I did not want to write this book.
Perhaps this is an odd way to start a book that you have been working on for almost six years, odd but honest. Christianity, food justice, and food sovereignty are intertwined in my family history, and as far as I can remember, I believed there was a moral obligation to provide access to food for all people. This moral obligation is seemingly apparent to Black, Indigenous, and other people of color whose ancestors lived in the shadow of hunger and who currently live behind the veil of cheap food that is dependent upon the exploitation of our labor.
In earlier drafts of this book, I hid my ethical commitment to what I refer to as “soulfull” eating behind this moral obligation. I assumed (or hoped) that all I needed to do was to make a clear and logical argument that led the reader to conclude—as I had—that as the best practice of soulfull eating, black veganism (which I will define and describe in the introduction) and the pursuit of food sovereignty should become a spiritual practice among Black Christians and within Black churches and communities. I assumed that if I presented facts and data that revealed how much Black, Indigenous, other people of color, and the poor suffer from food apartheid and environmental racism and are the victims of land theft, then my prescriptions for the creation of food-sovereign communities around church land would be readily accepted, if not adopted, by some communities.
However, for Black folks, those of us descended from enslaved Africans whom European Christian men purchased in part because of their agricultural and culinary acumen, facts and data can only take us so far. And rightly so. Our foodways are an expression of our identity, a way of maintaining connections to our ancestors and our ancestral homelands; our foodways are personal and communal, emotional and habitual. In order for my community to take my work seriously I need to wrestle the culinary deity that soul food has become. I need to be transparent about my dietary conversion and the challenge of maintaining an identity that is found in our mothers’ pots, our grandmothers’ gardens, and the backbreaking labor of our enslaved ancestors if I expect this work to have any tangible impact beyond the hallways of academic institutions.
That is why I did not want to write this book.
Doing so would require me to be culturally vulnerable—to yet again have my “authenticity” questioned. Soul food, like jazz, is a Black, American, and southern invention. For countless other Black people and myself, soul food is a source from which we derive essential character traits that remind us of who we are and inspire whom we want to become. Given this, why would anyone write a book that argues for the reimagination of what soul food ought to be?
I believe that is what our ancestors would do—I believe that given the devastating impact that our current food system has on Black folk, they would have done their best to change their consumption and provision of food in order to survive and ensure the survival of future generations.
My gym membership has become my monthly reminder that change is never easy. The difficulty of change is especially true concerning the relationships we develop around food. If soul food is an indelible part of Black culture and identity, an identity that has been and continues to be under constant pressure to conform to the white racial imagination, then one must be careful and acknowledge these realities when arguing for the reimagination of Black foodways. One must take seriously the realities of what it means to live in a society that is founded upon anti-Black racism and that actively seeks to “white-wash” Black history and ignore or take credit for Black culinary and agricultural ingenuity. These historical traumas suggest that if one desires to examine the theoethical, racial, culinary, agricultural, and spiritual dimensions of soul food in such a way that Black folks feel heard, then one’s examination should be guided by the Christian call of radical compassion.
Compassion both informs and shapes my exploration and reimagination of Black foodways; this approach too remained hidden from the reader in earlier drafts of this book. All too often compassion is misunderstood or misrepresented as sentiment, and the last thing I wanted anyone to think about my examination of food injustice, racism, and colonialism was that I was sentimental. However, my colleague Dr. Seth Schoen helped me realize that compassion informs my person so much so that my not mentioning it does not result in it being absent from the text.1 Rather, not being transparent to my commitment to radical compassion obscures my argument and suppresses a critical part of who I know myself to be. I was reminded that compassion, properly understood, always promotes actions that lead to the restoration and flourishing of all people, especially those who suffer under the yoke of structural evil.
The ethic of compassion—to love God and neighbor, to do unto others as we would have them do unto us—is the essence of how Christians are called to practice Christianity. This form of compassion is radical because it is the ground from which those of us who are Christian, following the example set by Jesus, nonviolently resist empire by cultivating relationships built on love, justice, and accountability with God, ourselves, and our neighbors. Frank Rogers suggests that Jesus’s spiritual path of radical compassion has three dimensions: “a deepening of our connection to the compassion of God, a restoration to a humanity fully loved and alive, and an increase to our capacity to be instruments of compassion toward others in the world.”2 These three dimensions inform my proposal that a decolonial theological anthropology—that is, a theoethical way of being human that resists the dehumanizing logic of Enlightenment colonial thinking—should be the basis for the reimagination of what soul food should look like.
