“Veguary” builds on a long, strong tradition of African-American food ambassadors
BALTIMORE, Maryland––“The Afro-Vegan Society will mark Black History Month with Veguary,” announced society cofounder Brenda Sanders on January 25, 2021.
Veguary, Sanders explained, will consist of “a series of free programs highlighting the contributions of black trailblazers, and the many benefits of vegan living in black communities, and promoting a month-long pledge to commit to vegan living,” with further details posted at https://www.afrovegansociety.org/veguary.
Thereby, Sanders emphatically reminded ANIMALS 24-7 that African-Americans, women especially, have been leading the movement toward a plant-based diet for decades longer than most animal rights and animal welfare societies have even recognized opposition to meat-eating as a humane priority.
This timely reminder came just a week after ANIMALS 24-7 published our annual multi-part salute to African-American pioneers of the humane movement, including What animal advocates owe to the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., and concluding with our also annual discussion of the continued failure of humane organizations to hire and promote qualified African-American personnel, entitled A black-and-white issue that the humane community has yet to face.
“The Afro-Vegan Society will provide resources, support, and community to those who take the Veguary Pledge with vegan recipes, online cooking demonstrations, virtual education sessions and panels, daily email updates, live Q&A sessions, exclusive prizes and discounts from vegan brands, and interactive check-ins through our Veguary Facebook group––all provided free of charge,” Sanders said.
The Afro-Vegan Society speaker lineup includes Seba Johnson, 47, who at age 14 integrated Alpine skiing events in the 1988 Winter Olympic Games; critical care physician Milton Mills, featured in the documentary What the Health; and at least 18 other African-Americans of note within the vegetarian and vegan communities.
ANIMALS 24-7 in Black humane history found in great-grandpa’s attic near a town called Ark and Four black leaders who built the humane movement spotlighted the contributions of educators William Key, John W. Lemon, Richard Carroll, and Frederick Rivers Barnwell.
Spending half a century on the road for the American Humane Education Society, all four men probably reached more children with a pro-animal gospel of kindness than any other one person between the last decade of the 19th century and World War II.
George Washington Carver
African-American vegan advocacy might be said to have begun with George Washington Carver, born in Missouri at some point before slavery was abolished in 1865, but kidnapped by Arkansas slave traders at a week of age, along with his mother and sister, and sold in Kentucky. His white owner, Moses Carver, tracked him down, brought him back to Missouri, and after failing to find his mother and sister, raised him with his own children until he left home at age 13 to seek an education.
Carver went on to become a professor at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama from 1896 until his death in 1943, one of the foremost botanists of his time, a pioneer of sustainable organic agriculture, a strong advocate of a plant-centered diet, and a prolific inventor of commercially successful food products and processes.
Not veg, but developed vegan products
Never a vegan or vegetarian himself, despite his belief in plant-centered eating, Carver enjoyed the acquaintance of many of the most prominent vegans and vegetarians of his time, including fellow food inventor and entrepreneur John Harvey Kellogg (1852-1943) and Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948), who went on to become the first prime minister of India.
With the encouragement of Kellogg and Gandhi, Carver developed an entire line of “mock meat” products, including “mock chicken,” “mock duck,” “mock goose,” and “mock veal,” along with a variety of other meatless alternative protein sources.
Carver and associates tried to develop markets for these products through tent circuit evangelism and lecture tours, finding some interest among Seventh Day Adventists emulating their vegetarian prophetess Ellen White (1827-1915).
The advent of radio and television mostly ended tent circuit evangelism and lecture tours, but opened opportunity for another under-appreciated African-American humane educator, the late Dick Gregory, whose influence came chiefly through his success via electronic media.
A heart attack felled Dick Gregory on August 19, 2017 in Washington D.C., an end he had long seen coming and had forestalled through diet and exercise for more than fifty years.
Knowing he was at high risk from heart disease inspired Gregory to give up eating meat in 1965, and to become a vegan raw foodist fructarian in 1967.
“The brutality of carnivorousness”
Almost as soon as Gregory quit eating meat, he recognized “the brutality of carnivorousness and questioned his relationship to American consumer capitalism,” recounted Jennifer Jensen Wallach in “Black Nationalism & the Post-1964 Culinary Turn,” published in 2014 by the journal Southern Studies.
