a real person’s personality: probably much of Paula Deen’s television presentation is unfeigned, but much of it is managed by handlers eager to craft a profitable entertaining product, because little if anything in these shows is impromptu.  Deen’s incessant invocation of Southern culture refers to a hackneyed popular notion of the South that may never have existed outside TV, and her vision of Southern cuisine is indebted to convenience cooking and a populist kitchen as much as it is anything distinctly Southern.  Deen and her Food Network peers—the persistently perky Rachael Ray, the blue collar appeal of Emeril Lagasse, the painfully egostical Bobby Flay—are personalities constructed to enchant us with hyperbolic traits we find alluring, familiar, and ideally “real.”

Like any popular cultural figure, Deen may be no more “real” than Colonel Sanders.  Harland Sanders developed a fried chicken recipe in the 1930s at his gas station in Corbin, Kentucky, and in 1939 Duncan Hines lauded the fried chicken in his Adventures in Good Eating.  Around 1950, Sanders began wearing a white suit and string tie and bleached his mustache to match his white hair, and in 1952 the 62-year old Colonel Sanders (a reference to his status as a “Kentucky Colonel”) franchised the restaurant as Kentucky Fried Chicken.  Sanders appeared on the game show “What’s My Line?” in 1963, and despite selling the American chain in 1964 the Colonel did television advertisements from the 1960s until his death in 1980.  Sanders’ “American success story” is still celebrated by the chain, and his cartoon likeness still peers out from the KFC sign.

Colonel Sanders became a supremely successful branded sign, but he would likely be envious of Deen’s devoted following.  Deen’s following has been exceptionally defensive in the midst of her deposition, and much of this depth of feeling reflects how Deen’s fans identify with her.  Shannon Lynn Knepp’s 2012 thesis Fanning the Flames of Fandom: How We Love (Paula Deen) So Much plumbs Deen’s following as a fandom.  Knepp captures Dean’s persistent mantras that define her as self-taught, “down home,” and a success story rising above a difficult life.  Knepp underscores how books like Deen’s 2007 autobiography, It Ain’t All About the Cookin’, are littered with Southern turns-of-phrase (e.g., “ya’ll” and “darlin’” aspire to capture the intimacy of private speech between friends) and self-revelatory explorations of her agoraphobia, sexuality, and youth.  Knepp points out that Deen drops the –g off “trigger words” that imply emotional intimacy, like cookin’ for cooking, or talkin’ for talking, but leaves them on words like sitting.  These textual mechanics reproduce the language she uses on television and evoke Southern turns of speech that are at the heart of Deen’s persona.

deenlauerMuch of Deen’s appeal revolves around her embrace of our universal desire for food, which implicitly evokes eroticized bodily desires.  In 2011 Maxim dubbed Deen TV’s hottest female chef, observing that “imagining the slippery, sloppy butter-sex we’d have with Paula makes us…hungry for a bacon-wrapped, beer batter-fried stick of butter, weirdly.” Many of Deen’s less-sarcastic defenders are apprehensive of any dominant efforts to control their most basic bodily desires, and Deen openly acknowledges that the profound satisfactions delivered by Mississippi Mud Cake.

Deen’s style is much like her personality in its overdone aesthetic in which the meaning of food, the body, and dress cannot be separated.  Deen certainly is sufficiently wealthy to wear designer label fashions, but her clothing is consistently unpretentious off-the-rack wear.  Much of it might be characterized as garish or unflattering, but the 66-year-old Deen is not a size three, and attacks on Deen’s style and body are inevitably perceived as an assault on her fans’ bodies as well.  In the midst of a story on Deen’s 30-pound weight loss in 2012, she was referred to by the New York Post as the “First Lady of Lard”.  In January, 2012 the Huffington Post referred to Deen as “the large-living queen of heavy cooking,” and Chow referred to her as “disturbingly tanned [and] faux-fur-haired.”

