3 - Introduction: The Birth of the Sistah Vegan Project Baby
Sistah Vegan: Black Female Vegans Speak on Food, Identity, Health, and Society
Edited by A. Breeze Harper, with an Afterword by pattrice jones
by A. Breeze Harper
During one evening in the summer of 2005, I trudged through the latest discussion boards on BlackPlanet.com and found a discussion forum that centered on a controversial ad that PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) had created.
As I read the content of the forum, I learned that the NAACP had been pushing to censor a PETA ad because of the "offensive" content they felt it contained. Within seconds, I had found the PETA site and began to watch this "offensive" campaign video advertisement. It appeared that PETA was trying to be captivating and induce "critical consciousness" engagement in viewers to question their own normative practices and human to non-human animal relationships.
My eyes stayed glued onto the usage of images of human suffering juxtaposed to non-human animal suffering: A painting of Native Americans on the Trail of Tears positioned next to a photo of herds of non-human animals being led to their demise; the atrocity of a Black man's lynched and burned body next to a picture of an animal that had been burned; a black and white Jewish Holocaust photo next to animals in confined crammed structures on a meat production farm. As I watched, I realized that most images were of black Americans drawn from America's cruel past of slavery and Jim Crow segregation.
I navigated my web browser back to the BlackPlanet.com forum, and read all the contributions from the PETA forum discussion. Twenty-eight Black-identified people had voiced their opinion about the ad. Out of 28, only one participant agreed with the anti-speciesism message that PETA was trying to achieve with the new campaign ad. Everyone else had the consensus that PETA was an organization filled with "White racists" who think that black identified people are on the "same level as animals."
As I attempted to understand the PETA campaign and the BlackPlanet participants' anger, I tried to draw upon the books I had recently read by Marjorie Spiegel and Charles Patterson. With those books as a foundation, I could assume that PETA's campaign was implying that the exploitation and torture of non-human animals comes from the same master/oppressor ideology that has created atrocities such as African Slavery, Native American genocide, and the Jewish Holocaust. Although it is important to note, in contrast, that years prior to PETA's debacle, Marjorie Spiegel and Charles Patterson provided sensitive, scholarly explorations of these topics, whereas the PETA exhibit, with its ensuing controversy, was handled insensitively. In The Dreaded Comparison, Marjorie Spiegel notes:
Comparing the suffering of animals to that of blacks (or any other oppressed group) is offensive only to the speciesist: one who has embraced the false notions of what animals are like. Those who are offended by comparison to a fellow sufferer have unquestioningly accepted the biased worldview presented by the masters. To deny our similarities to animals is to deny and undermine our own power. It is to continue actively struggling to prove to our masters, past or present, that we are similar to those who have abused us, rather than to our fellow victims, those whom our masters have also victimized.Even though I am an animal rights supporter, I do feel that PETA's campaign strategies often fail to give a historical context of why they use certain images that are connected to a painful history of racially motivated violence against particular non-white racialized humans. I realize that this is what makes the reception of Patterson and Spiegel's books easier to embrace than the campaigns by PETA; Patterson and Spiegel give a thorough historical context to why they observe frightening links to animal and non-human animal exploitation. The lack of this socio-historical context by PETA is perhaps is what upsetting to many racial minorities in which such images and textual references trigger trauma and deep emotional pain. Now, this doesn't mean that all those in the USA who were offended by PETA absolutely don't care about the suffering animals; it is much more complex than a simple binary of "we care about animal suffering" versus "we don't care about animal suffering". But, I do believe it simply means that the wounds and scars of USA's sordid history of violent racism, in which black Americans were derogatorily categorized as animals within a racist colonial context (I do understand that outside of this racist colonial context being called an "animal" isn't derogatory), needs to addressed and reconciled in the USA at a national level that I have yet to see . . . and that PETA campaign strategist could be more cognizant of the consequences of not offering a socio-historical context to many of their "hurtful" outreach efforts. When I looked at the profile on BlackPlanet of the one participant who supported PETA's ad, I realized that she identified as a Black lesbian. Preliminary questions arose:
This is not intended to oversimplify matters and to imply that the oppressions experienced by blacks and animals have taken identical forms—but, as divergent as the cruelties and the supporting systems of oppression may be, there are commonalities between them. They share the same basic relationship—that between oppressor and oppressed.
However, it has been over two years since I posed these questions. I have been thinking more in depth and I have begun to re-examine veganism as an alternative food ways movement as well as a personal health choice from a black feminist and anti-racist and decolonizing perspective:
- Do women of color who are marginalized within their community sympathize with ethical eating more frequently then those whose racial/ethnic and gender groups who are not marginalized?
