Eating Stereotypes, Racial Healing, and Looking at Blackness Beyond Trauma
On March 3, 2009, the book release party for Vegan Soul Kitchen took place in San Francisco at the Museum of the African Diaspora. The author, Bryant Terry, was being showcased as part of “Chefs of the African Diaspora” series. Bryant Terry is unique within the genre of vegan cookbooks, as he is African American and male; USA authored vegan cookbooks are basically the domain of white identified females.
When Bryant took the stage to introduce himself and his new book, the wall in back of him had a projected image of yellow and pink watermelons. He explained to the audience that the projector was supposed to be showing a slideshow, however, it remained stuck on that image of the watermelon due to mechanical failure.
He conveyed to us how it was appropriate that it would be stuck on that particular image, explaining that he had never had a slice of watermelon until he was seventeen years old. His parents were fearful of consuming watermelon because of the negative stereotypes associated with black people.
What made Bryant’s comment even more interesting was that my husband, a white male born and raised in Munich, Germany, didn’t understand what Bryant was talking about; there was no emotional or visceral connection. The audience, mostly brown and black people, made bodily gestures and sounds that indicated that they knew exactly what Bryant was talking about. Such recognition was both saddening yet inspiring to me.
The intent of Bryant’s Vegan Soul Kitchen cookbook is to “reclaim” soul food in a way that is positive; in a way that means black and brown people should be able to consume without the consequences of being branded with racist stereotypes that accompany this cuisine (Williams-Forson 2006; Witt 2004). In addition, Terry’s recipes bring soul food back to its more “healthier” state before industrialized USA food industry took over most of America’s dinner plates.
Terry’s book focuses on the wholesome goodness of soul food, without ingredients that perpetuate the nutritional-based health disparities that continue to rise in black and brown communities throughout the USA, such as refined and bleached flour, table salt, sugar and high saturated fat animal products.
After I left the book release celebration, I could not stop thinking about how my mother would not let me engage in certain activities that were markedly “stereotypically black.” My parents raised my brother and I in Lebanon, Connecticut, a rural New England town of which the population is 98% white. I remember wanting to learn how to tap dance but my mother had absolutely prohibited me from learning that dance art form.
It was absolutely too painful for her to see her own daughter, tap-dancing while white people could potentially watch. She thought that I would become an object for white folk’s fantasy world of how black bodies should perform. Such objectification of the black racialized body is one of the core psychoanalytical issues that Algerian theorist, Frantz Fanon, focused on in his own work against the racist colonial project. Being an object for white consumption continues to be a challenge for many brown and black people in the USA to fight against (Fanon 2008; Oliver 2004).
Much of my work deals with emotional pain and trauma of being racialized in the USA. I am particularly interested in the contrasting- yet dialectical- racialized-sexualized emotional experiences of black identified people versus white racialized people in the USA. One of the projects I have started this year is engaging in a critical reflexivity of my own experiences of growing up in my hometown, Lebanon CT, attending a predominantly white and class privileged undergraduate university (Dartmouth College) and completing my Masters work at Harvard University. Ultimately, I want to turn this critical reflexivity project into a fusion memoir based on my relationship with food and holistic health, rooted in critical race theoretical, USA black feminist, and Fanonian psychoanalytical approach.
However, I am weary of how to approach this project. In reading the work of Ann Cvetkovich, Kelly Oliver, and Frantz Fanon, I am cautious about dancing around the line of understanding my blackness through trauma versus “reclaiming” and healing. I do not know how productive it is to do a genealogy of how I came to know myself as a “black” subject in the USA, if it is only constructed out of the everydayness of negotiating my relationship with the ongoing emotional trauma of being racialized as black in a “white world.”
Simultaneously, when my husband expresses to me “surprise” about certain racialized traumatic experiences I have had, I ask myself how productive it is to silence this trauma from a majority of white identified people for which my lived-experiences of racialized trauma are “shocking” or “new.” In exploring Cvetkovich, Oliver, and Fanon, I hope to better map out how to conceptualize my writing project in a way that acknowledges racialized trauma, but simultaneously does not present myself as permanently emotionally “debilitated” or “damaged”, unable to heal, while white identified people are presented as being “untouched” by the often covertly traumatizing nature of being inducted into whiteness, privileging them to a cultural collective amnesia that invisibilizes the ongoing consequences of the colonial racist project on non-white bodies in the USA (Sullivan and Tuana 2007).
In her book, An Archive of Feelings, Ann Cvetkovich’s focus is on trauma culture and being “queer” in the USA. She writes
A significant body of work within American studies has recently mounted a critique of U.S. culture bey describing is as trauma culture. Wendy Brown speaks about identity politics as a politics of ressentiment in which claims on the state are made by individuals and groups who constitute themselves as injured victims whose grievances demand redress…Lauren Berlant develops the notion of an ‘intimate public sphere,’ the result of a process whereby a ‘citizen is defined as a person traumatized by some aspect of life in the United States.'” (Cvetkovich 2003, 15)
Cvetkovich’s analysis of trauma is very interdisciplinary, and even though she acknowledges that trauma studies have been traditionally rooted in psychology, she seeks to “demedicalize” and “depathologize” its usage by turning to “feminist theory, critical race theory, Marxist cultural theory, and queer theory” (Cvetkovich 2003, 12).
