The Farmer and the Chef: A Conversation Between Two Black Food Justice Activists

In their own distinctive ways, Karen Washington and Bryant Terry each embody the values of nourishment, community, and self-determination in ways that honor the struggle of Black life to overcome the horrors of racism. They belong to a long and proud lineage of Black courage and Black genius, working to create a resilient and celebratory food system.

Bryant Terry is the Chef-in-Residence of MOAD, the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, and an award-winning author of a number of books that reimagine soul food and African cuisine within a vegan context. His latest book is Black Food: Stories, Art and Recipes from Across the African Diaspora. 

Since starting a garden in a vacant lot in the Bronx in the 1980s, Karen Washington has become a powerful voice and respected leader in the urban farming movement advocating for community engagement and social and economic justice. A queer Black woman farmer, Karen is fierce in her belief that there is dignity and power in growing food.  

At a recent Bioneers Conference, Karen and Bryant had this free-wheeling discussion that covered topics as diverse as collard greens, food justice, the joys of Black culture, racism, “white gaze,” Black power, and Master P as a model for Black entrepreneurs

KAREN WASHINGTON: I’ve known Bryant, God knows, for maybe 10-15 years. He was running an organization for youth back in the day in New York City. When I first met him, I knew there was something about him. You can tell from people’s posture, how they speak, how they talk about their vision—I knew he was going to do great things.

When we talk about Black history, it’s often about trauma and it’s never about joy. But reading your book Black Food, I felt the essence of joy coming through food. Talk to me.

BRYANT TERRY: I’m honored to be speaking with you. You have long been a heroine of mine and one of the guiding lights of the food justice movement. We have a lot of really enthusiastic people of my generation and younger, but when we look back at the OGs who really helped lay the foundation for the food justice work we’re doing now, you, Karen, are at the top of that list.

The book you mentioned came about in 2020 when we were, as a country, dealing with what people describe as a racial reckoning, looking inward, and facing the realities of how Black people, as well as other people of color, have been treated, but specifically Black folks because the book came on the heels of the murders of George Floyd and Breana Taylor.

In the midst of that period of reckoning, it came out that there was a lot of racism in food media. There were some legacy food magazines that were being called out for their mistreatment and racist behavior toward employees of color. Some publishing companies were even acting racist toward some of their own authors. A major publisher in New York City treated one of my friends horribly and tried to erase her from the book that she had co-authored with a white woman. They thought that the white woman would be a better face of the book than a heavyset black woman.

There is a pervasive attitude of anti-blackness: Everything we do is vilified, including our food, and historically and contemporarily, it’s not just the wider white-dominated culture. The thing that hurts and upsets me is that even people of African descent often talk negatively about our historical and cultural foods as “slave food.” When you say soul food or black food, people think of the antebellum survival foods upon which many enslaved Africans had to rely.

I’m not going criticize things like chitlins and pigs’ feet and other discarded parts of animals that plantation owners forced many enslaved Africans to eat. Enslaved people did their best to use their ingenuity and creativity to make the best with what they had.

When people talk about “Black food,” they also imagine big flavored meats, overcooked vegetables and the sugary desserts that you find at a soul food restaurant. I’m not denying that Black folks like to eat red velvet cake, mac’n’cheese, and ribs, but what about collards, mustard greens, turnips, kale, dandelion, sugar snap peas, pole beans, black-eyed peas, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, kale? These are our traditional foods. These are the types of food that have sustained our people for generations, but when talking about Black food, they have been intentionally erased. Any Western-trained allopathic physician, nutritionist or dietician would recommend these foods. Collards are a Black superfood high in vitamins A, C and E. They have a lot of anti-cancer-fighting compounds, and okra, which originated in Africa – one of the king staples of Black food-ways­– helps lower blood pressure.

Black liberation involves embracing our traditional cultural foods. I think that’s a very important part spiritually, physically and otherwise. We should be embracing these foods because it’s our birthright. They were there before us and they’ve sustained our people through the roughest times, and they can help address the exponential rise in preventable diet-related illnesses that we see in our communities.

For years, I had been thinking about writing a compilation of different voices throughout the African diaspora in the Caribbean, Latin America and the United States. One of my major inspirations for this book was Toni Morrison’s 1970s classic The Black Book that captured Black life from the 17th up until the mid-20th century using song lyrics, archival photos and ephemera. It wasn’t just text. It wasn’t just heady intellectual writing. It illustrated the multiple ways in which we can talk about Black lives.

So many books talk about our realities and focus on our struggles and our historical marginalization and oppression, but as Black people, we know about these realities. One of the things that I was clear about is that I wanted the book to be created without concern for “white gaze.” I wanted it to be about Black people speaking to each other, having conversations about our deep connection to food, about our foodways and how they’ve developed throughout the globe. And of course, I want to invite the world in to be a part of the conversation, but we’re not modifying to make it pretty, we’re speaking about our realities.

