As a Ph.D. Student in geography at the University of California, Davis, Breeze Harper explores how Critical Race, Postcolonial, and Feminist theories, can be employed as analytical tools within Critical Food Geographies. She engages mostly in qualitative research and believes that this is a useful complement to much of the statistical information about health in the Black community. Breeze Harper graduated from Harvard in 2007 with a Masters in Educational Technologies. Her Masters research investigated: What are the challenges that Black female vegans using vegan-based health activism face when using cyberspace to promote and network around vegan based health advocacy and awareness, particularly for the Black community? Her thesis title is: Cyberterritories of Whiteness: Language, ‘Colorblind’ Utopias, and Sistah Vegan Consciousness. She connects her thesis work to her most recent anthology project: Sistah Vegan! Black Female Vegans Speak on Food, Health, Identity, and Society (Lantern Books, March 2010) weaves together stories, poetry and critical essays by Black identified female vegans of the African Diaspora. Her paper proposal for the book, bell hooks companion was accepted, set to be published by SUNY in 2010. It is about the intersections of food ways, “at risk youths,” and nutritional decolonization for adjudicated youths. I have tentatively titled it: “Decolonization of the Diet: A bell hooks Based Approach to Nutritional Liberation for At Risk Youth.” The last project she just completed is a fiction novel, Scars.
CARYN HARTGLASS: Hi! I’m Caryn Hartglass, your host of It’s All About Food. It’s all about food! And we’re here today to talk about all things related to food. It’s one of my favorite subjects, and I know it’s many people’s favorite subject. We all have all different kinds of issues related to food, but here most of the time we talk about health, environment and the treatment of animals. And how they’re all connected, and how we are all connected. I’m really looking forward to this program today. I’ve been looking forward to it for a long time. I’m going to be talking with A. Breeze Harper, the editor and one of the contributors in the new book, Sistah Vegan: Black Female Vegans Speak on Food, Identity, Health, and Society. I just finished the book, and I’m just so excited about it. So Breeze Harper, as a PhD candidate in Geography at the University of California Davis, explores how critical race and feminist theories can be employed as analytical tools with critical food geographies. She engages mostly in qualitative research and believes that this is a useful compliment to much of the statistical information about health in the Black community. Breeze Harper graduated from Harvard in 2007 with a Masters in Educational Technologies. Her masters research investigated: What are the challenges that Black female vegans using vegan-based health activism face when using cyberspace to promote and network around vegan based health advocacy and awareness, particularly for the Black community? And, let’s see here, her thesis is titled: “Cyber territories of Whiteness: Language, ‘Colorblind’ Utopias, and Sistah Vegan Consciousness.” She connects her thesis work to her most recent anthology project: Sistah Vegan! Black Female Vegans Speak on Food, Health, Identity, and Society, which we’re going to talk a lot about today, which weaves together stories, poetry and critical essays by Black identified female vegans of the African Diaspora. Book chapters focus on veganism that she has written: “Veganporn.com & ‘Sistah’: Explorations of Whiteness through Textual Linguistic Cyberminstrelsy on the Internet.” She lives in California with her baby and her husband. Breeze, are you there?
BREEZE HARPER: Yes, I’m here! Good afternoon, how are you doing?
CARYN HARTGLASS: Good, I’m doing great. How are you? We’re all good.
BREEZE HARPER: I’m good! Very excited about this interview. I’ve been looking forward to it for a while, now.
CARYN HARTGLASS: Yeah. Me too. I’ve been waiting for this book for decades! Well I’m… okay, I’m white and I do the best that I can to make connections with everyone. With the organizations I’ve been involved with, I’ve always been trying to connect with all different kinds of communities. I can’t say that I’ve been tremendously successful with this community. I’m so glad to read this book and what everybody has to say. I want to buy it and give it to so many people because I think we can all relate to it on so many different levels. My first question is: Did you send a copy to Michelle Obama?
BREEZE HARPER: No, I didn’t. But that’s a really good idea!
CARYN HARTGLASS: I’m jumping all over the place already, but she’s got this new platform about wanting to improve the health of children and the food in schools. I think this is such a great tool, and I think she would love it. So…send her a copy!
BREEZE HARPER: I think I will then! I was telling some of my colleagues that it feels like I’m at a really good place right now in terms of creating a message that is culturally-specific to the Black female experience, and getting funding for it because Michelle is pushing the message for healthier eating and consumption. So that’s a great idea to send her the book—along with other Black females that have celebrity or high-political status. Someone had also suggested that I send it to Oprah because she did try a vegan diet for several weeks and didn’t continue with it. So maybe if I send her this book, not only will she reconsider it but maybe she’ll make it an Oprah Book club ‘Book of the Month!’
CARYN HARTGLASS: Yeah. A lot of people have difficulty with food. And you go into some of those issues in the book. There are so many emotional levels involved in our food habits, and Oprah has definitely demonstrated her challenges with diet and weight over time. But putting out lots of different programs will help herself, but the whole community at large because a lot of people do listen to her and respect everything that she has to offer. Okay! So, just in brief, your story – how you got to where you are today.
