Photo Source: Feel Rich
Can we talk about pain for a minute? Recently I wrote about my struggle with emotional eating. I understood that I was eating my pain long before I kicked the habit for good. Of course, it started insidiously. For most of my teenage years much of my emotional eating was done on autopilot. I lived for the rush that came from the food I was eating, but I wasn't quite aware that that was the case. I would eat enough that the pain would become imperceptible, and I would remain distracted right up until it was time to eat again. This worked for many years, but the pain continued to mount. The stress continued to grow, my worries became bigger, and eventually, food simply wasn't enough to hide the fact that I was hurting.
I suspect that this is how it goes for a lot of people. By the time we even become aware that we have a problem, it's already become habit. We do it every day, multiple times per day, and because the harm isn't immediate it's easy for us to wake up in the morning and do it all over again. But at some point, the signs start to appear. The consequences start to creep up, slowly but surely. We know that we have to change, but we're in so deep that it seems like such an impossible feat, and even when we decide we're ready, we struggle to fight the temptations. The behavior has become so ingrained in our everyday life that it's hard to get control of it. We've become addicted.
So why am I bringing this up? Recently I watched a new documentary on Netflix called 'Feel Rich', which features several Hip-Hop stars discussing the importance of wellness in "the Black community" (I hate to refer to us as a monolith but bear with me), and the urgent need for us to take the health of our minds, bodies, and souls seriously. At first blush the concept almost seems condescending, rich rappers telling regular folk that true wealth lies in health, and I admit I was skeptical initially. However the film stirred up some emotions that ultimately changed my mind. The film has an important message, and it needs to be heard.
What I saw in the film is a level of vulnerability rarely seen in Hip-Hop. In an industry that thrives on maintaining a facade of invincible masculinity, it was refreshing to see men being real about their own struggles with food, drugs and health. But, considering that many of their peers are prematurely dying at an alarming rate, it was very much so coming from a sober place of urgency. On top of the varying degrees of violence that Black people face daily, the overwhelming lot of us are being victimized by the food we put on our plate. You might say, "well, we choose what we eat". Well my response is, yes you do, but no you don't.
Fact of the matter is that systemic racism, in the form of supermarket redlining, food deserts, and fast food that targets us as kids combined with the levels of stress that comes with trying to navigate various systems of oppression on a daily basis places Black people in a unique position. Not only do we tend to have less access to healthy food, but we're also facing high levels of stress while being presented with very few healthy coping mechanisms. Our environments (and often, our paychecks) dictate that the chicken joint, the Chinese food spot & the liquor store are our most viable options, and when it comes to short-term comfort, they do provide relief. But the long term effects are absolutely devastating, and we're seeing them occur in real time.
For Black Millennials, we only have to look to the elders in our families for signs of what may come. We all have some instance of high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, obesity or heart disease within our families. But what makes the issue of health even more crucial for us is that while many of our elders only started consuming fast and junk "food" in high amounts as young adults or older, many of us have been consuming these things since early childhood. Millennials in general are experiencing diseases like colon cancer much earlier than usual. Children are presenting with diseases like type 2 diabetes which used to only be seen in adulthood. Many of us think that we have time to spare before we truly have to begin taking our health seriously, but the truth is that most of us should be trying to reverse the damage that has already been done.
To me, the film's most powerful message is that a certain amount of power over our health has been wrested from us, and we desperately need to take it back. Make no mistake, too many of us, like most Americans in general, are addicted. If it ain't the cheese that you simply can't give up, it's bacon or donuts or pizza or liquor or pharmaceuticals. We just can't seem to live without these things because they were there to catch us when we were at our most vulnerable, and for many of us, this started in childhood. Yes, we pick our poisons, but in so many ways, our poisons choose us. Recognize that when our neighborhoods are forcibly saturated with fast "food" restaurants and supermarkets with shitty produce (if there are any markets at all), then what we put in our mouth is still being controlled and decided for us. The only difference is that now it's purposely addictive and killing us slowly, and we're shelling out our cash to pay for it.
