Monday, January 7, 2013

Insert Label Here

This is a Rodin, one of the Burghers of Calais.
Doesn't he look like he's about to lay some wisdom on your ass? Listen up.

I'm married to a man who doesn't believe in self-labeling. Whenever I turn to him with the wrinkle in my forehead and say, "But sweetheart, what will people say/think about me?" He flicks his eyes to mine, then back to his laptop, shrugs a shoulder, and mutters, "Fuck 'em." He is patient with my slow shedding of my belief that to be black is to engage in a narrow set of behaviors, to be a woman, to be a Midwesterner, blah blah blah. Patient, but also liberated: he doesn't believe in any of it. A first-generation Chinese-American, or American-born Chinese, he knows about the kind of crap that majority culture puts on the other when individuals encounter him, and he's just not interested.

(So what's interesting about him is that he doesn't care about the label, but I have to get the label right when I describe him--American-born Chinese, or First Generation Chinese-American: I can't mess it up, because the label has some meaning. He will be the first person to tell you that Korean does not mean Chinese does not mean Laotian does not mean Japanese. So even as the naming is a ritual he's not feeling, the name has import. Ah, the compilations of humanity.)

I come from a family that was big into labeling, specifically, how the world (read: majority culture = white folks) sees you(me), what that says about you(me), and how you(I) should behave in order to thrive(survive). What it meant to be a "black woman" was an incredibly loaded reality, and one that I could never escape. Do this to your hair, do this to your voice, your lips, your ass, your elbows, wear this, DON'T wear THAT, go here not here, and on and on. Thank God we have all stopped talking about being post-racial, and perhaps we are on our way to a world that is post-black, which is to say all of that advice means nothing.  But I'm not sure if that's our world--I'm not sure if there aren't still people who want me to do/wear/buy/consume/vote/read (or not read, more truthfully)/watch a certain way because of my racial identification. I suppose the struggle is different now; I'm not having to face kids in the hallway or on the bus calling me an Oreo because they've never seen anyone like me. Instead I get funny looks from women, who point at ingredients in my cart and whisper to their girlfriends.

All this to say I read an incredible essay in this book, Sistah Vegan--a well-meaning and mind-expanding (if at times a bit uneven) anthology of essays and poetry by black women vegans--called "Journey toward Compassionate Choice: Integrating Vegan and Sistah Experience." Despite the grad thesis title, it was really accessible, the kind of essay that's part theory/part personal experience, with more or less sound deduction. What made it so incredible was that it articulated the complex mix of feelings I've been having for the last month or two.

I took this photo right after I finished a pretty strict cleanse. So much of the food world was just stunning.

When I went gluten-free/dairy-free, in 2009, I'd been a vegetarian for almost two years, and I worried about being a black woman who was gluten-free and practically vegan. Can a black woman be a gluten-free vegan? I worried. Black women don't invest this much in our own welfare and health care; that's for rich white ladies. Are Samuel L. Jackson, Flavor Flav and Mo'Nique going to roll up on my and snatch my black card out of my wallet? Black women don't have a legacy of caring for themselves. Caring for others, sure. For hundreds of years, Black women in America have nursed, wiped, swept, cooked, cleaned, washed, dressed and served others, and at their/our own expense. When your legacy in your homeland is invisibility, subservience, abuse and neglect, you don't really feel you have much right to self-care, much less resources on how to do it. After a brief (though not brief enough) foray back into meat eating, I returned to a plant-based diet last year, this time eliminating eggs on top of it all. As I learned about veganism in America, I noticed what a majority-culture movement it was. It was great that I had all this common ground with like-minded souls who wanted love for our bodies, each others' bodies, the planet and the animals; but where were my brothers and sisters? Where were people like me, who saw first-hand what obesity was doing in the black community, who struggled with diet-related illness in their own families and who wanted a healthier alternative for black consumers to choose?

