"Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food" - Hippocrates
"If you nuh get it you will lose, mek you food be you medicine, you medicine you food, blend up the carrot wit the lettuce inna juice, nuh 'fraid fi mix the vegetable wit the fruit.
Spirulina wha me drink fi mi dinna" - Chronixx
Photo Source: Greensleeves Records
It was a Rastaman who first told me to remove meat and dairy from my diet. Long before I even knew what a vegan was, I was familiar with ital living, the Rastafari way of life that not only dictates diet, but is couched in an active resistance against the systems of oppression that have brutally removed the descendants of slaves from their roots. Before veganism even started to hit the mainstream, the rejection of foods that were thought to cause illness and further enslave the bodies and minds of Black people was integral to the Rastafari way of life.
"Ital means "springing from the earth, earthy, natural," or organic... One of the ills of Babylon, according to Rastas, is its departure from naturalness and its commitment to artificiality. Thus the Rastafarian ideal proscribes the use of synthetic materials and chemically treated foods... Ital living also means that Rastas are basically vegetarian, rarely eating meat and strictly prohibiting the use of pork, shellfish, and scaleless fishes, especially those that are predators. The strong disapproval of fish that are predators results from the belief that eating them would be an implicit approval of their "human predator" counterparts." - Ennis Edmonds, Rastafari: From Outcasts To Culture Bearers, Oxford University Press, 2003
Rastafari has been unfairly reduced to a stereotype by mainstream media, through imagery that depicts them as mindless, weed-smoking caricatures. However, this couldn't be any further from the truth. As Jamaican culture has rapidly Westernized, it is through the Rastafari way of life that old wisdom continues to persist. The knowledge and reverence of medicinal herbs - both to eat and to smoke - has served as a source of healing for those who have found themselves seemingly abandoned by the medical establishment.
That's how I felt - abandoned - when I found myself seeking the consultation of a Rastaman with knowledge of indigenous healing. I'd spent my entire life up until that point going from doctor to doctor seeking respite from countless ailments, but to no avail. The solution was always a prescription for some medication or another or the empty, clueless shrug of shoulders which indicated "I cant help you". During this consultation, I marveled at the youthful glow this old Rastaman possessed. Though his hair was pure white, he looked younger than me! I knew he must have the answers. And he did. But I didn't listen.
Call it youthful ignorance, as I was in my early twenties at the time, but I didn't stick with the plan that he laid out for me. I won't lie. It was difficult. I felt restricted in what I could eat, I hated the taste of the herbs and concoctions that I was made to drink, and it was all too much for me at the time. It was only a matter of time before I ended up going back to my old ways, and inevitably, getting sicker. However, I never threw out the paper upon which he'd written my dietary plan. I kept it posted on my fridge - for years. It was only last year, after being vegan for a few months and feeling absolutely amazing, that I looked back upon that paper and realized that, though it took me many years, I'd eventually found my way back to the very same diet plan that he'd suggested for me. I knew he was wise; I only wish that I had been wise enough at that point to listen.
His existence, his knowledge, and the ital lifestyle in general has proven invaluable to those of us in the diaspora who feel that they have no other option. I've heard countless stories of Caribbean descendants who, after finding no help from their doctors, finally found healing through the herbal knowledge of a "bush doctor". This kind of "alternative" medicine is the entire point of the Rastafari way of life - to get back to our roots, to find healing and respite from the physical, mental and spiritual damage that has followed us since the first days of colonization. When all else fails, we can go back to our roots.
I don't consider myself a Rasta, though I am married to one. It would also be disingenuous of me to not mention that not all Rastas exclude meat and dairy from their diet. As with any way of life, there are people who follow the tenets to varying degrees. However, it can generally be said that the ital diet is a crucial aspect of the Rasta way of life, and it has become a healing salve for many who have sought health but were previously unable to find it, especially in Caribbean immigrant enclaves like the one I grew up in. Even to this day, the only vegan restaurants available in the Bronx serve ital and Jamaican vegan dishes. While no one else seems to want to serve us food that serves to heal, the Rastas have been doing it for years.
