Meet A. Breeze Harper, author of the book Sistah Vegan: Black Vegans Speak on Food, Identity, Health and Society and a blog by the same name.
Breeze shares her journey from fibroid tumors to health, her efforts to share what she has learned with her children, and her work studying how race and gender and class effect how and why we practice veganism and understand veganism.
Ama: How long have you been vegetarian and what was your motive for becoming vegetarian?
Breeze: I started out in 2006 when I decided to seek alternative methods for curing fibroid tumors that I had been diagnosed with. I had been diagnosed in 2001 and had kind of ignored the problem, didn’t want to take the allopathic route, and I had met a woman at my workplace in 2005 who introduced me to the work of Queen Afua. She had suffered from fibroid tumors and she said “You should get Sacred Woman and check out her work.” I did and it changed my entire world; not just in terms of what I eat but really being so much more critical about so many of the things I had been taught that were normal.
I decided to take on the regimen she outlined not only in Sacred Woman but in Heal Thyself For Life And Longevity. Then I decided I just had to do it overnight. Literally I went from the standard American diet to Holistic Veganism overnight; before that, I was mostly vegetarian but not a healthy vegetarian diet. I ate lots of Dunkin Donuts, lots of processed food. I exercised all the time, I didn’t care because on the outside I looked fit and healthy so I guess the fibroid tumors were a really strong wake up call for me because my mother had had fibroid tumors and she had had a hysterectomy when she was 34. It just “ran in our family” as if it were just something that you were going to get. And maybe the women didn’t think very critically about how maybe it’s not genetic, but rather something that were eating.
I do understand that diet plays a big role in it, not the only role, because I do take into consideration environmental toxins and pollution, but I think diet is key. So I tried Queen Afua’s diet.
I went to a Gynecologist who specialized in fibroid tumors who gave me this special sonogram twice a year to monitor it. He had told me the second time that I had shrank them by like 75%. I started feeling much better.
I realized I wasn’t going through the transition to veganism just for shrinking my fibroid tumors but because it actually makes me feel better overall. I transitioned into the diet that Queen Afua had recommended, certain herbs like nettles and red clover and greening your diet. I had had this disgusting patch of eczema on my leg for like two or three years that was supposedly incurable and that particular diet had just cured it. And I discovered the power of nettles and it cured my eczema and my sinus allergy issues.
So ever since 2006 with the exception of my first pregnancy were I wasn’t able to be fully vegan, I have been vegan since then. I stick to it because it feels really good on my body. I also enjoy the fact that it was presented to me in a way that I could totally get, and not feel isolated the way the mainstream vegan movement does where they are very post- racial. They don’t really look at veganism beyond a single issue which is I think for them is solely animal rights.
So for Queen Afua to write Sacred Woman and to even talk about slavery and colonialism, yeah it happened hundreds of years ago, but you can still see the pain manifest physically and psychically amongst tens of thousands of women of African descent. That was so profound to me that I stuck with that but I also wanted to dig deeper.
I realized in 2006 that I don’t think I had ever met a black vegan. I just thought that was really weird. So I decided to the call for papers for Sistah Vegan anthology to see, am I the only one who was affected by Queen Afua? And how much does being racialized as a black female in America influence how and why we want to become vegan. And looking at legacies of colonialism such as health disparities and environmental racism, how will that dramatically shift how one who is of African descent transition into veganism? That was the beginning of the Sistah Vegan Project.
Ama: What is your diet like? Are you 100% vegan? What about raw food? How much raw do you do if any?
Breeze: It depends. I try to make 50% of my diet raw; like right now I have my kale drink. I am just really into making sure I have my kale smoothies every morning, I just throw kale and ginger and grapefruit and Spirulina, all that good stuff, into a blender every morning.
In the cooler parts of the year I tend to do a little more cooked food, but overall, I make most of my stuff from scratch, like we made our own pasta the other day, we have a pasta machine so everything is whole grains. I don’t over heat things. It’s hard though sometimes with two little kids I will often do more convenient things if we’re in a rush.
Most of my diet is what I would consider a green, whole foods, vegan, plant-based diet. My son, it’s a little difficult to control his diet completely because he now goes to nursery school but I tell them don’t give him real meat. So he always tells me how he ate plant-based meat. But then I don’t want him eating tofu pups, which are highly processed. Apparently he’s the only one who doesn’t eat meat there because he tells me everyone else eats animal meat but he eats plant meat.