BREEZE HARPER: Well, I have to situate myself starting in New England in 1976. I was born and raised in a small area, Lebanon, CT. My father bought 2.5 acres of land and was determined to raise his children on edible landscaping. So, at a very young age, he’s like, “If I can’t eat it, I’m not going to grow it.” So he raised us on an orchard; we had our own chickens and a garden. So at a very young age, I already knew a lot of where food comes from. And he’d also take us to the natural foods store once or twice a week to make sure that we understood healthier eating. Now, as a teenager, sometimes you don’t listen, so I’d still eat a lot of crap anyway. And then when I got into college I started doing stupid things like eating Hershey bars for breakfast. Simultaneously, like most women in this country, I had horrible menstrual problems. I only went to the doctor to, basically, get painkillers. The gynecologist was never ever able to link that maybe what this teenager is putting in her body is actually causing her to have horrible menstrual cramps. And when I was around 23 or 24 years old, I was diagnosed with a fibroid tumor. My mother, who was around 34, had a hysterectomy because of fibroid tumors. So I realized, ‘Oh my gosh, I don’t want to be like my mom’ or some of her sisters and both my grandmothers, who also had hysterectomies due to that. So my father and I consulted each other and he said, “Why don’t you look and see: what did people of the African Diaspora use before colonialism?” before much of our information was silenced, and must of our language and healing systems were silenced, once many of us were enslaved? So I talked to some friends, and a woman introduced me to this woman’s work named Queen Afua, and she is a woman of African descent, and she specifically teaches mostly women of African descent how to heal their wombs through a plant-based diet. So in 2004/2005 I decided, literally within a week, that I don’t want to take the allopathic route, I don’t want hormonal birth control pills, and I don’t want to have surgery for my fibroid problems. So I immediately transitioned into a plant-based diet using Queen Afua’s book, Sacred Woman. And literally, I shrank my tumors by 75%. I verified this by going to a fibroid specialist , and he gave me a sonogram twice a year, and he confirmed it. He was blown away; he did not understand what I was doing but he said, “Keep on doing it.” Basically, what I did was once I had figured that part out of my life, it just opened up my mind to many other things, and questioning: what else have I been consuming—not just consuming in my mouth, but in my brain, that has been misinformation, and causing me a life of suffering and pain.
CARYN HARTGLASS: This is incredible information you’re giving us. Yes continue.
BREEZE HARPER: So I connected more with Queen Afua’s work, and what I like about her work is that she specifically looks at collectively how Black women have suffered due to legacies of colonialism and a racism that have manifested on our bodies. This is something that a mainstream rhetoric around veganism does not really look at in this country. So if you read Queen Afua’s work, she will tell you: our [Black women’s] wombs have over 400 years of psychic and physical pain that has been unresolved since slavery, where the slave masters raped us. They forced us to breed slaves and took away our babies. They forced us to breast-feed the slave-master’s children. This psychic pain and physical pain is still something you can see manifesting into many of the Black females’ wombs of today. So that was just profound for me, and that was a connection that I never felt when I had looked at the possibility of transitioning into a vegan diet, because other texts didn’t necessarily speak to that specific racialized and gendered experience of being a Black woman in this country. And then from there it was easy for me to start making those connections to not just how environmental racism manifests on my womb health, but then also considering the fact that so many animals that are used for “our food” literally have to go through lives that are similar to lives that so many Black women have to go through. I look at my little infant, and I don’t know what I would do if someone came over to me, hit me over the head, and took my baby to eat. This is what so many animals have to go through, and we know, just looking at how they respond, they’re feeling the pain and suffering. And I am the last person how needs to allow this to happen, because this is what happened to my own people for hundreds of years. It’s controversial for me to say this, but I’m sorry. It’s common sense when you look at the sow whose little pig is taken away from her and she just freaks out. Or the calf who’s looking for its mom when they take the calf away for veal production. This happened to my people for a very long time, and I’d like to promote the message that a plant-based diet will not only help heal our Black communities, but will also make us more compassionate and really understand that there is a connection between non-human animal suffering and legacies of slavery and racism and the mentality that constructed these types of institutions of oppression—of the master and the slave ideology.
CARYN HARTGLASS: Wow. We need you on all the major talk shows. People need to hear what you have to say. Now, you were the first one who mentioned to me about Queen Afua. I want to just spell it so people can Google and find more about her. This is Queen Afua. And there’s a bunch of different websites. Right now I’m looking at QueenAfua.moonfruit.com.
BREEZE HARPER: Yes. She has a Wellness Institute.