This is why I find it utterly laughable that even in 2018, there are many people who still can't even fathom the notion of a Black vegan. Not only is this a supremely narrow-minded view of Blackness that serves to minimize us all to stereotypes, but it is an ignorant form of erasure that undermines the radical, grassroots work of Black people who have long sought to change lives through changing diets. For so many of us, veganism wasn't initially a conscious decision as much as it was the only thing that finally brought us some healing.
Nowadays, the plant-based Rasta ideals are becoming more and more mainstream, with amazing people like Macka B who, in true Rastafari fashion, uses music to preach the medicinal benefits of plant foods to the masses. Similarly, Grammy-nominated reggae artist Chronixx made an entire song titled Spirulina (featured below), where he also promotes the importance of making your food your medicine. In some of his other songs he openly criticizes the Jamaican government for pushing junk food on the populace, as well as the absurdity of saltfish being part of the nation's national dish.
For Rastafari, promoting healthy foods and criticizing the establishments which do the opposite are all integral parts of the same movement. Just like veganism, the consideration of the food that one consumes is not only about improving one's health, but also about the greater struggle against oppression. The only difference is that there's a certain level of privilege attached to the ability to make the dietary change solely about animals. For Rastafari and Black vegans in general, the struggle against systemic oppression isn't new, it's been an ongoing struggle. Animal abuse is just another form of oppression to add to the list.
Veganism may be widely considered to be a "White" thing, but it is honestly, anything but. The movement as a whole is about dismantling systems of oppression by making the conscious decision to not partake in harmful practices that are the foundations of those systems, and whether people want to admit this or not, poor dietary habits rooted in trash food options pushed upon people by corporate and governmental establishments is a part of that system of oppression. Rastafari proves that the ideals behind veganism - to reduce harm - aren't confined to animal-loving White hippies, but have long extended across racial lines and across borders to those who are still fighting to prove that their lives matter, too.
When I decided for the second time to adapt a plant-based diet, I did tons of research on the health effects of eating meat and dairy, and so much of what I came across was extremely disturbing. Take for example, the fact that heart disease, the world's leading cause of death, may actually start in the womb. Or the fact that consumption of animal foods are directly correlated with the development of heart disease, while plant foods are protective. I thought back to the copious amounts of cheese, eggs, pork and chicken I ate over the course of my life and knew that I had to reverse the early stages of heart disease that had been building since childhood.
This was just the tip of the iceberg, but the more I learned, the more I knew that I could never, ever go back to eating animal foods. But I did start to worry about people I know who still eat a standard American cheese, egg & meat-heavy diet. It's something that's discussed often within plant-based circles, the stress of submerging our concern for loved ones who we know would greatly benefit from changing their diet. We don't want to be that asshole who bombards people with unsolicited nutrition advice. Or we know that if we say something, we'll inevitably be subjected to a vicious verbal backlash. So we say nothing, and let them be. But it can be painful as hell to watch people you care for continue to harm themselves with the foods they eat.
Lately, my husband and I have come to realize that because we're both pushing 30, we're only a few years away from watching people we know succumb to diseases that are largely linked to what's on their plate. I honestly feel a certain level of urgency to speak up more frequently and more loudly about how important it is to take diet seriously, and with all the available scientific and anecdotal evidence regarding the protective benefits of plant food, I need to be a more enthusiastic advocate.
According to the CDC, 48% of African American women have some form of cardiovascular disease. While 7.6% of Black women have full-blown heart disease, many more have heart disease and aren't aware of it, largely because there are often no real serious symptoms until it's too late. A whopping 64% of women who die from heart disease have no previous symptoms at all.
As a Black woman, I sometimes get frustrated. While there's a lot of talk about the stresses we experience as a demographic, and lots of vague discussions about the importance of self-care, there isn't nearly enough discussion about the importance of nutrition. Maybe it's a lack of knowledge, and if that's the case then I hope that this can help fill that void. It isn't stress that's killing us, it's heart disease, and while stress can absolutely pull the trigger, our weakened, congested arteries are the loaded gun.
This isn't to give any credence to the all too common stereotype that Black women are fat, lazy and unhealthy, because not only is this ridiculous, it ignores the fact that people of other races and genders are all living lifestyles that contribute heavily to heart disease, and they, too are dying from it. However, I do want to shed light on a sad truth: heart disease is ravaging the world and as Black women, we're uniquely positioned to not only develop the disease, but to also die prematurely from it.