My daughter, she’s really easy. She’s not in school yet so she’s completely used to whatever I eat. And she drinks my kale smoothies with me. And she loves raw tomatoes and okra. I think it’s really important for her not to go the same path that I went, as a youth. I didn’t know, my mom and my aunts didn’t know reproductive health is connected to nutrition.
So I am just getting her started early and I tell her this is what nettles does for your reproductive health or kale is good for this, or okra is really good for the womb. She may be two years old. But the ages 0-6 is the best time to teach them those foundational lessons.
She’s a very good and healthy eater and I have never had any health problems with her. I breast-fed her 80% of her calories up until she was 14 months old. For the first 8 months of her life she solely drank breast milk. So I think that helped. The breast milk was made by my whole foods, vegan diet. It’s pretty remarkable that she has a taste for all these things that baby’s and toddlers are supposedly not suppose to like, here in the USA. She’s always surprising me.
It will be interesting with my son, as he goes through school what he’s learning, not just his food. The things he’s telling me. We never let him watch things like Disney and things like conventional cartoons that I think are just violent and teach all about capitalism and individualism. He comes back from nursery school saying he’s Spiderman. It’s like “Uh! Where are you learning this from?” So just trying to figure all this out. Trying to be balanced about it. He just turned four.
I don’t want to be controlling, and I want him to be a critical thinker, so I don’t want him to do necessarily what I say because I say it. But he does tell me certain things like he was watching his show Martha Speaks which is a PBS show for kids. Martha is a dog. She likes to talk about how she always likes to eat meat. And he’s like “No, no, no, she means plant meat!” She doesn’t actually mean that but that’s how he’s trying to understand why Martha’s nice to all these other animals so why would Martha eat animals? So that’s how he thinks about it.
Ama: How do you manage a household with some who are meat eaters.
Breeze: I just cook whatever I want and if my husband wants to eat salmon a few times a month then that’s what he does. But it doesn’t really bother me too much. I mean psychologically it’s not that difficult for me. I know for a lot of vegans sharing households with non-vegans, it is difficult, but it doesn’t bother me that much.
It’s not like I’m making two different meals. It’s not like he won’t eat what I make. He’s supportive of what I do for myself. He always mentions he is trying to figure out how to make the transition to a more plant-based diet. He does say he does feel better when he eats salmon. I’m not going to say he’s right or he’s wrong, I’m not in his body.
I make very healthy and tasty vegan meals and he is satisfied with that. He also does a lot of the cooking too, creative vegan things. The other day he made a tempeh dish for the kids. He knows how to cook vegan things very easily. He’s the one that taught me how to cook.
When he first met me all I ate was oatmeal and cheerios. I was like “I’m a vegetarian.” He was like “What kind of vegetarian is that?” He’s actually from Germany and when he first met me he made bread from scratch. Like he had a hand mill and milled his own spelt. I was like “What’s spelt?” I thought that’s so weird. Why don’t we just go buy packaged bread? I had to get used to the taste of the bread that he was making. I grew up on Freihofer’s and refined starch, refined sugar, high fructose corn syrup bread in America.
Then when he made pizza from scratch I had never experienced that. So even though at the time we met I was vegetarian I was not used to more whole foods and unprocessed food.
Whether you are vegetarian or not, just to make the jump from eating processed food and having a palate for that and literally having a taste for that and going to less processed food, I know a lot of people tell me they don’t like the taste, that it doesn’t taste good. A lot of the foods we are used to eating are so high in sugar we don’t understand it’s flavor. I remember when I grew up eating Hood ice-cream. Someone had given me Bryer’s which is more ‘gourmet’ with real specks of vanilla in it and I remember not liking it. I had to really alter my taste and understand on many levels that it takes about four to six weeks for you to adjust your palate to something new.
So on the rare occasions when I am traveling and I don’t have access to the food that I need and I eat something that is vegan but is processed, I get really sick now. Maybe I got sick as a youth but I just didn’t make that connection.
I was traveling to Oregon to give a talk and I could not find anything in the airport that I wanted to eat so I just I ate french fries and I got so sick. I also got this supposedly vegan blueberry muffin, there was so much sugar in it. I’ll do french fries when they are organic and they keep the skin on and its baked or something. I thought wow! I used to eat this way as a child and either I got used to it at an early age or I didn’t make that connection that it was making me sick.
