The imagery of veganism propagated by the wellness industry erases the long — and often radical — history of plant-based diets in the Black diaspora
I used to think of pork as a life-giving food. One of my happiest childhood memories is shaking a fat pork chop in a Ziploc bag full of Shake ’n Bake seasoning before my grandmother slapped a few on a tray and put them in the oven. Forty-five minutes later, she’d pull out the crispy, amber slabs and pile them on a plate like a stack of golden bricks, a monument to the abundance of meat in my childhood home. It was everywhere, in every meal: turkey wings, barbecue ribs, fried chicken — all of it accompanied by delicious, dairy-heavy sides like my aunt’s macaroni and cheese and my mom’s potato salad.
I never thought I’d willingly give it up. But four years ago, I rejected meat and dairy in favor of a plant-based diet. I had moved back into my mother’s house, and she seemed concerned when I began refusing her most prized cooking, like the pork we traditionally ate on New Year’s Day to “burrow forward.” She feared for my physical health — plant-based eating went against what she had been taught about nutrition as a nurse — and for my happiness, since my new lifestyle didn’t accommodate the food traditions that had always brought me joy.
I understood her worries, because I had initially felt the loss, too. Soul food was an African-American tradition in the South that survived and traveled north to cities like Newark, New Jersey, where my family settled as part of the Great Migration. That alone made it worth preserving; so much of our original culture was destroyed during the passage to this country. Our food connected me to my ancestors and to my family around the dining room table. The way we cooked and ate — sharing freely with anyone who stopped by — felt unique to Black culture, and my veganism initially seemed like a rebuke of the rituals I had always known. I felt like I was revoking my own Black card.
To my loved ones I was a martyr, sacrificing the finger-lickin’ goodness of our food for supposed health and wellness. But, while my vegan journey began as a solitary one, I eventually learned that I was not alone: Plant-based eating has a long, radical history in Black American culture, preserved by institutions and individuals who have understood the power of food and nutrition in the fight against oppression. The seeds of this consciousness are now being re-sown by modern-day activists, wellness influencers, and ground-breaking restaurants, like D.C.’s Khepra’s Raw Food Juice Bar and Newark’s Blueberry Cafe, which are turning to natural foods to create positive change in Black life. Today, there are estimated to be more than a million Black vegetarians and vegans in the United States, with Black people representing the fastest-growing vegan demographic in the country.
In an ideal world, our food would simply be a source of nutrition and fuel for the body, not a political statement. But four years into my plant-based eating journey, I now happily embrace the label of “vegan” because I understand its legacy within Black culture. I also understand that, as a Black woman, any personal choice I make to celebrate my identity is inevitably political, and for that reason, plant-based eating is probably one of the Blackest things I could do. As a Black woman in America, my veganism is, in fact, a homecoming.
Like many life transformations, this one started with Oprah Winfrey. On a lazy Sunday afternoon, I caught an episode of Oprah’s SuperSoul Sunday featuring the food writer Michael Pollan. For an hour, Winfrey and Pollan relaxed in wicker chairs on the grounds of her sprawling, beautiful estate and discussed what, as Pollan put it, “mindful eating can do for our souls.” Three times a day, he told Oprah, “we get to express our values through food.” I thought about what my meals said about me: I was an unconscious eater, ignoring the signs my body gave me when I stuffed myself with overprocessed meats or guzzled too much cheese; I vibrated at a lower frequency.
I started by removing meat from one meal per day. By toeing the vegetarian line, I could still turn up on deviled eggs and macaroni salad at family functions. But when I considered going further, into veganism, I pictured whiteness — animal welfare activists and Goop-subscribing stay-at-home moms who had time and money to buy into the latest health craze — and it didn’t seem like a realistic option. So I continued to indulge in pizza and mozzarella sticks.
Just as I began to plateau on plants, my grandmother gave me a copy of Bryant Terry’s 2014 cookbook, Afro-Vegan. Seeing the words “Afro” and “Vegan” together on the book’s cover disrupted everything the mainstream had ever shown me about veganism. Terry, who is the chef in residence at San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora, uses the foodways of our ancestors as a historical guide for plant-based eating, combining classic Southern, Caribbean, and African dishes into a uniquely Black vegan cuisine: There were recipes for stewed tomatoes and black-eyed peas, grits with slow-cooked collard greens, and a mango-habanero hot sauce. I felt overwhelming power in the sudden and profound realization that I didn’t have to stray from my roots in order to explore my veganism.