We speak often about the medical neglect that Black women are all too often subjected to, precisely because of the negative stereotypes that are rife within the medical field. One most recent example is the case of Serena Williams' birthing scare, which helped to further highlight longstanding racial disparities in maternity deaths. I know from personal experience what it's like to go to the doctor and not be treated for my symptoms, but for whatever my doctor thinks must be wrong with me purely because I am a Black woman. This has happened on countless occasions. Sometimes it really does feel like we're the only ones who seem to take our emotional and physical pains seriously.
I say all this because, while I do believe that more individuals in general could benefit from taking control of their health, I think this is even more true for Black women. We've learned too many times before that being our own advocates is a matter of life and death. We have to begin and sustain a serious conversation about preventing poor health in the first place, and all of my research has convinced me that change must start on the plate.
The risk factors for heart disease are high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, overweight/obesity, physical inactivity, and diabetes. According to the most recent available NIH statistics, 37% of Black women have high blood pressure, 20% of Black women smoke, almost 50% of Black women have high cholesterol, nearly 80% are overweight or obese, and 55% are physically inactive. While there are lots of initiatives that overtly teach the public how to quit smoking and how to start exercising, there's a lot of tip-toeing around the dietary aspects of these diseases.
Even the most well-meaning, health conscious woman can fall victim to these illnesses, because our food landscape can be somewhat of a minefield. You might be trying to avoid sodium because of your blood pressure, but you might not know that your chicken has already been injected with salt. You might be eating less red meat, but it might not be making much of a difference. As a matter of fact, Dr. Kim Williams, former president of the American College of Cardiology, explains that his switch to a plant-based diet came when his supposedly healthy boiled, no-skin chicken diet led to his own high cholesterol.
I'm going to be quite clear because I wouldn't forgive myself if I did the same kind of half-assed tip-toeing that we find in the media and other public health initiatives. The only scientifically proven way to prevent and even reverse heart disease is via a vegan, plant-based diet. It's one of those things where there's no half-stepping. Vegetarianism isn't the answer either, because eggs and cheese also contribute to heart disease.
I write this not just for older Black women who are suffering from high blood pressure or cholesterol, but also for those my age who think they're invincible because there are no real signs that anything is wrong. Sometimes the first sign that something is wrong is death. This is my plea, from a place of love, for us to start prioritizing this particular type of self-care, where we feed our bodies with whole plant foods that nourish us, fortify us and build us up, not break us down - because the world does more than enough to try to break us down already.
Being of Jamaican descent, there's a certain level of comfort that I have when I go there to visit. In so many ways it feels more like home than my New York home. For one, I find the weather, the fresh air and the general atmosphere to be quite grounding, a refreshing contrast to the anxiety-provoking hustle and bustle of NYC. There's also a lot of comfort in being surrounded by people who look like me, who remind me of family, whose roots can be traced back to the same ancestry.
For a foodie like myself, however, the most comforting and exciting part of going to Jamaica is being able to eat the foods that I grew up on, especially those that I don't get to eat too often. For this particular vacation, my husband and I decided to stay at a resort, simply to be able to have that experience together at least once. We did worry about the food options that would be available, and had even decided that if it came down to it, we'd be willing to try a raw diet for the week.
Looking back, more raw foods probably would've been a great idea. Here's what happened. When we arrived at the buffet for our first meal, we were pleasantly surprised to see that there were plenty of familiar Jamaican foods that we knew to be normally vegan, like callaloo, spinach, rice & peas, breadfruit, plantain and cabbage. Nothing was labeled as vegan but we felt comfortable taking the risk eating familiar vegetables and other normally meat- & dairy-free foods, especially after being assured by a couple of the chefs that there were plenty of vegan options and that we wouldn't have to worry.
The first day, I felt fine. The food was great, and we were happy to not have to worry about finding food to eat. We would be alright as long as we stuck to familiar and obviously vegan foods. Or so we thought. At sometime around 4 am after the second day, I awoke to a violent pain in my stomach. For the next couple hours I was glued to the toilet in agony, wondering what in the hell could've caused this pain. Because I believed that I'd only eaten vegan foods, I chalked it up to the fact that I was eating more fried food than usual (I ate SO MUCH fried plantain), and within a few hours I was back to normal.