The consequences are seen not only in the high rates of illness, but also in everyday life, from the inability to focus, to the inability to move unhindered, to the inability to regulate our emotions. There is no part of our daily life that is not affected by our nutrition. Urban gardener Eugene Cook said it best in the film, "Stabilizing the food system allows for the great thinkers, the great musicians, the great healers, the great teachers to come because they're being born into a society that nourishes them. We grew food as a communion with nature, with an understanding that everyone should eat... but everyone should eat the best possible food so we can get the best possible results from every member of the society". We can't expect collective progress if the community potential is stunted by poor health.
None of this is meant to absolve the many systems that are guilty of perpetuating racial inequality, however. In whatever ways we can, we must always seek to hold these systems accountable, whether they're our local police precincts, community planners, health administrators, or otherwise. But I think that it is a huge mistake to place all our bets on these systems changing. We simply don't have the time. Whatever we can do to place pressure on these systems must be done, but we need nourished, healthy, clear-thinking citizens to do the work. Self-empowerment isn't the sole answer to racial and class liberation, but it's an essential tool in the arsenal against oppression. As Black Millennials, we need to be healthy enough to be at the forefront of the struggle for true transformation and progress within and outside of our communities.
But first we have to be willing to be vulnerable. We have to be willing to look at ourselves honestly, and confront our addictions. To do so, we must be willing to confront our pain. For me, that meant finding a therapist, but I know that that is a privilege that not many of us have. The film does a great job at offering viable solutions that most people can try. Taking up meditation is something that anyone with a few minutes to spare can do. Volunteering at a community garden is a great way to not only reconnect with nature and real, fresh foods, but it's a way to create important communal bonds while helping to offset the oversaturation of junk food in our communities. Choosing to eat as well as your circumstances allow (of course, I advocate a plant-based diet) is a major step that can quite literally change your life.
Ultimately, we have to believe that we're worth the effort that it takes to take care of ourselves. We're worth the effort that it takes to actively and consistently choose to meditate, or workout, or eat a healthy meal. Not only are we worth it, but we deserve it. We've spent so much of our lives facing all kinds of stress, and trauma and pain, and this often cruel world gave us junk food and other addictive substances to cope. Wellness isn't just for rich, white folk. We've been made to believe that wellness is only for people who can afford it, but that's bullshit. Wellness is in our roots, we just need to dig deep enough to find it.
It was a particularly humbling bout of menstrual cramps that first inspired me to go vegan. It was a couple months after the Presidential election, and despite living a life of physical activity and perceived dietary moderation, I was gaining weight, and was more depressed than I'd ever been. That month, when my period arrived, it was nothing short of horrific. I've had terrible menstrual cramps and a multitude of accompanying symptoms for as long as I've been menstruating. I've been in and out of doctor's offices, and I've tried a number of supposed solutions that just didn't work on me. After jumping on a sustained fitness regimen a couple years ago, my period did begin to improve, which is why I was shocked when, shortly after the election, my period began to get worse. I felt absolutely defeated, like no matter what I tried, I was destined for a life of misery.
Some of you reading can relate to what I'm about to illustrate, but others are skeptical and wondering if this is all hyperbole. I've heard plenty of men and women alike express sentiments that seek to downplay and minimize just how horrible of an experience menstruation can be for some of us. However, it's a serious and costly medical issue that greatly impacts the livelihoods and well-being of women around the globe. This is my personal experience, and I'm being open in hopes of reaching those who have had to endure the same struggle.
Whenever I read a list of common period symptoms I laugh, because I've had them all. Debilitating pain that radiated down into my thighs, pounding headaches, back aches, diarrhea, appetite-zapping nausea, acne, bloating, up to ten lbs of water retention, irritability, anxiety, deep depression that would begin an entire week beforehand, heavy bleeding that made me run through pads like crazy, and clots that would make me beg for mercy. I'd gotten used to the episodes of sitting on the toilet for well over an hour, quite literally wishing for death, because it felt like the only thing that could save me in the moment. After it all finally passed, I would retreat to my bed and stay there for a couple hours until my body led me right back to the bathroom.