It’s quite crazy how I have that literacy about what it means to put this in my body and to sense it and make those connections; before I was just asleep. For college I would eat all these things that probably contributed to my fibroid tumors and my eczema and insomnia. Having Hershey Bars for breakfast and Dr. Pepper just because I can and because my parents aren’t there, I mean stupid things. No one actually told me maybe that’s what’s making you sick.
Doctors in America are not trained in nutrition, they are trained in keeping the pharmaceutical companies rich. Why would they ever ask you “Oh you’re not sleeping lets give you a pill” vs “Hey! you can’t drink 8 bottles of Dr. Pepper during the day and not exercise or do anything during the day and expect to sleep at night!”
Ama: I think most of us live with a certain level of unease or illness that we aren’t even aware of. We don’t know how bad we are feeling until we clear out and we see how much better we feel.
Breeze: What’s funny is that the way I grew up my Dad tried to raise us to understand herbs and things but popular culture was just too influential. We grew up on two acres of land. My dad had an orchard, he was all about edible landscaping and telling me you can take chamomile or dandelion if you have bad menstrual cycles. He was really concerned that I was over dosing on things like Advil and Aleve, so I had the knowledge but I just didn’t care and it was more convenient and he was weird! I was like “your weird!”
He had told me “You guys strayed but you came back to the foundation I gave you.” So I am hoping I am doing the same with my kids. My twin and I went back. It’s normal to stray but my twin and I have come back to a more natural diet. But it took a lot of suffering first.
Ama: Where did you grow up?
Breeze: In Connecticut. So its interesting when I talk to people who are doing research, my field is looking at critical food studies, and there is this assumptions that if you grow up as a person of color in an urban area without access to farmers markets or gardening then you’ll never ever be interested in eating healthy.
But I think it’s more complicated than that because I did grow up in a rural area and I had access to that. My dad had access to that and he taught it to me but I still did not want to accept that. I still did not want to take it. I remember thinking it was just weird. Why would I want to spend time growing my own food when I could just go to the supermarket. I just thought the things that he taught us were weird because the other kids were not doing it. I listened to my parents in a lot of things, like you have to do well in school. But other things, even though they taught me about herbal living and natural living it just didn’t seem normal to me. It was something that I did not think made any sense in my life as a teenager.
Ama: Why do you think veganism is important for the black community specifically, or is it?
Breeze: Well, I tend to not want to think that one diet is right for everyone. I do know that there is plenty of nutritional science out there that actually shows that a properly planned plant-based diet is great for everyone, from pregnant women to all age groups. So I know that there is nutritional data that shows that but I don’t want to say that that applies to everyone.
But I think that veganism can be a junk food approach or a whole foods approach. I think that for me it’s more like is veganism appropriate for everyone or is a whole foods more appropriate for everyone. Whether you choose to be an omnivore who maybe eats plant-based food 80% of the time then the rest of the time you are eating animal products that are not the commercial ones.
So if I am focusing purely on health I don’t think there is one diet that is right for black people but when I do look more at the animal suffering and animal compassion issue I think vegan does make sense for everyone if they are eating in a way where they want to be healthy but also make sure that non-human animals are healthy too and not suffering.
And then I go deeper and look at, if your asking me the question is it good for black people to eat a vegan diet, I think it would be great for African Americans to understand that a more plant-based diet is helpful holistically if you understand the animal agricultural industry, if you look at environmental racism, environmental justice, you look at the data about what communities are being effected by industrialized farming and pollution. You aren’t seeing it going into white suburbia, you see it going into low income communities and communities of color. So making all of those connections, that’s where I started thinking about why it might be more appropriate, and that aspect of it is a form of anti-racism for black people when you start incorporating a more plant-based diet.
Also looking at the fact that animal foods consumption is greatly contributing to greenhouse and climate change and those who are being most affected by climate change once again are not the upper echelons of society. It’s people of color who are being most effected. So that’s how I started to look at it more broadly and to connect to the realities of communities of color.
I am not just thinking about whole foods plant-based diets at the individual health level but looking at making all these connections. Like how is it connected to the animal agricultural complex. How is it connected to environmental racism, how is it connected to health disparities. I am trying to make all those connections.