- Are the responses from the BlackPlanet forum members representative of how most African-descended people in America view PETA and Animal Rights Movement in general?
- Are there educational models that communicate veganism and animal rights to Black Americans in a more culturally specific manner?
Alka Chandna, a woman of color from Canada and a research associate with PETA, wrote a commentary about NAACP's reaction to the advertisement. In her recollection, she writes about how acts of racism were directed toward her family's house. One of her memories is of eggs being thrown at their house because her brown family was not welcomed there. However, she is perplexed by the NAACP attacks on the PETA campaign:
- How are black female vegans using veganism and other holistic health practices to decolonize their bodies and engage in health activism that resists institutionalized racism and neo-colonialism?
- Depictions of bodies on vegetarian/vegan, organic and alternative living advertisements are mostly white and thin, showing an underlying theme of veganism equals "white thin body." How does this affect Black females' willingness to explore vegetarianism/veganism when the full-size body is typically accepted as healthy and beautiful in the Black North American community?
- As indicated in the BlackPlanet.com forum, is it that some Black Americans do not want to embrace ethical eating philosophy because they do not care, or is it that they perceive it as only being part of a legacy of white racism and an elitist view of culinary ideologies?
- If a majority of black people have had negative experiences with whiteness because of the racism/classism that they have experienced for 400 years, and they have come to believe that veganism or ethical eating philosophy is a "white thing" and in no way connected to deconstructing institutionalized racism/classism, how can Sistah Vegans and allies present a model that presents veg-[etari]anism as a tool that simultaneously resists a) legacies of slavery such as institutionalized racism/classism; b) environmental degradation and c) high rates of health dis-eases plaguing the Black community?
Although the photos of poor immigrants, children used in forced labor, Native Americans, and African slaves are extremely upsetting, why is it so shocking to suggest that the mindset that condoned exploitation of people in the past is the same as the mindset that permits today's abuse of animals in laboratories, in factory farms, and on fur farms? And why is it assumed that this display—and indeed the entire animal rights movement—was generated by insensitive white people? As a person of color, I am hurt and perplexed that my two decades of work in the animal rights movement, as well as the efforts of my many colleagues who are people of color, are discounted . . . .It is Dr. Chandna's last sentence that intrigued and motivated me to find Black-identified females who practice veganism, as well as support anti-speciesism and/or see the connections speciesism has to all the "-isms." Furthermore, the goal of Sistah Vegan is to function as an effective literary model for teaching about alternative health and decolonizing strategies that benefit personal health, the environment/ecology while simultaneously resisting institutionalized racism, environmental pollution, and other legacies of Western colonialism.
Here in the United States, the NAACP and others are now painting animal rights activists as white racists in order to marginalize and dismiss us. I can't help but think that this sort of "analysis" that persists in painting our movement with a broad brush is the same disparagement that people engage in when the truth makes them uncomfortable. Racists dismissed Martin Luther King as a womanizer. Colonists dismissed Gandhi as a short brown man in a loincloth. Sexists dismiss feminists as ugly, angry women.
Yet many people of color work every day to change attitudes toward animals. My own beliefs, and those of many of my colleagues, sprang from an understanding of right versus wrong. It is not racism that inspires us, but justice.I ask other people of color who have had eggs thrown at their windows or experienced other forms of racism to stop condemning for a moment and to consider that what they are now saying about animals—that animals are lesser beings whose suffering can be dismissed—was once said about them and was used as an excuse to keep them in bondage [Intentionally emphasized].
Why I Chose to Practice Ahimsa-Based Veganism
I can honestly say that my transition into veganism was not a sudden "overnight decision." It initially evolved from my childhood experiences with institutionalized racism, heterosexism, and sexism. Many people who have transitioned into veganism reference animal rights as the most important reason for their initial transition. I honor all life and respect and practice compassion and Ahimsa-based philosophy for human as well as non-human animals. However, experiencing life as a working-class black-identified female led me to eventually practicing Ahimsa based veganism from a different point of entry that didn't initially involve animal rights as the catalyst to my "awakening."