CARYN HARTGLASS: A Wellness Institute, and lots of wonderful information here. There are so many things I want to say all at the same time. This is kind of like the tip of the iceberg, in some ways… You mentioned the problems with the womb. Humans, today, experience all kinds of health problems. Fortunately, a whole-foods plant-based diet is really the answer for all of our chronic illnesses today. But it’s also really good to focus on specific ones because people don’t hear the global message. And oftentimes we need a path that we relate to—similar experiences physically and emotionally—in order to open the door to bigger things. I personally experience some similar things. I had mentioned to you in my emails I had ovarian cancer. For decades I thought I had uterine tube fibroids, and was led down the wrong paths. I was consuming dairy until I was about thirty, and I really believe that that contributed to part of my personal problem. But I don’t even think a lot of the GYNs today acknowledge this serious problem of heavy menstruation, difficult problems with our periods. I guess it’s something that people don’t want to talk about, but we need to be talking about it because it’s the symptom of a really huge problem. And I also really agree that there are emotional issues involved, and there’s a lot of new science talking abut the memory in cells, which I’m fascinated by, and I really believe that our cells contain memory. If that’s the case, then we can pass on our memory through our children.
BREEZE HARPER: I’m sorry. I’m not sure when you’re done talking. I apologize. I was saying that this is what really connected me to Queen Afua’s work, versus relying on the allopathic system of the Western doctor, because number one: most practitioners in allopathic medicine are trained in less than three hours of nutrition (and it’s like the USDA-approved nutrition, which for the most part I don’t really have trust in). And with Queen Afua she’s talking about the connections that we are passing down physical and psychic energies that can manifest within the cells of our children, and that was really profound for me. And I think about the fact that so many people actually think it’s normal to have a period with pain, and it’s normal to just use a band aid like Advil or Pamprin—the things that actually are probably toxic to the liver and kidneys to begin with. And we also live in a culture where we don’t talk about what comes out of our bodies. I’ve spoken to so many little girls and adult women who are disgusted if I talk to them, “Have you ever touched your vagina? Have you ever understood that what comes out of your vagina is not discharge but beautiful cervical fluids that will allow you to know what the state of your womb is?” But everyone is disgusted by it. And I think that’s one of the problems, not just in the African-American community, but in most female communities throughout this country is there’s this immediate disgust, to not even know what comes out of your body and need it.
CARYN HARTGLASS: Right. Absolutely. Okay. So, how did you get to put this book together, and connect with all these people with so many different, wonderful stories that kind of came to this similar conclusion.
BREEZE HARPER: Well it took about four years of work. It started off in 2005 when—I can’t remember what prompted me to do it—but I ended up going online to Google if there are other Black people practicing veganism within America. I’d been living in Cambridge, Massachusetts at the time, and I thought to myself, ‘You know, I’ve never encountered a Black identified vegan. What’s up with that?’ Went online, went to Blackplanet.com, and saw that there was a talk about the latest PETA advertisement, Animal Liberation Project. Twenty-eight contributors on this forum thought PETA was racist for doing what they did, and I noticed that only one person supported that message. She identifies as a Black lesbian. So I was thinking, ‘Oh! I wonder if Black women who are marginalized in their own communities, if they would actually have a connection to this message more than other folk who may not have multiple impressions of exploitation in their lives.’ So then I decide, I’m going to do a call for papers and I’m going to see if I can get a diverse body of voices to look at not just animal rights…I’m not going to look at voices who talk about veganism; I’m going to ask for voices to look at how society, sexual orientation, anti-racism work, de-colonial politics etc, through the Black female vegan experience. I did a call for papers over and over again. I started it in 2005, but I didn’t really start getting people writing back probably until about a year after posting it. And then when I was trying to get publishers to consider the idea, I got most people saying, “Nobody cares about Black female vegans!” In my understanding when someone says, “Nobody cares” it’s coded language that the White middle-class demographic will not care because that’s the demographic that these books are trying to be sold to. And I did not give up; I just kept on pushing through because I knew that there’s an important message there because I’m talking to so many people of color: when I say I’m doing veganism, there’s the immediate reaction that it’s something that’s not connected to me; it’s a White middle class BG (bourgeoisie) lifestyle, and a lot of them seem to be elitist. That was the response I was getting. And I was concerned with that because I was thinking there is a connection there to many people and their struggles. But it’s just the tone and the communication of the vegan mainstream rhetoric that does not connect with many racialized minorities in this country. So if I can somehow put these voices together and convince a publishing house to take it on and see that it’s not just about Black female vegans. If anyone can read this book and make a connection, then I could probably make this project very successful. So what happened was that pattrice Jones, who wrote Aftershock, she wrote me the same week that I had just finished reading her book. She wrote me to be notified about the Vegan Project and when the book will finally come out. I wrote her back and said, “That’s really amazing that you wrote me because I just read your book. I think it’s fantastic, but I cannot find any publisher that wants to take this book because they think they’re going to lose money.” So what she did was, she said, “Let me send the book to Lantern. Let me see what I can do.” She sent the book to Lantern and they literally got back to me in less than a week and said they want to support the idea. It just made me feel really good and it made me feel like, “Great someone actually sees that we’re all in this together” and even though it’s about black female vegans, it connects to most social justice work out there. So they took the book, and ever since then they’ve been supporting me and trying to help me get the word out, helping me with the editing processes. It’s just been fantastic. So now the book has come out as of last month, and it just been great. I’ve been getting tons of people emailing me; people who will tell me—usually African-American women writing these—saying, “I did not make the connection to what animal rights has to do with veganism and the Black racialized experience until I picked this book up.” Or there are women who are practicing vegetarianism, but they never really made the connection to animal rights. Or people who were looking into animal rights—largely White-identified people—doing animal rights work but never really saw the connections that I made in the book in terms of the racialized experience. So I’m very psyched about that.
