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Black vegans step out for their health, other causes

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Aph Ko got tired of hearing that eating vegan was something only white people did. So in 2015, she created a list of 100 black vegans for a website. It included pioneering figures like Dick Gregory and Coretta Scott King and younger, less famous writers, filmmakers, cooks and activists.

“When you say ‘vegan,’ a lot of people tend to only think of PETA, which doesn’t reflect the massive landscape of vegan activism,” said Ko, 28, a Floridian whose favorite dish at the moment is the spinach pie in “The Vegan Stoner Cookbook.” “The black vegan movement is one of the most diverse, decolonial, complex and creative movements.”

So many other people wanted to be included on the list after it appeared, she started a website, Black Vegans Rock. That spawned a Twitter hashtag (#blackvegansrock) and a T-shirt business. In June, she published “Aphro-ism: Essays on Pop Culture, Feminism, and Black Veganism from Two Sisters,” a book she wrote with her older sister, Syl Ko.

Vegan cooking and eating are having a renaissance among black Americans, driven in part by movements like Black Lives Matter, documentaries like “What the Health,” and a growing cadre of people who connect personal health, animal welfare and social justice with the fight for racial equality. Athletes like Kyrie Irving of the Boston Celtics and pop stars like singer Jhené Aiko are bringing a certain pop culture cachet. Cookbook authors and a new breed of vegan soul food restaurants offer culinary muscle.

“I no longer feel like an endangered species out here,” said Zachary Toliver, 26, a writer in Tacoma, Washington, who was on the 100 Black Vegans list and is now a columnist for PETA, the animal rights group, where he writes articles like “Here Are 11 Things You Can Expect to Happen if You’re Vegan While Black.” (No. 1: “You’re still just as nervous about whether or not your white friends properly seasoned the food.”)

Like many food trends that seem new, black veganism has historical roots. Eating vegan has long been a practice, especially for followers of religious and spiritual movements like Rastafarianism and the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, a religious group with black nationalist underpinnings that rose up in the 1960s and still runs a chain of vegan restaurants in cities like Atlanta; Tallahassee, Florida, and Tel Aviv.

Avoiding meat is also a core principle of the Nation of Islam, whose founders believed that pork was at the heart of the slave diet, and preached vegetarianism as the most healthful diet for African-Americans.

Many people who give up eating animal products do it for their health, or for animal welfare. The same is true for the new veganism among African-Americans, but there is an added layer of another kind of politics.

“It’s not just about I want to eat well so I can live long and be skinny,” said Jenné Claiborne, a personal chef and cooking teacher who recently moved to Los Angeles from New York. Her first cookbook, “Sweet Potato Soul,” is due out in February. “For a lot of black people, it’s also the social justice and food access. The food we have been eating for decades and decades and has been killing us.”

Claiborne, 30, is part of a new generation of vegan cooks who are transforming traditional soul food dishes, digging deeper into the West African roots of Southern cooking and infusing new recipes with the tastes of the Caribbean.

As a result, ideas about the dull vegan stews and stir-fries that were standard-bearers among the early generations of black vegan cooks are changing — albeit slowly.

“Some folks are kind of stuck in the ’70s,” said Jessica B. Harris, 69, an author and a food scholar of the African diaspora. “Their food seems to come with a dashiki. And don’t tell me it’s like fried chicken when it’s tofu.”

Bryant Terry cooks to counter the old ideas about vegan food. The chef-in-residence at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, Terry, 43, wrote “Afro-Vegan: Farm-Fresh African, Caribbean and Southern Flavors Remixed,” a 2014 cookbook that regularly makes it to the top 10 soul food cookbook rankings on Amazon.

His recipe for millet cakes is bright with the brick-red Ethiopian spice blend berbere. He likes to serve it with a sauce built from roasted green peppers, garlic and cilantro, and infused with heat from jalapeños.

“In some ways, it’s a quiet wink to the ’70s-style macrobiotic veggie burgers,” he said. But it pales in comparison to what a new batch of black vegan cooks are doing. “I cook like someone’s grandma,” he added. “What I’m really excited about are some of the younger chefs who are professionally trained and know how to put food together in a new way.”

One of them is Claiborne, who grew up in suburban Atlanta and moved to New York after college to pursue an acting career. Her father was raised vegan, according to Hebrew Israelite beliefs, and still eats that way 90 percent of the time, she said. She grew up eating everything but red meat, and learned to cook soul food at her grandmother’s side.

Claiborne wasn’t a vegan when she started a food blog in 2010 as a way to pass the time between auditions. That came a year later, when she got a job at Peacefood Cafe in Manhattan. Now she dedicates herself to countering the notion that soul food has to include meat, and that childhood classics need milk or butter.

She adds butternut squash to sweet potato pie to create the texture usually contributed by eggs. Oyster mushrooms stand in for shrimp in Creole étouffée. She puts jackfruit in her jambalaya and cooks down collard greens with soy sauce and smoked paprika instead of pork.

Health is often not enough of a reason for people to give up meat, she said. The challenges that come with being black in America can be. “When it’s bigger than you, and it’s political and it’s spiritual, that is an entrance point for people,” she said.

The toughest cultural touchstone to let go of is fried chicken, she said. “People tell me: ‘I can’t do without the chicken. I’d rather die a painful death than have to give up chicken,’” she said. To help, she created spicy chicken-fried cauliflower, in which she builds a crunchy crust by dipping large florets into seasoned flour and then a batter of hot sauce, Dijon mustard and soy milk.

Tassili Ma’at, 60, owns Tassili’s Raw Reality in the historic West End of Atlanta. She raised her youngest two children as vegans, and now eats only raw food. She’s a member of the Atlanta chapter of Hip Hop Is Green, which she says is a way to help young people identify veganism as both “something cool and something political.”

“I acknowledge my customers for being modern-day revolutionaries without picking up a gun or having to throw a grenade or pick up a picket sign and carry it down the street,” she said. “We are defying the death industry.”

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