'Authentic Blackness' as Christian, Speciesist, and Heteronormative: Brief Thoughts on Being a Non-Christian Black Woman

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Dr. Amie Breeze Harper, 2013

Unlike most Black folk I know, I was not raised in a household that subscribed to any particular religious beliefs. My parents were basically agnostic, but my parents were always open to my twin and I exploring religious philosophies. Many members of my extended family are or were Jehovah’s Witnesses or Baptists. One of my aunts gave my brother and I the gift of Watchtower subscription, a magazine dedicated to Jehovah’s Witness faith, when we were children. I found the stories and lessons both entertaining and confusing. However, for me, it just didn’t feel like the right path.

I remember I was at a family event one year. I was in my early 20s. My father was talking to one of my male family members who is a Jehovah’s Witness. Somehow, they started talking about animals. “Paul” (I’m just calling my male family member that to protect his identity) told my dad his interpretation of the Bible when it came to non-human animals: “God says we have dominion over them, so that means we can eat them.” My dad just shook his head and laughed to himself that one could interpret ‘dominion’ as ‘domination’ so they didn’t have to acknowledge and/or admit that non-human animals feel and suffer. That they can lie to themselves that animal are not sentient and can used for any human desire. Suffice to say, “Paul” simply didn’t care, because that is what his Bible said, case closed.

I also have the feeling that when I tell most Black folk that I am not Christian, that my Blackness and loyalties are questioned. The other week, I received a private email from a ‘fan’ who seemed very disappointed that I did not even talk about the importance of Christianity and healing in Black communities during the Sistah Vegan conference…and she also suggested that my new social fiction novel Scars marginalized ‘regular’ Black Christian straight girls like her (since the main character is a Black lesbian). You can go here http://sistahvegan.com/2013/10/21/the-black-queer-experience-is-not-our-experience-breeze-harpers-new-social-fiction-novel/ to read the post about her reaction to Scars .

Even though I do know that blackness is not a monolith, Black folk in the USA are stereotyped to be all Christian and heteronormative. This fan’s email got me thinking about how much not being raised as Christian– or with any form of organized religion– has deeply impacted my interactions with those [Black] people who can’t fathom a type of authentic Blackness WITIHOUT it being connected to Christianity, speciesism, and heteronormativity. My practice of Zen Buddhism often confuses Black folk.

Do you have a religious faith or not? How has having a religious faith (or not) impacted your sense of animal compassion and/or vegan philosophy? Did you grow up in a household in which religion was used to justify/rationalize the eating of animals (as well as perhaps other oppressions, such as racism, white supremacy, homophobia, transphobia, patriarchy, or ableism)?

17 thoughts on “'Authentic Blackness' as Christian, Speciesist, and Heteronormative: Brief Thoughts on Being a Non-Christian Black Woman

  1. Thank you very much for writing on this. As a former Christian, I received conflicting views. I knew many White Christians that believed that being a Christian meant honoring the other creatures that ‘God’ created, which meant not eating animals. I met others who believed that we had a right as humans, made in ‘God’s’ image to ‘have dominion’ over animals. And that meant eating them.

    As far as other Black Christians, I met only 2-5 within the church that believed eating meat was not biblical mandate, and we had a responsibility to protect and honor every single creature made by ‘God’. And that included being vegan.

    From those experiences, I’ve held conflicting views for most of my life (also concerning my sexuality as a queer Black woman). I know that I will eventually become vegan within the near future, because I want to live a violent-free life. And for me, that means being conscious of my interaction with other living things, and how my actions affect them.

  2. Growing up, just about all of my Black peers were Christian, while I’m Muslim, so I feel you on the ‘authentic’ Blackness. I’ve been Pescatarian since high school and I informed a couple of my peers that I don’t eat meat (just fish) and they gave me the “God made animals for us so it’s going against God if we don’t eat it”. That really confused me.
    As Muslims we’re taught a lot about moderation, and this includes meat. We are encouraged to be responsible about slaughtering during celebrations, and to avoid waste. The animals should also be treated with the utmost respect and their deaths should be as painless as possible (sharp blades, a quick cut). I had a bad experience witnessing the slaughter this past Eid (the animals suffered) and realized eating halal meat may never be an option for me. I do believe we have limited dominion over animals, but I’ll never believe we are above or matter more than them. Being pescatarian makes it easy to eat halal but I’d like to be vegan one day 🙂

  3. Maybe that person asking about Christian critique did not listen to my segment. LOL! I grew up Pentecostal, but more progressively Pentecostal – if that’s even a label. I will say that as a black vegan parent, my blackness and level of sanctity is called into question when I critique the foods church people indulge upon in limited amounts. DO NOT take away my chicken or meat! That sentence alone suggests the misinterpretation of Scripture that humanity is given dominion. The word “dominion” is not approval to treat animals the way we do. It’s a responsibility we are given to care for and serve the earth (non-human animals and environment). It’s sad that one’s preference in life is relegated to lack of blackness.
    As far as religion being used to justify the eating of meat…oh my. Those conversations rarely end well. I believe people get so offended because they hear the truth in the conversation. They always say, “Jesus ate fish”. Many people enjoy a convenient theology. It just doesn’t work and they know it.

