Black History Month: Where The Past Eats The Present
“Pan-African Flag.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 10 Feb. 2021, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pan-African_flag.
Black History Month chronicles the lives of all those who have worked towards the betterment of an entire community from the shackles of oppression to the road to freedom. The second week of February was first observed as the Negro History Week by the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (now Association for the Study of African American Life and History founded by Dr. Carter G. Woodson) in 1926 and was later expanded into a whole month by President Gerald Ford who “believed it to be an opportunity to honour the too often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of our history”. Canada and Ireland with their substantial African diaspora followed suit in 1995 and 2010 respectively. Today Black History Month has evolved into a dynamic concept, encompassing not just the need to highlight their past, but also bring to the forefront their present and hope for the future. Keeping this in mind, the ASALH celebrates each year a different aspect of the black struggle in America. This year, the theme is The Black Family: Representation, Identity and Diversity. It aims to spark a discourse on the similarities and differences in culture that sets them apart from the rest of the American society.
We would be remiss if we explored African American culture without delving into its past first, as that would render our understanding of it shallow. Hence we go back to Africa to comprehend its influence on its diasporic community today.
Globalization has brought the world closer, transforming us into a multicultural hub. While unity has never been stronger, with passing time, such an assimilation is slowly eroding the distinct characteristics that make different cultures unique. But how did we get here? Well, nascent capitalism! Trade was the thread which weaved the world into one fabric, slowly pulling the strings together. What initially began as the buying and selling of commodities like spices, cloth, and ethnic antiquities, got entangled in greed’s sticky web. The insatiable need for power and money, soon enough, set sail the ship of humanity on a diabolical course, leaving behind their conscience.
Africa bore the brunt of man’s avarice. Uprooted from their native land, they were sent away to distant shores, planting the seeds of a diasporic culture across the globe.
The African diaspora of the 21st century has now assimilated nicely with the cultures of the world, and while it gives them a sense of belonging, it has created a void with respect to their indegenous culture, which seemed to be deepening till about a few years ago with each passing generation. We as a species are increasingly becoming more aware of our origin and are developing a keen interest in going back to our roots; celebrations like Black History Month boost this endeavour.
It is said that no celebration is complete without food. The native cuisine of a region determines its culture through traditions and rituals. Thus, food serves as a way of passing down ideas and values from one generation to another. The evolution of food from its indigenous form hints at the kind of changes the civilization has undergone. Patrick Aziken, our peer at Cook and Culture hailing from Nigeria, has given us a glimpse into how African cuisine has adapted to the forces of the world and this is the first port where we dock our ship.
African cuisine is diverse and delectable, boasting of a plethora of dishes. While ingredients like pepper, garlic, cinnamon, coconut milk, palm oil and groundnut oil may be common to all of these dishes, each has its unique style and distinct flavour, much like the 350 tribes of the continent, each different in its own right but united through food.
This predominantly non-vegetarian culture finds common ground in rice, prepared in different ways. It serves as a reflection of their hospitality and fosters a spirit of camaraderie in the community.
Fried Rice: Another favourite around the holiday time. The rice can be fried directly after soaking it and then adding other toppings of choice, alternatively par-boiled rice can be added after cooking the protein and vegetables.
Concoction Rice: It is just like it sounds. Do your own thing, mix what you like, meat or vegetables. It happens to be close cousins with Jollof rice.
Coconut Rice: More common in the villages due to abundance of coconuts and lack of access and time in the city.
Generally had with white rice, usually around holiday time. It is often prepared in three ways with Chicken, Beef or Fish
Oil-Less Tomato Stew: This is an all time classic, also a healthy option because of the less oil.
Peanut and Squash Stew : This Chadian stew is quite filling and includes grains like millet and rice. It is typically vegetarian featuring cassava and served piping hot. If you prefer to make it non-vegetarian you can add chicken, beef , mutton or fish.
Egusi: Egusi gourds, also known as bitter apple, are indigenous to Africa. Interestingly, these are harvested for their nutrition rich seeds. In their powdered form, the seeds are used to thicken soups and are also the main ingredient of this soup. We were told to place it at the top of our list as it is considered a crime to not serve this soup at celebrations, big or small.
Afang: This nutrition rich soup is made of vegetables, waterleaf and Okazi leaves. More often than not it is rich in meat and seafood, but minus those, it forms a healthy vegetarian meal which tastes just as good.
Efo Riro: This is a Yorubian spinach stew. The vegetables which can be used to cook this soup are Efo Shoko or Efo Tete (Green Amaranth). It can be served with semolina, amala, pounded yam, and boiled white rice.
Ogbono: This Igbo dish is made from powdered Ogboni seeds which give it a black colour. It is preferred with swallows.
Zobo: One of the main ingredients of this drink is the hibiscus flower, which has anthocyanins, polyphenols and hibiscus acid. All of these together alleviate symptoms of various diseases like blood pressure, hypertension, and prevent complications like death.
