Edited by A. Breeze Harper, with an Afterword by pattrice jones
Sistah Vegan: Black Female Vegans Speak on Food, Identity, Health, and Society
Edited by A. Breeze Harper
NY: Lantern, 2010
I am a Caucasian living and teaching in a town where I have had only two African American students in six years. I grew up in a rural white world. Though I worked in the fields with Latino migrants, I attended a school that was 98% white, with a couple Latino kids.
I unwittingly left this white world behind when I headed for college in Boston. Eager to participate in all that I found in this new environment, I showed up to a local "Harambe" meeting, posted around campus. I don't remember what the invitation said, but I remember that all were encouraged to attend, that the meeting was about racism, and I discovered that "harambe" means "working together in unity" or "to pull together."
My attendance was met with a barrage of anger. I was called a white racist, jeered at, and ordered to leave.
I have not been fully comfortable with African Americans since that day. Nonetheless, racism remains a problem, and we are each responsible to explore how our lives harm others, and to work to change whatever harms we cause. So I settled in to read Breeze Harper's anthology, Sistah Vegan: Black Female Vegans Speak on Food, Identity, Health, and Society.
Sistah Vegan authors are all women from racialized minorities (to borrow Harper's terminology) who have rejected the standard EuroAmerican diet. They have purposefully changed what they put in their mouths for a variety of reasons—some for health reasons, others out of compassion for nonhuman animals, some for spiritual reasons, others out of concern for the natural world. I have read a number of books on the vegan diet and lifestyle, all of which have affirmed my general understandings while offering a couple of new insights. Not so with Sistah Vegan.
What could hair possibly have to do with diet?
Harper's collection helped me to understand how hairstyles, violence in the home, and a unique set of social pressures encourage minorities to stick together rather than adopt practices held largely by "outsiders." Sistah Vegan introduced me to writers, thinkers, and activists that I had never heard of, like Queen Afua (alongside more familiar authors and works, like Charles Patterson's Eternal Treblinka and Marjorie Spiegel's The Dreaded Comparison). I learned about Ma'at and Ital; I discovered American traditions with which I was completely unfamiliar, including traditions of healing, home life, and meal plans of pigeon peas, okra, grist, and sweet peas (113). Even the names of Sistah Vegan authors continually reminded me that I was reading about a parallel world: Layli, Delicia, Venus, Olu, Tishana, Iya, Angelique, and Ajowa Nzinga Ifateyo.
On the topic of hair and dietary choice, for example, Adama Maweja notes how she reclaimed a bit of herself by taking charge of both: "Though I'd worn my hair natural since the age of eleven, I had permed it at the urging of my boyfriend. I cut the perm from my hair into a short, brushable natural. It was as if someone began to speak to me through my own thoughts" (127). Sisah Vegan helped me to see that white folks don't have to fight racism along with speciesism—our hair is not part of a body that has been given low priority and little respect in a racist society.
This is what I was after. I wanted to see my privilege. And I did. For example, on hearing that she did not intend to eat flesh any more, Maweja's father sternly replied: "You better eat everything on your goddamn plate, or I'll beat your goddamn ass" (124). While this could happen in any family, I don't think it happened much in my white neighborhood. Mind you, I had to eat everything on my plate, too, but my parents never threatened to beat me if I failed. In my family, we ate everything on our plates because my parents were aware of people—like some of the families described in this anthology—who struggled to put food on the table. My father never needed to be violent. He never had to deal with racism at school or on the streets of his home town. Most likely, he has reached the ripe old age of 80 without ever engaging in a serious physical fight. I would guess he never saw anyone but folks who looked like he looks until he went to college in Seattle. This is white privilege. Maweja, in contrast, was a minority, and she had to deal with violence in the home. She notes: "I was never the same after that" (124).
"Raquel" (in a reprinted cyberspace discussion) recalls: "My mother sold me into childhood prostitution at age two for her own drug habit" (179). Again, this could happen in any household, but it is much more likely in poorer households, and in American those with darker skin are more likely to be poor. Raquel did not have privileged parents, like my parents, or like the parents of my peers; her stories are not like my stories. Sistah Vegan authors often reveal a raw pain. They carry the pain of speciesism—of agonizing over the plight of nonhuman animals in animal industries, over stray dogs and cats in dark alleys, over choosing a diet that invariably provokes ridicule—alongside the pain stems from racism.
Sistah Vegan highlights racism's affect on the health of those who are not raised with white privilege. As a child of privilege, I was fed on health foods from a local health-food store and had acres of nearby, safe woods to play in. Authors in Sistah Vegan tell of their struggles with serious ailments, some of which started in childhood, many of which settled into wombs. They have come to see, through healers like Queen Afua, why a diet rooted in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables is a matter of self-preservation, a way of healing bodies harmed by racism—by a lack of available fresh veggies and fruits, and by environments that are sometimes toxic.
Enslaved African-Americans sometimes lived on their master's table-scraps. Ma'at Sincere Earth writes of Soul Food as a continuation of this earlier "scrap diet." She notes that "blood pressure among African-Americans in the United States is the highest in the world. Over eighty percent of all Black people are lactose intolerant and most don't even know it. We have accepted another race's diet for our own. Our bodies are not reacting well" (70). She goes on: "With the problems of blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, and yes, just plain racism," African Americans would do well to rethink dietary traditions, including Soul Food (70). Similarly, Tasha Edwards writes:
When he spoke of being "Free At Last," did our Americanized palates everAs I devoured Sistah Vegan like a bowl of fresh veggies, my blue eyes sometimes read black vernacular as a typo: Melissa Santosa's father said to her, "Here, eat fish, is no meat!" (74). At one point I simply couldn't understand what I was reading. The author, Ma'at Sincere Earth, notes that her poetry came from a place of racial pain and anger. Her writing was as alien to me as Mars—beyond my comprehension. White privilege.
Come up for discussion?
Was Anybody rushing to say "We Shall Overcome Cancer and Obesity"
Or are we still holding on to our story about how "Massuah" fed us the scraps
And that's all we know how to eat? (83)
Veganism cultivates an attention to minute details of food ingredients, clothing labels, and how the things you consume are produced. This mindfulness leads to the deeper investigation of all things you consume, not only as to their material content but also the conditions in which the products are manufactured, their ecological impact, and the standard of living they create for all those on the chain of raw material, manufacturing, selling, buying, and disposing. . . .Adama Maweja ponders why "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer" (127). She notes that the rich are "making all of the products being distributed throughout the African diaspora" (127). The truth is yet worse: The rich get richer while the poor get heart attacks, obesity, and cancers.
Veganism has spawned my interest in antiglobalization, antiviolence, organic agrictulrure, voluntary simplicity, and faith systems indigenous to West Africa and South Asia. (75)
How many of my ancestors
Were treated like today's farm animals?
How many of us look the other way?
When I hear of calves
Being taken from their mothers
To be sold as veal
I can hear the wailing voices of mothers
Crying for their babies
As the slave master takes them away
The mother cow breastfeeds the human race
My ancestors breastfed the white race
So when I look into those stunned eyes today,
No one could have said to me,
"What's the big deal?" "It's just an animal."
I could have remembered a time
When someone might have said the same about me.