Recommended Readings, Weekly Reader
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Race, faith, and food justice

While our food production system has been broken for a long time, many of us have only touched the surface of the problem and seldom in ways that reach across racial and class lines to address systemic issues. My understanding of food justice efforts falls woefully short of where it should be. Thankfully, this lack of comprehension about an ethical response to food injustice and the impact of our broken production system on communities of color was brought home to me in a recent book with an unlikely name.

The Spirit of Soul Food: Race, faith, and food justice (2021), by The Rev. Christopher Carter, PhD was a revelation. Carter, an ordained Methodist minister with a doctorate in Religion from Claremont School of Theology, has thought deeply about race, food, and nonhuman animals. Out of that soul searching he has written a book that covers a lot of ground but never loses the point. Focused on Black Christians but encompassing all of us, Carter’s work speaks to the clear, Christian ethical basis for a new system of food justice.

In a personal preface, Carter explains why he did not want to write this book. “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.” Carter notes that in order to be taken seriously, he needed “to wrestle the culinary deity that soul food has become.” Central to his struggle is the question, “Given the harm that our food production system inflicts upon Black people, what should soul food look like today?”

Many of us who grew up in the 70s explosion of Black American awareness probably understand some aspect of the centrality of soul food to the African American community, but I suspect that most whites have an understanding of its importance that approximates the tiniest tip of the iceberg. Carter helps enlighten us as he considers how people of color can find new ways of eating that reflect their cultural identities while remaining true to the principles of compassion, love, justice, and solidarity with the marginalized. It is a question with larger ramifications.

“Black churches and Black Christians especially, but all Christians in general,” he argues, “should view food justice as an essential aspect of Christian social justice practice.” We do this, in part, by how we go about practicing being human.

Carter’s work owes a debt to the pioneering theologian Howard Thurman, who wrote in the landmark Jesus and the Disinherited that the religion of Jesus is often at odds with the ways Christianity is practiced today. Following Thurman, Carter suggests that the “religion of Jesus” is best understood as a spiritual path of radical compassion.

Whitney Plantation

Carter first takes the reader on an agricultural and culinary history from Africa to America that expands our knowledge of food, oppression, and justice. Visting Whitney Plantation in southern Louisiana, Carter explains how what became known as soul food has a long history that began in Africa and came over with the trans-Atlantic slave trade. He wants the reader to understand that what the dominant culture has taught about food, from its Eurocentric point of view, requires critical examination.

That leads to a chapter on our oppressive and broken food system. Carter reminds the reader that food and farmworker justice are relevant to Black foodways and food justice because Black Americans are in this country due to a system of enslavement for forced agricultural labor. Anyone who has thought about our food systems knows some of what Carter covers as he examines how the New Deal shifted away from concerns for the small farmer to support for larger farm businesses, especially those controlled by whites. That U.S. farm policy move was later cemented in the 1950s and 1970s with shifts of focus by the USDA toward agribusinesses. Today, communities of color continue to bear the burden of maintaining our food supply, but it isn’t a system designed to help them in significant ways.

Carter suggests that how we practice being human is the way toward a more equitable food system and society. He draws upon feminist and liberation theologians to note that “decolonizing Western Christianity’s assumptions of the human requires us to view ‘being human’ as praxis, a process of learning, unlearning, applying, and realizing our humanness in antioppressive ways.” That practice for Carter, a vegan, involves soulfull eating — where “African American Christians reflect upon their past and the collective culinary wisdom of our ancestors in order to forge a new future of soul food.” Being human also involves a practice of seeking justice for food workers as one way of addressing racialized economic exploitation. Finally, Carter calls for a practice of caring for the earth — cultivating a better relationship with the land. Each practice is focused towards African Americans but speaks to all Christians and in fact all humans who care about food justice.

Christopher Carter has written an important book that is part history lesson, part spiritual meditation, and part call to action. As we enter a season of culinary excess in many homes across America, it is also a timely reminder of the often-oppressive underpinnings of our broken food system.

More to come…

DJB

This Weekly Reader features links to recent articles, blog posts, or books that grabbed my interest or tickled my fancy. I hope you find something that makes you laugh, think, or cry. 

Photo by Anya Bell on Unsplash

This entry was posted in: Recommended Readings, Weekly Reader

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I am David J. Brown (hence the DJB) and I originally created this personal blog more than ten years ago as a way to capture photos and memories from a family vacation. After the trip was over I simply continued writing. Over the years the blog has changed to have a more definite focus aligned with my interest in places that matter, reading well, roots music, and more. My professional background is as a national nonprofit leader with a four-decade record of growing and strengthening organizations at local, state, and national levels. This work has been driven by my passion for connecting people in thriving, sustainable, and vibrant communities.

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: November observations in More to Come… | More to Come...

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