Black Veganism: Then and Now

If you consider Black Veganism a passing trend, it’s time to look a little closer. While being vegan is sometimes thought of as a white elitist thing, plant-based eating has long been a major component in black activism and the diaspora at-large for decades. The numbers and history show Black Veganism is not going away. In fact, it’s taking off like never before. According to a Pew Research survey, 8% of black people identify as vegan or vegetarian vs. just 3% of white people. Black people are, in fact, the fastest-growing vegan demographic in America.


Black Veganism as a Statement

Some Black vegans view their decision to go green as an act of rebellion. There is a strong philosophical through-line between human rights and animal rights. Civil rights leader Dick Gregory once said, “Because I’m a civil rights activist, I am also an animal rights activist. Animals and humans suffer and die alike. Violence causes the same pain, the same spilling of blood, the same stench of death, the same arrogant, cruel, and vicious taking of life.”  Veganism can be a way to connect social justice issues to animal justice.

Even in today’s news, we can see the overlap in human and animal rights – the areas negatively impacted by the pollution of commercial farming have a habit of being black neighborhoods. Take this story of community action trying to force a factory pork farm from spraying pig urine and feces into their neighborhoods. Animal justice and social justice are intermingled because the same systems create suffering for both. 

Rastafarianism and its vegan choices have been making a statement of defiance since the 1900s. Rastafarianism came about in opposition to British colonialism. They follow several disciplines, including not eating flesh. They practice eating Ital foods (pronounced eye-tal), a word that comes from vital, and eating organic and local foods whenever possible. Rastafarians believe eating animal products and processed foods can dim your intellect, your body, and soul.

A long list of black stars from musicians and artists to athletes have been ahead of the curve in warning against the food industrial complex, and the dangers of animal products to our health. It includes 80% of Wu-Tang Clan, Stevie Wonder, Serena and Venus Williams, A$AP Rocky, the late Chadwick Boseman, Russell Simmons, Erykah Badu, the late Nipsy Hustle, Ava DuVernay, and from Dead Prez…the list goes on.

Early vegan adopter KRS-One’s rap “BEEF” came out on his Edutainment record in 1990. This was one of the first public endorsements on the hip-hop scene for veganism. Here’s a taste:

Fear and stress can become a part of you

In your cells and blood, this is true

So when the cow is killed, believe it

You preserve those cells, you freeze it

Thaw it out with the blood and season it

Then you sit down and begin eatin it

In your body, it’s structure becomes your structure

All the fear and stress of another

Any drug is addictive by any name

Even drugs in meat, they are the same

There is a long lineage of black movements that subscribe to vegan or vegetarian lifestyles. 

The Alkaline movement founded by black Honduran healer and herbalist Dr. Sebi, focuses on healing all maladies and diseases through a plant-based alkaline diet. His treatment is called “African Bio-Electric Cell Food Therapy”. These practices still exist today in collectives all throughout the country. The central belief in the Alkaline movement was that eating the right foods ( which did not include animal products) could cure you of any sickness. Food is health and the right foods free your body of pain and illness. Dr. Sebi was sued multiple times for being a “fake” doctor and calling his treatment plan “medicine”, a word that our court system believes belongs to Western medicine and pharmaceutical companies. 

The American Black Hebrew Israelites do not eat meat or dairy, and even remove salt from their diets 4 days out of the week and restrict sugar. Those living in the Dimona community of Israel have turned their vegan, local, organic lifestyle into profit with popular restaurants, a frozen vegan line of food sold throughout Israel, and contracts with African governments, small farmers, and development agencies sharing the organic agricultural techniques they have developed.

Kwanzaa focuses on vegan food choices. In the early days of Kwanzaa, its creator Maulana Krenga, originally insisted that all practitioners fast and only break the fast with fruits, vegetables, and nuts.

The MOVE group that was completely decimated (with the exception of two survivors) by the Philadephia police bombing in 1985 was an animal-activist vegetarian/ vegan communal-living group that took on the last name of Africa. 

The Nation of Islam promoted vegetarian and vegan diets. Elijah Mohammad even wrote his own cookbook called How to Eat to Live. Oddly enough, he not only avoided meats but also discouraged all traditionally “southern” foods like collard greens, sweet potatoes, black-eyed peas, and even cornbread. He did not believe black people could take pride in the food that had once been linked to the dark past of plantations and slavery and believed that eating foods that were associated with that past would keep people tied to it. He also saw value in establishing a separate black economy and food supply that did not profit from white American systems.

Black Veganism as Purification From Historical Trauma

The  Nation of Islam’s type of vegan/vegetarianism philosophy includes an element of purification. They believed by purging the “plantation diet” from your body, your spirit would follow. This thought of food having power through its symbolism is also a school of thought in black veganism.

A member of the Ojibwe nation once told me that fry bread (as delicious as it was)  was what he considered “reservation food”. It was not indigenous or healthy, but a creation born from necessity when their food sources shrunk to government-issued rations. These were over-processed foods with long shelf lives that made people sick over time. He told me he saw parallels in the origin story of Black soul food, or as Elijah Mohammad would say, “slave food”.

