Yohuru Williams

The University of St. Thomas/Mark Brown

ABC's Roots

Star Trek

The cast of the original Star Trek series.

twilight zone

The Twilight Zone's famous episode, "The Eye of the Beholder"

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Fill 1
February 27, 2024
Online Originals

My Seven Shows: The Food That Built America's Yohuru Williams

Star Trek and Roots top the Racial Justice Initiative founder's list.

Mara Reinstein

Yohuru Williams is a notable scholar, author and activist who received his doctorate in history at Howard University and is a distinguished university chair, professor of history and founding director of the Racial Justice Initiative at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis. Also, over the holidays, he was shopping with his son at a local outlet store when a stranger approached him and exclaimed, “You’re the flower guy!”

Call it the upside of one of the starrier lines on his impressive resume: A go-to expert on the History Channel series The Food That Built America. Since 2019, Williams has weighed in on the backstory of the likes of Pepsi Cola, McDonald’s and Gummy Bears — usually while wearing a flower pin on his suit lapel. The fifth season of the docuseries, which explores Campbell’s SpaghettiOs, premiered February 25.

“I love being involved with this series,” he says. “One of the neat things is that you wake up in the morning and eat your Wheaties and don’t think about how it was introduced, the advertising and the innovation that went into it. That’s all very exciting to me, because I can talk about what the United States looked like at that time.” Because of his extensive academic training, Williams — who’s also appeared on docuseries such as The Unbelievable with Dan Aykroyd, The Toys That Built America and Colosseum — specializes in providing historical context to the popular eats and treats.

“Food is such an important part of our cultural studies,” he adds, drawing on the diets of enslaved people and even the recent pandemic as examples. “You don’t even realize that a contemporary moment can influence the way people eat.”

In his off-time, Williams jokes that he’s a “terrible human being” when it comes to the junk food he consumes while watching TV. (Still, he’s quick to add, “I used to be addicted to Pringles. I was in a 12-step program!”) He gravitates to documentaries as well as film noir on Turner Classic Movies and Brazilian dramas on Netflix, like 3%. Perhaps not surprisingly, his Seven Shows list requires a trip back in time. He recalls it all for Emmys.com.

The Twilight Zone (1959-1964, CBS)

I wasn't born when it came out, but I grew up watching it in syndication and was scared to death of it! Once I heard that theme song, I just knew whatever was coming my way was going to be tantalizing and just blow my mind. And the stories were incredibly compelling. I think about how it set the standard for things like Tales from the Darkside in the 1980s and Black Mirror, so the reverberations continue to be with us.

Star Trek (1966-1969, NBC)

When I think about my youth, I think about watching Star Trek. The same episode could air over and over, and it never got old to me. I loved the fact that the cast was multicultural. It was a big deal to me that the entire Enterprise crew was built like my neighborhood. You had Nichelle Nichols as Lieutenant Uhura, Mr. Scott [James Doohan], Mr. Sulu [George Takei] — and Mr. Spock [Leonard Nimoy], who was just cool on so many different levels. As a generation, we were enamored with space, and what the future could look like. So, I think Captain Kirk [William Shatner] and Spock represented this kind of heroic vision of the future. They were like superheroes, but not quite, because they were fallible. Also, my grandfather was a huge Trek fan. He literally watched Star Trek and Solid Gold.

All in the Family (1971-1977, CBS)

Think about the theme song: “Boy, the way Glenn Miller played/Songs that made the Hit Parade/Guys like us, we had it made/Those were the days.” It’s a time capsule of issues that we're still struggling with as a society in concert today. I never thought about that when Archie Bunker [Carroll O’Connor] was calling his son-in-law [Rob Reiner] “Meathead.” I didn't think about the racial implications as a child. But so many years later, I realize it’s a pretty powerful statement about America that continues to be fact. It was like reality TV before reality TV, but scripted and dealing with kind of real-world problems that divided the nation and challenged in a way that didn't let the audience off the hook. [Creator] Norman Lear really was a genius.

Roots (1977, ABC)

This was the first program I watched with my parents and grandparents. It dominated dinner table conversation and conversation in the neighborhood and in the community center for weeks. It really inspired me: I really wanted to search for my family history the way that Alex Haley had done — and, by extension, know more about the African-American experience. I just thought that it was great that he was able to uncover and recover so much of that history and tell that story in such a compelling way. I still probably watch it every two years at some point. You know, it's like The Godfather; if I turn it on and catch any piece of it, I'm committed.

The Cosby Show (1984 - 1992, NBC)

I don't think I ever missed an episode. And whatever people may think about Bill Cosby in this moment, the show was transformative because it was a kind of thoughtful television for a generation craving to see images of itself on the small screen. It centered on this Black family, the Huxtables, and it was the first time that I'd ever seen Black characters on TV that had Black professional standing. I think in terms of its cultural significance, just what the Huxtables represented and the stories they told, it was very authentic to the Black experience. It set the stage for a lot of great television after that.

The Wonder Years (1988 - 1993, ABC)

I still remember when it premiered on a Super Bowl Sunday. I was transitioning — I believe to high school — and I watched and thought, “This is me.” Kevin Arnold [Fred Savage] was such a memorable character, and you got the tension between him and Winnie Cooper [Danica McKellar] and you're playing with all these themes that were familiar to me and to my youth. So, there’s the nostalgia of the show, coupled with the fact that it’s this timeless story of the discomfort of growing up.

Also, Kevin was a New York Jets fan, and my dad was a frustrated Jets fan. I remain a frustrated Jets fan. I appreciated all those elements of the program.

American Experience (1988 - Present, PBS)

I fell in love with it early on because I knew I was going to be a history major. It's just great storytelling thanks to these reenactments of all these pivotal moments in history with compelling academics along for the ride to contextualize. At the same time, you're getting to the core of these really compelling human dramas. There are so many great episodes, but the one about the fatal Mississippi Flood of 1927 is just incredible. I almost have it memorized. I’m working on a documentary project now, so it feels like my career and my interests are coming full circle.

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