The American yam’s complicated and painful racial legacy

The American yam is not what it appears, Lex Pryor writes in The Ringer, meditating on the complicated racial legacy of two separate root vegetables that often go by the same name. In the U.S., Americans often refer to sweet potatoes as “yams,” even though “biologically, phonetically, or otherwise speaking, ‘yam’ is a bit of a misnomer,” writes Pryor. Ample linguistic evidence places the origins of “yam” to West Africa’s Slave Coast, where the true West African yam—whose flavor and texture is closer to a russet potato than the creamy, sugary sweet potato—has been the region’s “ruling crop” for centuries. Imprisoned West Africans ate it on slave ships and most likely brought the word to the Americas. An important pillar of African-American cooking and Southern foodways, the sweet potato was traditionally eschewed by white Americans as inferior. That all began to change in the 1930s, when Louisiana sweet potato growers developed a new orange-fleshed variety they marketed as “yams.” The rebranding spurred its mainstreaming into white America; by the 1970s and 1980s, recipes for candied yams dishes were circulating in popular publications, and the sweet potato was canonized as a holiday staple. What makes the American yam truly American? Its history of reinvention and racial theft. As Pryor put it: What’s so notable about the sweet potato’s rise is that “inevitably the co-opters came to embrace the very thing they long professed a commitment to ridiculing.”  —Patricia I. Escárcega

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