Blackness, history & love · Books · Colonisation · Gender · Political · Whiteness & racism

Not on a Plate

Sistah Vegan: Food, Identity, Health, and Society: Black Female Vegans SpeakSistah Vegan: Food, Identity, Health, and Society: Black Female Vegans Speak by A. Breeze Harper
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Here is a personal story, which you are welcome to skip (view spoiler)

Harper explains that the impetus for the project was sparked by the reaction of Black Americans to a campaign by PETA that compared animal exploitation to slavery. She felt, I think, that the anger and hurt of those people deserved an answer from vegans who shared the history PETA had callously appropriated. The answer would not, could not, be simple, it could not be made by a single person or a unitary voice, it could not be made as an admonition. It could only be offered like this gift, a patchwork quilt stitched by women who do not even agree on such deep matters as animal liberation, healing and health, but who share critical resistance to the framing of veganism by Whiteness in the USA. It had to be a sheltering skein of uneasy personal knowings, histories, convictions, beliefs.

Many of the writers, including Harper herself, write about the scandal of racialised health inequalties in the USA. ‘Post industrial soul food’ traditions combined with poverty and poor access to affordable healthy food are, Harper points out, while indicting white supremacy past and present (not least for imposing unsuitable white eating habits) for the situation, severely affecting the health and life-expectancy of Black USians.

Another matter necessarily addressed here is the image of the body widely used to promote health generally and veg*n diets in particular: the thin white female body. This image is challenged here by several writers and by a forum set up by Harper for women of colour vegans & aspiring vegans to discuss the issue. Clearly, decolonising veganism must involve rethinking the healthy body. The discussion is not dominated by confident affirmations of Black full figured health, but of painful work through negative feelings, experiences of racism and fat-shaming, uneasy relationships with food and exercise as these women struggle to free themselves from the hegemonic optics of ‘beauty’ and ‘health’. The work is hard. You don’t throw off oppression the day you recognise it. You battle with it, maybe all your life.

While the journeys away from meat eating here involve struggle, they also often lead to new joy, feelings of wholeness and wellbeing, relief from ailments like menopausal flushes, renewed interest in food and eating, loving affirmation of Black life in connection with the living Earth. Calls for this better life to be made more accessible and affordable to more Black USians are made by those who know from experience how good plant based eating feels.

I was moved to read Harper’s explanation of antebellum slavery as the maintenance of the White Euro/USian addiction to sugar, and the ongoing suffering of mostly Black farm workers in areas such as the Dominican Republic to supply the commodity in vast quantities to the US market. By writing about this in parallel with animal exploitation, she demonstrates both that veganism is part of an intersectional awareness of compassionate consumption and that human suffering cannot be excluded from the consciousness that leads people to a compassionate diet. If you care about the non-human animal suffering to furnish your plate but not the human (of colour) farm-worker likewise being harmed, how can you call your diet compassionate?

Thus, Harper’s framing of veganism, also elaborated by other writers, especially Tara Sophia Bahna-James in her brilliant piece ‘Journey Towards Compassionate Consumption: Integrating Vegan and Sistah Experience’, joins the dots between eating vegan for ahimsa and for health, for environmental justice and for the environment as end in itself. To me this holistic reasoning to embrace a plant based diet has always been essential: when asked why I eat this way I always reply “all the reasons”, but this lazy conversation-stopper glosses over the true diversity of ways through which people come to and live veganism, a truth that this book restores. There is no finality here, no straight answer, no unity, and that roughness and openness both emphasises the centrality and tender intimacy of eating in our lives and thus the need for compassion to all and respect for the autonomy of others, and carries the project’s import beyond its grounding in the specificity of Black female USian vegans, to all of us who want to reduce the harm we do.

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