    1. I wrote the woman personally, via email, letting her know that you did talk about Christianity. Perhaps she wanted ME to be the one to talk about it? Not sure, but didn’t want to share her email publicly since it was sent to be privately.

  4. I recently had a conversation with a guy (quite the pseudo-intellectual) claiming that blacks were just trying to be a part of the new fad – veganism. Once I shared with him the background of Seventh Day Adventists and the large black population within the denomination that is vegetarian/vegan, he was no longer interested in discussing the topic.

  5. I was raised in an Irish-Catholic family in the “Northern” US. I don’t recall anyone ever questioning eating meat, therefore never needing Biblical justification for it (though we were confused a bit by not eating “meat” on Friday… while allowed to eat fish!) I call myself a “recovering Catholic” now, and found Zen Buddhism particularly helpful as a philosophical approach that mirrored most closely my own beliefs when I entered my 20s. I remember reading some books on Zen philosophy where I saw advocacy for not killing animals as sentient beings. Being raised Catholic and attending 12 years of Catholic schools, I did see our religion used to justify/rationalize homophobia, transphobia and patriarchy. I was a child in the 60s and a teen in the 70s, so did not see it used to justify/rationalize racism or white supremacy, though there was plenty of that in my neighborhood from other sources. Attending a Jesuit high school in the mid-70s, where we were encouraged to question many institutions and habitual thinking, laid a foundation for me to question things in my adult life which I still do.

  6. Thanks for writing this piece, very affirming! I grew up in a 3 generation Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) family, my maternal grandfather was a SDA minister in Haiti. Many of in my family are vegan, vegetarian, or pescatarian. Pigs, lobsters, shrimp, catfish, and rabbit were not allowed. I was introduced to faux meats at an early age so it was my “normal” to eat such foods. I experienced the geering and bullying remarks such as: “You are not really black” by African Americans and “What type of Haitian doesn’t eat griot?” by Haitians [ griot is deep fried pork]. To make matters more challenging I went to Catholic schools for 12 years where I was taunted by the other children because I didn’t eat ham and cheese sandwiches! The person that sent you that email was incorrect; black people are diverse we are not all Christian – Sunday worshipers or straight; I’m Bisexual. I currently practice Buddhist philosophy and hold on to many of my SDA traditions in particular veganism. I believe we are here on earth to take of one another in that includes non-human animals.

  7. There are plenty of sites talking about why Christians should be veg (Christian Vegetarian Association – What would Jesus eat today?, jesusveg.com, etc). I think it’s important for herbivores to study *all* world religions so they can intelligently debate when someone uses the cliche “God put animals for us to use.” Also, most Blacks in the US are only Christian because their slave masters forced their ancestors to convert. Many Africans were Muslim, many Jewish (Ethiopian falasha), many engaged in meditation like Hindus & Buddhists, even the ancient Egyptian religion is still practiced today in parts of West Africa. All of that Black experience and diversity was stripped away and destroyed by the slave trade.

  8. Adventists, Qakers, Methodists; many Christians practice vegeterianism or veganism. There are ressources (both spiritual and “practical”) that can help someone along this path.

    It seems to me this person was disapointed. Did she have expectations as to what Dr. Breeze SHOULD be teaching and promoting…? What if Dr. Harper is a mentor to teach and share certain aspects of what we can incorporate in our lives, but someone else can share other values with which we choose to live by?

    Dr. Harper does seem to have a strong influence on the Black female vegan community, but I believe she has gained such a positive “reputation” BECAUSE of her inclusiveness. I am so happy to see that this fan can feel she can write to Dr. Harper and share her concerns. It is a testimony of the diversity of this group, and I think that is beautiful !

    I would suggest to this person to diversify her sources of inspiration and the people to who she seems to look up to and incorporate what SHE feels is right for HER from these different sources. We all have a purpose, and we are all operating in the same “Big Plan”.

    And as a practicing Christian to another Christian : No one on this Earth has Absolute Truth or is perfect. It would be foolish to expect otherwise or to try and change someone to fit our own imperfect value system. I personally believe I found Divine inspiration in Dr. Harper’s work, I honestly feel the Good Lord taught me some very valuable lessons through her work and I am positive others have, too. Christian or not.