CARYN HARTGLASS: First I want to just mention Lantern Books. I’ve had Martin Rowe on the show and he does incredible work and doesn’t get the recognition that he deserves because he’s published a number of really phenomenal books, including yours, and gives people the opportunity to really share their voices, where other publishers run away from these things because they’re too controversial and they don’t see the dollar value in it. But I would like to think that at some point, his books, including yours, will hit the mainstream and become very popular. I feel like the time is…we’re very close. I want to also mention the Holocaust because it’s not exactly the same, but I come from a Jewish background and whenever I try and relate what happened to those victims in the Holocaust to what we do in factory farming, a lot of hairs are raised on end, and “How could you compare humans with animals” and “It’s not the same” and “It’s a horrible thing to do” and “You don’t understand” and blah blah blah. And yet I read Eternal Treblinka, Charles Patterson’s book, and he tries to make that connection. And it’s all connected… it’s all connected. I just really believe that when we treat people better, we’ll treat everything better.
BREEZE HARPER: I felt this way when I read Patterson’s book as well. I thought he made a beautiful connection, and I was not offended. My mind was just opened up. I said I was not offended when I read the book—my mind just became more and more open. I just thought it was amazing that his book and that kind of dreaded comparison were out there, and getting people to think about these controversial topics. One of the Sistah Vegans, I can’t remember which one, who contributed an essay; she said that she didn’t quite get animal rights. And she said the real problem is humans first; if they would actually start treating each other better, that’s what she would say, maybe we wouldn’t have all these problems with the abuse and exploitation of non-human animals, and making that connection.
CARYN HARTGLASS: Well if we really cared about our brothers and sisters—all of the humanity that’s on the planet—we wouldn’t allow ourselves to feed ourselves poorly so that we got these horrible diseases; we wouldn’t allow ourselves to pollute the planet with all the animal agriculture that’s going on, and unsustainable agriculture that’s going on. We wouldn’t allow any of this to happen!
BREEZE HARPER: Yes, but we do.
CARYN HARTGLASS: But we do… Okay, here’s what’s going to happen. We’re going to take a short break. And then we’re going to come back and talk more about this great book, and a lot of other things. So stay with us, and we’ll be right back.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, we’re back! And I’m Caryn Hartglass, and you’re listening to “It’s All About Food.” I’m here with Avery harper, the editor and contributor to Sistah Vegan, Black Female Vegans Speak on Food, Identity, Health, and Society. You’re welcome to send me an email if you have any comments or questions; we can talk about it on the show. The email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Okay, so, you’re there, Breeze, you with me?
A. Breeze Harper: Yeah!
Caryn Hartglass: I’ve dog-eared so many pages in this book, and I thought I might go through some of those things now. So there were all these different stories, contributions, from different people, their thoughts, and how they kind of came to this conclusion to get on a plant-based diet and the spirituality, the philosophy, the motion, the physical everything that was involved in the journey. And one of these stories, let’s see, this was Tara Sophia Bahna-James, she was talking about transgressing at one point and having a hot dog, and then when she was in Europe and France, she wanted a priest to absolve her of her deed. And the priest said it wasn’t a sin and wouldn’t absolve her of having the hot dog. And so the conclusion was really interesting, that she couldn’t count on someone else to absolve her; she had to count on herself. At first, I was amused by the priest not absolving her of what she considered a sin, because you know in a lot of religions, certainly meat-eating isn’t a problem and unfortunately a lot of things that aren’t good for us or the planet are kind of accepted. We don’t have to go down the path right now, but you know, it’s so important; this whole book is about getting to know oneself and taking responsibility for oneself, and a better world is only going to happen when we start with ourselves and understanding ourselves. So I really like that one.