The world of Black veganism, previously hidden, began to reveal itself to me. The most visible example in recent years is Beyoncé and her on-again, off-again affair with plant-based eating. In 2013, she and husband Jay-Z introduced their 22-day vegan challenge; she embarked on a 44-day vegan fast before 2018’s Coachella. Although Queen B isn’t a full-time vegan (“First it’s important that you know I am not vegan,” she told the New York Times shortly after helping launch a vegan meal delivery service), her interest has helped put plant-based eating at the forefront of American pop culture. There are also a host of Black vegan celebrities, athletes, and public figures who, not surprisingly, also push against limited ideas of Blackness in their work, including tennis legend Venus Williams; Brooklyn Nets point guard Kyrie Irving; New Jersey senator, former presidential hopeful, and Rosario Dawson boo Cory Booker; and activist Colin Kaepernick.
As influential as celebrity vegans are, their wealth and fame do not make plant-based eating feel accessible (or affordable) to an everyday person on a moderate income (Bey’s 22-day vegan meal plan costs $609.84). Nor does the $4.2 trillion wellness industry, which in promoting plant-based eating has all but ignored the existence of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) vegans — along with the long history of plant-based eating in communities of color.
“This is not foreign and this is not new [to Black people],” says Tracye McQuirter, a food justice activist and co-author of the cookbook Ageless Vegan who has been a vegan for 30 years. “It’s just that most of us don’t know this information.” Part of McQuirter’s community work involves documenting the history of plant-based eating in Black culture: Her African American Vegan Starter Guide features essays by a who’s-who of Black vegans, including the popular plant-based-food blogger and chef Jenné Claiborne (@sweetpotatosoul) and Aph Ko, a self-described “decolonial theorist” who started Black Vegans Rock in 2016 to highlight the community worldwide. “I felt a bit isolated,” Ko tells me via email. “Rather than fighting for representation in the dominant movement, I wanted to just create my own space.”
The internet has given life to vegan voices traditionally dismissed in the mainstream, both new and established. On Instagram, accounts like @highertohealth and @blackvegantube post a variety of content on health and wellness that’s geared toward a Black audience. There are plant-based chefs like @arislife_, @tysconsciouskitchen, @crushfoster, and @sophia_roe, as well as individuals like @thealkalinewav, @foodfornegus, and @iamsurvivingvegan, who encourage veganism via alkaline eating, which means choosing whole plant foods that, according to the diet’s proponents, will maintain the body’s homeostasis and ward off illness. (I am a raw alkaline vegan, meaning I mostly eat uncooked fruits and vegetables and sprouted grains; my partner and I currently run an alkaline vegan meal service.)
Among some in the Black vegan community, alkaline eating has become more than a fad diet; it represents, to them, a radical act of self-care that rejects reliance upon a biased and discriminatory medical industry. For those influencers, the work of Alfredo “Dr. Sebi” Bowman, the Honduran herbalist and healer who began promoting an alkaline diet in the 1980s, is a key throughline. Dr. Sebi, who is self-educated and does not have a formal medical degree, is best known in the mainstream for his most fantastical claims — namely, for rejecting the germ theory of disease, which he posits stems from mucus, and that he has cured brain tumors, herpes, lupus, blindness, cancer, and AIDS. (The latter claim, his most notorious, resulted in two separate court cases in New York state; he was acquitted in a criminal case for practicing medicine without a license, while in a follow-up civil case, he was enjoined from making further claims about being able to cure AIDS and other serious illnesses.)
But focusing solely on those claims risks overlooking the radical potential of his core message, which reframes food as medicine and empowers Black people to take control of our health through our diet — a message that has continued to earn him new followers and proponents, despite his death in 2016. (A forthcoming documentary about Dr. Sebi, started by the late vegan rapper Nipsey Hussle and picked up by Nick Cannon, as well as conspiracy theories that Nipsey was killed because of it, have also grown his fame.)