The Vancouver Sun’s Randy Shore criticized Deen’s style and her version of Southern cuisine in one fell swoop when he indicated that “Deen’s extreme cuisine is a caricature of real home cooking, just as she is a caricature of a cook.  Big hair and all.”  Like Shore, many observers seem confused by Deen’s overblown persona and style.  In 2012, a Chicago Tribune reporter interviewing Deen observed that “Meeting Paula Deen is like meeting someone wearing a Paula Deen costume. Many famous people look less airbrushed the closer you get.  Deen, 65, looks like Paula Deen.  Meaning, her tall pouffy head of silver hair stands out no matter how many assistants with clipboards surround her. When the entourage clears she smiles, and teeth whiter than fresh whalebone actively compete with her hair for attention.”  Deen’s material style is much like that of many working-class Americans in its un-self-conscious sincerity and visibility, a naïve notion of style that ignores style arbiters’ proscription for a beautiful body, dapper threads, or good hair.  Deen’s crass language, relaxed innuendo, and apparent tackiness evoke universal bodily desires for eclairs and sex alike.

pauladeendiabetesIn a nation eager to find scapegoats for pervasive obesity, Deen has often surfaced as an easy target.  In 2011 Anthony Bourdain complained to TV Guide that “the worst, most dangerous person to America is clearly Paula Deen.  She revels in unholy connections with evil corporations and she’s proud of the fact that her food is f—ing bad for you.  If I were on at seven at night and loved by millions of people at every age, I would think twice before telling an already obese nation that it’s OK to eat food that is killing us.  Plus, her food sucks.” Deen cleverly responded by invoking her association with “real” people and took aim on Bourdain’s bourgeois sensibilities, arguing that “not everybody can afford to pay $58 for prime rib or $650 for a bottle of wine.  My friends and I cook for regular families who worry about feeding their kids and paying the bills . . . It wasn’t that long ago that I was struggling to feed my family, too.”  Of course there are lots of cuisine options between Bourdain’s high-style restaurants and Deen’s comfort foods, but her populist response fashions an emotionally satisfying if contrived distinction between high-style and mass taste.

Last week the New York Times’ Frank Bruni observed that in 2012 Deen undermined her own claim to sincerity and risked now being labeled a hypocrite when she acknowledged that she had been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes three years earlier.  Deen announced on the Today show in 2012 that she had signed a contract with a firm manufacturing a non-insulin diabetes medication that costs $500 a month at normal therapeutic dose; the deal somewhat miraculously aspired to transition Deen from fat-laden recipes to a healthy lifestyle and reportedly netted her $6 million.  Type 2 diabetes is indeed an adult-onset “lifestyle” diabetes shaped by diet, a lack of exercise, heredity, and resulting obesity and high-blood pressure, so despite her clumsy defensiveness that diet was simply part of the problem–“I’ve always preached moderation. I don’t blame myself”–it is difficult to exonerate her Krispy Kreme hamburgers and similar comfort foods.  Deen had been reluctant to share her diagnosis publicly, but she implied the eventual public admission was a decision of faith when she told the New York Times TimesTalk that “I’m a very spiritual person. I knew that the opportunity to share would present itself.” Bourdain subsequently took a dig at Deen’s public invocation of faith and the $6 million contract with Novo Nordisk, tweeting “What was Jesus’s position on gout?”  Bruni complained that Deen had “waited three long, greasy years since her diagnosis to come out. During that period, she promoted the deep-fried life without acknowledging her firsthand experience of how a person can be burned by it.  That’s a profound, unsettling act of withholding.”

A host of fans and defenders were not particularly unsettled by Deen’s diabetes announcement.  For instance, National Post columnist Marni Soupcoff defensively concluded that we should “let Paula Deen eat fried butter in peace.”  Chow’s John Birdsall somewhat more thoughtfully defended Deen, arguing that “Perhaps our notions of health and excess are rooted in class.  Deen, we assume, speaks to a down-market audience that needs to be lectured about nutrition and willpower.  Bourdain speaks to the well-heeled traveler for whom a foie gras hot dog is an occasional indulgence, not a moral failing.  Right?  Or is it somehow acceptable for men to engage in extreme eating, while women have an obligation to show restraint?”  As a strong and assertive woman Deen likely inspires anxieties among defenders of patriarchy, yet  even as a diabetic, Deen condones our inexpressible taste for fried chicken and Twinkies; while nutritionists may not be happy with her suggestion to practice moderation her counsel does not deny our desires.

