Tickle Me Elmo, a children’s plush toy, was released to the world in the summer of 1996. The nearly-half a million units sold out in a few months. While this was great news for Tyco, the toy’s manufacturer, it was a crisis for parents who were hoping to buy the doll for their kids in time for Christmas. The Winter of ’96 was full of news reports and home videos of parents waiting in lines for hours and sometimes days for the limited supply of Elmo dolls. Retail store parking lots were full of tents and camped out adults, some of whom would go on to have brawls and fistfights with other parents inside those same establishments over those Elmo dolls.
That is what happened.
You know what didn’t happen to those parents who spent countless hours waiting in line for a Sesame Street doll? Nobody told the parents to spend that same energy on voting. Nobody told those parents to spend their energy in unemployment offices or filling out applications for jobs.
Of course not.
It didn’t happen with Tickle Me Elmo. It didn’t happen with Beanie Babies. It didn’t happen with iPhones. Or any other craze that’s swept the nation. Because the people in these videos and long lines were white. It’s only when Black people try to spend money or enjoy something that we get relentlessly shamed and lambasted as poor reflections of our communities. Because that’s how anti-blackness works.
Which brings me to Popeyes.
The new Popeyes chicken sandwich has become one of the hottest viral phenomena in recent memory, all pushed by the creativity and genius of Black folks who have fallen in love with the alternative to Chick-Fil-A’s previously unchallenged offering. Black folks have flooded social media with memes, videos, skits, songs and everything in between to highlight the majesty of these golden brown samples of heaven. As a result, Popeyes chicken establishments have run out of chicken sandwiches across the country and there are lines of cars and humans wrapped around the restaurants across the country.
But, as is always the case, Black folks can’t have anything. It only took a few days for the pics of Black folks lined up for chicken sandwiches to become a vehicle for anti-Black sentiments to come bubbling to the surface; from white and Black people alike. The images led to questions about why Black folks don’t line up like that to vote or at unemployment offices or job interviews or black businesses or whatever cliched mythical place we should be lining up at to liberate ourselves. Even Janelle Monae hopped in on the trend, wondering about voting booths in Popeyes (thankfully she apologized for her ill-conceived tweet).
What was supposed to be a feel-good story about delicious chicken sandwiches and Black people enjoying themselves has become yet another means to shame us for simply trying to have some damn fun. The fact is that the whole premise that Black people are shamed about is — like most things Black folks are shamed about — couched in falsehoods and dishonest stereotypes. The fact is, Black people are constantly lining up to vote because the way voter suppression is set up in the country, the only way for Black people to vote is to stand in lines that are longer than everyone else.
Georgia alone was full of voter suppression efforts and long lines in a gubernatorial race that was tainted by unjust obstacles to black folks voting. Look at this article. Or this one, that explains that black folks are six times as likely to have hour-plus waits to vote. And another one. Shaming black folks about long lines and Popeyes ignores another important fact: it’s actually easier for a black person in America to buy a $3.99 chicken sandwich than it is to vote.
The average Popeyes is easier to access than voting booths in so many Black communities. People can buy chicken sandwiches whether or not they got stuck with a felony charge for a crime they did or didn’t commit but nevertheless a crime they’re more likely to be charged with than their white counterparts. Black folks don’t have to take off of work to buy a sandwich. And there isn’t a government full of politicians hellbent on stopping Black folks from buying $3.99 pieces of chicken and bread.
Also, the sandwich lines being used to exemplify how Black folks don’t support Black business is built on one of the stupidest myths that we keep perpetuating. Fact is, Black people support Black businesses. Otherwise, Black businesses wouldn’t exist. Almost every Black business in America — from nail salons to every restaurant and co-work space, clothing label and makeup line in between — is pretty much supported solely by Black people. Every open Black business is a testament to Black folks buying Black. The same obstacles that try to prevent Black folks from voting en masse are the same obstacles that make it harder for Black folks to own, maintain and thrive as business owners.
Of course, none of that matters to people who want to use any chance possible to make Black people feel inferior to everyone else. Of course, nobody actually cares if Black people vote or get jobs or have thriving businesses. That’s not the point. The point is to blame Black people for inequities we face every day. Of course, I feel slightly silly that I have to write this many words defending Black folks’ desires to eat a goddamn delicious chicken sandwich. Yet here we are. Because the train to anti-Blackness is never late and passengers are always ready, ticket in hand, to ride the false equivalency-powered engine of bad takes.
People will respond to this article with “it’s just a sandwich, it’s not that deep” and I feel exactly the same way. It’s just a sandwich. A flawless, remarkable construction of precisely-dipped flour and immaculately seasoned chicken between cloud-soft buns touched by the hands of at least three deities; but just a sandwich nevertheless. Let us enjoy it – let us enjoy anything – without it reflecting on some self-inflicted damage we’ve done to Black progress.
It’s not like we’re out here having fistfights over some damn Sesame Street dolls.
David Dennis, Jr. is a writer and adjunct professor of Journalism at Morehouse College. David’s writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Smoking Section, Uproxx, Playboy, The Atlantic, Complex.com and wherever people argue about things on the internet.