When you ask me is it an appropriate diet for black people I think with that context I think it might actually be a more helpful diet for black people in terms of thinking more critically about how to engage in anti-racism and engage in liberation in a way that isn’t just about you and the individual household that you are in but literally about hundreds of communities of color throughout the world that are suffering from exploitation of people, of non-human animals and then you see how disproportionately that those who suffer are low income communities of color. And that’s how I am thinking about it and that’s how I try to present it.
I don’t disagree that you can’t have an omnivorous healthy whole foods diet, but I feel like it’s not realistic for most people because if you are going to start looking at ways to have access to animals that are wild and free range, it takes up more resources, you have to have a lot more money and land to go that route. I think it would make more sense to just use plant foods to feed a community than just solely focus on getting protein by raising animals for food. However, there are communities in certain parts of the world where you just aren’t going to be able to grow plants through all the times of the year. I totally appreciate that reality, so perhaps fishing and incorporating fish into their diets several times a month has been a part of their culture for hundreds of years. I understand that if it makes more sense then trying to grow particular plant-based protein; my focus, however is generally within the USA.
My focus is primarily on black America so I don’t know enough about people of African descent throughout other parts of the world. Listening to people talk about how they suffer, suffer from racism but also just from lack of nutritional awareness. And how I actually think those are connected. I think that the damages of colonialism and racism, that’s what it looks like now. It’s like you don’t even realize there are other options.
This isn’t just black people this is all people. Because most people their brains have been colonized. You just see it manifest differently. Like white people have been colonized too, you see how they think and go about things. All people. But I really see the damages in the body far more when I talk to black communities.
Food for me is a great way to start talking about how one can conceptualize freedom and how one can conceptualize liberation. I think food is very intimate, it’s not subjective at all, it has a history. It’s an amazing point to start discussing social justice and start discussing food justice and all these other things that can’t really be ignored. Whether that’s the black community or any community.
Ama: How has the black vegetarian community changed over the years.
Breeze: I had not really met many black vegans when I transitioned and that was probably because of where I lived. I had lived in the Boston area. I had been attending Harvard and living in a predominately non-black area. I don’t want to say white because there were Asians there too.
Then discovering the internet, social media, I was able to connect to people who could tell me, you know actually there is a large black vegetarian community in Atlanta or DC or have you checked out Chicago or Detroit. I guess I had not really known that because my only exposure to vegan philosophy was through the marketing and advertisement of PETA and PETA doesn’t really reflect anything except what I consider a white neo-liberal approach to social justice and animal rights.
So I guess it’s always been there but I just wasn’t in the right spaces. A lot of it I guess eight years ago it was probably more what we might consider underground. But I feel like at least in the past five years I’ve met a lot more people of African descent who are vegetarian, vegan, raw foods, or really curious and supportive of that if they’re omnivores.
But then again I’ve also been living in the Bay Area of California since 2007. That’s a big change and right next door to Oakland where there is a huge race conscious, food justice movement going on. I meet all these different people of African descent who totally get it.
I did my masters education in educational technologies looking at how communities of color are using technology for health activism and food activism. So I’m trying to get back into that again for my scholarly work. So that’s what I really see. That’s how I’m being more exposed to it and really feeling more optimistic really. Like so many people of African descent DO get it. They probably have gotten it for a really long time before I ever knew. I just didn’t know where to look. But I think things are definitely rising. In fact some one had done a report saying there are more people of color vegetarians in America proportionately than whites.
I think that whenever I do encounter black people that find out that I practice a plant-based diet, I start off not being fundamentalist about it. I try not to proselytize or make anyone feel bad. So I actually have never really had a negative experience in the past 5 or 6 years when it’s come up that I practice veganism. If I talk about why I do it in an approach, usually talking about reproductive health issues or my fibroid tumors or black people’s health disparities, or diabetes, but I kind of start from there and talking about something that connects to all of us.
I guess most of us know or are somebody who have had these problems. I get people interested and asking “What herb did you use?” and “What did you say you do?”. And I get people complementing me about my age, saying “Really! I thought you were in your 20s not in your 30s!” and “What do you use on your skin?” So it’s starts that conversation. Oh, well I eat this way or this what I don’t eat, and this is what I realized. So then they start getting interested. I find if you approach it that way you’ll actually find that a lot of people are more interested in learning alternative ways of eating and healing.
