Food

Veganism Is Being Redefined in Black Communities

More people are connecting the health implications of a vegan diet with the struggle against race-based oppression.

Photo Credit: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Food is a key part of any culture. Take the USA: Could there be a more potent symbol of all things Americana than BBQ? For many, to go against this national pastime amounts to a form of treason. Which is why it should cause little surprise to learn that a new culture has begun to take root among African Americans: veganism.

In years past, this dietary decision was largely associated with being, like, super white. In part, this could be due to the fact that avoiding all animal products is seen as a bourgeois indulgence, enjoyed by the sorts of people who like to proclaim that "All Lives Matter." That perception is starting to shift.

"The black vegan movement is one of the most diverse, decolonial, complex and creative movements," said Aph Ko, founder of the website Black Vegans Rock, in a recent New York Times article. And Ko should know. Back in 2015, she compiled a list of "100 Black Vegans" to highlight the fact that veganism is more than just an animal welfare-based lifestyle choice. Listed among Ko's cohorts are a diverse group of individuals such as civil rights activist Coretta Scott King, neo-soul superstar Erykah Badu, the Williams sisters, and comedian Dick Gregory.

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The Times listed a number of other notable vegans: Kyrie Irving from the Boston Celtics is just one of a number of professional basketball players to stop eating meat, prompting Kip Andersen (director of the documentary "What the Health") to proclaim in an article for the Bleacher Report that the NBA should be renamed the National Vegan Association.

Animals and race

A number of factors account for this growing trend. The Times' Kim Severson notes that the Black Lives Matter movement and "What the Health" have helped expand veganism to "connect personal health, animal welfare and social justice with the fight for racial equality."

"I always assumed 'Black veganism' was just white veganism experienced and perpetrated by black people, and not a framework to analyze various oppressions," writes Sincere Kirabo on BlackYouthProject. But after reading a book Ko published with her sister Syl last year, Aphro-ism: Essays on Pop Culture, Feminism, and Black Veganism from Two Sisters, Kirabo reconsidered this point of view. "Now I'm rethinking the entire way the defining biases of our society create dehumanizing standards that not only impact me as a Black person," he writes, "but also extend to animals, inform our food options, and empower the anti-Black food industry."

What is the "anti-black food industry"? How can a diet be decolonial? Time for a quick history lesson. A core element of both slavery and colonialism was the promotion of an ideology that dehumanized black people. When Aph and Syl Ko describe veganism as a form of liberation, explains Kirabo, they are talking "less about meat consumption and more about the necessity of re-framing racism to include the relationship between anti-Blackness and anti-animal sentiment as codified into the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy."

This is not a new line of thinking. Anti-colonial writers like Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire first drew the connection between the colonial construct that disadvantaged certain humans and non-human animals alike. By understanding this historical context, the connection between racial oppression and our carnivorous culture begins to make more sense.

This might be a cognitive leap for some, but consider the fact that both racism and meat-eating are motivated by a sense of superiority. As such, Kirabo writes, describing the Ko sisters' logic, “animality is a Eurocentric concept that has contributed to the oppression of any group that deviates from the white supremacist ideal of being—white Homo sapiens."

A means to an end

Another way to understand this logic is through the simple facts of health. A 2012 analysis of national meat consumption showed that according to averages delineated by race, African Americans were overall the largest consumers of meat in America. This figure is no coincidence. As Nzinga Young points out in the Huffington Post, due to centuries of entrenched systemic poverty, black Americans have had to adapt to "making do" with what they have. In practice, this has translated, Young continues, into "eating everything from common staples like chicken and fish to chitlins, pigs' feet, and other discarded animal parts our ancestors ate in desperation."

In other words, meat-eating became an essential part of survival. Ironically, much of the foods that form part of this culture are centered around unhealthy eating habits. In her article, "How Black Veganism Is Revolutionary and Essential for Our Culture," Danni Roseman explains how this situation has arisen from the fact "that the unhealthiest of foods were the cheapest and most easily available to low-income, black and brown families." The existence of food deserts, which are predominant in poorer communities, have also contributed toward these unhealthy eating habits. As a result, a number of diet-related diseases have become endemic to the culture.

"Food is political," writes Roseman, adding how these unhealthy eating habits have led to a rise in "illnesses that kill black people at astounding rates." Roseman cites information provided by the CDC, which shows that "over 40% of black men over [the age of] 20 have hypertension and 44% of black women." That's not to mention that two of the three leading causes of death in this community are strokes and heart disease.

"It's not just about, I want to eat well so I can live long and be skinny," said vegan-friendly chef Jenné Claiborne in an interview with the Times. "For a lot of black people, it's also the social justice and food access. The food we have been eating for decades and decades has been killing us."

In order to counter this trend, Claiborne has become a specialist in vegan-friendly soul food. In her new book, Sweet Potato Soul, Claiborne combines the traditions of Southern cooking with recipes from West Africa and the Caribbean. The book is the latest in a series of similar titles joining restaurants around the country that have helped bring about the rise in black vegan culture.

(Other popular books that are part of this endeavor include Amie Breeze Harper’s anthology, Sistah Vegan: Black Female Vegans Speak on Food, Identity, Health, and Society; Tracye McQuirter’s By Any Greens Necessary: A Revolutionary Guide for Black Women Who Want to Eat Great, Get Healthy, Lose Weight, and Look Phat; and the Afro-Vegan cookbook.)

Diet as resistance

As Roseman points out, "if you're dead, or perpetually functionally ill, you cannot march, you cannot protest, you cannot protect your family or yourself." Framed in this light, a growing number of people are starting to connect the health implications of a plant-based diet with the ongoing struggle against race-based oppression.

For Kirabo, this goes beyond "people planting gardens and advocating for animal rights." He argues that veganism is a "sociopolitical movement that renounces white-centered definitions of the world" and through that process "re-examines social norms imposed on us and calls out politics many of us take for granted."

In other words, choosing not to eat animal products is a way of asserting a form of independence. "[We] take back control of [our] own diet in a system in which [we] are not in control of many of the things that we purchase," performance artist and activist Jay Brave said in an interview with the BBC.

In the Times article, Zachary Toliver, a PETA columnist who appeared on Ko's original list of black vegans, said, "I no longer feel like an endangered species out here." Instead, Toliver and the growing community he represents are redefining what it means to be black and vegan. In the process, this movement is reframing the way society understands our relationships to animals, food and each other.

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Robin Scher is a freelance writer from South Africa currently based in New York. He tweets infrequently @RobScherHimself.