Thursday, September 22, 2011

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Book Review :: SISTAH VEGAN: Black Female Vegans Speak on Food, Identity, Health, and Society

Leave it to a Black woman to exercise a critical view and ignite a theory of racialized colonialist thinking through the critique of mainstream vegan practices -- and you take your time reading all of it, absorbing each chapter, of course! SISTAH VEGAN: BLACK FEMALE VEGANS SPEAK ON FOOD, IDENTITY, HEALTH, AND SOCIETY, is a book edited by A. Breeze Harper, a PhD Candidate at the University of California, Davis, and is a collection of chapters, all written by Black-identified, female vegans. It is the very first text ever dealing with Black women and vegan food practices.

SISTAH VEGAN was birthed to bring to the forefront Black females who are vegan in an area where they are often placed in the margins, and images, theory, reasons, and practices of members of the vegan world are seen to consist mostly of whites participants. SISTAH VEGAN sends a clear message that in spite of the mainstream display that is  infused with whiteness, not only do Black female vegans exist, but they are here to voice their concerns and advocacy about their food choices, their health and the health of their community, animal rights, practicing veganism in religious settings, practicing veganism as activism and resistance, and  various other areas they find worth confronting.

SISTAH VEGAN is an anthology -- a text with various contributors, and each chapter introduces a Black female vegan, her view on veganism, as well as her entry point.

As someone who adopted a vegetarian lifestyle at age 16, which lasted almost a decade -- one of those years, a vegan, I can't tell you how excited I was to receive this text. For one, I live to read Black feminist theory and other literary works, and have found myself, and many of my life experiences on the pages of works just like these and knew I would be able to relate to some of the stories. But I also know that since those years, my views on vegetarianism, veganism, and our place in the food chain, and my views on society have changed, and my reasons as someone who is now 35, a Black feminist, and a cultural anthropologist are, of course, different. I'm not sure exactly how I feel about this text -- as far as its theory at this time, and I waited some time before completing this review to see if I could come to some kind of conclusive stance. I haven't. But there are some points that I have highlighted -- things I felt could have been expounded upon, and areas that, in my opinion, were missing, and other reasons why I believe SISTAH VEGAN is a book worth reading.

Even though SISTAH VEGAN was not a book geared towards recruiting all of its readers to adopt a vegan lifestyle, the fact that all of the contributors are vegan sets the stage and of course gives us the idea that veganism is key. Though many of the sistahs in SISTAH VEGAN practice the lifestyle as a form of activism in one way or another, and shared the belief of how food choice and animal treatment is linked to areas of racism and human oppression, I would have liked to see more ways to confront structural oppression in food practices where those who occupy lower socio-economic statuses would have access to, or to hear more ways of bringing these issues to the forefront. However, what I felt a real weakness of this text was it seemed as if they spoke as if everyone has access to the same opportunities, information, and choices, and rarely mentioned inequality that plays a tremendous part in practicing a lifestyle that they so fervently believe in. Though the editor briefly acknowledged that everyone may not have the ability to practice veganism, and suggested each of us contribute what we can in this role of resistance in her chapter titled "Social Justice Beliefs and Addiction To Uncompassionate Consumption," it was not an underlying message throughout this text, and to link food choices to colonialism, in my opinion, should have acknowledged this inequality that has been geared towards Black and Communities Of Color -- those who have experienced this the most.

Those who cannot afford  or who do not have access to a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle are the majority in a society where inequality looms and people of color have continuously held marginalized positions and have never had equal access to innumerable opportunities. For these reasons, I'm not sure how we expect many groups to pay higher prices for foods that are said to be seen as healthier when many cannot afford a healthy and balanced diet regardless, or see the vegan lifestyle as filling, and I'll use myself as an example. I am educated in the way a capitalist society values a commodified, formalized education -- I have a couple of degrees. And before too long I'll have a couple more. I plan on finishing off my education with a PhD. For now, the education I currently have many people go their entire lives wishing they had since it is something that is supposedly supposed to thrust someone into the higher rungs. I don't have any children, and as my mother always used to tell me "When you eat, your whole family is fed!" I have always been conscious of the things I eat for the most part, and have always naturally gravitated towards healthier foods, but even with this status, I can hardly afford organic all the time (not that this makes food better, more socially, ethically, or environmentally sound and safe), fair trade, or to become a vegan. How much more difficult is this for the multitude of individuals, families and communities whose situations are far more complex?

