Sistah Vegan: Black Female Vegans Speak on Food, Identity, Health, and Society
Edited by A. Breeze Harper, with an Afterword by pattrice jones
by Dr. Psyche Williams-Forson
In 2006 Dr. Ian Smith partnered with State Farm Insurance to issue a clarion call in promoting healthier lives and more nutritious diets, primarily among African Americans. As the latest data illustrates, obesity is the number one health crisis facing all Americans—children and adults alike. The statistics on African Americans are almost at an extreme with the majority of adult women and men being categorically defined as overweight. As more and more young people of color contract Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and even heart disease, the combination of poor diet, lack of exercise, and inadequate medical guidance and care is all the more lethal.
At least one solution is being provided by Smith's "50 Million Pound Challenge." Other solutions, however, can be found in taking control over one's life by engaging in a more conscious effort to consume foods that are deemed whole—fresh (organic even) fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and so on. To be sure, making healthier lifestyle decisions is key to living longer and stronger.
But how is this option possible when one has little or no control over her environment? How is making healthy lifestyle choices directly tied to issues of racism—environmental and medical—and even genocide? This and other questions are at the heart of the Sistah Vegan anthology.
This book brings to the fore an awareness that adopting a lifestyle of vegetarianism and veganism is not limited to one racial or age group. Rather, there are many people of color who adhere to this way of thinking, consuming, and engaging the earth and its bounty. In the instance of this powerful anthology, voices come from far and wide to represent women of color who speak not only to food and choice but also to food and its intersections with numerous forms of injustice that are insidiously destructive to their lives.
As one of few, if any, major works to address such intersections, this anthology is poised to reveal several realities about the ways that black and other bodies of color ingest and digest the glaring racial disparities of our nation's health system. From health misdiagnosis to the lack of adequate health care and more, many people of color suffer needlessly. When you combine this reality with the fact that the majority of neighborhoods of color promote junk foods—from triple layer cheeseburgers to 40 ounces of malt liquor, to the latest and greatest sugary cereal—and are wholly deficient in offering grocery stores that provide fresh and affordable foods then living healthier is not simply about choice. It is also about choices that get made to grant and deny access to a better way of life. Consequently, a lifestyle of health is also about inherent race and class discrimination. This anthology gives voice to these disparities and highlights their consequences.
What the sistah vegans tell us is that we, as people of color, can no longer live by mainstream definitions. For example, we cannot all drink milk and eat foods from the bread and cereal group; especially when these foods do not represent our ethnic heritage. Moreover, it is not ethical and it is certainly not culturally appropriate to insist that we do so. Society could, however, provide nutritional advice on how to eat the foods that are culturally specific in ways that will provide optimum health. Women of color need to reclaim their voice throughout the cafeteria lines and insist that their children be given foods that not only are nutritious but also reflect their cultural space—sweet potatoes, okra, collard greens, brown rice, wheat corn tortillas, and so on. This anthology begins to enlighten us on this process; we must pass the word and follow-suit.
I am not a vegan. My own contributions to this anthology are through food studies and black women's studies. As a woman of color who was introduced to the dangers of a diet high in sugar, salt, fat, and refined carbohydrates early in my life, I long ago decided to eat whole. Not trim and thin by any means, I perhaps fall into the category of being a full-figured sistah living in a society that defines healthy as the antithesis of my appearance. I am blessed, however, to have the knowledge and understanding of what refined foods and meat products can and will ultimately do to our bodies. I am also clear about what it means to eat healthy in order to live longer. But I make informed choices. I have access to healthy foods of every variety and I pay handsomely for them. This is all to say that knowledge is power and that knowledge also provides a certain amount of access.
A. Breeze Harper has assembled a fascinating variety of writings to heighten our awareness and consciousness of what it means to "decolonize our bodies, minds, and sprits." We would do well to read and to take individual and collective action, to combat the injustices and disparities—including those of the culinary nature—that continue to pervade our society!
Dr. Psyche Williams-Forson
University of Maryland College Park
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