By Guest Contributor Konju Oruwari, cross-posted from Vegans Of Color
What follows is the last letter traded in an exchange between a couple of 26 year-old black dudes regarding my last post on “Liberation Veganism.” My comrade is not vegan, and is concerned about “the problem with the displacement of bread and butter struggle with raw foodisms,” etc, due to my attempt to mix veganism with human liberation, or in our case black liberation.
It is an important concern for all of us, whether or not thinking about or bringing up veganism in a context like African liberation discourse is appropriate. Or the problem with making something like going vegan or trumpeting ecological awareness THE issue or THE revolution, rather than just an aspect of it. And the problem of having advocacy of those causes which are “on the periphery for me, masking as if it is at the core,” as my friend challenged. He stated that to bring up veganism at a hypothetical “cop watch” meeting and try to make the meeting about veganism would be problematic, from which I gathered that something like “cop watch” to him was a “bread and butter” ‘hood issue (as opposed to, given the tenor of our exchanges, dietary, environmental, lifestyle, quality of life, sanitation, etc. issues, which to him are more associated with white liberal green/ vegan activists for whom those things are THE issue).
Lastly we had a disagreement on this point, and I quote my brotha: “one day you said to me the first responsibility of a revolutionary is to be healthy. That was the crucial difference for me, i thought you were wrong. Our health is not the priority, the people are, when the struggle becomes for our own person health (or morality) we are distant from the people.” In subsequent retorts from myself (because I believe the exact opposite of what he asserts) I struggled with this contradiction until he later stated, “a revolutionaries health is not an end to me, it is a means to the end which is revolution.” I play with this idea as well down below.
Without further ado, then, here’s my letter to my good brother comrade in struggle, on the “bread and butter” issues of liberation struggle as pertain to defining health, priorities of concern, “revolution” and so on.
In between running ’round town, meeting folks, preparing food, listening to the radio and other daily bizness, I wondered about how we might define “health” anyway. And that how we define health may determine our relationship with whatever that commodity is. And if there are elements in contemplating health that we may not exactly see eye to eye on, it may be because we haven’t gotten around to building a consensus – a definition to begin with – of what that concept means.
But I also came upon the thought that revolution, which is another notion we may have to define more concretely, nonetheless is fundamentally about health. No? I mean, it seems people like us would only come to acquire and espouse our deep discord, alienation and criticism of the world because there’s an element of it that is so odiously sick and unhealthy, to us and people who look like us. If economic systems are preventing our people from excelling, those economic systems are killing them, ruining their economic and by extension personal health, ruining their sense of self-worth and thus compromising their mental health. If occupational labor standards where they work are consistently dangerous but that danger goes un-remedied by profit-hungry bosses, i.e. undocumented Mexican migrant farm laborers in California or Michigan constantly exposed directly to heavy overflight pesticide spraying with no protective gear, or conditions in meat-packing plants in Chicago where lots of poor black folks once worked and now many more Latinos, etc – then those capitalist labor conditions are ruining their health.
If our schools indoctrinate ignorance and fear and division, and our mass media propagate the same, and our youth imbibe a bitter hopelessness and “act out” against one another, our whole social system is preventing us from being healthy. Same for exposure to high concentrations of lead and other toxic fine particulates, leading to higher asthma rates, in parts of the Bronx and Harlem where MTA’s bus depots are, and where the sanitation transfer stations are, such that the straight filth of our infrastructure kills us.
If one’s housing conditions promote insecurity and pest infestation while being exorbitantly priced so as to suck up half a person’s income, that person has that much bigger a hurdle towards being healthy, including psychological anxieties and stress which increase stress hormones like cortisol and norepinephrine levels which compromise metabolism and immunity to disease.
If Daewoo and other Korean and wealthy Persian Gulf corporations can sign 99-year leases for land in places like Madagascar or Ethiopia to grow food explicitly for their own populations and not the indigenous African populations who live where the food is grown, that type of neo-colonialism is going to decrease food security for people at home, thus ensuring more malnutrition, infant mortality, maternal mortality, and other stark miseries which prevent effective and productive living of a life, or just health said succinctly. Even indigenous regimes of patriarchy, machismo, etc. compromise women’s health, and by extension that of the children, elderly, and whole families.
I mean, that’s one way I tend to see it. I don’t like seeing the misery and desperation out there – it’s disgusting and unhealthy. My innate disgust with this crap is why I’m like this, even why I’m vegan. I don’t like cruelty. I think human beings are capable of far more than what we’ve got here. That’s why I keep striving.
So in terms of this other undefined concept – “bread and butter” issues, no one of us will see exactly eye to eye as to what’s number one or whatever. As for me, and this is a fluctuating, ever changing bunch of things that most frequently preoccupy a person like me, but education of the youth, health, quality of life, labor and cooperative economics/ black business (business doesn’t have to mean capitalist acquisitive stuff, just organizing our own economics internally), domestic violence and black on black crime, the environment, access to land/ housing/ ownership of where we live and even grow food, food security – these might be just some of my top five concerns, and I think I named more than five things here.
What’s interesting (and not I hope a point of conflict but just worth contemplating for the both of us) is that something like “cop watch” is not on my top five, and just might barely make my top ten, of “bread and butter” issues. This is because, as I hinted at in the last message, there is a hell of a lot more domestic violence and black on black crime than there is police on black crime. Said another way, which effects how I prioritize either concern in my thoughts – someone living in an oppressed and crime-ridden community is far more likely to suffer physical strife from someone who looks like them and lives near them than by the police – in for instance Newark, NJ. So a lot more of my attention is grabbed by “stop the violence” and anti-rape, anti-domestic violence “take back the night”-type work than anti-police brutality work. Just because rape and horizontal violence are a much greater existential threat to everyday people than police violence.
