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.