I thought about the Toni Morrison quote in which she asks Black people: “What do our lives look like without racism?” We’re constantly dealing with this albatross of white supremacy and the history of anti-black racism, but what would our lives look like without racism?  So, that’s what I asked all the contributors, “What’s our magic; what’s our joy; what’s our creativity; what’s our agency; what’s our brilliance?” I want people to look at this book and feel inspired to do the work that you do, to do the work that I’m doing, to do the work that a lot of young activists are doing: the solutions-oriented work to improve our reality.

Starting at the cover, with the recipes, the essays, the poetry, and the artwork, I do feel this book truly invokes a sense of joy, power, brilliance and agency.

Read an excerpt from Black Food: Stories, Art and Recipes from Across the African Diaspora, edited by Bryant Terry.

KAREN: That’s what I felt when I read the book. I was blown away because you captured the essence of Black food through the lens of joy.

 BRYANT:  The book is actually a publication of 4 Color Books, a division of Penguin Random House, and is my own publishing imprint. At the time my literary agent and I pitched the book and got the deal there was a racial reckoning happening and a lot of companies and corporations were embarrassed, so they wanted to invest in repairing reputational harm.

I was trained as a historian and I’ve seen this before. Publishers were going to do everything to make Black folks happy or perform their kind of solidarity with blackness. I understood that that door was going to be open and then it was going to shut again, but I wasn’t clear about how long it was going to be open. I was in Philadelphia at a conference and had a conversation with Korsha Wilson, a Black freelance journalist, who wrote a profile of me in The New York Times. I brought up the fact that I felt like the door was closing, and she said it’s already closed. She talked about how, in 2020, she was getting an avalanche of jobs from magazines and newspapers, and then it slowed down to a trickle for this respected, seasoned journalist. So, imagine those up-and-coming budding writers who are trying to do this work and get into food media.

I was clear with my agent that that was a moment to grab power, a moment when we needed to move beyond just being rewarded as talent. At the time a lot of Black people were getting book deals, but that has stopped.

There is a parallel to when I learned about your work years ago and heard you speak about the impetus for your activism, how you would go into spaces that were geared toward fixing the food system, but the people who were most impacted by food apartheid and our broken food system weren’t in the room. It was mostly being led by policy wonks and academics who weren’t speaking to the people in communities suffering from these injustices and who knew the most about the problems.

KAREN: Nonprofits need to get out of the way because they’ve been pimping us. They need us in order to get funding for their programs. They say time and time again, “I want to come into your neighborhoods to help build leadership.” But after 10, 15, 20 years where is the leadership that they say they have been developing?

It’s time for white-led nonprofits and people with good intentions – the majority of nonprofit organizations in white and black communities are white led – to cut the umbilical cord and leave because we’re at a point in time when young people want to be empowered. It’s time for us to take back our power. For so long we’ve been sitting back being silent and complacent.

I’m charging Black people to start grabbing your power in such a way that your voices are heard. People talk about a seat at the table. Forget about a seat at the table. We need our own tables. We don’t need to be asking to be let in.

This is a reckoning. This is a point in time when people are talking about Critical Race Theory, and everybody’s afraid of the Black movement. To tell you the truth, white people are afraid, because of what they have done to us, that we will, in turn, do it to them once we get into power.

BRYANT: Tell it.

KAREN: But you know what? We are people of love. We’re going to make sure that when we do get into power, that it will be shared amongst all of us.

One thing I love about your book, Bryant, is that you bring in the element of history through food. You talk about how we came from Africa with seeds braided in our hair and that the cuisine we brought with us is in the food you now see in restaurants. Our ancestors brought seeds and cuisine and recipes to this country and now they’ve been coopted.

Another thing I love about the book is that it’s not only about the recipes; you also include a lot of poetry and art. It just shows that Black food is not in a silo, that it’s a mixture of song and art and recipes and people telling their stories.

And one other thing I want to bring in, because it’s very important to me as a queer woman of color, is that the book has a section focusing on queerness.

BRYANT: Since 2015 I’ve been Chef-in-residence at MOAD, the Museum of the African Diaspora. Many of the chapters in the book are literally pulled from programs at the museum – the “Black Women: Food and Power” chapter, the “Land Liberation and Food Justice” chapter, and the “Black Queer Food” chapter. I wanted to have space to bring many of my LGBTQIA brothers and sisters who talk about the intersection of the racism and the homophobia and the transphobia that they experience, and I wanted to create space for them to talk about it.

