Below is an interview I conducted with scholar and food & environmental justice activist Jessica “Justice” Hamilton concerning Black women, eating problems, and food politics.
CS: Do you believe, considering the struggle of working Black women, that there exists a relationship between Black female corpulence and trauma / pain?
JH: Absolutely. In this society, food has become a coping mechanism. For Black women in particular, our struggles and frustrations have often been silenced to further a “greater agenda.” We are often told not to express our pain and our emotions to others so we create this mask in an attempt to hide ourselves. But as a result of bottling up our emotions, they manifest themselves in other facets of our lives (drugs, promiscuity, binging, eating disorders). However this is not the sole reason that Black women have issues with corpulency. I think that even more problematic than our pain is the fact that we don’t know HOW to eat. We don’t know what to eat and how food can serve not only as a way to heal our trauma in a positive manner, but can also heal our bodies. When one does not know how to eat in a way that is optimal for their bodies, it further encourages the manifestation of corpulence and trauma in other areas.
CS: What are your thoughts on the under-reporting of eating problems among Black women and the projection that all Black women will be overweight in 20 years?
JH: I feel as though when it comes to the Black community, emotional/psychological issues (eating disorders included) are a major taboo. It is something that we as Black people stereotypically just “don’t do.” However, studies are now showing that Black women are more likely to have eating disorders than white women. As for overweight/obesity projections, I think that statistically speaking, this seems a bit improbable. However, over 78% of Black women over the age of 20 are presently overweight or obese, so I wouldn’t be surprised if there was an increase in that figure in the next 20 years.
CS: Do you think that some members of the political Right could be assaulting Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign because a Black woman is asserting a bodily independence (for herself and others)? (I’m thinking of Doris Witt’s assertion that the U.S. is obsessed with Black female appetites).
JH: I believe when it comes to the Obamas people will find a reason to criticize EVERYTHING that they do. They criticize Michelle Obama for the “Let’s Move” campaign. They also heavily criticized her for eating a burger and fry combo that was over 1500 calories. The right is obsessed with finding anything that they can to assassinate their character because they know they can’t get away with assassinating them physically.
CS: Considering that cow’s milk (as well as other questionable food products) is pushed onto poor families and people of color via the WIC program, do you believe that there exists an institutionalized investment in maintaining Black female corpulence? Or is it simply a lack of concern for the health of the poor and people of color?
JH: I believe that above all else it is a lack of concern for the poor, and America’s love of capitalism. When it comes to American health, big business, lobbyists and health care professionals are in bed together. Doctors and health professionals are seen as gods that the masses blindly follow. The American food pyramid guidelines are not created based upon which foods are healthiest for us and which ones we ought to stay away from. Food is highly politicized. If it was an issue of nutrition, french fries would not be considered a vegetable when it comes to public school lunch requirements. There are so many food products that the government pushes upon its people in the name of capitalism it is astounding. When it comes to the poor, cow’s milk happens to be one of those items. I believe that it goes beyond an agenda to maintain Black female corpulence. I think beyond anything else it is pure ignorance. Most doctors today have little nutritional training and still push dairy as a means to build “strong bones.” It only makes sense that WIC is following suit.
CS: What do you believe is the most pressing issue facing Black women currently?
JH: Honestly, this is very hard to answer. I feel like the most pressing issue is not simply a problem that Black women face, but one that all Black people face and that is knowledge of self. I feel like as a whole, our people cannot progress without knowing who they truly are (beyond the modern blaxploitation culture) and where they came from. Knowing who you are changes the way you think, act, speak, EAT, live, breathe and function as a human being. It allows you to operate at your highest self.
CS: What do you believe that all people of color need to be focusing on right now?
JH: I believe that people of color need to be focusing on being self sufficient above all else. We need to be able to create fully functioning Black communities. We need to be able to heal ourselves emotionally and physically. We need to be able to create environments that are not hostile, but life affirming. We need to be working towards improving the collective. Pooling resources together as a means to own our surroundings, educating one another, feeding one another, clothing one another, supporting Black owned establishments, are ways in which we can become self sufficient.
CS: What book(s) are you currently reading?
JH: I’m always reading at least three books at once. I’m working on I Write What I Like by Steve Biko, Wings of Gauze by Barbara Blair, and Ancient African Civilizations by John Jackson.
CS: I recently finished the book you championed in one of our Research Methods classes, The China Study. What do you think was the most important message of the book?
JH: I think the most important message of the book is that one really must do their OWN research into their own wellness and disease. People are so blinded by the propaganda that is put out there by industries trying to stay in business that we as a society have forgotten how to eat, forgotten how to live, and forgotten how to listen to our bodies. Oh, and stop consuming animal products!!!
CS: And finally (most importantly), what is your favorite plant (or plant-based) food?
JH: At the moment I would have to say basil. I love putting it in smoothies.
Jessica (Justice) Hamilton is a vegetarian-born, Black woman vegan from California (don’t that sound sexy?) who is currently teaching at De Anza College. She plans to earn a doctorate in African-American Studies and is presently focused on expanding her Black experience lexicon and finding balance in her own life.
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