The religion of Jesus in the Gospels is a spiritual path developed by a Palestinian Jew in response to the colonizing forces of the Roman Empire. The Gospel narratives present us with a decolonial spirituality rooted in radical compassion that resists evil with weapons of love and dignity and not with hate or the submissive endurance that is often attributed to Christian nonviolent resistance movements. Jesus’s method of resisting social and structural evil models a third way of being in the world, a way that is not rooted in hate (fight) or submission (flight); instead, it centers on reclaiming one’s dignity. The three eating practices that I propose (soulfull eating, seeking justice for food workers, and caring for the earth) embody Jesus’s third way of being in the world and focus on reclaiming our culinary, agricultural, and human dignity as Black people from racist ideologies and colonial anthropologies that have misshapen our relationship with food and the land.
As a social ethicist and practical theologian, I am committed to beginning my theoethical analysis where people are. I examine what people do in order to discern what they believe, and typically this leads to identifying a gap between stated belief and actual practice. Our humanness lies in this gap. Our hope for who we long to become and our fear of becoming the dehumanizing evil that we long to dismantle lie in the gap between what we say we believe and what our actions demonstrate that we believe. Because soul food sits at the intersection of so many religious and cultural signifiers for Black people, soul food represents hope for some, fear for others, and a combination of the two for most of us. Compassion enables us to explore the complexities of Black culinary and agricultural history without resorting to dehumanizing stereotypes or victim-blaming people of African descent. My hope is that viewing Black foodways through the lens of compassion will enable you, the reader, to begin to understand why Black culinary identity is vital to Black folks and how our plates and bowls became complex and contested sites since our enslavement.
Food matters to African Americans because it is an essential means by which everyday Black folk construct our narratives of who we are. The power to tell our stories and define ourselves through what we consume is precisely why our foodways must be consistently examined. How are the stories we tell ourselves about traditional notions of soul food still useful? Are these stories tied to certain foods? Is the idea of soul food more about the foods themselves or the wisdom of the communities that created these foods? Given the structural racism within the US food system and my moral obligation to practice an antioppressive liberative Christianity, how might soul food be used to tell stories about whom we want to become and not only of who we once were?
My pursuit of answering the last question has led me to an unexpected place: soulfull eating, specifically, black veganism. If food is a means by which we can tell our stories, and if the stories that we want to tell ourselves and our communities about Black survival, self-determination, and flourishing are built upon a foundation of Black resistance to oppression, then reimagining soul food through the practice of black veganism seems like a logical conclusion.
But as we have already discussed, what we choose to eat is not merely a logical decision; it is a product of our identity, spirituality, and affective relationships within our communities. The challenge in answering questions about Black foodways and forming an ethical vision of what soul food should become is that these questions require us to go deep. We must delve deep into the trauma of enslavement and exploitation, deep into the wounds tied to our struggle to own and keep land. We must become a healing balm to the sorrow of our ancestors. We must allow ourselves to be healed, for our sake and for the sake of our children. The story of soul food must remain a story of resistance, resilience, community, and empowerment. This book is just one new chapter in the beautiful story of soul food.
Praise for The Spirit of Soul Food
“The Spirit of Soul Food is a must-read for anyone interested in challenging the industrial food system in practical terms.”
“Christopher Carter’ The Spirit of Soul Food is a deeply enlightening discussion of food, foodways, and how the lived experiences of people can shape and be shaped by what they grow, acquire, and eat.”
—Journal of Folklore Research Reviews
“I’ve never read a book like this before! Part history book, part cookbook, part call-to-action and resource for spiritual formation. The Spirit of Soul Food is suited for a variety of audiences ready for the timely challenge of inviting a deeper integration of our ethics, actions, and daily bread.”
—Rev. Dr. Heber Brown III, Pleasant Hope Baptist Church
“Carter’s excellent book breaks important new ground at the crucial nexus of race, religion, food, animals, and the environment. It is essential reading for anyone seeking to address this cutting-edge territory, which is crucial for the futures of human and more-than-human life.”
—David L. Clough, University of Chester
About the Author
Christopher Carter is an assistant professor of theology and religious studies at the University of San Diego. He is also a pastor within the United Methodist Church and has served churches in Battle Creek, Michigan, and in Torrance and Compton, California.