It was important to give queer people the space to tell their stories in the most authentic way and to hear folks talk about their experience of being queer. You can’t separate that from the work. It is who they are. As they’re doing the work, as Black people, improving our lives, improving our health, improving our communities, they are also human beings who deal deeply with the traumas of the way the outside world treats them.

I want to circle back to your approach about how it needs to be about ownership, and self-determination. That has helped me define food justice in a different way, one that moves beyond advocacy and direct service. It calls for organized responses by those most impacted by food apartheid. It’s about shifting power and resources into the hands of people in the community.

When I got my first contract and I talked to my parents about it, the first thing my dad said is “You know, son, I’m proud of you. Penguin Random House is a reputable publisher and I’m glad they’re going to put your book out, but I want you to remember this: you need to think like Master P.” Master P is an older rapper and entrepreneur who understood that it’s not just about making music, it’s about ownership; it’s about creating your own labels, it’s about having control; it’s about self-determination.

I’m looking at my publishing imprint under Penguin Random House as a prestigious and well-paid internship because the goal for me is to learn about the internal logic and the structure of how publishing operates so that I can eventually have my own independent publishing company and not have to rely on a big multi-national corporation.

When we look at the issues of food justice in cities in communities that lack access to healthy, fresh, affordable and culturally appropriate food, most often that lack of access is simply one indicator of the material deprivation in these communities. Most of these same communities often are also dealing with crumbling infrastructure, underfunded and segregated public schools, and environmental racism that places polluting industries that poison their air, water and soil in their neighborhoods. These are the same communities that often lack safe green space for people to be physically active. How can you tell people that to prevent chronic illnesses you should just be more active when there’s nowhere safe for people to be active?

So, sure, we need to fix our food system, but we also need to address the multiple structural barriers that prevent people in our communities from living happy, healthy and safe lives. My work, through my books and activism, has been about reintegrating cooking, healthy eating, sharing food, art, culture, community, and growing food in a sustainable way in concert with each other because it’s not just about food as fuel: it’s about life, it’s about connection, it’s about love, it’s about all these things that capitalism has stripped it of.

KAREN: Big up for that Bryant. I love what you just said.

For me, food justice is not a passive movement. You have to be actively involved in dismantling the social injustices that you see related to race, gender, trauma, and access to land. How that has to happen is not by trying to fix the existing broken food system but rather by completely transforming it. That has to come with a shifting of power back into the hands of the community, back into the hands of those who have been co-opted for so long.

Where does that start? There are 7.8 billion people on this Earth, but only a handful of companies control the food, water, land and seeds, and we sat back and let it happen. We were complacent and silent while a handful of predominantly white men gained control over the food system of 7.8 billion people. So, when do we wake up and grab our power? Where is the urgency for us to collectively take control of our social capital and communal wealth? I don’t want a handout. The system has to change so that we have the power to make decisions within our own community. But we’re not doing that. We sit back and let politicians and other outside organizations make change for us. The time is now for us to get off our asses and start coming together collectively to shift the power back into our hands. We can do it.

When we left the land, we lost our power. We lost who we are. I tell people of color: “Look at the color of your skin because the color of your skin is the same as soil.” When I put my hands in the soil, Bryant baby, and I look at that brown skin, I say: “Hello ancestors; thank you, thank you.”

We’ve got to start embracing ourselves collectively as a group of power. Don’t let people separate us. We stand on the shoulders of kings and queens. I tell my young people that when your crown is crooked, look in the mirror and make sure that crown is straight because you are the descendants of kings and queens on this Earth.

BRYANT: So much of my work has been about helping us remember that historically there’s a thread of Black-led food and health activism throughout the 20th century that we need to acknowledge and uplift. There are so many of our own ancestors and our own kind of cultural practices that we can draw upon in order to move forward.

I talk about the West African concept of “sankofa”—looking backwards as we move forward and bringing with us the best practices and traditions. I’m just going to be real with you: when we were shopping around my book Vegan Soul Kitchen in 2007, we went to 12 publishers. Ten of them outright said: ‘Nope, this isn’t going to sell; you’re cutting the pie too thin. Black folks, vegan? Do Black people even eat vegetables?” That was the response we were getting.

My first encounter with veganism came from Black Seventh Day Adventists in my community. Then in high school, after reading the autobiography of Malcolm X – my obligatory obsessive period with the nation of Islam – I learned about Elijah Muhammad’s How to Eat to Live, a two-book collection that talked about the rejection of the standard American diet and the need to embrace foods that are healing and life-promoting.  Also, there is the Rastafarian “Ital” diet – fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes influenced by African and Indian cuisine. Comedian Dick Gregory was also an activist for good food and health issues. My habits and attitudes and politics around food also changed when I heard the song Beef by Blastmaster KRS-One at Boogie Down Productions, a hip hop song that talked about factory farming.