Shannon Knepp recognizes that much of Deen’s autobiography is a confessional that at least implicitly seeks atonement: Dean smokes, she had a decade-long affair, and she expresses shame for her experiences across the color line.  Deen’s revelations consider her youth in the segregated South amidst civil rights transformations, indicating that “Black folks had always been a big part of our lives in the South; I played with the kids of the black women who took care of me and they were my friends.  None of us were strangers to the black community . . .  I would say we lived a pretty unexamined life in terms of politics or civil rights. . . I’m plain horrified that things could have been that way and I was so blind that I didn’t get that it was wrong.”

Deen’s history and experience are in many ways not at all remarkable.  During an appearance on Who Do You Think Are?, genealogists confirmed that her family had owned captives, which somehow came as a revelation to the chef.  In a Fall 2012 TimesTalk interview Deen struggled with that heritage when she indicated that after the Civil War “My great grandfather was so devastated, the war was over, he had lost his son, he had lost the war, and he didn’t know how to deal with life, with no one to help operate his plantation. You know, there was thirty-something people on his books and the next year census I go to find that there’s like zero.  Between the death of his son and losing all the workers, he went out, I’m sure, into the barn and he shot himself.”  Those “workers” were of course captives imprisoned against their will, but Deen’s struggle to preserve her romanticized picture of her ancestors and reconcile them with the historical realities is not at all unique.  Deen awkwardly noted in the same interview that she had close personal links to African American employees, asking one to come out for the cameras.  In a clumsy moment, she calls to him that “We can’t see you standing against that dark board” and compels him to face the cameras in the status of a silent prop as the crowd laughs without any particular self-consciousness.

The comments and episode are perhaps innocuous, and there is no reason to doubt Deen’s genuine love for this person or her multiple weeping apologies and insistence that she is “not a racist.”  Racism thrives in the absence of critical and reflective thinking, but Deen is no more guilty of such an inability to see let alone address racial privilege than many of us.  Deen pleaded to Matt Lauer that “I’m not an actor,” but she is in fact a character in our experience, reducible to the easy caricatures like Southerner that she has so expertly wielded on TV.  Given Deen’s amplified sincerity and some genuine hypocrisy over her own diabetes and the impact of her food on others, she has lost some credibility to now speak against racism, but she has an enormously powerful position from which she can do so.  Apologies do matter, and the ability to have forgiveness in the face of ongoing self-reflection is good for society, a point made in John McWhorter in Time.  Calling Deen a racist risks missing that her unpleasant asides and everyday stereotypes of people unlike her are the ways racism and inequality are socialized into all of us.  Much of the acrimonious attacks on Dean that grasp at her hair, makeup, drawl, or weight are inelegant but familiar tirades about class, gender, and the South that caricature all of those dimensions of contemporary life and may reveal less self-critical reflection than Dean herself is now experiencing in the blinding eye of public space.


Pauline Adema

2000 Vicarious Consumption: Food, Television and the Ambiguity of ModernityJournal of American and Comparative Cultures 23(3):113-124.  (subscription access)

Lori F. Brost

2000 Television Cooking Shows: Defining the Genre.  PhD Dissertation, Indiana University.

W.J. Cash

1941 The Mind of the South.  Knopf, New York.

Sherrie A. Inness

2005 Secret Ingredients : Race, Gender, and Class at the Dinner Table.  Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

Frederick Kaufman

2005 Debbie Does Salad: The Food Network at the Frontiers of PornographyHarper’s Magazine October:55-60.

Cheri Ketchum

2005 The Essence of Cooking Shows:  How the Food Network Constructs Consumer Fantasies. Journal of Communication Inquiry 29(3): 217-234.

Shannon Lynn Knepp

2012 Fanning the Flames of Fandom: How We Love (Paula Deen) So Much. Masters Thesis, University of Georgia.

Mark Meister

2001 Cultural Feeding, Good Life Science, and the TV Food NetworkMass Communication and Society 4 (2):165-182.  (subscription access)

Toby Miller

2006 Cultural Citizenship : Cosmopolitanism, Consumerism, and Television in a Neoliberal Age.  Temple University Press, Philadelphia.

Michael Pollan

2009 Out of the kitchen, onto the couch.  The New York Times Magazine, 2 August.


Paula Deen in kitchen image from Artists Agency

Matt Lauer and Deen image from New York Daily News

Diabetes ad image from CBS News