Nishani Frazier on “Dishes to Die For: Black Madness, Power, and Agency”

On Thursday May 26, 1859, law enforcers in Newberry, South Carolina arrested an unnamed woman described as a mulatto from the Stuart household.[1] Four members of Robert Stuart’s family had been seized with violent spasms, retching, and vomiting. As news spread, a crowd gathered and began to suspect poisoning. Bystanders confiscated one particular food item, which was found to contain a toxin.

After a short search, the enslaved girl admitted poisoning the Stuarts. The illicit act stemmed from Mr. Stuart’s threat to “chastise” the girl for some “misconduct.” She detailed how a local man, a Mr. Saunders (race unknown), assisted her with the procurement of a deadly toxin. Saunders acquired the poison from a local druggist. It was his second visit after the enslaved woman’s first attempted murder failed. Newspapers speculated that Mr. and Mrs. Stuart likely would not recover from the second poisoning.

The Newberry murders were simultaneously an act of creative genius and hot-blooded villainy. However, was the Newberry murder an act of individual craziness or insane circumstances transmogrified into rage? Insanity, of course, was always a question of perspective. 

In either case, how does the historian make sense of the creative use of food in a mad act of murder? Both conceptions- madness and creativity- require imagination and the art of knowing. The former president of the American Historical Association insists that scholars should avoid “presentist” thinking in historical production; or rather, utilizing the current moment as a methodological framework to interpret the past. Nevertheless, the epistemology of black rage is an essential mechanism for elucidating the nexus between the science of gastronomy and the “insanity” of kitchen killings; or, unfettered emotion and the art of cooking.

The notion of a “crazed Negro” was not new. The terminology originated in the antebellum rhetoric of southern whites perplexed by black behaviors that flouted racial hierarchy and white supremacy customs. Historically, this foreboding figure inhabited the white imagination and found life as the “crazy negro” – an aberrant, anti-social, and innately bad black male. Thus, racism was not craziness, but black rejection of it was.

By the 1960s and 1970s, the “crazy negro” was subverted to a widely-celebrated black figure who resisted racism. In 1972, Ebony magazine featured “‘Crazy Niggers!’: Then and Now,” which one reader valorized as having “the guts to tell the honky pig to go fly a kite.” Malcolm X’s autobiography similarly affirmed this alternate view, contending that “you get freedom by letting your enemy know that you’ll do anything to get your freedom…When you get that kind of attitude, they’ll label you as a ‘crazy Negro,’ or they’ll call you a ‘crazy nigger’ — they don’t say Negro.” The “crazy negro” figure, however, tended toward conventions of masculinity.[2] Women, on the other hand, were excluded as actors in uncontrolled and unpredictable agency.  

The problematic gender framing disregarded the fact that black women were mad too. The Newberry murders certainly authenticated this sentiment, and it was not a singular incident. Kitchen killings made the act of food creation a creative mechanism for rage and freedom-desire.

The conclusions of the “detached” historian might easily lend itself to an assertion that insanity lay at the heart of the Newberry poisonings. However, as a black woman, I know there are limits to the archive’s ability to speak about rage. As Saidiya Hartman notes, the archive is bound by the “limit of the unspeakable and the unknown.”[3] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, in Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, refers to this as “silences.” Yet, the unsaid still speaks volumes – unintentionally revealing black women’s creative power and black aesthetic.

The archives did not have to expose the names and means of these kitchen rebels. As sociologist Patricia Hill Collins suggested decades ago, my knowledge emanates from a participant observer and embodies the knowing of black women.[4] Thus, I had only to sit with my internal self and the intimacy of my own black womanhood to know their names; their name was rage.

Poison recipes represented enslaved women’s mad desire to seize their destiny. This process of DNA discernment was not just a “feeling,” but also an easily verifiable process for the academic historian. Stories surrounding revenge recipes regularly reveal the presence of black desire at work. Documents that describe unrepentant confessions, searches and discovery by multiple parties, or stated cases of enslaved responses to threats of punishment, strongly indicated independent action by enslaved women. Many narratives had far more obvious indicators than above, particularly when rage overwhelmingly manifested.

For example, the Norment family of Richmond had a similar bout with a breakfast to die for in 1856. Enslaved cook Martha set about the task of poisoning the tripe, the coffee, the bread, and- well, the whole breakfast.

