Updated: Jun 30, 2022
From hi-fives, hand claps and you-go-girls to eye-rolls, wrist slaps and near exile, being vegan while brown in America brings forward a unique array of responses from within our own communities .
For a great many of our elders and peers, it’s as if we’ve turned our backs on a long held tradition of food culture that accompanies us at the height of our greatest celebrations and the moments of our deepest grief.
For hundreds of years, resilient black and brown people toiled and built; adapted and learned. From the dogged wickedness of enslavement to the strange fruit of Jim Crow, we breathed and thrived, cried and loved together because all we had was each other and a culture built along the broad side of an unfathomable, shared trauma that still haunts us today; seeking atonement and recompense.
Traumatized by the transatlantic journey where north of 2.4 million of my ancestors perished, the very first of us reached Jamestown having no idea what it was to eat gizzards, scraped ribs, neck bones and chitterlings. In fact, great losses of life were incurred because of the introduction of that meat-heavy diet upon a mostly plant-based people. So, in an effort to stem those losses, slave owners shipped seeds and food familiar to our ancestors such as rice, millet, grains, okra, maize, sugar beets, yams, cassava, kidney beans and peanuts for awhile.
It was only over time and out of necessity that our palettes adapted to discarded entrails and the mostly inedible body parts that represented the literal garbage of the plantation.
Masters of the art of making lemonade from lemons, our ancestors turned those trashed intestines, bones, feet and bitter greens into an herbaceous, flavorful source of sustenance that later made its‘ way to the tables of the big house and plates of the slave masters, their guests and their kin.
By the 1960’s, what was formerly known plantation food became what we’ve come to embrace as soul food.
While representing a mere 15% of the US population, African-Americans top the leaderboard in deaths from heart attacks, strokes, most cancers and come in a close 2nd place to our Hispanic brethren in deaths from diabetes.
At the height of the recent pandemic, we also disproportionately lead in covid-deaths due, in large part, to our leadership in food-derived comorbidities. Couple this with systemically poor access to healthy fruits and vegetables and hypersaturation within black and brown communities of liquor stores, convenience marts, and fast food joints specializing in the sale of fast, cheap, highly-processed and high caloric, fat, sugar, salt and cholesterol-laden, foods, and it's no question why we lead in chronic diseases with every swallow.
While there’s some debate around the relevance and meaning of everything from soul food traditions to genetic predispositions, history and science supports these facts: 1) Ancestral food brought over from Africa early on is authentic soul food, not the plantation food that was forced upon us 2) Genetics load the gun but, in most cases, it’s your fork and fand what you elect to put at the end of it that's responsible for the promotion of the chronic diseases that pull the trigger.
In revising soul food to an embrace of its’ origins in healthy variations of ancestral food, we extend, not only our history but a much needed lifeline to health-wealth.
So, the next time your vegan sister or brother begins a conversation about the power of plants, open your soul to receive a helping of that ancestral soul food.