Black and Vegan: When Taking Control of Your Health Infringes on Racial Performativity

By Nia Calloway. Photo by Deun Ivory.

I became a vegan after I became a vegetarian. I became a vegetarian on and off for several years after watching Food Inc, a harsh but necessary exposé on the food and meat packing industries. Horrified, I saw how many farming practices exploit animals for the sake of our meat-heavy diets. As a lifelong animal lover and Eliza Thornberry wannabe, I felt a deep sense of shame and guilt come over me while watching the dreary life cycle of a farm cow. The peaceful life I've always aimed to live by was not conducive to eating meat.

Now, as far as being black goes, I've always been black. But for some reason, my diet did not always align with being black. Heralding from the American South, I come from a culture of soul food, barbeques, and Sunday brunches at Applebee’s. Growing up in Texas only exaggerated this aspect of my culture. How does a Black girl from Texas suddenly decide that she wants no more meat in her diet? No more beef, no more burgers, no more hot dogs, no more chicken tenders, and indeed no more fried chicken. (Everyone likes fried chicken, alright?) How does a Black Texan give all of that up without a fight? The fleeting ecstasy that my taste buds experienced at every barbeque or TexMex meal could not accommodate for my deep sense of guilt.

And the vegan way I went. I decided that it is best to do as little harm as possible on this Earth, rather than to stubbornly hang onto old habits. Humans are the only creatures on Earth who operate in an “Ego”system, while all other living organisms are trying their damnedest to operate in a dying ecosystem. The purpose I serve in going vegan is that by doing as little harm as possible, I demonstrate that I am still okay. I demonstrate that I am still thriving and happy, if not happier, without consuming animals. I demonstrate that I am not depleted, because in fact I am more fulfilled.

It’s important for me to come to this realization as a Black female because food is one thing that makes a culture like mine distinct. In the book Hog and Hominy: Soul Food from Africa to America, Frederick Opie, calls soul food a “cultural identity”. Soul food has a rich story that began with my enslaved ancestors. Now, the “food” part, began in West Africa, but the “soul” part developed during slavery. Soul food maintained strong West African influence, however it was still under the conditions of pre-emancipation. In other words, soul food has a deep sense of cultural integrity as well as resourcefulness and heart. Slaves created soul food through resourcefulness, experimentation, and creativity. For example, parts of the hog that were considered scraps were instead utilized by slaves, which is why we have chit’lins. Chitterlings, aka “chit’lins”, are fried, sometimes grilled, pig intestines that are deemed a soul food delicacy. Soul food is the culinary representation of perseverance. Soul food is the representation of the Black spirit. It is the true lemonade made out of lemons. It is the first and most unwavering black invention in America. Why on Earth would I abandon such a prominent aspect of my culture?

Some would argue that it is my weak attempt at assimilating into mainstream white culture, as if white people invented veganism. As if white people invented the concept that no being is more superior than another, and therefore you shouldn’t take advantage of their bodies or enslave them. As if white people invented the concept that we shouldn’t discriminate against those who differ from us just because we believe that we are superior. No, this is not my attempt at assimilating into mainstream carefree white culture. This is my empathetic pursuit in creating more equality in this world. I say empathetic because in our current system of farming and agriculture, animals such as cows, pigs, chickens, goats, sheep, et cetera are enslaved. They are enslaved for their meat, their fur, their fat, and their carcasses. In most “efficient” factory-like farming systems, animals are kept shackled and trapped inside a habitat that is not conducive to animal well-being. Profit takes precedence over the well-being of the livestock. It sickens me. It saddens me. “Enjoying” myself at a barbeque for some ribs that aren’t even good for my body is not worth the trauma and abuse that animals endure every single day. This is slavery.