In Martha’s case, her deadly additions included a well-known poison along with ground glass. The back-up to the poison signaled an intentionality one could reasonably assume- by deduction and imagination- came from an enraged slave woman. It’s also important to note that this was not the first time the family was poisoned. In the first case, they only fell ill. Thus, the intentionality not only reflected in the method of demise, but also in the repetition of the act, the number of targeted persons, and the multiplicity of poisoned foods – all of which confirmed a scorched earth strategy.

Critical confabulation (creative interpretation absent exact historical documentation), embodiment, and/or historical deduction combine to affirm black women’s use of will, self-assertion, power, and anger. To be clear, a historian should not stray far from the archives, nor should they become a slave to it given its foibles. These methodologies simply open a pathway for how to reveal for readers the presence of black life, and particularly black aesthetics at work.

The act of cooking is as much a general formula as it is a creative expression of the individual. Food references and printed recipes conceal the degree of black women’s creativity and knowledge of food science. An enslaved woman’s kitchen skills could make her a queen baker or a bad cook. Cooking and recipe re-creation (a necessity for this future history cookbook) is not a formulaic process. It’s a nuanced, complex production made more difficult by the introduction of foreign substances.

Culinary skill is required to make food a weapon as much as a pleasure. Many poisons are bitter substances, requiring a level of skill to conceal the flavor (assuming one intended to hide it). The tendency of cooks to hide ingredient modification and the unseen labor of black women, generally resulted in recipes with no instructions. Reconstruction of revenge recipes required a second level of document reading and participant-observer experience.

Such was the case for the Newberry recipe. Try as I might, I could not find the detailed instructions for the item that instigated the Stuarts’ demise. I turned to slave narratives, popular cookbooks of the period, and local black newspapers, like the Huntsville Gazette as potential sources that circulated during the period. However, these recipes failed to incorporate the necessary changes required to hide poison. Although I initially converted recipe instructions to include the identified poison, I reversed the decision to deploy some aspects of participant observation experience and critical confabulation to avoid the revival of madness.

Certainly, recipe reconstruction was not an unencumbered process. However, the significance of these combined methodologies lay not in the exactness or accuracy of the recipe (which every good cook changes to suit personal skill and style) – but how it provided a pathway into the inner lives of enslaved peoples. Kitchen killings, in all its madness, demonstrated that the slave order was neither normal nor sane. The hidden histories of black women’s creative resistance and journey to self-actualization signaled the ways enslaved women rejected acquiesce to a system that promised only labor and death. Instead of providing sustenance and pleasure, enraged enslaved women subverted slavery’s madness and baked death. 

Of course, it’s also possible that

murder is nothing so academically banal as theories of epistemology, critical confabulation, or debates over detached historical analysis. Perhaps, the reason is just simpler…

That the Newberry-enslaved mulatto woman was just pissed.[5]

Post edit: initially named poison in this essay was redacted.


Editor’s Note: For more discussion of Food Studies, see the American Studies Journal Special Food Issue.

Essay Ingredients (Endnotes)

[1] “Ten Persons Poisoned,” Western Democrat, (May 31, 1859) in Library of Congress Chronicling America, accessed May 18, 2023.

[2] Jack Slater, “‘Crazy Niggers’: Then and Now,” Ebony Magazine, August 1972, 64-71; Thomas H. Matthew, Jr., Letters to the Editor, Ebony Magazine, October 1972, 22; Malcolm X, Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements (New York: Grove Press, 1990), 45

[3] Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe 1 June 2008; 12 (2): 1

[4] Patterson, Ashley & Kinloch, Valerie et al, “Black Feminist Thought as Methodology: Examining Intergenerational Lived Experiences of Black Women,” Departures in Critical Qualitative Research. 5. 57-58. The Patterson et al text discusses Hill and also expounds on other reflections of black feminist theory.

[5] This recipe is a creative construction based on black newspapers, cookbooks of the period, and my own baking knowledge for hiding bitter tastes. It is constructed in the style of recipes of the period, and as such lacks specific references to measures.  References used include: “Chocolate Cake”, Lewiston Gazette, June 22, 1864; and “Home and Farm,” Huntsville Gazette (December 24, 1881): 4. Readex: America’s Historical Newspaper



Nishani Frazier is Professor of History and Director of Public History at North Carolina State University. Her research interests include 1960s freedom movements, oral history, museum studies, archives, and public history, black nationalist philosophy, digital humanities, and black economic development.

Nishani’s publication, Harambee City: The Congress of Racial Equality in Cleveland and the Rise of Black Power Populism was released with an accompanying digital project also titled Harambee City. Professor Frazier is currently working on a tasty new book titled Cooking With Black Nationalism.

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