Most provocatively, as an early proponent of the gut-brain connection, Dr. Sebi encouraged Black people to return to plant-based diets rooted in our ancestors’ place of origin. “Our mother [in Africa] didn’t have any … hog mogs and chitlins,” Sebi said. For people of African descent, he argued, meat and dairy — which were consumed sparingly in traditional African diets — harmed not only our physical bodies but our spiritual and mental well-being. “Dr. Sebi would always talk about how smart the Black man in America is,” filmmaker Abelardo “Mr. G” Guerrero Jr. recounts of his time traveling with Sebi in his book, My Journey with Dr. Sebi. “They give us all this stuff that clogs us up so that we don’t tap into our greatness.”
Many Black plant-based eaters today, including me, have been galvanized by the frightening statistical pattern of life-threatening illnesses connected to diet and nutrition that affect our community at higher rates than other groups: cancer, obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease, to name a few. Black people receive lower-quality medical care and less access to preventive treatments than white people, and African Americans suffer losses from these illnesses more than most; non-Latino Blacks, for example, have higher rates of premature death from stroke and heart disease than whites. And now, the COVID-19 pandemic is providing an ongoing case study in how a deadly disease disproportionately affects the Black community.
“Almost everyone we know, they’re either transitioning to plant-based or they’re interested in it,” says Bee Walker, one half of the photography duo Rog & Bee. We were sitting at the Bronx home and studio she shares with her husband and creative partner, Rog, before the pandemic. Rog started with a vegan diet decade ago, and Bee, who is half Indian and grew up in Kenya, has eaten a mostly plant-centered diet since she was born. “When I realized I was lactose intolerant, I became vegan by default,” Bee says.
“For me,” Rog adds, “This has been a big element: There’s a lot of health things in my family, [like] in a lot of African-American families.” As a result, he began seeking healthier alternatives to the mainstream American way of eating. “I always wanted to push against a lifestyle that was automatically placed on me,” he says, “and I think food was a big element.”
Food is political, and that is especially true for Black Americans. A lack of access to healthy food is a problem that disproportionately affects Black and Latino communities — a condition that the U.S. Department of Agriculture formally describes as a “food desert,” though the food justice activist Karen Washington prefers the more apt term “food apartheid” — which are defined in large part by the nearly century-long legacy of redlining.
Decades of U.S. agricultural policies that overwhelmingly favor meat, dairy, and corn have caused many Americans to load up on a diet rich in fatty, processed, and refined foods, but the ill effects of the standard American diet (appropriately also called the SAD diet) are heightened for racial and ethnic minorities. Systemic racism within the dietetics industry has kept Black dietitians out of the field — their number has fallen by nearly 20 percent over the last two decades — while the resulting Eurocentric view of diet and nutrition has severely constrained its approach to non-Western cuisines and cultures. Not only is there a lack of knowledge about the nutritional foundation of many traditional diets, but people from non-Western cultures are pushed toward Westernized views of health and wellness even though, for instance, people of color are generally less able to process dairy products.
Both health care and food policies are greatly affected by who is voted into office. Unfortunately, African Americans have historically been and continue to be victims of voter suppression, which takes away our ability to advocate for health care policies that nourish our families. And so for many in the Black vegan community, plant-based eating can be an act of protest against this disenfranchisement.
Much like the Black Panther Party did through its free breakfast program in 1969, today’s food activists seek to build a conscious community by way of nutrition. The Baltimore-based collective Alkaline Bodies uses an Indigenous diet program to help build social and economic skills for Black youth and adults, while Tambra Raye Stevenson’s NativSol kitchen teaches nutrition and cooking skills rooted in African heritage foods, with a focus on leafy greens, fresh vegetables, and spices. Online Black vegan resources address mental health and social issues in between nutrition tips and recipes. In 2020, “Black Lives Matter” has come to encompass a more holistic approach to well-being — whether in public, while interacting with the police, or in private, via self-care, health, and nutrition.
“People’s consciousness is being raised in all aspects of society, and nutrition is one of them,” says Aaron Beener, a co-owner of Seasoned Vegan, Harlem’s first full-service vegan restaurant. “Nobody wants to die at 45 from heart complications.” He has been vegan for the last two decades, after his mother, Brenda Beener, the restaurant’s co-owner and executive chef, switched their family to a plant-based diet to accommodate her husband’s extended juice fast. The mother-son duo, along with a third partner, Pascal Rawls-Philippe, opened the soul-food restaurant in order to “show people that it’s not outside our culture to be plant-based,” Aaron says.