When I was 12 and entered the halls of Lyman Memorial Junior High School during the first day of 7th grade, the first greeting I heard was, "Look at that skinny little nigger. Run, skinny little nigger, run." From this point on in my consciousness, I became very aware of my historically and socially constructed position in the U.S.A. through the unique fusion of Black/girl; racially socialized and gendered through Eurocentric heteropatriarchal and capitalistic based society, my experiences differed drastically in comparison to my peers in our over 97% white rural town. While whiteness was the "invisible" and comforting norm for them, it was the never-ending and constantly visible "in your face" foreign and suffocating "norm" for me. It was expected that being teased for being "the black girl" was what I would have to accept simply because no one ever seemed to be reprimanded or chastised for being racist. Similarly, speciesism was the be reprimanded for engaging in the "pass-times" of deer-hunting, "turkey derbies," exploiting animals during the Lebanon Town Fair in August. Racism and speciesism simply were the norm, and the suffering and misery in caused was largely invisible to most.
Several years later, I began engaging in readings to understand the roots of these types of oppressive acts I encountered throughout high school as well as college. I moved into Black feminist writers like bell hooks, Audre Lorde and Patricia Hill Collins, and then expanded into Ahimsa-based philosophy with authors such as Jiddu Krishnamurti.
What truly moved me into practicing veganism was reading about Dick Gregory and seeing the connections he made to institutionalized racism/classism/sexism, Black liberation, the Black community's "health crisis," and dietary beliefs/practices. Dick Gregory, in Black Hunger, notes:
I have experienced personally over the past few years how a purity of diet and thought are interrelated. And when Americans become truly concerned with the purity of the food that enters their own personal systems, when they learn to eat properly, we can expect to see profound changes effected in the social and political system of this nation. The two systems are inseparable . . .While being introduced to Dick Gregory's philosophies, I had also been reading Queen Afua's Sacred Woman. She is a raw foodist who advocates womb health and harmony through veganism. It was with the help of these two critical thinkers that I finally saw the interconnectedness to my own "out of harmony" reproductive health (I had been diagnosed with a uterine fibroid and was seeking non-Western medicine to address it) as a symptom of systematic racism, sexism, non-human animal exploitation (which I would later learn as "Speciesism"). Immediately, I made the transition into Ahimsa-based veganism. Ahimsa means a life of practicing non-injury or harmlessness to all living beings.
I personally would say that the quickest way to wipe out a group of people is to put them on a soul food diet. One of the tragedies is that the very folks in the black community who are most sophisticated in terms of the political realities in this country are nonetheless advocates of "soul food." They will lay down a heavy rap on genocide in America with regard to black folks, then walk into a soul food restaurant and help the genocide along.
After my introduction to Queen Afua and Dick Gregory, the books The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery (by Marjorie Spiegel) and Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust (by Charles Patterson) further expanded my understanding of the interconnectedness of institutionalized racism, nationalism, and sexism, the mistreatment of non-human animals and the abuse of the planet's natural resources. Eventually, years after I started down my path on that first day of 7th grade, I made the connections between institutionalized oppression and unmindful consumption and what it means to be "socially constructed" as a "black female" in a society that must navigate through racist legacies of slavery in the U.S.A. It is this type of unique experience—the social implications and historical context of being both Black and female in neocolonial global society—that has led me to request voices from females of the African Diaspora living in the United States of America.
The Ladies in the Sistah Vegan Project
When I conducted research about Black health on the my university's online library, I was inundated with a plethora of articles that depicted how horrible the state of health is among the black female population; that we continue to eat too much junk food and not enough fruits and vegetables; that we are addicted to the point of killing ourselves through junk food and soul food. Articles and essays paint a grim picture: that Black females do not know how to combat these health disparities or. . .do we?
This book holds a collection of narratives, poetry, critical essay and reflections from a diverse North American community of black identified females/females of the African Diaspora. Collectively, these ladies are actively decolonizing their bodies and minds via whole foods veganism and/or raw foodism, resisting becoming a "health disparities" statistic by kicking the junk food habit, questioning the soulfulness of mainstream soul food, raising children who have never tasted a McDonald's [not so] Happy Meal, and making the connections that compassionate consumption has to creating a compassionate and eco-sustainable society.
Sistah Vegan is not about preaching veganism or vegan fundamentalism. It is about looking at how a specific group of black identified female vegans perceive nutrition, food, ecological sustainability, health and healing, animal rights, parenting, social justice, spirituality, hair care, race, sexuality, womanism, freedom, and identity that go against the [refined and bleached] grain. I hope that Sistah Vegan will be an inspirational and thought-provoking read for all who are interested in how dietary habits and the connection food production has to either dismantling or maintaining, environmental racism, speciesism, ecological devastation, health disparities, institutional racism, over-consumption, and other social injustices.
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