And this point may be controversial, even between you and me, but it is something I take issue with at times and with some groups and individuals, who decry every instance of police brutality, but are a little more muted regarding when we do brutality to each other, senselessly, even as children. This is not a “blame the victim” statement. This is not a statement decrying some innate tendency for irrational violence towards one another in our community. It just acknowledges a statistic, whose generation is due to the lack of resources by which to survive which promotes dangerous and destructive attitudes, lifestyles and practices, which leaves us only with some warped sense of dignity over which we might kill because someone disses us. That’s horizontal violence 101, ala Frantz Fanon or Omali Yeshitela. And I tend to have a lot more affinity with that problem than with vertical violence/ state violence, at least as pertains to those of us in North America for the moment.
And I could be wrong, all wrong in my priorities.
So we should think about what “bread and butter” means very carefully and self-critically before we attempt to declare what ought and what ought not be put on the table. Also, regarding the table, and the fear of things like vegan issues crowding out the more “salient” points of discussion and work: to me that fear is unnecessary and almost irrational. I said it before and I’ll say it again: there’s a time and place for every discussion.
And to the extent that to me health is an upfront “bread and butter” issue, when many black folk think about why there’s so much obesity and diabetes in the community, they look at the food system and the food culture we have to deal with. There are many among those who then look at what’s in the kitchen, and analyze the hormone and antibiotics-infused meats, the empty calorie fattening soda and junk food, and so on, and how they eat corporate-controlled food-like substances mostly, and not really nourishing whole foods. And among folks with that analysis, many, many of them might bring up the ‘v’ word, or the vegetarian/ vegan question. By that line of thought and action, veganism of all things could come straight to the table, the “bread and butter” table.
And it would be very dismissive and paranoid to act like all those voices with those questions and thoughts on their minds are bringing up a parochial, peripheral issue. It is not peripheral to them. It becomes a hood issue to them, a “bread and butter” (or maybe “bananas and avocados”) issue. Their voice is just as valid and ought to be just as welcome to the table as your voice, which might never bring up such a question. If you were the master of the table, when they start to think about health, and then diet, and then nutrition, and then maybe veganism, would you just say “shut up?” I don’t think so.
Please don’t leave this conversation still thinking that of all things “veganism,” and I really mean diet and lifestyle and consumer and quality of life questions and concerns which may inevitably and likely lead to things like veganism being brought up, should be hushed away from conversation, due to fear that to converse or contemplate that takes away from, well, “bananas and avocados” issues. Vegans are less than 1 percent of black folk, but that still makes for a vast multitude. Let them be heard.
If the table of discourse is managed well and with discipline, discussions of veganism won’t manage to drown out other and broader concerns and objectives. Don’t fear and hate any aspect of the discourse, however it may seem like minutia to you.
Anyway, back to thinking about health. If depression is now an epidemic in the US including our communities, if obesity, if heart attack, if premature death or disability are now so monumentally epidemic in the US including our communities, it would behoove us to very aggressively question all that.
Another reason that, if I reverse roll-play your critique of me onto you, I think something like “cop watch” isn’t necessarily as priority “bread and butter” as health, is that more than cops, even more than violent strangers or spouses, what we are eating and where we are living are negatively affecting our outcome as a people.
Let’s break it down to be really clear: years of eating unhealthy food, sedentary living, exposure to toxic materials in the home and workplace, and the stresses of making ends meet in an unstable community – these things very very much are killing us far faster and more unforgivingly than any police.
Yet I think some folks think so much about police-brutality because of how visible that is. All the dietary, environmental and other aspects of our lives which are committing literal genocide on our people – that stuff tends to be more invisible and, to use a little medical terminology, of insidious onset. It’s what’s part of the ambiance, what’s mundane, what’s habitual, that is filling more graves with black bodies in America than anything else. This includes young people like us.
So, study food. Study environment. Study capitalism. Study industries. Study geography. Study sociology. Study it all. It’s all on the table. It’s all bread and butter. Even when subsets of those studies lead to considerations, in any given space or time, of such a rarified topic as veganism.
Everything on the table. “Bread and butter” can be “bananas and avocados” to some, and it’s still valid, still worth respecting of the ideas they may share. Don’t fear ideas.
Lastly, regarding the quote “a revolutionaries health is not an end to me, it is a means to the end which is revolution.” I said that I basically agree with this before. But to make things a little more interesting, I will declare that I do think, as a human being (I know we are not revolutionaries either of us, but even if we were, we’d have to be human beings before being revolutionaries), it is perfectly acceptable to take health as an end. Full stop. Take health as a fundamental goal. We all have but limited time here, and none of us are getting out of this gig alive, and moreover, we may not see the broader changes we want to see in our community happen in our lifetimes.
Might as well at least try to be healthy. Taking one’s health as an end means simply striving to have healthy relationships, live and eat healthily, and have outlets for what interests us, including the act of pursuing revolution or a revolutionary ethos. In other words, one might be able to say “revolution is a means to a revolutionary’s health” because by practicing revolution we get psychological, emotional, mental, physical, social etc. fulfillment and well-being.
So, I’ve problematized that one for ya. Remember, bro, it all depends on how we define “health”! And how we define “revolution”! The two could be one and the same for some of us!