  9. I’ll try to answer some of the questions at the end of your post, Breeze. Maybe our responses will be in your next book. Well, I attended a Christian church as a child but now my beliefs are closest to those expressed in THE GOD THEORY by Bernard Haisch. Growing up in a jim crow neighborhood, I took to heart the social justice teachings in the Bible, but religion didn’t impact the way I thought about animals. I just didn’t think about why I loved dogs (and cats), ate pigs (and chickens) and wore cows(and fur-bearing animals). One day, while frying a piece of meat, I had an epiphany. I connected that piece of meat to the slaughtered animal from whence it came and I stopped eating animals from then on. I then volunteered at the Fund For Animals office, which opened my eyes to a more ecological view of animals, a journey toward “Laying the Ladder Down”
    as Betty Jean Craige wrote. My consciousness grew to the point where now I believe like Alice Walker that “The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for white, or women created for men.” I try not to alienate anyone who has opposing views. Sometimes, it helps to show such people that helping/saving animals also helps humans. Getting into discussions about religion leads to arguments.

    1. A new book on the subject (published Oct. 4, 2013): For Love Of Animals: Christian Ethics, Consistent Action by Charles Camosy wrestles with the logic of eating animals, positing that it’s a form of cannibalism. I haven’t read this book yet, so I don’t know if Prof. Camosy brings race into the discussion, but it sounds thought-provoking.

  10. I am a black female atheist and am transitioning to veganism. I was raised in a deeply religious family. We attended a large non denominational church that openly spoke against women as leaders, homosexuality, other religions, and even masturbation. My husband and I became atheists after a great deal of thought and study. One of the reasons that I was so open to the idea was my discomfort with religious teachings against homosexuality. My brother is gay, and no one could ever justify it as wrong except to quote the bible which no one can prove is the word of god, much less that there is a god in the first place.
    Funnily enough my brother has also become an atheist, and I identify as a bi romantic demisexual. We are both black queer atheists and still authentically black.

  11. I grew up in a Christian home and I still maintain my Christian beliefs. Growing up the eating of animals was never mentioned nor questioned…I believe we would have eaten animals regardless of our beliefs.

    I attend a very old-tradition Southern Baptist church. The pastor (vegetarian), the associate pastor, and 1 of the 2 ministers is vegan. Our church also has a Co Op to encourage the members to get their greens on! There are a number of vegetarian and vegan members.

    “The dominion over animals” on my ears, has not been used to make an excuse for eating animals. Honestly, I believe that a poor excuse anyway – if someone who eat meat want to continue eating meat, they should just be real and say they want to eat it. Maybe they feel like misquoting scripture somehow makes their decision more valid.

    And I’m not sure what Christianity has to do with Blackness…Black isn’t a precursor for one specific belief. And what is “Authentic Blackness”? I find this term nondescript…does it mean you go to church with a big hat and sing negro spirituals? eat friend chicken and macaroni and cheese with a side greens? does that mean you talk during a movie? speak with a lot slang? only listen to hip hop?

    I’m also not sure what you mean by oppression…As a Christian I am to love. I am not to cast judgement on others nor an I to oppress anyone.

    Dominion and Domination mean the same thing…to rule or rule over something. Not a reason to kill but I just wanted to let you know.

    -Thanks!

  12. Both my husband and I were raised in Christian households where eating meat was normative. We later became vegans, then Muslims (independently) as adults, and felt no contradiction with our faith and food ethics. While some people still give us a hard time about our dietary choice, we know that certainty is an important principle in Islam and knowing that we are not harming others or ourselves is best achieved for us by adopting a plant-based diet.
    This is a piece my husband wrote on the topic too:
    http://raggamuslims.wordpress.com/2012/02/09/vegetarianism-in-islam-contradictory-or-compatible/

  13. I was raised in a Roman Catholic Black Caribbean household where our parish was 99% Black. What is interesting, growing up the majority of the Black families were Protestant in our communities at work and at school so my parents were sometimes criticized for not being “true Christians.” I am currently agnostic and no longer vegan. People will always try to judge our decisions based on their framework. So being vegan or vegetarian for health reasons is acceptable but for moral reason just “doesn’t make sense” as one person once told me. Thanks for this post.

  14. I’m transitioning from vegatarianism to veganism and I was raised in a Christian religion that included eating meat and dairy products. Like a lot of my peers, I grew up thinking that this was just something that everybody did and I didn’t necessarily question it even though the thought of killing animals for food really bothered me. I really wish that exploiting other creatures was considered to be an ‘Evil’ thing, ya know?

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