“It’s cool that there’s a resurgence” in plant-based eating, Beener adds, “because I feel like us getting back to our indigeneity will help solve a lot of issues that plague our community.”
There’s a passage in Jenné Claiborne’s 2018 cookbook Sweet Potato Soul that beautifully captures the historical thread of plant-based eating in Black culture: When Claiborne was asked by friends if it’s difficult to be a vegan from Atlanta, she reminded them that “my great-grandparents from the South — and my ancestors from West Africa — ate mostly plant-based diets.”
Bryant Terry addresses this — along with the misconception that plant-based eating started with white hipsters, wealthy Goopsters, and animal-rights activists — in Afro-Vegan, where he writes that “for thousands of years, traditional West and Central African diets were predominantly vegetarian — centered around staple foods like millet, rice, field peas, okra, hot peppers, and yams.” Before captivity, as documented in detail in the culinary historian Michael Twitty’s searching volume on African-American foodways, The Cooking Gene, the West African communities of the Igbo and Mande cooked largely with grains, legumes, leafy greens, herbs, and onions. Meat was consumed sparingly, only during harvest time or as a seasoning for vegetables.
Frederick Douglass Opie, a professor of history and foodways at Babson College, traced the lineage of soul food from its Indigenous origins for his book Hog and Hominy: Soul Food from Africa to America. “The African and Ameri-Indian diets contained far more vegetables and legumes than the Europeans consumed,” Opie writes. Captivity and forced migration “exposed the Igbo and Mande to various new eating habits and food preparation methods” and “changed the diet of Africans in the Americas.”
New Black Americans saw valuable nutrients stripped from their diet. Many plantation owners fed enslaved people little more than cornmeal and salt pork, the lowliest pieces of the hog, in an effort to save money. “Pigs were so easy to grow, and there were so many other parts that wealthy people discarded; that made it very easy for enslaved people to take those parts and come up with delicacies,” Opie told me over the phone. That paved the way for the dominance of pork — especially chitterlings, hog maws, and pig’s feet — in Southern cooking.
With the British as the ruling class in the South, plantation cooks tailored meals to European preferences, which also influenced some eating habits of enslaved Africans. One British belief held that cooked fruit was more nutritious than raw fruit, which could cause fever if not properly cleaned. As a result, Opie says, Black cooks adopted the British penchant for pies, transforming treats like peach cobbler and sweet potato pie into soul-food staples.
Even as Africans in America adapted to their new environment, they retained their Indigenous knowledge of plant-based nutrition. Those forced into slavery on smaller, poorer farms, or in areas where the plantation economy was not dominant, such as New Orleans and the Gulf, kept their own gardens, a practice described by Twitty in The Cooking Gene as “little landscapes of resistance: Resistance against a culture of dehumanizing poverty and want, resistance against the erasure of African culture practices.” In Hog and Hominy, Opie quotes a Scottish-born visitor to North Carolina who remarked that Black people were “the only people that seem[ed] to pay any attention to the various uses that wild vegetables may be put to.”
Chattel slavery, the influence of European foodways, and the interests of a capitalist economy disrupted the plant-centered African diet. That disruption was never repaired, as the government failed to deliver on its promise of “40 acres and a mule” after the Civil War, despite the 1865 special field order to reallocate 400,000 acres of Confederate land to the Black farmers who had tilled it for 250 years. Andrew Johnson — Abraham Lincoln’s successor and a sympathizer with the South — overturned the order and returned the land to the plantation owners. Denied the right to land ownership, African Americans who stayed in the South after the Civil War had little control over the food they grew to feed their families. (Of the Black farmers who have managed to acquire their own land between then and now, some 98 percent have had it taken from them.)
Many Black farmers seeking economic independence and autonomy were forced to enter into sharecropping agreements, in which they farmed white landowners’ property for little pay and meager returns. Black sharecroppers became increasingly reliant on plantation owners to provide salt pork and cornmeal for sustenance, which set the standard for Southern cooking: pork, cornbread, and heavily cooked produce, such as greens that were preserved at the expense of nutrition.
Those who migrated to northern and western cities during the Great Migration (1915–1970) became even further removed from the land and fresh produce. Meat, which was limited during the Depression and World War II, had become a status symbol by the 1950s, helped along by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s promotion of animal protein for nutrition. Dietary guidelines from the mid-20th century reflect this shift: Meat and dairy were on equal footing with fruits and vegetables. As people in the cities relied on butchers and convenience stores selling canned and packaged goods, the African-American diet became dominated by meat and foods that were cooked, fried, or doused in sugar and preservatives.