Ama: What tips do you offer to folks who want to become vegan?
Breeze: I usually send them to the Vegetarian Society or the Vegan Society website because right off the bat they have introductory or primers on how to transition to a vegan diet. If it’s mostly black people, mostly women that I’ll be talking to I tell them all about Sistah Vegan Anthology and Queen Afua’s work. And the Queen Afua’s Wellness Network on-line to get them started and let them know that you’re not weird, it’s not an anomaly, there is a whole community out there that’s doing this. From people who are beginners to people who have been doing it for thirty years.
You can actually find mentorships if you have access to the internet. If you need someone who can help you on a daily basis. you can have someone remotely helping you. And they get excited about it. I also have been offering in the last few months webinars of different aspects of plant-based healing and nutrition, for women of African descent. I had a hair and skin care webinar and vegan pregnancy and lactation webinar. And I do when I can free consultations just to get one started. To let them know you don’t have to be scared.
Whether you want to be a vegan or not, transitioning into something really new is scary, it’s really scary. So I try to let people know that you don’t have to be scared. I think it’s great to connect to your own personal stories. So instead of using a lot of high academic talk or scientific theory around nutrition I just start talking about my own narrative. And that seems to be the number one way for me to make that connection and have someone more open to transitioning to a more plant-based diet.
Ama: Tell me more about the work that you are doing and how people can find you.
Breeze: I am doing three different but connected things. Sistah Vegan Project is a critical race feminist approach to understanding plant-based diets amongst women of color. How race and gender and class effect how and why we practice veganism and understand veganism, and more specifically women of African descent.
We are not an anomaly. Depending on what region, age, socio-economic class, religious beliefs, that really impacts it. But the project really is about the underlying theme that we all do recognize that racial formation has influenced us significantly in how we go about veganism. How we understand that experience may be different but the mere fact that we are not post-racial is a big centerpiece of the Sistah Vegan Project.
My other work that I am doing is looking at whiteness, and how food and social justice have been framed and continue to be framed by not just overall broad whiteness but by a very specific type of post-2000 whiteness that I call neo-liberal whiteness. I am looking at how mainstream vegan and animal rights movement and philosophers tend to not understand that their sense of “universal, overall, objective ethics” is actually rooted in neo-liberal whiteness. So I look at that and I get a some hateful blog postings, and occasional emails, from liberal white vegans who tell me that race and gender have nothing to do with veganism and that I am a distraction to the movement. That was the basis of my dissertation thesis. I really looked at PETA and how they market and how they understand veganism. It’s really rooted in neo-liberal whiteness. Its rooted in not questioning capitalism. It’s into a post racial approach.
And then my third project, which I am really excited about, is looking at African men or African American men and the vegan hip-hop movement. Looking at how hip-hop pedagogies are being used amongst these black male vegans. How they offer different ways of thinking about consumption but also about masculinity. I am looking at hopefully five different artists, performers, writers that really engage with hip-hop or hip-hop culture.
They may not necessarily be rap artists or hip-hop musical artists but like Bryant Terry, [author of Vegan Soul Food Kitchen] I can see in his work that he is influenced by being a black male of the hip-hop generation. I’ll look at SupaNova Slom, his work, DJ Cavem Moetavation out in Denver. So I am really excited about this and an academic press is very excited about the proposal that I sent.
I am just really sick of black men being pathologized as not being able to be apart of the green movement or the health conscious movement. But they are and there are ones that don’t even eat meat. There are using hip-hop. There are so many great people to choose from.
Ama: Where can we find you on the web?
Breeze: At sistahvegan.com You can learn all about what I am doing. I am trying to fund Sistah Vegan so I can turn it into an actual non-profit so I can get grants to fund my work.
The Sistah Vegan Project has it’s first 8 hour WEB conference on veganism, September 14, 2013. It’s called “Embodied and Critical Perspectives on Veganism by Black Women and Allies.” You can register here: http://sistahvegan.com/2013/07/30/sistah-vegan-conference-updated-speaker-schedule-and-early-bird-registration/
Thank you for interviewing me. Sounds like you guys are doing really cool work and I am happy to help and be a part of it.
Thank you Breeze for sharing your story and your work!