Harryette Mullin’s excerpt “Off the pig, ya dig!” from S*PeRM**K*T is an exploration of Black commodity and commoditization. On first glance, the poem’s subject seems to be pork. “Fatback is a pork cut typical to Creole & Appalachian food. However, fatback is also typical to French cooking, an artifact of the cultural ‘exchange’ and violence of the French colonial encounter of Africa represented by the word ‘Creole.’ Mullin’s mention of “pork belly futures” further ties pork to commodity and global capitalism. According to the NY Times, frozen pork belly was inaugurated on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange in 1961 in order to hedge the apparently volatile hog market. Though they were eliminated from the CME in 2011, pork belly has become a metonym for trade commodities in general. Their anatomical name suggests that they act as a metaphor in Mullen’s piece for the actual Black bodies once sold as commodities in the very same market.
It also called to mind for me the way in which Black people have been commoditized by the entertainment industry, a subject into which Mullen’s piece also delved, specifically through her invocation of Dewey “Pigmeat” Markham and the “Chitlin Circuit” of the Jim Crow South. Markham was Black entertainer from the American South who worked from the 20s though the 60s performing in blackface in the minstrel tradition. Markham performed for both white and Black audiences, the latter of which were dubbed the “Chitlin Circuit”— a group of performance venues located mostly in the South that were safe and acceptable places for African-American musicians and entertainers to perform during Jim Crow. Perhaps to wish that he rest in peace, Mullen writes, “sweet dreams/ pigmeat.” “Ham it up,” Mullen orders, an idiom with origins in the historical use of ham fat to remove blackface makeup from second-rate actors relegated to such work. “Streak a lean gets away clean,” Mullen then writes, referencing to the 1991 album of Master P, once the highest paid hip hop artist in the world. The contrast of Master P with Markham brings to mind the question of audience, gaze, and consumption. For whom do Master P and Markham perform? For whom does Mullen write? Who is in control?
Mullin’s piece also explores how Black communities have mobilized against their commoditization, and against pork. The piece is clearly in conversation with Black Nationalist Elijah Muhammad’s How to Eat to Live, (1967) a text that discouraged some members of the Black community from eating pork. Finally, Mullen’s poem begins with the phrase “off the pig,” a call to action to kill the police and the title of a 1968 film by & about the Black Panther Party, used for recruiting purposes & containing interviews with party leaders Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver. “Off the pig, ya dig,” in sum, uses the lens of “pork” to ask questions about Blackness and power in the realms of food and entertainment.