Plant-based eating survived in Black culture in part through religious groups that were focused less on proving their humanity to white people and more on finding fulfillment within, and for, themselves. These radical communities saw spiritual and intellectual freedom — not necessarily social integration — as critical to success. Like many Black vegan influencers today, their goal was to use food as a tool in paving a way toward higher consciousness.
The Seventh-day Adventists, a Protestant sect that established African-American membership as early as the mid-1800s, have encouraged a vegetarian diet since 1863, when one of its members, believed to be a prophet, articulated a vision they had on the subject. Many Adventists today are vegetarian, and 32 percent of Adventists are Black. The African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, who believe Black Americans are descendants of the ancient Hebrews of the Bible, also promoted vegetarianism in African-American culture. Today, the majority of their estimated 400,000 to 500,000 members in the U.S. consume a strict vegan diet.
Followers of Rastafarianism are probably the best-known for seeking a natural, holistic diet. The religion was birthed in the 1930s in Jamaica and built upon the philosophies of Marcus Garvey, who organized a Black nationalist movement in the U.S. in the 1920s. Many Rastafarians adhere to an “Ital” diet, which focuses on organic foods from the earth that increase one’s connection with nature and God. Since they consider meat to be dead, they believe that eating it works against one’s natural energy; while most Rastafari are vegetarian, some are strict vegans.
Of all the religious groups, the Nation of Islam were considered the most radical in their promotion of vegetarianism. They were unapologetic in using plant-based eating as a way to challenge racist oppression in America. In 1967 and 1972, Elijah Muhammad, who led the Nation of Islam for four decades, published two volumes of How to Eat to Live, a culinary guideline for physical and spiritual well-being. “Not only does [eating the proper food] give us good health,” he wrote, “but it gives us a better way of thinking, as food and our mental power work in the same way.”
Muhummad’s call to plant-based eating was a direct response to the very factors that had disrupted the Indigenous Black diet in America more than 300 years prior: capitalism and racism. He suggested replacing processed foods with fresh fruits and vegetables, noting “the food that we eat is robbed of its natural vitamins and proteins … for the sake of a commercial dollar.” He implored African Americans to break their bond with “soul foods” that had been provided by Southern slave owners, citing physical and spiritual benefits. “These foods destroy us,” he wrote of soul food. “We are, by nature, vegetable- and fruit-eating people.”
Of course, not everyone agreed with the idea that soul food was harmful. By the 1960s, it became a positive cultural expression of Black pride, an idea further promoted by Amiri Baraka (then known as LeRoi Jones), whose 1962 essay declared soul food a distinctly African-American cuisine that should be celebrated, not shunned, for its Southern heritage. Written in response to a Black novelist who had authored an Esquire story claiming African Americans did not have a signature cuisine, the essay helped to turn much of Southern cooking into “soul food,” using the language of the time to rebrand it as something uniquely Black. Baraka even championed the creative ways African Americans consumed “all those weird parts of the hog,” including “the feet, snout, tail, intestines, [and] stomach.”
Muhammad, conversely, viewed pork as one of the biggest threats to Black self-determination because of its ties to slavery and to American capitalism. While he recommended that African Americans abandon meat altogether, he saved his most intense critique for the popularity of pork in soul food. Pork is forbidden in each of the Abrahamic religious texts, including the Quran. As a result, most Muslims abstain from eating it. Although I was raised primarily in a home that ate pork, on the weekends I lived with my father, who is Muslim, and pork was never on the table there. As an adult easing into meatlessness, I took a cue from him, and pork was the first meat I removed from my diet.
The significance of starting my plant-based journey by nixing pork has not been lost on me. Thanks in part to the Nation of Islam’s stance against it, African Americans have been divided on the meat since at least the 1960s. Today, some Black folk wear their pig consumption as a badge of honor, an emblem of their Southern roots, much like Baraka had. While some avoid it for religious reasons, many abstain simply because they have been taught that the pig is a dirty creature. In Huey P. Newton’s book Revolutionary Suicide, the Black Panther Party co-founder uses this logic to explain why the party called the police pigs. “‘Pig’ was perfect for several reasons,” wrote Newton, who called the animal “ugly and offensive.” Although the Black Panthers did not officially promote vegetarianism, they saw nutrition as a way to course-correct some of the ills plaguing the Black community. Their “survival programs,” including the Free Breakfast for School Children Program, approached racism as an intersectional oppression — paving the way for activists today. Several Black Panther Party members were vegetarian or vegan, as they saw the commercialization of animals for food consumption as a symptom of a larger abusive system. Party member Angela Davis, who is a vegan, said in 2012: “We don’t realize the extent to which we are implicated in the whole process of capitalism by participating uncritically in the food politics offered us by the great corporations.”