Many of the stories talked about 'Soul Food' and its ramifications on Black health. However, I tend to look at this slightly differently. As we know, more recent public research -- and I emphasize the word public, since this knowledge has been something known among communities Of Color for generations, yet only when mainstream (white) practices began to acknowledge this is when it was seen worthy enough to garner attention. This knowledge and research shows the increasing effects of racism as a very large contributor to health disparities, accountable for heart attacks, strokes, miscarriages, low birth-weight babies, and innumerable other health disparities -- regardless of food choices, or simply because of being Black. Also, even with my very limited knowledge of pre-colonial food choices, I can't help but compare the messages in SISTAH VEGAN to other ideas on veganism, and to other societies on a global basis, and the way Western Society has regarded meat consumption and the way we dictate this. For example, many people consider certain animals and animal parts unclean and stigmatize others for their eating habits. However, in many cases this can be seen as ignorance at its best, or ethnocentric at its worst, since these same parts that we disregard as unclean and unsuitable for human consumption (the eyes, ears, intestines, etc. -- these so-called scraps), are exactly what other societies consume and use, making them healthier, and contributing to their longer life spans. I think of hunter-gatherer societies throughout history and how much more beneficial that was, or even in our current times other communities where meals are not stored in a refrigerator or freezer, but are consumed on an as-needed basis. I also think of how in the United States and Western societies, sadly enough and embarrassingly enough, too, we hunt on full stomachs. Or how the increasing population size has and continues to contribute to our sedentary lifestyles, and the tremendous role this plays in our food consumption.

I am not at all suggesting we not strive to obtain a greater level of consciousness in food choices -- why we eat the things we do and the methods of production, or that we not reexamine our level of compassion and thought towards non-human animals. Not at all. But I am suggesting that when confronting whiteness and white ideology, addictions to uncompassionate consumption, capitalism, when attempting to bring forth a greater level of awareness and forge a greater resistance -- especially in an area like food, which is seen as the crux of many societies, that consciousness in these areas must be viewed through a more holistic lens. To me, it would have been nice to read more about changing the foundation of an unjust system and the way we can contribute to a more equitable social structure and find a way to produce more moral and cultural understandings and appreciation in our eating habits and throughout overall society, rather than suggesting veganism as key, since simply banning or removing something hardly gets to the foundation of a problem, and often only paves a new avenue for oppressive behavior to mutate. Also, suggesting removal does not take into account those who do not participate and the numerous reasons for this stance, and in some cases can be seen as perpetuating the same types of behavior that excludes, ignores, and divides. But I somehow get the feeling had this not been an anthology, but a text written by a single author it may have gone a bit deeper, but that would mean we would have had a lack of multiple contributors, voices, and viewpoints, and that would also be unfortunate. 

I am so grateful to have read SISTAH VEGAN, and although it took a minute for the title to grow on me, I find myself saying it for no other reason than to just say 'Sistah Vegan!' I enjoyed it for the reasons that it addressed the need to center those considered marginalized and who are often relegated to the shadows, it was not monolithic and showed that there are very different reasons Black women experience and explore veganism, it addressed some of the issues of how many people perceive and stereotype vegans -- especially Black women and body types, it confronted whiteness front and center, and it also started me to thinking and allowed me to go back to a place that I had left, since I had been tossing around the idea of returning to vegetarianism over the past couple of years and made it official after reading this book in an attempt raise my consciousness around food choice as activism as much as possible -- maybe my view will change. And don't get me wrong, I absolutely believe in activism through food choices; I just believe in going a bit below the surface and addressing more issues that may or may not be linked to these areas. What are your thoughts?

In this video, editor A. Breeze Harper talks about the inception of the Sistah Vegan Project!

Click here for Part II

Edited by: A. Breeze Harper
Publisher: Lantern Books
Year: 2010
Paperback: 22.00
Genre: Vegetarianism/Feminism
Pages: 224
ISBN: 978-1590561454

Thank you, Lantern Books, for providing a copy of SISTAH VEGAN: Black Female Vegans Speak on Food, Identity, Health, and Society, for this review.

Note: All opinions are my own and honest, and I am not compensated by the publisher!

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