“Participation in the civil rights movement extinguished Gregory’s appetite for animal flesh,” continued Wallach. “He began to recognize a link between violence against humans and violence against nonhuman animals, noting that ‘Animals and humans suffer and die alike.’”
But going vegetarian alone was not enough to help Gregory out of the high-risk-for-heart-attack bracket, Wallach wrote.
Gregory went further, to become a vegan fructarian, Wallach detailed, “after his weight jumped from 167 pounds as a carnivore to 288 pounds as a vegetarian who would ‘go into a soul food restaurant and wipe out the yams, greens, black-eyed peas, macaroni and cheese, corn bread, squash, and dressing.’”
“Although Gregory’s strict fruitarianism inspired few wholesale converts,” Wallach summarized, “his commitment to maintaining the physical health of the black community was widespread in nationalist circles in the late 1960s and early 1970s.”
The MOVE cult
The Philadelphia black nationalist organization MOVE––whose initials apparently never actually stood for any one thing––included vegetarianism and communal living as focal tenets when founder John Africa began it in 1972 as the Christian Movement for Life.
MOVE appears to have drifted away from vegetarianism before a deadly conflict with the Philadelphia police led to the deaths of 11 members.
By then, though, vegetarian teachings had gained considerable momentum among African Americans from coast to coast.
Mary Keys Burgess & the King family
Mary Keys Burgess published Soul to Soul: A New Vegetarian Cookbook, heralded as the first “veggie soul food” cookbook, from Santa Cruz, California, in 1976.
Dexter Scott King, second son of Martin Luther King Jr., born in 1961, turned vegetarian after a 1987 visit to a health spa Gregory founded in the Bahamas.
Through his influence, his mother Coretta Scott King (1927-2006 became vegan for the last 12 years of her life, as did several of her friends and other family members.
Traci Thomas, who founded the Black Vegetarian Society of Georgia in 2002, the first of an international string of Black Vegetarian Societies, credits Gregory with inspiring her to give up meat in 1994.
Thomas was among the first vegans––of any ethnicity––to win national media notice as a vegan teacher and advocate without initially achieving celebrity as an athlete, entertainer, or spiritual leader. Her 2002 recommendation of corn on the cob as a simple vegan focal food for summer picnics won extensive notice in Midwestern small town newspapers that might never before have published the word “vegan.”
Thomas followed up by popularizing vegan recipes consisting of five ingredients or fewer, to appeal to anyone whose time for shopping and cooking is limited.
Nearly twenty years after the Black Vegetarian Society of Georgia debuted, Pinky Cole, 32, a fellow Georgian, founded Slutty Vegan, an Atlanta burger counter, which rapidly became “the place to be seen waiting, especially if you’re an African-American celebrity,” observed New York Times reporter Kim Severson on July 1, 2019.
Since then, Slutty Vegan has expanded successfully to three locations serving majority black neighborhoods around Atlanta, still attracting a clientele including athletes, musicians, and even Stacy Abrams, leader of the Democratic Party in Georgia.
Dick Gregory also inspired vegan health educator Tracye McQuirter, who earned a masters degree in public health nutrition from New York University before writing By Any Greens Necessary: A Revolutionary Guide for Black Women Who Want to Eat Great, Get Healthy, Lose Weight, and Look Phat (2010).
“During my sophomore year at Amherst College,” McQuirter recalls, “our Black Student Union brought Dick Gregory to campus to talk about the economic, political, and social state of African Americans. But instead, he flipped the script and talked about the plate of black America.”
Eventually McQuirter, her mother, and her sister all went vegan together.
“What truly moved me into practicing veganism was reading about Dick Gregory and seeing the connections he made to institutionalized racism/classism/sexism, black liberation, the black community’s ‘health crisis,’ and dietary beliefs/practices,” recalled A. Breeze Harper, co-editor with Pattrice Jones of the 2009 anthology Sistah Vegan: Black Women Speak on Food, Identity, Health, and Society.
Tabitha Bonita Brown
The rags-to-riches rise of Tabitha Bonita Brown, 41, may mark a new phase in African-American vegan advocacy, in which African-Americans lead acceptance of a plant-based diet across the spectrum of society.
Brown was born in Eden, North Carolina, an old textile mill town never to be confused with the Garden of Eden for which it was named by planter and slaveholder William Byrd III circa 1740.
Dreaming of becoming an actress, Brown struggled for 20 years in a variety of jobs, pursuing her career ambitions with only occasional apparent breakthroughs that turned into dead ends, from North Carolina to California to Florida and back again to North Carolina.