In my search I came across the work of Bryant Terry, black vegan chef (I came home from a workshop he ran shrieking to my husband, "We're vegans now! Even you!"), and Breeze Harper, a PhD candidate at UC Davis, and editor of Sistah Vegan. Her work deals with postcolonial, anti-racist food justice, and particularly how the typical American diet has been used as a tool of oppression and manipulation on the female black body. Harper posits that veganism is not only a return to diets more honest for those with African ancestry, but that it is a rejection of oppression by the establishment. I'd never, ever heard the lifestyle couched in this context before: veganism as a means of decolonizing the black female body. It was astonishing to me. I hadn't felt particularly oppressed when I was eating chicken (which frankly, I never liked, despite the grinning black face with the drumstick), beef or pork. But the idea that eating the refuse from the masters' tables during Antebellum America had been carried down and was currently being reenacted at Popeye's and barbecues all over the country, well, that was intriguing.

I've seen my grandmother, mother, aunts and uncles, eat chitlins like they were delicacies, shred hamhock and fatback into pots of greens with glee; I've seen loved ones thoughtlessly turn to plates full of heavy, laden food when they were upset, confused, lonely. I'm no conspiracy theorist; I'm not trying to tell the story of crap food in the black community is an agenda by the white man the way others told the story of crack in the 80s. But the reality is that my ancestors didn't eat pasta, or roast giant yards of meat. (Frankly, you have to go waaaaaaaaay back before we can talk about anyone's ancestors eating that way. None of us is running from saber tooth tigers and mastodons anymore, so I don't know how relevant it is to eat like we might flee a giant predator. But I digress.) What was so freeing about the idea of veganism being a process of decolonization was that it gave me a sense of ownership over my own body. Maybe for decades, or even centuries, my ancestors have been taught to eat in a way that is ultimately bad for us; maybe the historical and/or stereotypical African-American diet is a holdover from slave days. Maybe, in being a vegan, I reclaim my body as black, feminine (and feminist) and healthy.

Which is where this essay comes into play. Inside my brain have been the "what about the animals," and the "what about my cholesterol/blood pressure," and the "what about all those leather boots/bags you still own, Jess," and the "what about how much energy we use to cultivate animals for food," and then this idea (of veganism-as-decolonization) falls into the mix like a manhole, heavy and loud and ringing as it settles. Decolonizastion is about my choice, but it results in a retooling of my self-perception. To be a vegan I don't have to be a Birkenstock-wearing, unwashed undergrounder, rabidly shouting at meat-eaters about the nature of what they're consuming. I don't have to be the uptight, spandex-swathed Mrs. who shops at Whole Paycheck and looks down her broad brown nose at everyone and everything that isn't vegan. What if my veganism, the choice to abstain from that which causes me physical, emotional or spiritual distress, is in its nature of decolonizing and reclaiming, an expression of my self-love, of my ownership of my own body, and of self-care? What if I can express that self-care and include compassion for others who make different, and even oppressive, choices?

Holy Shit.

Not to get all metaphysical, but it does feel like my consciousness has changed. This essay is an indictment of the mainstream vegan movement in America for not cultivating a relationship with black women, or indeed any sub-culture on the fringe; it also highlights the choice of eating as an expression of compassion, and self-compassion, which for some of us is more important that the animals or the environment. It challenged me to stretch my compassion to those who would defend their meat-eating choice, and reminded me that to witness the divine in another is to love and respect their right to choose as much as I love and respect myself. Writer Tara Sophia Bahna-James says, "[W]hen our own conversion [to veganism] eclipses our appreciation for others and their own narratives (even narratives we have come to associate with the behavior of an oppressor), it is desperate. And there is a reason desperation is suspicious. It is always too personal." Compelling words to a writer: every story, even the story of the oppressor, the butcher, the overseer, the abuser, has value. This is an interesting challenge to all of those veg-heads who would poo-poo our meat-eating family and friends. (including me: you should have seen the cross-eyed look I gave my in-laws after sitting down to their flesh-filled dinner table. Ultimately, Bahna-James argues this need to judge meat-eaters comes out of the dispassionate, desperate awakening--when vegans "come to Jesus" the first thing we want to do is dissociate with the oppressors, who are, in fact, ourselves.)