Fast forward to dinner the next night, when the head chef came to talk to us about vegan options. Mind you, this was after I had already finished eating. I listened to this chef exclaim proudly that, for the sake of flavor, almost every single thing at the buffet that night had been cooked in butter, including all the vegetables. He offered to cook us up a separate vegan meal, but of course it was already too late. Before I even got up to leave, my stomach was already doing flip-flops. I knew it'd be another early morning on the toilet.
I was quite upset. I went back to our hotel room to cry for a bit and gather myself, because I couldn't believe what I'd heard. I was under the impression that I'd been eating vegetables that were vegan when really they had been cooked in butter. I was terribly confused because, even though I did feel sick earlier in the morning, I had eaten plenty of meals that didn't make me feel sick at all. I'm both lactose intolerant and allergic to whey, so even if I wasn't vegan, I can't eat dairy without feeling ill. Why did I feel alright after some meals and sick after others?
The next morning, we went looking for the chef, only to find that there was a different chef during the daytime shift. After talking with him, we made the realization that while one head chef was cooking all of his vegetables in butter, the other was cooking all of his in vegetable oil. It also seemed that some of the other cooks weren't too clear on what being vegan truly meant, and weren't aware enough to inform us that butter had been used in some of the vegetable dishes. So while the steamed & sauteed vegetables that I had for breakfast and lunch were vegan, the ones I had for dinner were not.
I felt annoyed and angry. Mainly because I got way more familiar with that hotel room toilet than I intended to during my vacation, but also because it was a massive oversight on the part of the second head chef. It wasn't simply the fact that I was eating non-vegan food, but I was eating food that my body could not tolerate. It's one thing not to label foods as vegan, it's another not to label them as possible allergenic, especially when the normal preparation is dairy-free. I was also particularly frustrated at the outdated culinary tradition of dousing vegetables in butter simply for the sake of imparting "flavor". Oil is an option if health is of no concern, and even without oil, there are seasonings for that.
Luckily, my body had become quite resilient since going vegan so I only felt ill for a fraction of the time that I was there. Several months ago, my meetings with the toilet would've been a day-long endeavor. Though I spent my vacation way more bloated and nauseous than I wanted to be, I was still able to have a great time.
Looking back, there were many lessons to be learned during this experience. For one, I'm no longer going to be afraid of being *that* vegan. I was so concerned about not being a bother that I didn't ask enough questions and I didn't advocate for myself when I should have. I also assumed that the dishes coming out of the kitchen were prepared using a standard recipe, so if it was vegan once then it would be vegan again. I definitely didn't expect the preparation to vary so drastically between chefs. Never again will I be making any assumptions.
Ultimately I've come to learn that being vegan means that I may have to teach others about the dietary nuances of veganism. Some of the cooks were clearly unaware of what it meant to be vegan, and didn't realize that butter would be an issue. While veganism is becoming more and more popular, there's still a long way to go, and there's a lot of educating that needs to be done. The day will come when foods will be more carefully and consciously prepared and more clearly labeled. Until then, my husband and I will be opting to stay at places where we can cook the food ourselves... butter-free.
There's one thing I know for sure that I didn't know before, and it's that I will be a vegan for the rest of my life. I know It's a pretty strong statement to make, especially for a Pisces like me who hates boundaries and tries to live by the motto "never say never", but I now know too much to waver in my convictions about this. What started out as an attempt to calm my debilitating monthly menstrual cramps became an entire lifestyle for me. For the first time in my life, I can say that my beliefs and values truly align with my actions.
However, this isn't the first time I've tried the whole vegan thing, and the last time didn't go very well. After spending three years as a pescetarian and about half a year as a vegetarian, I decided to try going all the way vegan, but my priorities and convictions just weren't strong enough to sustain the lifestyle. I lasted about a couple months before I jumped off the wagon. Looking back, I realize that I made a few mistakes that made going vegan a lot harder than it had to be.