I lost count of how many doctors I've visited over the years. The diagnosis was always "dysmenorrhea", but the prescription would vary. Sometimes it was for stronger painkillers, sometimes it was birth control. I attempted birth control on three separate occasions and all three times were nothing short of a hot mess. The first time, after a couple weeks of not feeling quite right, I received a call from my doctor informing me that my blood test results revealed that my liver enzymes were through the roof, and that I should stop the pills until we could figure out what was going on.
By the time I was able to get back on the pills, I had a whole new doctor with a whole new approach. She suggested that I skip the week of placebo pills that come with every pack so that I would only bleed every three months or so. I was elated. No period for three months? Four periods a year? It sounded like heaven, so of course I tried it. Except, when I finally allowed my body to bleed, I bled for about two weeks straight. At that point, I felt so defeated that I gave up altogether, or so I thought.
My period continued to be hell, and a couple years later, I found myself back in the doctor's office, ready to give birth control another try. After a very short and concerning visit where the doctor was rushing out to another engagement (she didn't even look at my medical history, she just wrote a prescription), I was back on the pills. Once again, the pills didn't help my period, and to make matters worse, they made me feel completely numb. I couldn't feel any emotions other than numbness and depression. It was bad enough that I had already struggled with depression, but these pills made me feel like a shell of myself. I was existing, but I wasn't all there. Eventually, I decided to stop them.
Funny enough, the physical pain wasn't the worst thing about my period. Don't get me wrong, the pain was nothing short of breathtaking. I popped OTC pain pills like candy (which made me nervous - what were they doing to my body?), and they often didn't work. Because of this, I developed a tolerance to pain that I began to wear as a badge of honor. It was the impact on my self-esteem, however, that really fucked me up. I felt like a deficient human being. How can I work, how can I be a productive member of society if I can't go a month without being bedridden for several days?
My attendance throughout high school wasn't great. In college, every semester I exceeded my allotted absences for all of my classes, forcing me to go to the doctor just to get a note. Up until I got a job where I could work from home, I would miss days of work, meaning I was losing money. More painful though, was missing countless birthday celebrations for people I loved dearly. Even though they understood, I never shook the feeling of guilt that would overwhelm me whenever I couldn't be there.
I tried everything. When the medical establishment didn't come through, I tried all the alternative, natural solutions that I had access to. Nothing seemed to work. So honestly, I wasn't expecting much when I decided to go vegan, but I felt like I had nothing to lose. I was concerned that my monthly pain was a signal that things could only get worse for me. Being a Black woman with a family history of uterine fibroids, breast cancer, and other hormone-related illnesses, I worried that I was destined for the same fate.
I knew my hormones were way out of whack, I knew my body was inflamed, and I knew that something had to give. I was also just so damn tired. I couldn't imagine continuing to live this way for several more decades. Something had to change, so I changed myself. Considering the research regarding PMS and inflammation, research regarding the relationship between meat and dairy consumption and inflammation, as well as research surrounding estrogen consumed from meat and dairy, I decided to try a plant-based diet. After all, what did I have to lose?
Literally two weeks after removing meat from my diet (dairy had removed itself many months before; my body couldn't handle it), I had what was, up until then, the best period of my life. The month before that, I was maxing out on ibuprofen, but a couple weeks after going vegan, I didn't have to take a single pain pill. I was floored. It wasn't completely pain-free, but it was such a drastic improvement on what I'd gotten used to that I was more annoyed than pained. But even more shocking was, every single month since then, my period has gotten better. My flow is now lighter (both in amount & hue - it's brighter!), my period is shorter, and my cramps are damn near non-existent. I would call it a miracle if I didn't know just how much work went into getting to this point.
Understand, I didn't just "go vegan". I was particularly careful to ensure that I was eating a whole foods, plant-based diet. I've also incorporated foods that help to balance my hormones, reduce my overall inflammation, and nourish my body with vital nutrients & minerals. I realize now that the foods I grew up eating had put my body in such an unhealthy state that the only way I could get better was by being vigilant about exactly what I put in body.
I had to take steps that I was honestly unwilling to take before. In addition to removing meat, dairy and eggs from my diet completely, I rarely eat fried food anymore. I eat tons of fruits and vegetables, and I increase my fruit intake right before my period. I keep processed food to a minimum - they're convenient in a pinch, but they tend to be full of additives that aren't good for you. I also recently removed alcohol from my diet, because honestly, it wasn't doing me any good. Consistent physical activity is also important. My current regimen has me working out 5-6 days a week, but even 3 days a week of moderate to vigorous exercise can help.
