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Essay featured in-
Roots & Wings
Volume 2, Issue 4
The official bulletin of the
Atlanta Branch of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History
Dr. Patricia G. Davis, Editor
Focus on Atlanta History
By Dr. Kenja McCray
In the coming weeks, we will gather around festive tables over feasts shared in fellowship. While meat will constitute the centerpiece of most of these meals, it is likely some of our friends and family members will opt out of eating the main dishes because of dietary considerations. Many revelers might see these guests and their meat-free plates as oddities. According to some measures, however, vegetarianism is now more prevalent in the United States than ever. The common image of a vegetarian is an affluent, white animal rights advocate. The folks at our tables likely cut against that stereotype. African Americans have been part of a decades-old movement to reduce, limit, or eliminate certain meats and dairy products from their diets, often for political reasons. Moreover, Atlanta has been a site of black vegetarian communities for nearly four decades. In the spirit of the holiday season, this issue’s “Focus on Atlanta History” segment highlights vegetarianism and black-nationalist foodways in Atlanta.
Foodways promoting changes in dietary habits have been connected to black nationalism for at least half a century. Veggies comingle with spiritual views, social activism, politics, and economics in black-nationalist foodways. Many black nationalists think of food in sociopolitical terms. Unhealthy foodstuffs are often seen as tools of oppression and healthy fare as means of challenging cultural dominance, expressions of religious and Pan-African identities, implements of self-care, methods of resisting rapacious capitalism, or ways of turning over the dollar in local neighborhoods.
A survey of Atlanta’s restaurants via archived newspapers reveals the city has been home to black vegetarians and vegans for several decades. The Nation of Hebrew Israelites has served kale and sweet potatoes with a side of creamy, non-dairy ice cream at Soul Vegetarian Restaurant since 1979. When folks in Atlanta’s black vegetarian communities were not debating politics over vegan “burgers” named after pioneering black nationalist, Marcus Garvey, in “Soul Veg,” they could be found in the city’s cafés that served Caribbean fare. At West Indian eateries, patrons could get a taste of the “‘ital” dishes popularized by Rastafarians. An “ital” designation signified a warm, flaky Jamaican pastry or savory stew was made with “vital” vegetables like curried cabbage, callaloo leaves, or legumes instead of chicken or beef. Vegetarians could also get a taste of Africa at places like The Abyssinian, Atlanta’s first Ethiopian restaurant.
By the time Kwanzaa comes around again in December, many black vegetarians and meat eaters alike will attend celebrations throughout the city and, chances are, meat-free dishes will be front and center at the events. Vendors will promise a bounty of plant-based options adapted from Caribbean foundations, African roots, and Southern inspirations. Some cooks will prepare their dishes with a vested interest in black folks’ physical vitality, mental health, and sociopolitical well-being.
Traditions of black vegetarianism are not new. They have a history and continue to evolve. Members of black vegetarian communities highlight the healthier side of black dietary traditions. Putting meatless dishes on the menu as part of the main course has long been one of the many practices of struggle, resistance, and uplift in African American life and history.
“Kwanzaa Awareness Festival Celebrated December 8-10.” Atlanta Daily World, December 8, 1988, 2.
“Kwanzaa Holiday Activities.” Atlanta Daily World, December 22, 1988, 2.
McCray, Kenja. Complements to Kazi Leaders: Women Female Activists in Kawaida-Influenced Cultural-Nationalist Organizations, 1965-1987. PhD diss., Georgia State University, 2017.
Schumacher, Harold V. “Abyssinian Food Worth Exploring. Atlanta Constitution, February 19, 1983, 33.
_____. “Soul Brothers: 2 Midtown Restaurants with a Healthy Outlook.” Atlanta Constitution, April 3, 1982, D39.
Thwaite, Jean. “Big Almond Crop Means Good Prices for a Nutty Cook.” Atlanta Constitution, September 18, 1980, 4F.
_____. “Historic Midtown Focuses on Food,” Atlanta Constitution, April 1, 1982, 1F.
Southern Foodways Alliance
Oral History Workshop
Based on my studies of women’s roles in shaping Pan-African cultural-nationalist foodways, I was awarded one of two scholarships offered through the generous support of Southern Foodways Alliance donor, Edward Lee. Funds support critical studies of oral histories. The week-long summer 2017 SFA Oral History Workshop took place at Emory University, Atlanta. Sessions highlighted Southern foodways through the lens of Buford Highway’s many flavors, including El Sur Latino. Classes also focused on the impact of recorded narratives, and uses of digital humanities as well as other creative methods for disseminating narratives. I am excited about how this experience will shape my future research. Stay tuned!
Atlas Obscura – “Against the Odds, A 40-Year Old West African Village in South Carolina Has Thrived”
by Molly McArdle
“The actual village’s population is really small, but the footprint it made is much larger.” (read more)
History Ph.D. student Kenja McCray was recently selected to receive the Association of Black Women Historians’ Drusilla Dunjee Houston Memorial Award for her dissertation chapter, “Education Didn’t Mean Having a Degree: It Meant Serving All of Humanity.” She received the award at the Centennial Conference of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH). (more)