I Didn't Do Enough Research
My first attempt at going vegan began with watching the documentary Forks Over Knives. Unfortunately, that was pretty much the beginning and the end of the research that I actually did. While documentaries are a great source of information, they're limited in how much information they can give in a short span of time. Because of this, you may learn a few tidbits about how and why you should make a change, but sometimes it isn't substantial enough to actually sustain the new lifestyle. Further research is almost always required.
This can be difficult because the internet is chock full of information, and a lot of it can be contradictory and confusing, especially when it comes to nutrition. There are hundreds of nutrition studies published every year, and the absolute majority of them never end up in mainstream media. To complicate things further, a lot of what does end up in mainstream media has been misunderstood, misconstrued, or completely misstated after being filtered through editors and journalists who oftentimes don't have the scientific knowledge necessary to present the facts as they are.
So when the mainstream media was abuzz with the news that "butter is back" and "saturated fat isn't that bad", it was easy to fall for it. What I didn't take into account was the fact that a lot of what comes through mainstream media only reaches us because it's been paid for by corporations. What is presented to us as a health fact isn't always fact. This is not only confusing, it's damaging, because the reaction for most people is to throw up their hands in frustration and just give up on the notion of making any change at all. This is what I did, and many years down the line, I can say, it was a huge mistake.
These days, I find Nutritionfacts.org to be one of the best resources available, and no, I am not being paid to promote this site. It's a volunteer-run donation-based organization that parses through all the available nutrition studies in order to reach more sound conclusions about what's best for us nutritionally. The work is thorough and transparent, and it's been a major help for me in deciding how to shape my dietary choices.
I Didn't Prepare & Plan Well Enough
The biggest complaint I hear from people when they first go vegan is "I don't know what to eat". I felt this way a lot during my first attempt at going vegan, especially since this was in the days before Instagram popularized food porn. These days, however, it's much easier if you're willing to put in the effort. For most of us, eating never required any conscious effort. We would simply get a craving and then seek to fulfill it, oftentimes by running to the nearest fast food restaurant. This all changes once you decide to remove meat and dairy from your diet.
The first thing you'll notice when looking at just about any standard menu is they put some form of meat or dairy (or both) in just about everything. You'll go from being able to eat the entire menu to only being able to eat the side salad, and it'll frustrate the hell out of you. And if this happens when you're in hangry mode? You're more than likely going to say "fuck it" and order the cheeseburger.
However, the food you eat is worth thinking about because your body, your health, and your future are worth thinking about. So if that means reading restaurant menus before eating out, so be it. If that means looking for vegan restaurants or restaurants with vegan options, then do it. If that means choosing to eat before a gathering rather than hoping they have something you can eat, then do that. Happy Cow is a handy app that lets you find vegan food within a few miles of wherever you are, so the "work" really isn't that much work at all (and no, unfortunately they're not paying me either).
I Didn't Cook Enough
The reality is that while many restaurants are now getting hip to the game and adding vegan options to their menu, we still have a long way to go. That means that a lot of the time, you'll have to do the cooking yourself. I provided some tips for making cooking easier a few weeks ago in 10 Tips For Embracing A Vegan, Plant-Based Diet.
The first time I went vegan, I did try cooking the meals I brought to work in order to make things simpler, but I ended up eating the same things over and over again, which bored the hell out of me. This time around, I've found that it helps to be willing to try cooking new vegetables, fruits, beans and grains that I've never cooked before. I continuously try to expand my repertoire so that I'm not bored with what I'm eating.
I Didn't Seek Out Vegans Like Me
I'm going to keep it real with you. The mainstream vegan movement, like most things mainstream, is a very White movement. It's great at understanding the oppression faced by animals, but historically poor at considering how other forms of oppression may inform the capabilities, choices and beliefs of others.
Noble as the quest to save the animals may be, they aren't the only beings on this planet who have been subjected to systematic oppression. The lack of sensitivity to that fact undermines the movement by alienating Black people and other people of color who otherwise would be receptive to the message. I've written about veganism, systemic racism and the link to speciesism before.
