“Plant-based eating has a long, radical history in Black American culture, preserved by institutions and individuals who have understood the power of food and nutrition in the fight against oppression,” writes Amirah Mercer in “A Homecoming.” The piece, published at Eater, explores Mercer’s path to veganism and the plant-based diets of the Black diaspora. While Mercer’s journey to a plant-centered diet initially brought up feelings of loss — “my veganism initially seemed like a rebuke of the rituals I had always known” — Mercer finds immense power in what she learns. Exploring veganism isn’t actually straying from her roots, and the shift is a way — as singer Prince once expressed — to liberate oneself and the world from injustice. “As a Black woman in America,” Mercer writes, “my veganism is, in fact, a homecoming.”
Just as I began to plateau on plants, my grandmother gave me a copy of Bryant Terry’s 2014 cookbook, Afro-Vegan. Seeing the words “Afro” and “Vegan” together on the book’s cover disrupted everything the mainstream had ever shown me about veganism. Terry, who is the chef in residence at San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora, uses the foodways of our ancestors as a historical guide for plant-based eating, combining classic Southern, Caribbean, and African dishes into a uniquely Black vegan cuisine: There were recipes for stewed tomatoes and black-eyed peas, grits with slow-cooked collard greens, and a mango-habanero hot sauce. I felt overwhelming power in the sudden and profound realization that I didn’t have to stray from my roots in order to explore my veganism.
Food is political, and that is especially true for Black Americans. A lack of access to healthy food is a problem that disproportionately affects Black and Latino communities — a condition that the U.S. Department of Agriculture formally describes as a “food desert,” though the food justice activist Karen Washington prefers the more apt term “food apartheid” — which are defined in large part by the nearly century-long legacy of redlining.
Decades of U.S. agricultural policies that overwhelmingly favor meat, dairy, and corn have caused many Americans to load up on a diet rich in fatty, processed, and refined foods, but the ill effects of the standard American diet (appropriately also called the SAD diet) are heightened for racial and ethnic minorities. Systemic racism within the dietetics industry has kept Black dietitians out of the field — their number has fallen by nearly 20 percent over the last two decades — while the resulting Eurocentric view of diet and nutrition has severely constrained its approach to non-Western cuisines and cultures. Not only is there a lack of knowledge about the nutritional foundation of many traditional diets, but people from non-Western cultures are pushed toward Westernized views of health and wellness even though, for instance, people of color are generally less able to process dairy products.
Both health care and food policies are greatly affected by who is voted into office. Unfortunately, African Americans have historically been and continue to be victims of voter suppression, which takes away our ability to advocate for health care policies that nourish our families. And so for many in the Black vegan community, plant-based eating can be an act of protest against this disenfranchisement.
Even as Africans in America adapted to their new environment, they retained their Indigenous knowledge of plant-based nutrition. Those forced into slavery on smaller, poorer farms, or in areas where the plantation economy was not dominant, such as New Orleans and the Gulf, kept their own gardens, a practice described by Twitty in The Cooking Gene as “little landscapes of resistance: Resistance against a culture of dehumanizing poverty and want, resistance against the erasure of African culture practices.” In Hog and Hominy, Opie quotes a Scottish-born visitor to North Carolina who remarked that Black people were “the only people that seem[ed] to pay any attention to the various uses that wild vegetables may be put to.”
Chattel slavery, the influence of European foodways, and the interests of a capitalist economy disrupted the plant-centered African diet. That disruption was never repaired, as the government failed to deliver on its promise of “40 acres and a mule” after the Civil War, despite the 1865 special field order to reallocate 400,000 acres of Confederate land to the Black farmers who had tilled it for 250 years. Andrew Johnson — Abraham Lincoln’s successor and a sympathizer with the South — overturned the order and returned the land to the plantation owners. Denied the right to land ownership, African Americans who stayed in the South after the Civil War had little control over the food they grew to feed their families. (Of the Black farmers who have managed to acquire their own land between then and now, some 98 percent have had it taken from them.)