The short amount of time in which my body responded and the continued improvements in the months after have made me a believer. You can find lots of articles and documentaries about the links between animal-based foods and major illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer, but a lack of scientific attention to menstrual issues means there aren't very many studies about the connection between diet and feminine health. I'm writing this to add to the growing anecdotal evidence that shows that what you put in your body is directly related to the pain and other horrific symptoms that come every month. My quality of life is the best that it's ever been, and the confidence and self-esteem boost that comes with knowing that I'm in control of my body rather than my body being in control of me is absolutely priceless.
My Personal Go-To Menstruation Staples
Here are some staples that I include in my diet to help with my menstruation issues. I suggest doing your own research before incorporating anything new or unfamiliar into your diet. It took a lot of trial & error to come to a set of staples that work for me.
There are many other foods and herbs that are reported to work that may be more accessible or preferable to you. Keep in mind that your experience may not be the same as mine. Depending on the state of your body, the response might be immediate or it may take a few months. Give yourself time and be patient with your body. It's worth it in the end.
Every time someone tells me "I'm going vegan", my heart swells. This is mainly because they're always coming from a place of wanting better. Better for themselves, better for the environment, and better for humanity. My initial inspiration for going vegan was a deep desire to improve my health. I have been and will continue to be candid about my struggles with my health precisely because I know that I am not alone. Your health struggles may not look like mine, but the desire to stop existing in misery and to start thriving is the same.
That all being said, one of the most crucial things that I've learned during my journey is that food is so much more powerful than we've been taught. We've all grown up in a world where there's a pharmaceutical answer to everything, and while I do believe that modern medicine has the potential to bring healing to many lives in many instances, I think we've collectively forgotten that there are simpler, cheaper, safer solutions for a lot of what ails us. This is mainly because a lot of what ails us stems from the foods that we put in our mouths. Food (and products masquerading as food) is all too often the problem, but food can also be the answer.
1. Change Your Mindset
Food is joy. Food is fuel. Food is culture. Food is celebration. Food is communion. Food is so many wonderful things, but first and foremost, food is medicine. The foods that we should be consuming contain vital minerals, nutrients, vitamins, and other substances that all play key roles in the way our bodies function. Our bodies are literally built by the foods we consume. If you want a strong, healthy, vibrant body, then you have to feed it the foods that will allow it to be so, period. Just as there are foods that nourish and build, there are foods that cause damage and deterioration.
We've learned to eat without consciously thinking about what we're putting in our mouths. We've been fooled into thinking that we're eating fairly healthy and in "moderation", but the truth is that the Western diet is extremely immoderate, in more ways than one. When you eat, the main purpose should be to nourish and build. When you're eating consciously, you can better discern how much damage you're actually doing when you do decide to indulge. If your focus is on perpetual indulgence, understand that you are prioritizing fleeting pleasure over your health and well-being. Confront yourself and the reasons why you eat.
2. Embrace Whole Plant Foods
Learn to embrace fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains, legumes (beans), and herbs in their truest, most unprocessed forms. Most people are unfamiliar with the wide variety of non-meat foods that are out there, mainly because the diet that we've become accustomed to as a culture largely rejects these foods. Long before I went vegan, as I was seeking out ways to be healthier, I would Google the nutritional benefits of the foods that I ate. There's a certain excitement in knowing that the food I'm enjoying is also going to contribute to bettering my health. It's a win not only for my taste buds, but for my entire body.