A. Breeze Harper: Yeah, I was going to say that’s basically the center of the book and the center of the project, so it’s not just the book; Sistah Vegan is also a project. The premise of the project is, we cannot rely on the government to necessarily step in and help us first or necessarily understand that, especially how consumption is connected to inequality in this world. So a premise of this project is for me to get Sistah Vegan and allies to understand that we have to start with ourselves first. And it’s difficult for many people especially if you live in a society like America, where you’re not necessarily taught that you have it in yourself to affect change; and I was actually not born and raised in a household where we had a particular religion, but there are people I meet who come from different sects of Christian religion, where they are taught that they don’t have the power in themselves. They have to rely on an outer power, God, an outer force greater than themselves to affect change. And I’m hoping that with this book, that people, when they read it, they’ll realize you can also affect change, that you have a lot of power within yourself, and it’s not necessarily more harmonious to rely on this outer/inner deity or power, or big government to help, especially with social justice causes.
Caryn Hartglass: Well, when we rely on everyone else, change doesn’t happen. History, over and over again, shows that happens by one person, and then another person; one by one by one, courageous individuals standing up for themselves, standing up for what they believe in. Government only changes after the people change. It’s a rare politician that will take the risk of trying to get some change in place; those politicians want votes! So only when the votes are behind them are they going to fight for something. So that’s our responsibility.
A. Breeze Harper: And there are people I’ll talk to, that’ll say they are actually scared, you know there’s a lot of fear, a lot of people do agree that the way things are now, it’s horrible. But a lot of people are afraid to make that leap, engage in practices that are anti-capitalism, or promote animal rights, or even promote anti-racist agenda. Because they’re scared, they’re scared of what they see as consequences that will harm not just themselves but their families are also at risk. So I get people telling me, I’ll get literally private emails people send me, telling me “I want to do this, I want to pursue this particular way of living, but I’m in a household that’s racist, I’m in a household that only eats meat, I’m in a household that does X, Y, or Z in terms of sustaining oppression in this country.” And they’re scared, they don’t know what to do–like “I’m scared I’m going to lose my family’s support,” or “I’m scared I’m going to lose my job.” It’s hard to kind of balance this, and I don’t want to speak for everyone, I can only speak from my own personal experience. I have to really think, you know, what exactly can I risk at the level where I can still live comfortably? Because you know for me, it’s really important, I was telling my mom, if people who are scared had never really fought against African slavery, then I wouldn’t even be on this show talking to you.
Caryn Hartglass: Oh, good point.
A. Breeze Harper: You know, people who are martyred, and I always have to remind my mom this, because one time we had a conversation, I think I was asking her, please go out and vote for this next election, or the election from the other year, and she was like, “Whatever, nothing I do is ever going to change,” and blah blah blah. And I said, “You do realize there are people, black and white folks, who die, and other ethnicities, who died for you to literally have the right to vote, and for my father and you to move to Lemont, Connecticut, and for all white communities to buy property. Like you do understand that it didn’t just happen randomly.” And she was like, “You know what, you’re right.” And really she kind of forgot. Because sometimes people are so overwhelmed that there’s nothing they can do. And I’m like, well look at the fact that if you’re a woman, you’re able to have more rights now, and you’re not you know, suppressed. Or if you know you’re a person who’s not straight-identified, look at all the human rights laws that are in place for you, you know if you’re a person who’s not white. So this does not happen overnight. And you don’t have to literally be a martyr and die; look at what you can actually give up and live comfortably and still be safe. It may seem like you’re losing something right now, but you’re gaining it, you’re not necessarily going to see it overnight. You are gaining a more just world, a world that will have less suffering not just for yourself, but also your children and other non-human species. So I try to ask people to just consider that; I know everyone is in their own unique situation but don’t feel powerless. There is something that you can do, even if you think it is “little.” Whatever you do with a mindset that is positive and with love and compassion, you literally will make someone else’s life, and your own life, a little less hectic, and have a little less suffering.
Caryn Hartglass: It all starts with a step. I liked all the chapters, but Tashi Meadows’ had a lot of interesting things to say in addition to what we were talking about just now about fear–so many people are afraid because of whatever situation they’re in, but also we’re kind of encouraged to be afraid. Our government puts out things to keep us in fear, in order to keep us in control, and she writes, if we are what we eat, we can choose to be fear and terror, or bright green sprigs of broccoli. We can choose to be orphans and prisoners, or strong, leafy collards. We can choose to be pain and death or vibrant mangoes. Or we can choose to consume violent and dine on terror, or choose a vegan lifestyle that nourishes our body, gives us peace of mind and provides sustenance for our souls. Peace begins on our plates.