However, it is not as easy as simply drawing a line between what is and what isn’t “slave food”. Some of the key ingredients in today’s soul food came over on the ships with the enslaved and have a long history before slavery – take sweet potatoes and black-eyed peas, still staples in West African diets today. What came over and what was a part of an adapted diet is important to note.

For example, we know beef was not a part of the African diet. Their diet was rich in fruit, vegetables, nuts, and some fish or other meats used sparingly for flavor. The meat was never the focus. Other southern foods were rooted in a history of scarcity and survival response like pork feet,  chitterlings, and especially fried chicken.  These traditional “southern” foods are not connected to the indigenous African diet, from the consequence of slavery, poverty, and survival.

Cooking techniques also changed and directly impacted health. Stewing and open-pot cooking was the primary food preparation method of food in Africa. In America, salting and frying were preservation methods picked up from Native Americans. High levels of salt are not natural to the African diet and cause disease and harm.

 Unfortunately, survival food is not often good for the body long-term. There are complex feelings around soul food origins and ownership, and black vegans are split in their reception of it. Whatever type of vegan you want to be, there are countless black-owned vegan restaurants in every state, including vegan soul food. 

Black Veganism as a Health Choice

Tabitha Brown, Tik Tok phenom and vegan, was watching a documentary called What The Health when she started thinking about what she was eating. “When they were talking about diseases and our heritage, they would eat the same thing, causing the same disease.” Her mother died at 51 from ALS and her father at 68 is the longest-living male in their family. She says aunts, uncles, and family members fall to stroke, heart disease, and other illnesses, still while very young.  “To me, meat was the common denominator,” she says. Her maladies before going vegan included depression, migraine headaches, blurred vision, exhaustion, chronic pain, and panic attacks. “I felt like I was dying,” she says in her YouTube video. She shares the radical changes of her journey going vegan, and 1 million + people can’t get enough. 

In a list of the top 10 things killing African Americans, six out of the ten can be directly impacted by diet. In fact, a study cited by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine found that black people who switched to a vegetarian or vegan diet reduced their heart disease risk factors, gained lower blood pressure, and cut their risk of diabetes in half and their hypertension risk by 44%. 

Here’s the List:

Black Men Black Women
1. Heart disease 🥬 1. Heart disease 🥬
2. Cancer 🥬 2. Cancer 🥬
3. Unintentional injuries 3. Stroke 🥬
4. Homicide 4. Diabetes 🥬
5. Stroke 🥬 5. Alzheimer’s disease
6. Diabetes 🥬 6. Unintentional injuries
7. Chronic lower respiratory diseases 7. Chronic lower respiratory diseases
8. Kidney disease 🥬 8. Kidney disease 🥬
9. Septicemia 9. Septicemia
10. Hypertension 🥬 10. Hypertension 🥬

Veganism As Our Nature

There is a contentious debate among scholars about whether mankind ever intended to eat meat. Because this is an article about veganism, I’ll make the argument here. Some scientists point to our ancient DNA  from 10,000 years ago to the earliest people on the planet. It is widely believed they had almost (if not entirely) plant-based diets. Evidence to support this points to our teeth and (non)claws as well as other indicators that track with plant-based mammals, the strength of our stomach acid and intestine length.

There is evidence that humans sometimes supplemented their diet as a scavenger species, picking over the carcasses left by the true predators, and eating bone marrow and meat remnants, but that 90% of our diet and caloric intake was plants, berries, and roots.

The fact that our bodies react poorly to consuming meat and increasing incidents of cancer, heart disease, and stroke show that we are not designed to cope with eating meat. In fact, a look at statistics shows that red meat consumption equates to slow-motion suicide in human health. The National Institute of Health states that “consumption of red and processed meats is associated with serious nutritional and environmental health harms.”

So What’s In The Way of Giving It a Go?

You don’t need to buy a juice fast or subscribe to a meal kit or take out a second mortgage to afford to go vegan.  A 2018 Gallup poll showed that income may not be as big an indicator of veganism as expected. Americans who make under $30,000 are almost twice as likely to be vegan or vegetarian as those who make over $75,000. Additionally, a 2019 Gallup Poll found a third of people of color in America reported cutting back on meat, compared to just a fifth of white Americans. All you need is a reason.

Want To Try It Before You Go All In?

If you are looking for inspiration or want to see what it’s about before getting too deep in, check out these local vegan restaurants in Rochester, NY.

The Red Fern – 283 Oxford St

New Ethic Pizzeria & Cafe –  545 Titus Ave

B+ Healthy-Fresh Food Market – 442 Genesee St.

Grass Fed Rochester -980 Monroe Ave

Natural Oasis – 288 Monroe Ave

Cooking and Eating Healthy with Phil – Saturdays only, shed B at the public market, 280 North Union Street

Abyssinia Ethiopian Restaurant – (vegan and non-vegan options) 1657 Mount Hope Ave

Supreme Salad Bar –  (vegan and non-vegan options) 344 Thurston Road

Support a local black vegan  – Pearl Brunt founded the Le Twisted Spoon Community. It’s free / donation-based community of resources that teaches vegan cooking tips and activism. Listen in as she discusses her vegan journey with the hen house.

Let us know how your plant-based journey goes or is going. Share with us in the comments any resources or experiences you’ve had with this movement!

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