/Williams waxes on food and literature
Graphic by Bell Jackson

Williams waxes on food and literature

By Wesley Walter, Managing editor 

Beginning work at UM at the start of the fall 2023 semester, Dr. Maxine Williams is the latest hire in the UM Departments of English and African American studies.  

Williams grew up in Brandon, Miss. She attended Tuskegee University for her undergraduate degree, receiving a degree in English.  

“The humanities and liberal arts have always had my heart and English is just where I found my passion,” said Williams, who for a time, pursued a double major in English and sociology at Tuskegee. This intersection of literature and its sociopolitical contexts is something that Williams continuously explored in her later studies and research. 

Following her time at Tuskegee, Williams attended Purdue University where she earned a master’s in American studies with a focus in African American studies and African American protest traditions.  

She went on to earn a Ph.D. at Purdue University in American studies where she, focusing on African American literature, Black feminism and African American foodways.  

“My dissertation from those graduate studies really looks at how Black women writers, especially Black women writers post the 1970s, use soul food, or narrate soul food, as a way to assert transgressive sexuality for their Black female characters,” said Williams.  

Williams’ dissertation focused on writers such as Ntozake Shange, Gloria Naylor and Gayl Jones, as well as more contemporary authors, and how they portray African American foodways.   

She said the goal of her dissertation was to, “think about the connections between African American foodways and how people of African descent understand themselves and their own subjectivities, right, but also how soul food allows us to practice resistance and practice protest even in domestic spaces like at home where we’re having to fight for visibility for our identities and various sexualities.” 

According to Williams, one of her main inspirations to critically analyze depictions of soul food in literature was found in “Bailey’s Café” by Naylor.  

Speaking on the inspiration she derived from the story, Williams said, “It dawned on me that all of these authors are using soul food to do the same thing— to make an intimate and personal connection between characters but to also give characters, particularly main characters, space in the cooking and in the eating to be able to think about who they are, think about their own identities, their own subjectivities.”  

When writing for her master’s thesis and dissertation Williams said, “It was important for me that what I wrote about was something I cared about. Something I cared about, something that I felt like mattered and a subject matter that I felt like would be timely and personal enough for me to want to write about it for an infinite amount of time.” 

Williams said she has always had a deep connection to and love for soul food and the sense of community it brought her.  

“Being a part of the African American community, soul food has been integral to my entire life,” she said. “I understood the history of soul food being a part of Black people’s protest traditions and being a part of how Black people in the 1960s really fought for cultural and communal visibility.” 

These personal, cultural and political connections to soul food have had a profound impact on Williams’ literary research. 

“I was really interested in how these texts were reflecting my life, right, and reflecting just the true reality that food brings people together, but it also helps us understand ourselves on a much more individual level and helps us feel comfortable coming into our own,” Williams said. 

Williams claimed that, while she has enjoyed reading from a young age, receiving a copy of “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” by Mildred D. Taylor at her school’s Scholastic Book Fair cemented her love for and fascination with literature.  

“It was transformative. It was one of the first novels that I had ever read by a Black author, particularly a Black woman author, but it was also one of the first novels that kept my attention, kept me coming back for more. I got invested in the characters—I wanted to know what was going on, what was going to happen, and, when the book ended, I was ready for a sequel,” said Williams. “That was really the book that let me know that it was ok to keep my interest in literature because there was literature out there for me and literature out there that I could enjoy reading and as I started to think about becoming a professor that there was literature out there that I could expose my students to, right, so that none of my students felt alienated by what we were reading and that all of my students could feel like we were reading something that at one point or another they could connect to.” 

While looking for a teaching position, Williams was interested in finding a job that would allow her to teach English and literature while also remaining invested in the field of African American studies. 

“When I was on the job market, I was very happy to see that the University of Montevallo was looking for someone in the English and World Languages Department who had specialties in African American literature and also had specialties in African American studies,” Williams said.  

Prior to being hired at UM, Williams taught at Purdue in the African American studies and American studies programs.  

Adjusting to teaching at UM has been easy according to Williams. She said that she admires the schools openminded and inviting learning environment.  

“I got here and immediately felt comfortable, right. I already felt like I had a place here. My coworkers have been great in helping me acclimate into the environment,” Williams said. “I have not felt uncomfortable asking a question and haven’t felt like a question I asked would not be answered.” 

Williams said she has also enjoyed the smaller class sizes at UM which allow her to teach and connect with her students on a more intimate level.  

“The sense of community here is clear, you know. At Purdue sometimes you can kind of feel like you are out there on an island, right? All by yourself, and there you may have to look hard for sources of support,” Williams said, ”but the lines of support here and the sources of support and community here to me are so very clear and are useful and working.”  

Williams said that at UM she would like to focus on being an active professor and member of the university’s community. 

Williams said she looks forward to, “being a part of that community that understands the importance of the liberal arts and understands the importance of making sure that we know how to look at things and understand things from a more humanistic perspective because that allows us to be more socially conscious and socially aware.”  

She is also looking forward to offering a wide variety of courses in the African American studies minor. Williams hopes to further develop the minor as a course of study that students understand the importance of and are invested in pursuing.  

During the fall 2023 semester Williams is teaching three courses: Introduction to African American studies, English Composition I and African American Literature.  

During the semester African American Literature will be focusing on the intersection of literature and African American food clearly combining two of Williams’ major academic interests. 

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Wesley Walter is managing editor for The Alabamian. He is a junior English major and mass communications minor. Wesley boasts a 750 credit score, boyish good looks and soulful eyes that contain a deep indescribable sadness. In his free time, he enjoys travelling, visiting gas stations and thinking about getting into surfing.