A. Breeze Harper: I like that one. Very profound you know, because it’s not just like the food but, we are fed in this culture a lot of fear and negativity that is masked as democratic freedom and it’s pretty scary, you know, when I hear people tell me why they choose to consume, and what I perceive as a very destructive way not just to their bodies but also to the planet because the planet and the body are connected. And they just have this fear, if I ask someone “Why is it you won’t consider not necessarily a vegan diet, but a more plant-based diet?” And they’ll say, “Well my family tells me that if I don’t eat steak or chicken once a week that I’m going to get sick, that I’m going to die. It’s not just the consumption of food but if I choose to go against my family’s belief that you know, for instance, it’s bad to go and find a relationship outside of my own racial ethnic identity, that I’m going to dishonor them.” There’s just this fear. There’s always this fear culture. And it’s very sad, it’s very unproductive, and I still feel like this book is this book of voices where these women decided to go against it and see what happens. It seems like from the essays that first the transformation was difficult; some of them may not have had the support that they needed, but also that they realized what was at least the best choice for them and that they don’t have any regrets. I’m hoping that these essays can be very inspiring for people that are not necessarily just not sure that they should pursue a more plant-based diet, but you know, just pursue a more just life around issues around race and gender and sexual orientation. By that I mean trying to understand what I can do in my life that can alleviate the “isms”, the racism, the classism, the transphobia, the homophobia, even though at first I’m scared because I’ve been told that if I were to go that path, I may lose support, I may lose job opportunities, you know I may be disowned by my family. So I’m just hoping this book can be kind of inspirational for those people who are at that path or at that point on the path to make that decision: Do I continue and collaborate with a country that keeps on feeding us fear and we live our lives by making decisions based on fear, or do I continue on a path where I make decisions based on love and compassion and be courageous?
Caryn Hartglass: I’m trying to remember which one it was that wrote about as a young girl maybe she was six or something, and made the realization that the lamb her father was serving as a baby was a real lamb, and a chicken was you know, a real bird.
A. Breeze Harper: Adama maybe? Let me see in my book… yep! So Adama Maweja, of all the essays–I like all of them–but hers really spoke to me, I thought hers was amazing, and I thought it was good to hear from a woman who’s old enough to be my mother, that generation, and how she, her consciousness, came around during the 1960s and a time of civil rights movement activism and how she kind of made these connections early. So I was thinking, “Wow! You’re making these connections in the 60s, that’s really awesome.”
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, it was just a very moving story because she went through so much pain, and just in the beginning when she was young and made this little realization, and basically there was no support.
A. Breeze Harper: Yeah, her father said, “I’ll beat you. I’ll beat you if you don’t eat it,” and to be told that when you’re a little kid. “I don’t want to eat this, this lamb is my friend,” and your father telling you, “I’ll beat your butt if you don’t eat it.” What does that tell a little child? It’s just very confusing.
Caryn Hartglass: So this is really just an inspirational story, because she just rose above all of this. And again that’s just another message, we all have it within us, rather than accept being the victim, there’s always something we can do, one small step to make a difference, lead us all to a better place. And you know, even see, it’s horrible what her parents had done, or her father had done, but I like to think, why were they the way they were? Obviously they had experienced something terrible as well, and that’s why we really need to see everything through love.
A. Breeze Harper: Yeah. I was really impressed by her essay, how she talks about when she gets to university, she just didn’t understand how can the faculty ever teach me about truth when they themselves are consuming lies, death, and disease. And that was so profound. How are you going to smoke a pack a day, drink alcohol, eat five chickens, and then think you have the capacity to actually teach me truth? That was so profound, and that was just one of the reasons I wanted her to contribute to the book, because before she had written this, I had gone and spoken to her and she had been interviewed on a radio show a few years ago, and the way she was just able to make the connection was just so amazing. And I was thinking, “Yeah that’s true, if I can actually see how someone who’s supposed to be a guru, or has a high position of authority and supposed to knowledge, tries to tell me about truth yet I see them in my perception of consuming, and not just negative food, but negative thoughts, negative forms of entertainment, would they actually really be able to tell me the truth? Share with me you know, productive knowledge?” So she was one of the people that kind of helped me make that next leap forward to making connections where I didn’t actually see before. So I think her essays incredibly powerful, where consumption on all levels–can you be true to yourself, can you actually gain wisdom if you yourself are consuming negative energy, energies being food or certain forms of entertainment? It just takes it to a level that I have yet to see, and the conversations I’ve had with most people…
Caryn Hartglass: She talks about how she had more clarity as she improved her diet, so it’s like a, not necessarily a chicken and egg, but it keeps supporting to a higher level the less garbage you consume, the more clarity you have, and then you have more energy and wisdom to do even better. And it just keeps supporting you doing greater things. There’s something else I wanted to say about her… that I really liked… And what was it… Oh! The thing about how we give a lot of people of authority so much power. And give them this position of authority and certainly professors at universities and my favorite, doctors. So many people give doctors so much authority, and as you mentioned earlier in the show, most of them have so little education and knowledge of nutrition! And we go to them and we believe they’re the voice of God! And they’re not. So anyone that has any sort of health issue really needs to participate in their own healing; it’s not just the doctor. You’re not going to get well unless you are in charge.