Illness after birthing her son led Brown to veganism, at her daughter’s suggestion, in 2012.
Five years later, still chasing her dreams of acting when she could, but eking out a living as an Uber driver, Brown in December 2017 happened to post a video review of a Whole Foods Market vegan bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich that went viral.
Continued touring tradition
Hired by Whole Foods Market as a brand ambassador, Brown to toured the U.S. making personal public appearances much as Dick Gregory had, and as did William Key, John W. Lemon, Richard Carroll, and Frederick Rivers Barnwell had, in their respective eras.
Even in the age of electronic social media, direct in-person contact––and maintaining the personal touch in social media communications––proved to be the secret of success in imparting Brown’s vegan message.
By 2018 Brown had a Facebook page sharing vegan recipes and product reviews with 2.1 million followers. She added a TikTok account in early March 2020, acquiring another two million followers (probably with significant overlap) within just five weeks.
Turning stereotypes around
By June 2020 Brown also had her own television show, All Love, on the Ellen Digital Network, a subsidiary of Ellen Digital Ventures, fronted by talk show host Ellen DeGeneres, broadcast by Warner Bros’ Digital Networks.
Much as William Key was criticized in some circles more than 100 years earlier for playing up to, and off of, “Uncle Tom” stereotypes, Brown has been criticized––unfairly––as an “Aunt Jemima.”
Reality is that the “Uncle Tom” depicted for more than a century by white men in blackface in touring minstrel shows shared only a name with the Uncle Tom character created by the abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) in her 1852 influential anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Stowe’s Uncle Tom was a strong, brave man who deceived slave owners and hunters to help other slaves escape. Her Uncle Tom was eventually beaten to death for refusing to betray the location of two of the fugitive slaves he assisted.
Who was “Aunt Jemima”?
The “Aunt Jemima” character originated in an 1864 minstrel show. Many African-Americans, from the earliest record of any response, found “Aunt Jemima” offensive.
But former slave Nancy Green began a transformation of the character at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. Hired to play “Aunt Jemima” by the R.T. Davis Milling Company, to promote one of the first ready-made pancake mixes, Green––like William Key as “Uncle Tom”––superficially acted out the stereotype.
At the same time, Green established herself as the first successful African-American brand model. She was also one of the first commercially successful African-American storytellers, though she never received much of the money generated through her popularity.
Most significantly, Nancy Green furnished a positive introduction to African-Americans for hundreds of thousands of Midwestern fair-goers at the very time that the Ku Klux Klan was pushing into the region, amplifying violently negative stereotypes in places where African-American emigration out of the South had only just begun.
Green was succeeded in 1900 by Agnes Moodey, also believed to have been born into slavery. Her popularity appears to have inspired the 1921 invention of the wholly fictional “Betty Crocker” character, a white woman, who has promoted product lines rivaling those marketed by “Aunt Jemima” ever since.
Following Moodey, “Aunt Jemima” was played after 1933 by Anna Robinson, Anna Short Harrington, Rosa Washington Riles, Edith Wilson, Ethyl Ernestine Harper, Rosa Lee Moore Hall, and Aylene Lewis.
Wilson parlayed her role as “Aunt Jemima” into a successful singing career; Harper became a successful radio and television actress.
Paralleled Pullman role
Each of the nine women who played “Aunt Jemima” contributed to the gradual positive transformation of white attitudes toward African-American people, much as did Pullman porters and maids, who were all African-American from the formation of the railway service company in 1865 until it disbanded in 1968 due to the collapse of overnight railway travel.
By then, the cultural need for “racial ambassadors” was rapidly disappearing. The importance of their work in cultivating acceptance of racial integration and socio-economic equality soon faded from recognition and remembrance.
Black History Month
But Black History Month is a time not only for black people to remember and appreciate forebears, but also for white people to remember and appreciate black people who taught us something, and are teaching still.
These people include especially the diverse voices of the Afro-Vegan Society, Black Vegetarian Societies, and all of the other African Americans who are advancing the cause of not eating animals.
Dedicating a Black History Month campaign to veganism, as Veguary does, can only be seen as an extraordinarily generous gesture, even as far too many animal advocacy organizations remain blind to the dedication, talent, and achievements of African-Americans who have already made huge contributions to the causes of both animal and human well-being.