Faculty Spotlight: Psyche Williams-Forson

Read about her award-winning book, Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power.

When newly tenured Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies Psyche Williams-Forson first decided to pursue graduate work, she knew she was not interested in a “traditional English degree,” but instead in programs that offered more interdisciplinarity. At the time, Williams-Forson was working in higher education in a housing and residence life position and, by her own account, also helping students with their English papers. “It got to the point where I could not help them too much more because I did not know any more,” Williams-Forson said. “That‘s when I decided to go get my Masters.”

The search for interdisciplinarity brought Williams-Forson, who had studied English, Women‘s Studies, and African American Studies as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, to American Studies. It also brought her to the University of Maryland, where she worked as a graduate assistant to former department faculty member Hasia Diner, now the Paul S. and Sylvia Steinberg Professor of American Jewish History at New York University. Williams-Forson aided Diner in research for her 2002 monograph Hungering for America: Italian, Irish and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration (Harvard University Press) and in the process found a dissertation project and an intellectual home in the subfield of foodways. “I began to ask myself if African Americans had ‘foodways’—that is after I asked, ‘what are food-ways?’” Williams-Forson recalls. “Once I realized that little or nothing had been done in this area on and about African Americans, I knew I had found my dissertation topic.” She finished her Ph.D. in 2002.

Today, Williams-Forson is a respected scholar in a field of study that has been expanding and growing for the last several decades. Food Studies scholarship—like her award-winning Building Houses out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power—considers food to be both meaning making and an important social, cultural, and economic object of study. Along with fellow food scholar Carole Counihan, she has produced an anthology due out next year that highlights the recent explosion of the field. She explains that the work “capitalizes on this particular cultural moment” and compiles recent scholarship from new and established voices that have been pushing the limits of food studies.”

These contributions to the field are among the accomplishments that qualified Williams-Forson for her recent promotion, announced last April, after an exhaustive process requiring evaluation by department, College, and campus committees and external evaluations from scholars at other research Universities. These committees take into account a scholars’ research, teaching and advising, and service and forward recommendations to the University’s provost, who is chair of the campus Appointment, Promotion, and Tenure committee, and to the University’s president. The result of this process is great news for the department, which already has nine tenured faculty members. Department Chair Nancy Struna praised Williams-Forson for her work to further develop the food studies area in the department and for her commitment to interdisciplinarity. “She’s a very fine scholar, she’s really committed to our community, and we’re lucky to have her,” she remarked.

Dr. Psyche Williams-Forson is an affiliate faculty member of the Women’s Studies and African American Studies Departments and the Consortium on Race, Gender, and Ethnicity. In addition to foodways, her broader research interests include cultural studies, material culture, and the social and cultural history of the U.S. in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Her newest research explores class, consumption, and citizenship among African Americans by examining domestic interiors from this era.