The key to our health liberation is in returning to our traditional foods. You talked about eating fat-backs and collard greens. Traditionally, things like that were used to add nutrient density to a dish and to give it more flavor. It’s easy to vilify traditional culinary practices in Black communities as well as Indigenous communities, but people knew how to make the most of every part of the animal. They knew how to add things to the vegetables to allow the body to absorb the nutrients better and to provide more nutrient density.

I’m seeing more younger folks who feel the need to buy land. We need to be creating systems that don’t rely on Fiat currency. We need to be creating structures that allow us to care for each other and ensure that we’re whole and healthy and not waiting for some institution or the government that was never designed in the first place to care for people like you and me.

KAREN: When we started the Black Farmer Fund in New York a couple of years ago, we decided to be proactive and go to the governor, who at the time was Cuomo, and ask for $9 million. Black folks going to the governor asking for $9 million, they laughed at us. We said, “We want it because we deserve it. It’s our money. We pay taxes. Why can’t we have this money so that we can be self-sufficient and self-reliant?” They just laughed at us.

So, we started telling our story. I tell people time and time again, tell your story. Our story is that out of 57,000 farmers in New York state there are only 139 Black farmers. In a state with over 12% Black population, less that 1 % of the farmers are Black. We need resources to support those farmers and to encourage other Black folks to become farmers. By continuing to tell our story, we amassed over $3 million. 

That $3 million was spent on helping Black farmers and Black businesses be self-sufficient and self-reliant, to learn about fiscal responsibility and get a financial education, and learn how to build social capital and communal wealth so the money they earned would go back into our community. We need to change the extractive capitalistic system that takes money out of our community. Our money needs to stay in our community and circulate to build the community so it doesn’t get gentrified and we get pushed out.

It’s time for us to think about what entrepreneurship and ownership mean. I’m not talking about ownership in terms of having something for yourself. I’m talking about being stewards of the land and of the community. Whatever occupation you’re in, you should be working to help the community. We have been trying to replicate a capitalistic food system that wasn’t meant for us and wasn’t built for us. Now is the time for us to wake up and start to help each other and come together and share.

I remember back in the day growing up, no one was hungry. I grew up in the projects, and when someone was hungry, we opened our doors and fed them. If you didn’t have shoes or clothing, we made sure that person got shoes and clothing. When Miss So-and-So, who was 90 years old, couldn’t buy food, we made sure that she was fed. We’ve gotten away from that. We no longer open our doors. We would rather walk over someone who’s homeless instead of asking them if they need something to eat or a place to sleep. We have become so conditioned to be the “I” instead of thinking about being the “we.”

BRYANT: Malcolm X made a speech in which he encouraged Black folks to support businesses in their communities. He said that when you go to a business where the person who owns the business does not live in that community, at the end of the day, that man takes his bag of money back to his own community. Creating community-based institutions and supporting existing local institutions enriches the community through what economists call “the multiplier effect” when each dollar continues to circulate in our community.

KAREN: I want to change the language of how we talk about ownership. When we talk about ownership of land, we’re replicating the extractive, exploitative system of capitalism. Instead of saying “ownership” we should say “stewardship” because we’re stewards of the land. I don’t believe you can own anything. You don’t live long enough on Earth to own anything.

We’re always trying to go against nature instead of working with nature. If you say that you want land so you can steward the land, so that you can work with nature so that that land is an element of the whole ecosystem, then it makes sense. It’s not threatening because you’re not grabbing it to hold onto it; you’re using it as a way to preserve the ecosystem that we’re all part of.

BRYANT: I love that, because that framing creates a different kind of lens. Faith-based institutions like churches, for example, have a lot of well-manicured land. What if we could turn those into edible landscapes? If people had a value system based on stewardship, then if someone had a building or land, they would do something with it that’s productive and is helpful to the community and not just aesthetically pleasing.

KAREN: But stewarding lands means you have to have some land to steward to begin with, and that brings up the issue of Reparations. It’s not just for Black people; Indigenous people need to be included in the conversation about reparations. How can land be placed back into the hands of both Black people of enslaved ancestry and Indigenous people? We want land back so we can be stewards of that land and self-sufficient/self-reliant, so we can feed our families.

BRYANT: We have to acknowledge the fact that the institution of slavery is what largely fueled capitalism in this country, so you can’t have honest conversations about repairing harms without talking about repairing the harm of the institution in which people of African descent were exploited for hundreds of years. It’s not just the institution of slavery, but also the kind of reimagined ways in which we continue to be oppressed like the prison industrial complex.

We need to be talking about reparations together with climate chaos, food apartheid, and all the ways in which historically marginalized communities have been exploited. You can’t have an honest conversation about repairing harm without talking about repairing the way in which Africans have been exploited and brutalized.

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