Fact of the matter is, while we're all human, people of different races are subjected to different life experiences. Oppressive systems of racial subjugation aside, there are also cultural differences that are reflected heavily in the foods that we're familiar with. The first time I went vegan, my Jamaican background came in handy, because I discovered that ital food was just as amazing as the rest of the Jamaican food I grew up with, just without all the animal products. Unfortunately, access to ital food was limited and access to a community that I could integrate myself into and utilize for assistance was even further limited.
I needed a community of vegans that were like me, with people who could relate to the life I've lived, the struggles I've had and the foods I've grown up eating. Instagram is a great place for that these days. Seeing other vegans who are in similar circumstances affirms that I, too, can make it work.
I Didn't Care About Animals
Unfortunately, our own individual health isn't always important enough to us to keep us on the right path. Sometimes, we need multiple reasons to help us stick to major lifestyle changes. The first time, I didn't have that. My biggest concern the first time was honestly losing weight and getting healthier. This time around, however, I realize that the reasons to be vegan are much bigger than me.
I've come to realize that we have to be more aware of where our food comes from. When we walk into a supermarket and pick up a pound of beef that has already been raised, slaughtered, butchered, "cleaned", packaged, and sold to us, we're mentally and emotionally distanced from the cruel reality behind the production of that meat. I could write long, graphic articles about the things that go on in slaughterhouses (and I probably will eventually), but you really should take a look for yourself.
Spend some time on the Mercy for Animals website and learn more about what really happens to the animals that become the food that you eat. Most of us avoid this information not only because it's graphic, but because it triggers a deep empathy in us that is often accompanied by anger, frustration, guilt, and shame. However, this can't continue to be an excuse for turning away and pretending that it isn't happening. It won't change until we're willing to confront the truth and change ourselves.
This time around, I did decide to look more into animal cruelty, and it was gut wrenching. I felt so much shame and guilt that I'd had a hand in contributing to such inhumane treatment of other living beings. I had moments where I couldn't do anything but cry. For most people, all it takes is one tasty-looking cheeseburger to forget about their quest for bodily health. But when you begin on the quest towards eradicating animal cruelty, that cheeseburger won't ever look the same again.
I Didn't Understand The Connection Between Food Choices & The Environment
As with the animals, I didn't understand the impact that my food choices were having on the environment. I was all for stemming climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions and all that, but I didn't understand that I was contributing to these problems with my lifestyle choices.
I didn't understand that raising cattle for beef is a major contributor to climate change. I didn't fully understand that entire forests are being chopped down to plant crops to feed the animals being raised for food. I didn't fully understand that entire ecosystems are facing collapse as a result of these actions. I didn't fully understand that sea life was being fished out of existence. All so that I could eat my beef burgers, my bacon, and my sushi. This is what happens when supply must meet demand, and the sorry truth is that we're demanding too much. Cowspiracy, available on Netflix, is a great documentary on the link between animal agriculture and climate change.
To be completely honest, it wasn't like I wasn't capable of understanding all of this before. I just never gave it the attention it deserved, because I knew it would require me to drastically change my ways, and I wasn't yet willing to change. I may not have been conscious of this at the time, but this was the truth. Hindsight is always 20/20, and I see with great clarity that I was being willfully ignorant. I'm saying this because I don't want other people to continue making that same mistake.
I Wasn't Emotionally Ready
As I wrote about a few weeks ago, it wasn't simply that I was enjoying my food too much to care about my health, or the animals, or the environment. I was in a lot of emotional pain, and food was my way of soothing it. I wasn't ready to truly change my habits because I wasn't ready to truly confront why I was eating the way I was eating in the first place. I wasn't ready to face my pain.
Everyone is on their own particular life journey, and while I may envision a Utopian world where we're all eating healthy, vegan diets while playing with our animal friends, I know that it's just not that simple. Making major lifestyle changes calls for a lot of willpower and a lot of financial and emotional resources that many people just aren't in a position to give.
So I ask everyone to just do their best. Stay aware and do your best, and when the opportunity comes to do a little better, do it. Inevitably, we're all going to have to take into account the way that our decisions and choices affect the lives and the world around us, but that change starts on the inside.
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.
My name is Nivea, but you can call me Niv. I'm an independent Plant-Based Nutrition & Fitness Coach hailing from the Bronx, NY.