Baraka himself later recanted his love of soul food as his involvement in Black power politics grew in the late 1960s. He became a pescatarian, but viewed African-American vegetarians as “an example of Black bohemianism, like hippies in blackface.” His stance reveals how misperceptions about veganism in Black culture thrived even as plant-based eating moved from the fringes of religion into public life. Nonetheless, a plant-based diet continued to find footing among activists as a valid method to resist white supremacy and its foundation of abuse.
Perhaps none of these activists are better known for connecting plant-based eating to the fight against sociopolitical oppression than the comedian and civil rights hero Dick Gregory. Gregory, who protested, among other issues, the Vietnam War, segregation in Chicago public schools, and the mistreatment of Native Americans, became a vegetarian in 1965. As he explains in his 1971 food manifesto, Dick Gregory’s Natural Diet for Folks Who Eat: Cookin’ with Mother Nature, “the philosophy of nonviolence which I learned from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., during my involvement in the civil rights movement was first responsible for my change in diet.”
While running for mayor of Chicago in 1967, Gregory met the nutritionist and naturopath Dr. Alvenia M. Fulton, who delivered a plate of greens to his campaign headquarters. The two struck up a lifelong friendship, with Fulton teaching Gregory to avoid animal protein and engage in fasting for longevity. Fulton, who had established her health and fasting institute on Chicago’s South Side in 1958, proclaimed herself the “Dietician to the Stars” for good reason: As documented in a 1974 Ebony article called “A Farewell to Chitterlings: Vegetarianism is on the rise among diet-conscious blacks,” her clients included celebrity activists Gregory, Ruby Dee, and Ossie Davis.
Fulton’s work on reprogramming people’s eating habits, combined with Gregory’s activism, helped move plant-based eating from the fringe to the mainstream in Black Hollywood. In her 1974 book, Vegetarianism: Fact or Myth? Eating to Live, Fulton observed “Dick Gregory’s dramatic accomplishment has removed the concept of a fruit and vegetable diet from the realm of ‘faddism’ and ‘kookiness.’” As more stars, like the outspoken Cicely Tyson and the spiritual members of Earth, Wind & Fire, abandoned meat, Black celebrities began providing a blueprint for others who wished to use their platform to support the change they hoped to see in public life — none more forcefully than Gregory, who promoted the benefits of a plant-based diet from from the 1960s until his death, in 2017. After hearing Gregory speak on her college campus — he had been invited by Amherst’s Black Student Union to talk about the state of Black America — McQuirter, of the African American Vegan Starter Guide, began to explore her own veganism. “He talked about the plate of Black America,” she recalls. “He related all these other issues impacting Black people to food justice.”
Khepra Anu, a 30-year raw vegan, who owns and operates Khepra’s Raw Food Juice Bar in Washington, D.C., had a similarly transcendent experience after seeing Gregory lecture. “He talked about the social injustices and everything under the sun,” he says. “But then when he opened the Bible to Genesis 1:29 and mentioned man eating fruit and herbs as his meat, that changed everything for me right then and there. So much so that the next week I ate nothing but fruit.”
Also among those converted by Gregory was Aris Latham, a pioneer of the gourmet raw food movement in the U.S. Latham, who opened Sunfired Foods, the first raw food company in Harlem, in 1979, became vegan while “hanging out with all of the wonderful back-to-the-land, counterculture people [in the] Black Power movement [who were] just trying to really empower ourselves, taking control of our lives,” as he put it to the CBC. He committed to raw veganism after meeting Gregory, who later declared his raw cuisine “exactly what godliness is about.”
After Gregory’s passing, the musician Questlove summed up his legacy: “Dick Gregory’s revolution wasn’t just about politics commentary and humor. … he was one of the first major Black figures I saw advocating for a healthier lifestyle for Black folks that were caught on stress (& stress eating) and all the unhealthy choices we’ve made in the name of cheaper survival options as opposed to long-life options.”