Yes, I do acknowledge the large fundamental differences between humans and livestock animals when it comes to slavery. For example, humans are far more neurologically complex than livestock animals and also have a greater emotional depth. However, I cannot help but notice the major similarities. In Democracy in America, De Tocqueville claimed that “the European is to the other races of mankind, what man is to the lower animals; he makes them subservient to his use; and when he cannot subdue, he destroys them”. He understood how the nonsensical abuse of power by humans to animals is similar to that of Eurocentric, imperialist Europeans. It is despicable that throughout history our brethren could choose shackles and abuse over love and respect. It is despicable that to this day there are people still enslaved in sex trades. It is despicable that so many people are still suffering at the hands of our own. It is also despicable to see that our sympathy stops outside of our species. Hell, some people’s sympathy stops inside our species.

But I am perplexed, and almost ashamed that humans cannot see the importance of all walks of life on this Earth. Humans fail to see how instrumental each animal’s role is on this Earth. We are an ecosystem. We are not an egosystem. The ego kills, the ego takes, and the ego keeps killing and taking until the ego is the only thing that’s left, and then it ultimately suffers. Our purpose on this Earth is not to squeeze everything dry of its resources and goodness. Our purpose on this Earth is to cause the least amount of harm possible. Now, if your young child is dying in your arms and he or she desperately needs to consume an animal to live, choose your child. That is sacrifice. Things get out of hand when the ego tells us that we need to keep consuming more and more animals because it’s fun or it “tastes good” or it’s “what we do”. It is important for humans to find balance before we can begin saving the world. Balance is the first step. The ego does not operate on balance. The ego operates on excess, greed, depletion, and narcissism, none of which contain an element of balance.

For me, veganism has become a lifestyle of balance and abundance. I pay more attention to how my body feels. I pay more attention to how my body reacts to the things I put in it. I am more diligent about the necessary nutrients that I am getting. In veganism I have every right to make sure my body is sufficiently nourished, and I do it without guilt and shame. Veganism gets a bad reputation due to naysayers claiming that it doesn’t sufficiently nourish the body. Restrictive veganism does not properly nourish the body, not abundant veganism. Abundant veganism extends past raw fruits and vegetables. Abundant veganism extends itself to grains, starches, nuts, legumes, squashes, and any energy rich piece of wonder that grows from the ground. How dare someone claim that I could gain more nutrition from eating a hamburger with one tomato slice and one lettuce leaf versus eating a hearty bowl of rice with a colorful array of sautéed vegetables and spices.

To trust in veganism takes research. It takes doing your homework, not only about food, but about your body. Study your body. Study what foods or meals make your body feel alive. Study which foods or meals make your body feel deadened. Veganism is a drastic change from a standard American diet or a diet rich in southern-influenced soul food. However, progress does not have to equal final product. Start small and work your way to where you want to be. When your intentions for yourself are healthy, balanced, and pure, you will soon enough find yourself in the place you want to be. My motivation for this life change came after I became ill from not treating my body well in the past and finally giving myself the respect I deserved. Once I reached that pivotal realization, that bodies are sacred, I discovered that sacredness of bodies doesn’t only apply to humans. Animals are sacred beings. They did not ask for this agriculturally advanced society that they’re imprisoned in. I felt like I owed it to myself, my body, and my conscience to make this decision. I have no regrets, only possibilities.

Vegan food is so full of soul, of my soul. My lifestyle change into Veganism does not diminish my Blackness, it enhances it. In 2017, I believe that self-care, “inner”standing, and knowledge of self are fundamental principles of Blackness. Habits that are meant to enhance our lives and replenish our Black bodies take precedence in 2017. Our never-ending journey to live better than we did yesterday and create a better tomorrow is the true essence of the Black spirit.

PHOTO: MARIEL CALLOWAY

PHOTO: MARIEL CALLOWAY

Nia Calloway hails from Austin and Houston Texas. She contributes to BGIO because BGIO's wellness mission has inspired her to have one of her own. BGIO is the catalyst for her to get honest about her personal wellness journey and live her best life possible. Her go-to wellness practices include smelling nature, laughing, and yoga. You may connect with her online on Instagram, Twitter, and her website www.niacalloway.com