A. Breeze Harper: Yeah. A lot of people don’t know that because there’s that fear once again, and I’ve had, I don’t know if you have in your personal experience, when I tried to offer an alternative understanding of what is going on in my body, most doctors I talked to trained in the west don’t want to hear it. And they try to tell me that I don’t know what I’m talking about, and you know, it’s very shocking to me that I’m trying to help my body. I know my body better than you because it’s my body! Why can’t we have collaboration without you thinking that I’m trumping some kind of authority that you think you have over me? There are so many people I meet who have been trained to believe that the doctor knows more about their own body than themselves. It just breaks my heart because there will be people I talk to whose health ends up, you know, a lot of doctors can help but a lot of times the doctors end up doing more damage because they’re not listening to the person, they’re not considering the person as a whole being, and they too have knowledge that can help the doctor help them. So it’s just, once again, fear, fear, fear, you know, what if I don’t listen to the doctor? I remember my mom told me when I was first born, I was definitely sick. They expected me to die. I was a preemie, I was a planned 3 lbs., 11 oz., and they did not realize that the milk-based formula they had given me was literally killing me. And my mom said to the doctors, are you sure it’s not the formula? Every time we give it to her she starts screaming. And the doctors trumped this woman’s knowledge and said, “You know, I’ve never heard of that before, why would she be allergic to milk? There’s something wrong with your daughter, it’s not our practice, it’s not how we understand pediatrics.” My mother made a decision to take me off formula, and she decided, she was not able to breastfeed me, but she decided at the time she had access to soy-based, or non-milk-based formula to give me. But the mere fact that I hear the same things 34 years later, the doctor to not actually believe the mother that maybe observing her daughter she would be sick every time she was given this formula, they’re still telling people to eat certain things even if the person comes back saying, “You know what, it’s making me sick.” “Oh, it must be you, you must be doing it wrong, it can’t possibly be this pharmaceutical pill we’ve given you. It can’t possibly be this or that…” It’s just horrible. It gets confusing, people have fear; it just gets very confusing, especially if you don’t have the support when you want to go a different route and your friends and family think you’re crazy for doing that, that you should stick to whatever path the doctor says.
Caryn Hartglass: It’s so important to listen to that voice inside you and really cultivate it and develop it. And a lot of us have been taught not to. And again there are so many different ways I could go here and talk hours about, but doctors–I want to think that they really have our best interests in mind, but in a lot of cases it’s suspect. And we even have some extreme cases where experiments have been done, on certain people, where the known outcome was not going to be very good, or I think, most recently there was some pesticide experiment in northern Florida in a poor community exposing people to what we know is already not healthy, without their knowledge. So there’s a lot of that, unfortunately, too.
A. Breeze Harper: There’s the book by Harriet Washington, Medical Apartheid, it’s an extensive history of, specifically, black people being experimented on. She’s saying it’s more than just that though, you know, and it’s just also people of color, very poor communities that get experimented on, people living with disabilities–it’s just horrible. So you also have that too. Like when I go into the doctor’s office, which is very, very rare, I have that in my head too: Am I going to be treated a certain way, are you going to experiment on me, or not even give me information I deserve because of a narrative you have in your head about black women in this country. And I remember specifically I went to my gynecologist while I was pregnant, and I got to the point where I had to dump her because she was upset with me that I wanted to do a collaborative where I have a midwife and I have her. And she just wanted me to choose, and I did not understand why I could not have her as my practitioner because my health insurance would only cover those costs when I would try to get consultations, I guess once a month you have to go), and then when I want to have a delivery–I did a home birth–why can’t my midwife be there and do the home birth. And she was just offended! She was absolutely offended that I had proposed that. She didn’t say, but I could hear from her tone and her getting annoyed with me you know, “You’re going to give birth in a few weeks, you have to make a choice.” There was just this lack of compassion; it felt like she felt I was trumping her authority over this midwife, and it was just like, this was not helpful. But I was scared, I was like, what if she is telling me, “I have a friend trying to do a home birth and the home birth didn’t go right, and now her son has cerebral palsy.” And it’s just like, are you serious? What about all the statistics that show, in a well-planned home birth that the mothers are fine and the children are fine for the most part, but no, she had to give me the fear story, and then she was pissed off because I didn’t buy the fear story and I ended up dumping her. So it was just crazy.
Caryn Hartglass: Well you know, another message I have for people is that any kind of health situation you’re in, you absolutely must feel comfortable with your doctor. You have to feel at peace with them and know that you’re on the same path, and don’t be scared into anything. If you’re afraid, you need to look further, because you need to be walking the same path. It’s so important. Okay. So, we don’t have a lot of time left, but I wanted to say a number of things. Number one, people should go to your website, you have breezeharper.com, and sistahveganproject.com. And definitely check out this book, Sistah Vegan, it’s really phenomenal and I know I’m going to be buying a lot and giving them away.
A. Breeze Harper: Thank you.
Caryn Hartglass: So the last thing I want to talk about, which is my favorite subject, which is food, and favorite foods–what you eat and what you feed your family, I know you have a young son.