The most amazing part is that there are an infinite number of ways to create and combine these categories of foods to create tasty, delicious meals. Some of the most delicious, satisfying meals that I have eaten were created with raw vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds. If you've grown up only experiencing poorly-cooked broccoli or bland salads, then it might be hard for you to imagine that meatless meals can taste good. First, I'd suggest that you take a look at my Instagram (shameless plug), where I love to share photos of the meals I eat. I am being completely honest with you when I say that I enjoy food with a depth that I never did before. I used to eat "tasty" meals that would give a brief rush of sugar, salt, or fat, and then I'd feel like crap afterwards. Plants do not do this to me. Trust me when I say, plants can be both nutritious and delicious. You just need to season them. ;)
3. Learn How To Cook
So I know there are people who are going to see this tip and immediately sigh in frustration. In our fast food, pre-packaged microwaveable world, cooking has been placed somewhat on the back burner. People simply cook less than they used to, and many people enter into adulthood without ever really learning how to cook a meal for themselves.
When you're eating a Standard American Diet, it's much easier to get away with not knowing how to cook, because between quick frozen meals and takeout restaurants, a cooked meal is only a few presses of a button away. Even though more restaurants are adding vegan options to their menu, you will find that it's still not as easy to eat out, especially if you don't live in a major city or don't have access to a nearby vegan restaurant. Cooking for yourself and having fully prepped meals in your fridge will save you from those frustrating moments of not knowing when to eat. You'll also have the comfort of knowing exactly what ingredients were used to make your meal.
4. Seek Inspiration
When learning how to cook, the internet is your friend. Instagram is a great way to see what other vegans are eating, which can help you to avoid the trap of staring longingly into the fridge, wondering what the hell to do with all the plant foods you just bought. Once you've got an idea of the kinds of foods you're ready to experiment with, find recipes.
You can simply search Google, check out Pinterest, watch YouTube videos, or even do it the old-fashioned way by checking out cookbooks from your local library. There are also many vegans online who share their recipes via blogs or free e-books. No matter what kind of meal you want to make, I guarantee there is a recipe for a tasty, veganized version out there. You just have to do a bit of research.
5. Keep The Processed Foods To A Minimum
I call myself a vegan because I am vehemently against the killing of animals, but my diet is deliberately plant-based because I believe that it is important to eat a diet that allows the body to thrive at its most optimal, healthy level. That all being said, you can absolutely go vegan and still eat terribly. There are vegan doughnuts, vegan pizza, vegan burgers, and french fries are almost always vegan (wtf McDonald's?).
There are LOTS of tasty vegan meals out there that aren't at all healthy, and I do love to partake, but only occasionally. If you're going vegan because of health concerns, don't make the mistake of assuming that vegan automatically equals healthy. It does not. If you're concerned about health, processed and junk food should never make up the bulk of your diet. Seek out whole plant foods that are as close to their natural form as possible.
6. Experiment With Flavor
Personally, I like to take an intuitive approach to cooking, and I draw a lot of inspiration from my Jamaican roots and the foods that I grew up eating. I'll often use other peoples' recipes as a foundation and put my own spin on it. I think about the flavors that I love, and being of Jamaican descent, I really appreciate flavorful, spicy, savory foods with lots of depth, so I make sure to keep certain things on hand at all times, like a variety of different seasonings, and ready-made spice blends. Garlic, onion, scallion, thyme, tomato, scotch bonnet pepper, curry powder, and jerk seasoning are the foundation of a lot of the meals I make. Going back to your roots or learning the flavor profiles of cuisines that you enjoy is a great way to learn how to work with a variety of flavors.
7. Give Your Taste Buds Time To Adapt
Most of us have spent our lives eating foods that are unnaturally high in salt, sugar, and fat, and our taste buds have gotten used to this. This is why many people think that fruits and vegetables taste disgusting; nature hasn't spent time in a lab formulating foods that are so flavorful that they cause use to become uncontrolled addicts. (Salt, Sugar, Fat by Michael Moss is a great accounting of how the food industry has formulated our "food" to keep us coming back).
Indeed, most of us are addicted to the junk and fast foods that we've grown up eating, so when we eat a meal that doesn't give that same kind of flavorful high, we don't think of it as tasty. When transitioning to a plant-based diet, it's going to take a while for your taste buds to adapt to foods in their natural state. Be patient with yourself. Eventually, you'll learn how to enjoy real food again.
8. Find Support
You're going to encounter negative feedback. You may have conflicts or awkward moments with family or friends. Depending on who you are and where you are, going vegan or plant-based can be a lonely journey. The good news is that there are plenty of people who have already adapted this lifestyle, and most of them are willing to be there for you.