And now we board our ship once again, and sail towards the continents of America and Europe where seeds of the African diaspora germinated and bore its fruits. Over the years they have assimilated and aligned their identities with the host countries. But in recent years there has been an increased awareness and a longing to go back to one’s roots, bringing us to Black History Month once again.
The western world’s ‘holier than thou’ attitude brought to Africa, not just hundreds of years of oppression but also health problems they struggle with, till date. Pre-colonization, their cuisine was largely plant based and vegetarian. In their mission to civilize, the colonizers tried to make the natives mimic their own hoity-toity ways of life, one of these was the introduction of a heavily meat based diet. Many health coaches note that the kind of food which is beneficial for our body is decided by our ancestral place of origin and is coded in our genes. This reflects in the higher rate of health problems, particularly heart disease African- American have reported. Most of them find their solution in Veganism.
8% of African-Americans are strictly vegans or vegetarians as compared to the 3% of the general population. A recent online poll by Gallop, held in January, found that 31% of non-white Americans had reduced their meat consumption as compared to only 19% of white Americans. Eliminating animal products can help reduce the likelihood of developing chronic illnesses like diabetes, high blood pressure and death which heavily plague the African-American community. The increasing awareness has led to a gradual shift in the mentality of the members of this community, who are now geared up and motivated to ensure the betterment of the black society as a whole. Tracye McQuirter, a 33-year vegan, best-selling author, award-winning public health nutritionist, and vegan trailblazer started a movement to help 10,000 black women switch to veganism in a year, to help reduce their chances of developing any serious health risks. Several others along with her work to ensure a transformation in the lives of black people, one meal at a time.
“Aphro-Ism.” Aphro, 6 June 2017, aphro-ism.com/.
Furthermore, veganism is also a means of tackling systemic oppression.
Veganism is oftentimes believed to be a white initiated western movement to the beat of which the rest of the world is marching. This view is reinforced by the mainstream media through its white-washing, when in truth vegetarianism and veganism have been age old cultural practices in many countries, including those in Africa. This reflects how increasingly the African-Americans are returning to their roots, giving a tough response to the powerful and privileged classes that they will no longer adhere to the norms of an overtly stratified society.
In their book Aphro-ism: Essays on Pop Culture, Feminism, and Black Veganism from Two Sisters “Aph and Syl Ko bring to the forefront the work of anti-colonial writers such as Franz Fanon, Sylvia Wynter, María Lugones, and Aimé Césaire to argue that the category animal is also a colonial invention imposed on human and nonhuman animals. The Ko sisters explore how colonial constructs of understanding disadvantages nonhuman animals while also infiltrating human oppressions, particularly racialized oppression.” (1)
In the past, slavery forced the black community to live within the means of scraps and leftovers. To compensate for the lack of enough food to meet the caloric demand of the body in relation to their physical labour they had to prepare meals high in nutrients which could be broken down readily to energy like- sugars and fats. Some of these foods include macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, red beans and rice, cornbread, seasoned greens, mashed potatoes and gravy, and ice-cold sweet tea. While with time the lifestyle has changed to one which is not as physically taxing, the foods to a large extent have remained the same, aiding and abetting the illnesses which plague the African-American community.
Some other black community oriented movements aimed at building stronger food networks include Black Church Food Security Network which links farmers to congregational markets creating assets and resources, Detroit Black Community Food Security Network addressing food insecurity challenges of the black community, Rise and Root Farm “a place of healing for diverse and marginalized communities, inclusive of all races, genders, and sexualities” and Soul Fire Farm a group of “activist-farmers who grow food as an act of solidarity with those oppressed by food apartheid while maintaining respect for their ancestors, history, and the environment.” (2)
The world we live in today is leagues away from where we had started but somehow we remain stagnant, floating aimlessly in the middle of the vast ocean. As we strive to paddle forward, often the heavy weight of conditioned prejudices pull us back. To move on ahead, we need to cut loose these preconceptions, celebrate our diversity and remember, just like the common foundation of all African dishes, we too are linked together by our shared sense of humanity. This essentially transforms us into one, big, for the most part happy family, who squabble, annoy each other but ultimately stand in solidarity and support of each other.
Share this article with your loved ones and be aware and enriched this Black History Month!
1.“Three Ways Black Veganism Challenges White Supremacy (Unlike Conventional Veganism).” AFROPUNK, 24 Oct. 2017, afropunk.com/2017/10/three-ways-black-veganism-challenges-white-supremacy-unlike-conventional-veganism/
2.“19 Individuals and Organizations Building Stronger Black Communities and Food Systems.” EcoWatch, 6 June 2020, www.ecowatch.com/black-activists-food-2646150738.html?rebelltitem=5#rebelltitem5. Accessed 21 Dec. 2020.
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