A closer look at the history of your favorite dish.
By Taya Coates|Contributing Writer
Black people have been disenfranchised since the beginning of the nation’s history, always receiving the shorter end of the stick. According to the African American Registry, “African slaves were given only the “leftover” and “undesirable” cuts of meat from their masters (while the white slave owners got the meatiest cuts of ham, roasts, etc.).” This is well known in the Black community, and stories center around how resourceful slaves were to turn such bad scraps into the excellent soul food that we enjoy at every Sunday dinner and Thanksgiving. The consequence of overconsuming classics like fried catfish and cornbread is apparent in the health of generations who consumed these dishes throughout their lifetimes.
According to the CDC, 37.5% of Black men and 56.1% Black women over the age of 20 were obese in a 2013 to 2016 study. According to the American Heart Association, Blacks are more likely to have high blood pressure, diabetes, and be obese than their counterparts. There have been countless studies that prove the correlation of the soul food diet to disease and death. A notable study by George Howard of the University of Alabama found that “46 percent of Black participants had been diagnosed with high blood pressure, versus one-third of whites.”
With all of this evidence, it’s hard to imagine that this may not have been intentional to further the disadvantages that come with being Black in America. As summarized by TikTok user @kiyahashi, “..kind of food the massas was giving them back then, nothing to make them skinny and healthy, they were giving them slops. The cheapest food there was, and we have made it into a cultural dish. Only to make us have depression and anxiety. Shall I continue?”
The conversation around diet in the Black community has been around since the height of groups like the Nation of Islam and the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem. The recent budding revival of a Black vegetarian/vegan movement appears to have originated in the home to many staples of Black culture – Atlanta. In 2017, the New York Times did a story on the movement and vegan activist and author Aph Ko, who created a ‘100 Black Vegans’ list in 2015 that grew into her company, Black Vegans Rock. This past November, Atlanta-based hip-pop artist Grey held his fourth annual Vegan Thanksgiving with healthy alternatives to dishes including mac and cheese, collard greens, and candied yams. Fondly regarded on social media as “everyone’s favorite auntie,” Tabitha Brown amassed two million Tiktok followers in five weeks in July 2020 due to her comedic vegan cooking videos. These combined efforts break down the barriers and stigmas around alternative diets and show that eating healthy isn’t just for our counterparts.
While Black Americans are unfortunately force-fed unhealthy fast food due to disproportionately low incomes, we can control the contents of the home-cooked dishes connected to our culture. Simply making small changes like changing the ratios of carbs to vegetables and switching to an air fryer may change the course of our health as a community. Representation is always the first step for a catalyst, and thousands of plant-based comfort food restaurants are popping up in cities big and small all around the country. With African Americans as the fastest-growing demographic among vegans, there is hope for a healthy future.