 She writes about our bodies as a map of our experience, not positive, not negative, but honest. The body knows all, it remembers anything and everything that's ever happened to you, even (and especially) those things which your mind has shoved away so that you can "forget." "By appreciating myself, and what I am capable of, and hence knowing the roads I didn't take in spite of that capability, only then does my current action become a choice. Only then may it be called good or bad. Without choice, judgment has no value. It is meaningless to call something 'good' or 'bad' that simply is. Only that which is chosen can be said to be chosen out of compassion or cruelty. Thus recognizing that our bodies are beautiful becomes a powerfully political act, a celebration of compassion directed at the self. And this is what is behind the Black woman's love of her body, which is so present in the ethos of Black contemporary culture." This is where she loses me a bit; I'd love to believe that self-love is a part of the ethos of contemporary black women, but I'm not seeing that reflected broadly enough to convince me. Sistahs struggle with our own self-love, our love of each other, and God help our love of women across the color line. Still, the idea of taking care of my body as a political act is positively revolutionary. I read this and remember the words of Audre Lorde:
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
 (She was never scared, was she?)

If we are all in a position to preserve ourselves, if our agency about how we eat is political, even revolutionary, what can--or will--come when we make choices that are an expression of our agency and our compassion?

She wraps the essay by labeling herself a "compassionate-vegan" instead of an "ethical-vegan". A fine label. I don't know what my own label says. You ask my mother-in-law and she'll just shake her head at you. My Favorite would say something about be being a woman who is growing out of her need for labels. My students would say Teacher, The Painter would say Challenger. But would they say vegan? I don't know, and maybe it doesn't matter. I know what it means to me to be a vegan, and after a year of putting the label on and pulling it off again, I think I can wear it simply. I don't have to defend it, when I do explain it, I can do so with kindness, and I care less (and less) what others think about me because of it. I like this learning. I like that how I eat is a reflection of my grounding in myself, my expanding consciousness, and my consideration for the world around me. Who knew food could feel so holy? The vegans knew, that's who.


BlueBlou said...

Hi Jessica,

Christina from your fic writing two class. I must say that I really love this particular post of yours and it's been on my mind a bit since I read it, so I'd thought I'd comment!

Labels are largely something that's has been very much a factor in my upbringing, and outlook on the world at large because rather it be as a black woman or anything else, I always feel the need to fulfill some kind of role.

Lately, since having made the trek to Chicago and Columbia, I've been trying to cement my creative self in a definite label and figure out what it means to be a fiction writer and women of color writing things that I write and saying the words that I feel the need to say. Oftentimes I feel this urgent need to just BE something or someone.

In some ways though, I think I've made peace (and by peace I mean largely ignore at time, hah, hah) the label that I need to face/create as a black woman. On some level I've just cared less about people judging me first by the color of my skin and what they perceive me to be because of it, but then when that worry creeps up on me again I probably don't address it as positively as I should--so, hence, I just ignore that doubt.

I can remember my mother once telling me that I couldn't even wear a certain kind of shirt because BLACK people don't wear whatever she was perceiving as being a white people only thing. While I prided myself on rebelling against her mindset, it still trickled it's way into my psyche nevertheless. There isn't one moment today that I don't press a shirt or pair of pants to my body and wonder if I will be thought of as "less black" or in some way trying to "avoid" being a black person. So, it's a battle that I still face as well, but I'm learning to embrace my prejudices and fears despite their oftentimes negative connotations--I feel I can't learn from them otherwise.

Also--love the point you bring up about the connection between your newfound perspective of maintaining a healthy diet and the centuries long abuse that any black women have inflicted on their bodies with unhealthy eating. Funnily enough, both times I've come against vegetarians/vegans it's been those whom were of the looking down their nose "cross-eyed" and snobby persuasions, which in turn made me largely write them off as...well, assholes, but I've got a more learned perspective now. They are indeed assholes, but that doesn't mean all vegetarians/vegans will judge me for being a meat eater. :D

So, again, just wanted to comment with my own thoughts! Hope to see you next semester!

Jessica Young said...

Hey BlueBlou!
Thanks so much for sharing this! I totally feel you on the "black thing to do/black people don't do this" tip. Stopped counting how often I heard that growing up; now I'm just trying to rid my own mind of that thinking.
Creatively, it's tricky, the labeling. It's important, I think for artists at all, much less artists who are women of color, to claim that identity. There is a kind of power in our self-naming, self-identifying. But like you say, what if we just use the label because we need to label something? And what is our responsibility, once we've donned the cloak of woman of color/artist?
Smart cookie. Thanks for sharing. Hope to see you around, too.