Op-Ed: What kind of black person doesn’t eat soul food?

Soul food is famous for pork and barbecue, for tasty side dishes cooked in lard. I’m a black man who grew up loving my mom’s cornbread dressing and my aunt’s macaroni and cheese. Then I became vegan. At first I wondered if I didn’t eat soul food as I had historically conceptualized it, what kind of black person would I be?

Cultural identities are rooted in culinary identities. This is especially true for people of color: what you eat or don’t eat says a lot about who you belong to. The term “soul food” dates back to the 1960s, and as “soul” became a linguistic signifier for black culture, it became an empowering shorthand for being able to survive in a racist society and for resisting dehumanization. The roots of soul food are anti-racist.

I know that not eating meat can also be anti-racist, and that veganism aligns with these empowering principles. Not consuming animal products resists the dehumanizing forces and disproportionate effects of factory farming on black people and on the Earth. But there have been times when my ever-changing diet has compromised my ability to feel like part of my community, or even my family.

For us, soul food consists of the classics: fried chicken, collard greens, dirty rice, jambalaya, okra, cornbread dressing and just about anything you can eat on a pig. Over the years, these foods have comforted me. When racism distracts me, the red beans and rice I grew up with are the soil I remember as loved and owned. For me, red beans and rice feels like home.

When I moved from Battle Creek, Michigan to graduate school in suburban Los Angeles, my family feared the move would “change” me. Maybe they were right. When I came to Claremont, I was your typical omnivore, grilled meat lover. Three and a half years later, I was a vegetarian, and shortly after, I was a vegan. I grew dreadlocks and a beard.

I was dreading my first trip home after becoming a vegetarian. I knew my family would question my diet and challenge my cultural authenticity. Sure enough, my dad gave a demonstration of cooking meat to add to the beans and rice I had made for Christmas dinner – despite the fact that there were plenty of other meat dishes to choose from. My beans and rice weren’t genuine for our family and he made sure everyone knew that.

My experience is not unique. Countless other people of color feel alienated for being vegan, even though their veganism may be rooted in a commitment to community. In America, food has long been – or been entwined with – an engine of oppression, and the black body is a constant reminder of that. Blacks were enslaved because of our keen sense of agriculture and cooking. The economic exploitation of traditional farm workers and factory farms, who are predominantly black and Latino, persists today.

Soul food is how black people define themselves and celebrate their survival stories. And yet, the overwhelming cultural power of soul food presents a compelling case for reexamining it. Are the old stories we tell ourselves about soul food still useful? Is the idea of ​​soul food really about the food itself, or is it rooted in the wisdom of the communities that created it? How can soul food tell stories about who we want to become, and not just who we once were?

I suggest we start by decolonizing soul food – unearthing how white stereotypes shaped our understanding of the cuisine of our black ancestors. We need look no further than Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben – characters created to normalize segregation – to see the influence of white assumptions on black cuisine. Dissociating these images from soul food helps us uncover insights that have always existed on the fringes.

For example, there is no static definition of what it means to eat in a “black” way. In his book “Hog and Hominy”, food historian Frederick Douglass Opie writes that what Americans consider a traditional West African diet, consisting of “darker whole grains, dark green leafy vegetables and fruits and colored nuts” supplemented with meat, evolved because during slavery and its aftermath, black people had to eat what they had. They had to learn how to make inexpensive cuts of meat delicious.

If we view the history of black food as a window to surviving racism in our domestic food system, we tap into deeper meanings. You could say that what drives soul food isn’t the chicken or the pork, but rather a spirit of preservation and community. And this awareness should prompt ethical reflection and response.

I suggest that veganism, especially black veganism as other activists and I have described, shows a powerful path. Black veganism forces us to examine how the language of animality has been used to justify the oppression of any being who deviates, by species, race, or behavior, from white cultural norms. By challenging racist stereotypes within these norms, black veganism invites us to learn more about black food and food culture. beyond the terror of slavery, renting and cotton picking. I find parts of myself in the stories of chefs like Hercules Posey and James Hemings, and food justice activists like Fannie Lou Hamer.

Studying this history, in conjunction with changing my diet, has helped me to reflect on my black and vegan identities. And I think it helped my family too. Over dinner, we started talking about foods from my grandfather’s childhood in Mississippi—rice, beans, vegetables, stews, eggs, and sometimes meat. We learned that one of the reasons he worked on farms, despite the abuse he faced, was to reduce his own food insecurity.

Telling and retelling these stories allows Black people to understand our food in the context of our own stories – and to ensure that our dietary changes preserve and promote the communities from which we come.

Christopher Carter teaches theology at the University of San Diego. He is the author of “The Spirit of Soul Food: Race, Faith, and Food Justice”. This article was produced in partnership with Zócalo Public Square.

James C. Tibbs