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The Unbound Book Festival comes to downtown Columbia each spring. They aim "to bring nationally and internationally recognized authors of world-class renown to Columbia, Missouri, to talk about their books, their work, and their lives."

Unbound to feature a Pulitzer Prize-winning author's 'portrait of race and capitalism'

Marcia Chatelain used her professional training as both a journalist and a historian to create a Pulitzer Prize winning book.
Marcia Chatelain used her professional training as both a journalist and a historian to create a Pulitzer Prize winning book.

At this year's Unbound Book Festival, authors including Marcia Chatelain, the winner of the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for history, are unpacking ideas about labor in the United States.

Vox Magazine is Columbia’s connection to what’s happening in our city, providing perspective on the news and culture people are talking about.

Chatelain's book, Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America, reveals the history between the fast-food industry and Black lives, a relationship predicated on empty promises of economic and social growth for Black communities in the United States.

Chatelain, who holds bachelor's degrees in journalism and religious studies from MU and a doctorate in American civilization from Brown University, says the idea for her book came to her in graduate school.

Conversations about food and nutrition, she says, often neglect to question why the food landscape is as we see it today and how that landscape impacts Black people.

Franchise is a deep dive into the relationship between the fast-food industry and Black communities that began with McDonald’s decision to franchise locations to Black owners. This move, which seemed progressive in 1960s America, had broader implications on the economic, social and political development of Black communities.

Marcia Chatelain is a featured author at this year's Unbound Book Festival. She will speak at the "Take This Job" panel alongside Kim Kelly and Hilary Leichter at the Tiger Hotel from 11:45 a.m. to 1 p.m. on April 23.

McDonald’s franchising to Black business owners presented opportunities for wealth and development, but it also exacerbated systemic problems of social welfare and political inequality faced by Black Americans.

Trained as both a journalist and a historian, Chatelain combines investigation with storytelling to give context to her examination of the fast-food industry. “I read something,” she says, “and I say, ‘Okay, where else can it take me? What other rabbit holes do I want to fall down? What other questions can I push?’”

The Pulitzer Prize administration calls her book “a portrait of race and capitalism that masterfully illustrates how the fight for civil rights has been intertwined with the fate of Black businesses.”

Chatelain wants to address the problems caused by systems that seek to deprive or overfeed rather than meet the needs of all. “I really see my book as not so much about fast food as it is about thinking how we solve problems, how we get to the heart of issues that feel like they’re pervasive,” she says.

She says solutions can be found in strong public policy. Resources such as solid housing, good wages and access to affordable food can help to truly nourish people.

Chatelain isn't just a writer. She also works in a variety of other media including podcasts and lectures. And while she says good storytelling can be found anywhere, she thinks the relationship described in Franchise was meant to be a book. “Books allow you the space for a lot of big ideas,” she says.

This year will be Chatelain’s first time attending the Unbound Book Festival. In addition to her excitement to return to Columbia and see old friends, she says she’s curious to learn about other authors’ writing processes and to hear “what makes them tick.”

Chatelain is one of two Pulitzer Prize-winning writers to be featured at Unbound this year. The other, Viet Thanh Nguyen, received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2016.