What is unique about her analysis of, and the centrality of the concept of trauma, is that she attempts to bring the subject of trauma into the public sphere while trying not to pathologize people who have been traumatized; nor does she suggest that “queer” identified people were unmade heterosexual because of trauma. I think one of the most important questions Cvetkovich book’s ask is, What public cultures are created around traumatic events?
I feel that such an emphasis helps to shift trauma as a medicalized concept, found in the clinical text Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, to a social context that is affective on body politics and group identity formation.
When Bryant Terry presented at MoAD (Museum of the African Diaspora), it was part of a “reclaiming” event that wanted to publicly celebrate soul food, but in recognition of dealing with the emotional pain that many black and brown people may have had to deal with while simultaneously wondering if they should consume that food in public spaces.
The MoAD’s “Chefs of the African Diaspora” series, I would argue, is an artistic exhibition created out of (a) the pain and suffering in which certain “black” ethnic cuisines manifested from (for example chattel slavery and Jim Crow in the USA) and (b) the agency and sublimation that the cooking of African Diasporic soul food afforded black bodied people in white colonial spaces.
In returning to my own experiences, I am wondering if I have come to know my position as a “black” subject because of both trauma and also agency and sublimation I have finally been afforded to heal these experiences. For example, I am creator of the Sistah Vegan Project, a book anthology and online community of African Diasporic females that practice decolonization of their bodies and minds through plant-based diets.
Lantern Books will be publishing this first ever book about black female vegan experiences in Fall 2009. Though I had been writing for years, it wasn’t until I was publicly acknowledged, that my writing entered a “third space” of healing and reclaiming through what Kelly Oliver calls sublimation.
Sublimation is the linchpin of what I propose as psychoanalytic social theory, for it is sublimation that makes idealization possible. And without idealization we can neither conceptualize our experience nor set goals for ourselves; without the ability to idealize, we cannot imagine our situation otherwise, that is, without idealization we cannot resist domination. Sublimation and idealization are necessary not only for psychic life but also for transformative and restorative resistance to oppression…It is through the social relationality of bodies that sublimation is possible. But in an oppressive culture that abjects, excludes, or marginalizes certain groups or types of bodies, sublimation and idealization can become the privilege of dominant groups. (Oliver 2004, xx)
I had always written privately about my racialized embodied perceptions of the world. However, it wasn’t until I finally found a press to publish the Sistah Vegan Project that an intense feeling of healing and reclaiming of my embodied experience as a black female in the USA overcame me.
Finally, I was publicly being allowed (in white-world) to creatively express the trials and triumphs of practicing a vegan philosophy as a black female in a white middle-class dominated vegan world; a world in which the politics of whiteness, race, class privilege, and covert racism are never brought to light. For many non-white racialized people in the USA (vegan or not-), this silence is traumatizing, if not emotionally immobilizing (Ahmed 2007; Leary 2005; Oliver 2004).
However, I have also begun to reflect on why I should feel emotionally “better” when the white public mainstream allows me to publicly sublimate my own black female racialized embodied experiences. Am I caught in a dialectical relationship of needing recognition of white-bodied people because I cannot be fully whole or address the intersections of veganism, race, and gender without my public expression and white acceptance of the validity of my personal pain?
These are very deeply personal and complex questions that I feel I can no longer relegate to the domain of the private. I have been inspired by Bryant Terry’s public reflections on his and his parent’s black embodied experiences with the racial baggage that something that should be phenomenologically pleasurable (eating watermelon) is symbolically shameful and traumatizing. As I continue working on my memoir project, I hope to formulate a manuscript that ultimately helps me discover how I can be emotionally happy and healed.
Ahmed, Sara. “A Phenomenology of Whiteness.” Feminist Theory 8.2 (2007): 149-68.
Cvetkovich, Ann, and ebrary Inc. An Archive of Feelings Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures. Series Q. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003.
Eyerman, Ron, and ebrary Inc. Cultural Trauma Slavery and the Formation of African American Identity. Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. 1st ed. New York Berkeley, Calif.: Grove Press ; Distributed by Publishers Group West, 2008.
Leary, Dr. Joy Degruy. Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing. Milwaukie, Oregon: Uptone Press, 2005.
Oliver, Kelly. The Colonization of Psychic Space: A Psychoanalytic Social Theory of Oppression. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.
Sullivan, Shannon, and Nancy Tuana. Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance. Suny Series, Philosophy and Race. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007.
Williams-Forson, Psyche. Building Houses out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, & Power. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006.
Witt, Doris. Black Hunger: Soul Food and America. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.