A. Breeze Harper: Yeah! So my son is awesome because I got him started on things that most little kids in this country don’t like. So I give him, every morning, spirulina, which he loves. I mean he loves it. I can’t feed it to him fast enough; it gets all over his face. But I also make green smoothies and I got him used to it from the beginning. So we do a kale smoothie every morning. I have a Vitamix blender, which I saved up for and finally got when my other one died, and he loves it. This kid loves kale smoothies. And then I make these for my overall womb health but also I make it for the whole family, and just recently I made a red cabbage ginger avocado smoothie–he loved it. So, we’re doing a lot of just whole foods, a lot of raw stuff in the mornings, a lot of raw hemp protein, he likes beans also; I’ll cook beans overnight and make a colorful array of beans. I do have to let people know I am in a situation where I’m in north Berkeley, I’m financially stable, I’m in California, so I have access to a variety of foods that I know many other people may not have. But I got him used to healthy eating from the get-go, so that’s the only thing he’s ever known. He’s at the point where he can grab things on his own; he was grabbing the avocado and trying to eat it because he loves avocados. I was trying to say, you know, “You can’t eat through the peel!” He was poking his finger through and trying to suck out the stuff inside the avocado. I just see my kitchen as my medicine cabinet, and the mere fact that my son just loves all of these foods that supposedly little kids don’t like is amazing. And I got him used to, I make my own spicier food, like Indian food, and he’s already used to that, like garlic and cayenne. So far, I’ve been doing 70% breast milk for him, and then the other 30% is just him eating the food my husband and I are eating.
Caryn Hartglass: How old is he now?
A. Breeze Harper: He just turned twelve months, and my favorite are kale smoothies, and people think it’s probably gross if you’re not used to it, but I mean, I transitioned into that because that’s what keeps my womb and my overall body healthy. Kale smoothie–I’ll mix a bunch of kale, avocado, kiwi, water, flaxseed oil, spirulina, and chlorella, and blend it with one or two pits of dates, and that’s what we do every morning. It’s my favorite. I can definitely tell the difference in my awareness of my health when I drink that, and your womb will love you if you do this like twice a day. I’m telling you, it will love you if you take out the processed crap and integrate a green smoothie and red cabbage, preferably raw if you can. People say they can’t digest it, and that’s why I suggest fresh ginger or papaya with it so you can digest it better. And I love it. That’s my favorite.
Caryn Hartglass: Very good. Well, the human body is very forgiving, so any of us that hasn’t been given that excellent start can still do a lot of improvement by starting with some whole, healthy foods, and you’ll be able to see your boosts in energy, your weight balancing, clarity, all of that. But children, especially starting from birth on a healthy diet, I’m excited to see what becomes of him. The children that I know that have started this way, they’re really intelligent, their behavior is phenomenal, they socialize extremely well, and it’s just an example of what we can really be, and beyond. So that’s really exciting. And he’s very lucky to have you.
A. Breeze Harper: Thank you!
Caryn Hartglass: Okay. So what are you working on now?
A. Breeze Harper: Well, currently I’m working on my dissertation; I just passed my PhD exam a couple weeks ago, so–
Caryn Hartglass: Congratulations!
A. Breeze Harper: Thank you! My dissertation will actually look at how black females producing vegan spaces talk to and against whiteness of the norm in America. So my focus is on critical race theory and critical food geographies. And I’m curious you know, what does it mean to be a black female in this country with this collective history around racism and classism and sexism. How does that actually produce a consciousness to understand veganism in a way that is very much different from the white middle class vegan experience? So my dissertation is more a theoretical, social science understanding of black female vegan epistemology. So there’s the anthology that just came out that’s more or less the stories that most people who can read English can understand without having some higher degree, and the dissertation will kind of take it to the next level using critical race theory and critical whiteness studies. Just understand you know, why is it someone like Queen Afua, so much better (I don’t know if this is the right grammar, sorry) to most black women who encounter it? Why is it the way her consciousness was constructed, if you look at the way she dealt with race and class and gender, why is it that she produced this book that makes race and class and gender an obvious factor within how people understand diet, versus most of the mainstream books, which, I did enjoy reading Skinny Bitch, but if you read a book like that there is no critical reflection on how do the white middle-class in this country, with the history that we have around race and class, how’s that actually constructed my understanding and practice and employment of veganism. So that’s kind of what I’m looking at, I’m not looking to judge or bash, I’m just looking at understanding how race affects consciousness, so people involved in health and food justice activism can understand why a certain racialized minority communities are not willing to embrace the white middle-class vegan or other alternative food systems’ message around health and healing.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay. That’s a big mouthful! And I’m going to listen to this show again in the archives to digest all of that because there was a lot of brilliance there, so thank you Breeze Harper for all the work that you’re doing and all the work that I know you’re going to continue to do. Please check out her website and buy the book Sistah Vegan and this has been “It’s All About Food,” I’m Caryn Hartglass, thanks for joining me.
A. Breeze Harper: Thank you.
Caryn Hartglass: Thank you!
Transcribed by Mekala Bertocci 2/8/2015, transcribed by Julienne Wey, 2/9/2015