By the 1980s and ’90s, vegetarianism and veganism had settled firmly into celebrity and activist pockets of Black life — most famously Erykah Badu, who was introduced to plant-based eating as a child at a Black heritage festival and became a vegetarian in 1989, and Prince, who revealed he had become vegan in 1997. In an interview with the Vegetarian Times, he reflected on how plant-based eating had retained its spiritual roots within Black culture and continued to function for some as a way to liberate oneself and the world from injustice, oppression, and suffering. Vegetarianism, Prince said, was “a natural step for anyone seeking oneness with the spirit,” and added that “to eat a tomato and then replant it for your nutrition as opposed to killing a cow or a pig for your meal is reducing the amount of suffering in the world.”
Within the last 20 years, knowledge of plant-based eating has seeped into Black American life like a finely steeped herbal tea. Black-owned vegan restaurants have been flourishing across the country, in the process dissolving some of the barriers to entry to a way of life that could radically shift how Black Americans take care of themselves. There’s Brooklyn’s Sol Sips, which hosts sliding-scale brunches and free cooking classes; Atlanta’s celebrity-favorite Slutty Vegan and Juiceez & Etc., which specializes in raw meals; Baltimore’s Land of Kush, serving vegan soul food; Washington, D.C.’s Khepra’s Raw Food Juice Bar; Los Angeles’s Counterpart, until recently serving an accessible vegan tasting menu, and Hugh Augustine’s Hugh’s Hot Bowls, which has served thousands of vegan meals since the start of the pandemic; and Chicago’s Original Soul Vegetarian, an African Hebrew Israelite-owned restaurant that opened in 1982 and is still booming today.
“There is a whole increased consciousness wave today,” says Seasoned Vegan’s Aaron Beener. “People are paying attention to what they consume. And we wanted to be in that wave and push it forward.” Beener says he and his partners “wanted to make Seasoned Vegan as African American culturally as we could,” and designed it to feel like someone’s home, a place where you’re bound to run into someone you know — if not a friend, then a familiar face. Cicely Tyson once brought Lenny Kravitz here; Stevie Wonder held a songwriting session with India Arie in the back. Sen. Cory Booker, Styles P, Danny Glover, Angela Davis, and the entire cast of Aladdin on Broadway have all eaten here. During a visit of my own, I looked up to find the comedian J.B. Smoove and his wife, who are vegan, stopping by to celebrate their wedding anniversary.
“We wanted to show people that you could have a normal dining experience that just happens to be plant-based,” Beener says. Chef Brenda carries this theme into her dishes, using burdock root and yam protein to make “shrimp” and grits and hearty po’ boys, and cashew cheese in her mac and cheese. By introducing those who may have grown up on a soul food-heavy, Westernized diet to vegan food cooked with the same flair, Seasoned Vegan and restaurants like it are creating a gateway for meat eaters to incorporate plant-based foods into their lifestyles. “So many times I hear people resist changing their diet because they don’t want to give up something they like,” Gregory writes in Natural Diet. “Learning to eat as Mother Nature intended her children to eat does not mean giving up something. It means just the opposite!”
Like Gregory, I realize the power of what I’ve gained, not lost, by taking ownership of my body in a society that has historically tried to control Black and female bodies. I have also gained a more empowering understanding of Black history. As African Americans, our story is a living, breathing organism, constantly revealing new parts of itself previously hidden beneath the official narrative of U.S. history. I think often about my ancestors and the pieces of them that have been lost forever. But I find joy in knowing that in my embrace of veganism, I am inheriting their culinary knowledge. The long history of plant-based eating in Black culture is radical because it provides an alternative way to be Black in America — a blueprint for resisting some of the many forms of oppression we endure, freeing us to write our own story moving forward. For a people who have been searching for a home since the inception of this country, plant-based eating, and its call to look inward, can be one of the most profound homecomings of all.
Amirah Mercer is a culture writer and editor whose storytelling dives into the beauty and depth of Black America. She is the founder of Other Suns, a wellness guide for Black women. She has written for Vogue, Vanity Fair, Vice, and more.
Cienna Smith is an illustrator based in NYC.
Fact checked by Samantha Schuyler