I would say my diet on this trip consisted primarily (in the first few days) of pink lemonade, sweet tea, fried pickles, French fries, fried okra, and iceberg lettuce (not fried). But on the first night in Mound Bayou, at the welcome dinner, I found a comrade in veganism: Rolando Herts. Mr. Herts is a native of the Arkansas Delta region and Director of The Delta Center for Culture and Learning. We talked about how veganism is sometimes difficult in this area. Mr. Herts said that becoming a vegan was incredibly difficult because food was the way people communicate love here; so for a while he was attempting veganism but eating catfish at friends’ houses. Now that his social system is more solidified, he is a full vegan.
Though many of my friends expressed worry over what I would eat when I told them about the location of my class trip, there are actually many vibrant black southern vegan communities, even if we did not come across one.
According to a VRG report, 7 percent of the black respondents indicated that they did not eat any meat, versus 3 percent of white respondents. Note that a different survey also reported higher rates of vegetarianism among minority groups. This diversity of vegetarians is belied by their cultural representation. Media and social media conceptions of vegetarians and vegans tend to be dominated by whiteness. For example, if you search the phrase “vegan person”, Google will return 486 pages of results that are primarily photos of skinny white woman with bleached teeth eating salads.
That said, modern white veganism is dominated by cultural appropriation: foods most associated with vegan meals — tofu, quinoa, chia pudding, “wraps” made from collard greens instead of tortillas, pulled-pork sandwiches composed of jackfruit — originated in communities of color who have been eating these items for hundreds of years before their rebranding as “superfoods”. One example is Thug Kitchen, New York Times best-selling cookbooks that have sold millions of copies collectively. Thug Kitchen built a name for itself writing expletive-laced directions for its vegan recipes. The tongue-in-cheek style borrowed heavily from African-American, vernacular English. In actuality, the blog was written by a white man and white woman.
Back in Mound Bayou, in Joni’s Nook, I assemble miniature sandwiches of iceberg lettuce and fries and listen to the squerching noises of my classmates chewing wet ribs. Occasionally, I beg for the white bread slice they are given to slop up the gravy dripping off their meat. Hopefully, the next time I go to the South I’ll be able to visit a black owned vegan soul food restaurant.