Sistah Vegan: A Rethinking of Race & Food

Blogger, author and Ph.D. candidate A. Breeze Harper has brought together a group of black women writers to deconstruct the notions of veganism in Sistah Vegan: Black Female Vegans Speak on Food, Identity, Health and Society (Lantern Books, March 2010). In this book, she and 30 writers addresses veganism, often thought of as a white construct, as a way of life for many black women and a core part of their values. This book broadens the view of the vegan from the perspective of race, class, gender and politics.

Harper, who consumes a whole food oriented, plant based diet, started The Sistah Vegan project as an online community, to get to the root of the questions she saw emerging around veganism, especially as it related to black females. The thought provoking essays, poems and critical writings in the book offer something for the person exploring becoming a vegan, or one who is learning about the impact of all the food we put in our mouths. The fearless writers in Sistah Vegan offer up new perspectives, and an unflinching lens on what food means to women of color and their family members. “This is the first volume of its kind to address the racialized, sexualized-gendered vegan in the USA,” Harper says.

The Sistah Vegans each offer up their diverse perspectives on their choice to pursue a vegan life. But they do have something distinct in common—they see their dietary choice as a way of self-empowerment. Whether they came to the decision to go vegan came at an early age, or later, most connected their food choices to taking control of their health. They have also seen food as a way to move away from social victimization.

Harper is clear that this isn’t a vegan manifesto, rather it is a compilation of voices each willing to share how they got to this point and its significance in changing the world.

In an African American culture that is firmly anchored in food love, deciding to become a vegan may be a personally easy decision, but it is almost never without its challenges.

One essay by college professor, Michelle R. Loyd-Page, is about her initiation into the vegan life through a New Year’s fast at her church. Loyd-Page points to the immediate health benefits of just 30 days of no meat. She attributes her change in diet to weight loss and reduction in hot flashes. Loyd-Page makes a bold declaration that black folks are killing themselves and shortening their lifespan by the foods they choose to eat. And it might sound a bit zealous, if it wasn’t for the fact that the data shows many of the chronic diseases–obesity, diabetes, some cancers, cardiovascular disease–that are linked to premature mortality in communities of color are connected to what we eat and how we move. Many of the authors make strong links between what we eat and our health outcomes, and more than a few tie food choices to our reproductive health. There is no doubt that after reading Sistah Vegan, it will be difficult to look at what we eat in the same way again.

One of the more exciting and amusing (she probably didn’t expect me to be amused) essays is Young, Black and Vegan, by Joi Marie Probus, who practices the vegan lifestyle for purely ethical reasons. Her approach to food through the humane treatment of animals is somewhat of an enigma to her friends and family. She says she is the only person she knows who has looked at veganism over vegetarianism as a statement on the treatment of animals. And while her values in many ways line up to PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), she struggled with a job with the organization doing outreach to the black community. She seemed to get hemmed up between the black community’s need to improve its health and PETA’s need to get black folks to stop wearing fur—by any means necessary. Her story reminded me of the clash between hard core, white Feminists of the 70s and 80s who challenged black women who also saw themselves as Feminists, because they weren’t radical enough, or aggressive enough, or in-your-face enough.

The beauty of this book, for people of color, for women and for activists, is that it gives a balanced view into food as a political movement and as a civil rights movement. The women writers in Sistah Vegan offer up a rare view into the thoughts, ethics, values and choices of many black women who have moved off the traditional path of food into veganism. This view can also be a lesson for traditional food systems and ethical treatment advocates into reaching people where they are, versus where you might think they should be.

5 thoughts on “Sistah Vegan: A Rethinking of Race & Food

  1. Great review.
    I just finished this book and enjoyed it very much.
    Very thought provoking. As a vegan woman of color, I was very excited when I first heard of Ms Harper’s work, and even more exited to see it finally come to fruition.

  2. This book could use a black version of “The Vegetarian Myth” by Lierre Keith or even websites like wholehealthsource.blogspot.com as a rebuttal to the health claims.

    A vegan diet will exacerbate existing nutrient deficiencies in black American women because the plant-based sources of nutrients simply do not offer enough bioavailability.

    The black American community needs better access to high-quality animal products, not *just* more vegetables, and definitely not more grains and legumes (which have scientifically demonstrated bad effects including depleting nutrients in the body without massive amounts of prep before eating).

  3. “yay food,” did you read the book? You are suggesting “The Vegetarian Myth” as a rebuttal to this book… have you read any rebuttals to “The Vegetarian Myth”? Most of the people who I’ve seen having read this book sound like it’s the only thing they’ve ever read on the matter and they just think this book is God.

  4. Normally I don’t respond to other people’s comments on blogs, but for those of you who are against a plant based diet, please do some research.

    Ninety-five percent of animals raised for food today are pumped with steroids and hormones. They are kepts in small cages where bacteria such as salmonella and e.coli flourish.

    Nevertheless, even “high quality” animal flesh is full of saturated fat and cholesterol–both of which are directly linked to hypertension, storke, and cancer. These three diseases are killing the black community, and studies have shown that all three of these diseases can be reversed through adopting a vegan diet.

  5. You know, most people have a visceral reaction to the notion that they need to give up something that they enjoy… so much so that they start clinging to foolish-yet-already-prevalent messages in an attempt to smack down whatever (or whomever) is telling them to give something up. Really, trying to use Keith’s book to “smack down” Sistah Vegan just tells me you’d rather shut down the book than take into consideration what it has to say.

    News flash: There is ALREADY nutrient deficiencies taking place in the Black community – as evidenced by the fact that our bodies aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do, or looking the way they’re supposed to look. We’re not feeling the way we’re supposed to feel, and at this point a vegan lifestyle might actually be a step UP for MANY of us.

    ANY dietary lifestyle requires proper information on nutrition and modification. A vegan who does not live on processed foods or soy replacements does not face the same issues that “yay food” presents. Like, let’s do some research before we spout off for nothing.

    Any American who pays full and proper price for their animal products will tell you that it’s not only pricey, but downright unaffordable for those who aren’t upper or sometimes middle class. A logical solution would be to only eat what you can afford… and most of us cannot afford properly cooked and prepared meat.

    A vegan lifestyle CAN be healthy and fulfilling. I don’t know who calls “soaking beans overnight” “massive amounts of prep work,” but I call people who can’t even do that… lazy. Good food is hard work… on SOMEONE’s part. And if that someone is someone other than YOU, then you’re going to PAY for it. An inexpensive and healthy way to live when done properly? Yes, you can do vegan. And you don’t need a clone of a book written by a woman who did it wrong to “refute” it.