Social media is an amazing way to connect with like-minded people who can support you and give you guidance. There are also lots of vegan meetup groups, with a variety of purposes and focuses. Feeling alone should never be a reason why you abandon your journey, the community is here and we're all willing to help.
9. Release Old Paradigms
Success in maintaining a vegan or plant-based diet requires you to reject old ways of thinking and broaden your perspective. Here are a few things to ponder, research and sit with for a bit:
10. Define Your Purpose
Why exactly did you decide to go vegan or plant-based? It's easy to say "for the animals" or "for the environment" or "for my health", but what does that truly mean? You're making this change because you believe that there will be a certain positive consequence that will follow. You want to eat better not just because you think it will help your debilitating migraines or your arthritis or your depression. You want to eat better because you're tired of the life you're experiencing. You want a better quality of life. You want happiness, you want joy, you want better relationships. You want better.
Or, it could be that you watched a horrible insider video of a factory farm and you're angry about the ways animals are treated. Your desire is fairness, justice, and equality for all sentient beings, because you honestly believe that that is the key to making the world a better place. Or you're concerned about the environmental effects of animal agriculture. You're concerned about the future of your children and their children. You want them to have happy, healthy lives. You're concerned about the future of the world that you call home.
I say all this because, you have to know what it is you're holding on to, particularly if you're struggling to let go of old habits. Defining and truly understanding the why can help give greater purpose to your actions, allowing you to seamlessly adapt to this new lifestyle.
Photo Source: PETA
In the past few months since I've gone vegan, I've come to realize that to be both Black and vegan is to occupy a very unique social space. To be honest, it can be a terribly frustrating, anxiety-provoking place to be in. To be Black, on the one hand, is to be subject to racial discrimination on a multitude of levels. This isn't something that I'm willing to debate because this is simply fact. This is my lived experience and this is the lived experience of my loved ones and countless Black people across the world. It's been analyzed, researched, studied and written about time and time again, so I tend to view any argument to the contrary as willful ignorance stemming from a deep lack of empathy.
It is emotionally taxing to have to constantly assert that my life matters. It is painful to have to simultaneously mourn the revolving door of bodies victimized by our country's inherently racist systems while being forced to try to prove the very existence of those systems in the first place. It eats away at you, every day, living in fear that you or someone you love is going to be next. It's from these sentiments that the Black Lives Matter movement arose. It is a necessary rallying cry in the face of continued mass incarceration, systemic institutional abuse and neglect, and senseless death. So when people counter with "No, it's not just Black lives, ALL lives matter", it's extremely difficult not to become angry. Because let's be honest, it's an empty, obtuse, willfully ignorant, and unsympathetic response to a necessary assertion about the value of Black lives. To be frank, it's a slap in the face.
So when I see this attitude within the veganism movement, I can't help but feel angry, deeply frustrated, annoyed, and hurt. It's not simply a bunch of animal memes with 'All Lives Matter" slapped across them, it's the anti-Black sentiment from which the phrase popped up. It's the fact that the people posting these memes also believe that Black people are simply whining about nothing, and that the true victims are the poor, helpless animals being abused for food and profit.
It's a direct rebuke and denunciation of a movement that was birthed from a place of true oppression, and it baffles me. It's amazing that there are people that can eloquently tell you about the workings of the systems that allow for animal abuse but then they can't think two steps ahead to see how these very same systems affect human life. Even worse, a true knowledge of history would show that these systems, the barbaric ways in which these animals are treated in pursuit of profit, were perfected on the bodies of my ancestors.
Indeed, slave women were forcibly bred to produce more slaves for the slave master. My ancestors' bodies were used, abused, and discarded based on how much crop, and by extension, money, could be made off of their labor. It's funny because, many mainstream vegan organizations like PETA are very much aware of this, because they use these comparisons to bolster their arguments for why people - and people of color specifically - should go vegan. But here's the problem: that is not their comparison to make.
There's a reason why Black people are still extremely sensitive to being compared to animals. For one thing, the direct comparison to apes has been one particularly nasty way that racists have sought to dehumanize us. But even more than that, despite what many Americans choose to think, the ravages of slavery don't simply exist in some distant past that has no consequence on today. We see the remnants in our mass incarceration system, we see it every time an unarmed man, woman, or child is killed by the state-employed entities that are paid to protect them. And even if we didn't still have to contend with racial discrimination in our schools, in our workplaces, in housing, in our banks, and in so many different facets of our lives, the pain, suffering and trauma experienced by our ancestors is literally ingrained in our DNA.
We also see the ways in which people don't care, the ways in which they show us that they have more compassion for animal death than Black death. We saw more outcry over the death of Harambe than the death of 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones or 12-year-old Tamir Rice. Even in the face of video evidence, we rarely see justice for the deaths of unarmed citizens whose worst crime was coming across the wrong police officer. We've been mourning for centuries, and the mourning still continues.
At the same time, however, it would be extremely disingenuous to simply pretend that the comparisons aren't apt. Because it is true. Just as there are corporations sitting on stacks made off of the forced enslavement of Black people, there are corporations raking in cash using the same tactics and the same type of inhumane treatment on animals. The first time I learned about the forced breeding of cows, I was instantly reminded of law professor Dorothy Roberts' book Killing The Black Body in which she writes:
"Some slaveowners also practiced slave-breeding by compelling slaves they considered 'prime stock' to mate in the hopes of producing children especially suited for labor or sale".
She also states,
"Because a fertile woman was more valuable to her master, she was less likely to be sold to another owner... Women who did not produce children, on the other hand, were often sold off - or worse. Slaveholders, angered at the loss of their investment, inflicted cruel physical and psychological retribution on their barren female slaves".
This thoroughly researched, poignant text then goes on to track the ways in which Black bodies, and female Black bodies in particular, have been continuously subjected to government control through forced and coercive birth control, forced removal of children, and more. As a Black woman, I know what my body and those of the Black women who have come before me have meant to this country. It is a horrific story of pure exploitation, abuse, and control.
That all being said, I couldn't help but feel heartbroken the first time I saw a video of a cow desperately chasing after its newborn calves who were being carted off to make veal. I can't help but be disgusted by the notion that in order to produce dairy milk, cows are continuously artificially inseminated, because only lactating cows who have just given birth can produce milk. When I see the stomach-churning, cramped, unhygienic conditions under which animals are held prior to being slaughtered, I'm not only turned off from the idea of consuming them as food, but I'm also angered at the fact that they're being treated this way at all. It felt completely contrary to my values to denounce this kind of systemic treatment among marginalized human populations and then passively support it just so that I can eat bacon.
To say going vegan has changed me is an understatement because I, too, once believed that animals were beneath me, and I paid very little attention to the horrors of contemporary animal agriculture. But I've seen too much and I know too much. My gut instinct to draw comparison between the treatment of animals and the historical & continued maltreatment of my own people doesn't come from a place of dehumanization or minimization. It comes from a place of pure empathy for other living beings that are also fully capable of feeling anguish, pain, and despair. It comes from understanding the inhumane systems that trade in bodies, human and animal alike, for the sole purpose of corporate profit. The comparison stands because the system has and does continue to treat us like animals, and neither of these abuses are okay.
That being said, when PETA and other popular vegan organizations and individuals draw on the suffering of Blacks, Native Americans, and other historically oppressed humans in order to further their agenda (and noble as it may be, an agenda is still an agenda) it feels exploitative and disrespectful, because it doesn't come from a place of compassion for all. It comes from a place of compassion for animals at the expense of a group of human beings who are still fighting day in and day out to be treated like their lives also matter. This isn't a foundation for progress, it's a continued minimization of our pain. It is misguided and hypocritical. If the goal is to get people to extend compassion to other species, try extending some compassion to your fellow humans first.
My name is Nivea, but you can call me Niv. Proudly hailing from the Boogie Down Bronx. My lifelong passion for social justice issues led me to earn a BA in Sociology from Columbia University. Currently I'm an NASM Certified Nutrition Coach & Personal Trainer with a love of all things plant-based. I'm just here, eating my plants, minding my business, and trying to find a peaceful path in a hostile world.