After hearing her speak at the Vegan Praxis of Black Lives Matter conference in April of this year, and having encountered her writing on the Internet as well as her thoughtful commentary on social justice issues via the Sistah Vegan Facebook group, I became quite eager to get my hands on a book edited by Dr. A. Breeze Harper, entitled Sistah Vegan. Finally, this weekend, I obtained a copy of this inspired collection of essays by various Black-identified female vegans—and have not been able to put it down since. I cannot possibly recommend this book strongly enough.
One of the essays I’ve read so far that speak most strongly to me personally is Layli Phillips’s “Veganism and Ecowomanism.” I was immediately intrigued by the title, as I had previously had only a vague notion of what womanism is, and none whatsoever about eco-womanism. Phillips defines womanism as “…a tripartite theory, philosophy, praxis—whatever you want to call it—that rests upon three intertwined relationships: humans to humans, humans to environment, and humans to the spirit world. The assumption is that imbalance and the need for healing or rectification exist in all these relationships; the agency of the womanist is to promote and advance healing in any or all of these areas.”
My heart soared—I AM A WOMANIST! It shouted like an eager child might upon learning of a new descriptive noun, such as “brunette” or “biped.” I often think about how the relationship amongst most humans has deteriorated such that most people only really think about themselves, their “nuclear” family (siblings and parents, children and partners), and fewer than a handful of friends—if any. Empathy and justice are two of my most treasured values, and they way we treat one another—and the things we allow to happen to one another—often lack one, or both, of these qualities.
I have also devoted my life to nonhuman animals. I spend ample time writing, talking, and demonstrating on behalf of nonhuman animals, trying to encourage as many humans as I can to consider the world from a nonhuman’s perspective and to respect all of life’s many forms.
While I do not prescribe to any religion, I do believe in a sort of spiritual essence, an intangible energy that permeates everything and influences everything. You can take this as deeply as a suggestion that the Earth and cosmos have consciousness, or as lightly as an acceptance that at various times people put out good or bad “vibes.”
(Ecowomanism, by the way, to me sounds like regular womanism except that it prioritizes the second relationship—human and environment—over the other two, though it does not ignore these others.)
My spiritual connection towards animals is equally, if not more, palpable than that of mine towards nature. I think it’s worth noting here that this doesn’t mean I love everything about animals or even about nature. For instance, I HATE being cold. I feel ill. My body shakes uncontrollably. I simply cannot handle it. I also HATE being stung—though I still respect and appreciate bees. I don’t want them around me. They hurt. A lot.
All of this notwithstanding, I do feel connected to animals, and am convinced that they have every bit as much spirit as we do. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen one companion dog in my family, Natasha, push a bowl of water over to another companion dog of ours when the latter was both thirsty and lazy. And who among us who has ever had a companion animal has never been pleasantly surprised to find, on a rough day, that same animal crawling into our laps or rubbing its head against our knee? How many times have you said, or heard someone say, “It’s like she knew I needed comfort…”?
Phillips proceeds to claim that womanism functions through an “…operationalization of social change as healing rather than protest, integration rather than disruption….” As a frequent participant in nonviolent direct action, this sentence gave me pause. I am used to thinking about social change as a disruption of the status quo—one of the many means of causing said disruption being protest. Is it possible to integrate without first disrupting? I wondered. Can you begin to heal someone’s wounded leg even while someone else continues to hack away at it with an ax?
The short answer to this, I think, is yes. With the leg analogy, for instance, you can begin to apply, topically or orally, a series of antibiotics or painkillers. You can dress the current wound or cauterize it to stop the bleeding, even while new wounds are created. With respect to social change, one way you can begin to heal without protesting, or begin to integrate without disrupting, is to change your own way of thinking and, consequently, your own way of living.
One of the many aspects of womanism that I find beautiful is its focus on inclusivity and “folksiness.” The idea is that every day folk—not just professors, celebrities, politicians or others in obvious positions of power—can create meaningful, positive and lasting change. DxE also operates on this principle, with participants of varying backgrounds, education levels, occupations, ages, and so forth. We are not all scholars. We are not all politicians. We are not all anything, except humans opposed to violence and oppression. Phillips highlights five overarching characteristics of womanism in her essay, the fourth of which is that it is communitarian—relying on “the harmonization and coordination of the interests of individuals and diverse collectivities.”
I am a firm believer in the power of individuals to create change, not only through inspiring larger networks—though that is crucial (and increasingly possible in today’s Internet/Social Media Age)—but also through contributing to the collective spirit with their own individual spirit. Living peacefully has a ripple effect on the world as a whole; one less violent person, one less hate-fueled person, makes a difference in the overall spiritual chemistry of our part of the cosmos. So, yes, you can begin to heal the world by simply healing yourself, and minimizing your harm, as the principle of ahimsa preaches.
Unfortunately, however, the owner of the abused leg will never be able to walk again if the ax continues to make contact with it. Therefore, disruption— independent of the means employed toward its end—remains a necessary part of this equation. Individuals may be able to impact spiritual chemistry, and even lead their peers by example, but while those who remain in positions of power are able to maintain said power independent of their actions, beyond any and all accountability, the ax will continue to strike. Thus, I arrived at the determination that, for me at least, healing and protest are not antonyms. They are not in opposition. Neither are integration and disruption. Rather, these are two halves of the same whole.
Once I arrived there, I began to speculate as to whether the order of events mattered. First I considered the traditional or at least seemingly more common activist perspective that one must first disrupt the status quo before one can heal society. For reasons already given, however, I no longer accept this as the necessary order. In fact, in order for many to be inspired to disrupt, they may first have to undergo their own healing process. This was certainly the case for yours truly; before I took any action in an effort to improve the world, I felt so overburdened by its many ills that I was thoroughly depressed and utterly useless. I had to heal myself before I could begin to heal others or the planet.
Does this mean, then, that the healing/integration part must come before the protest/disruption part? No. Many find their path towards healing by first taking part in disruptions; they feel empowered by having actually done something rather than just complaining (not that healing isn’t doing something; it just isn’t as visible or tangible as social disruption), and this empowerment and newfound sense of purpose enables them to heal spiritually, inspires them to heal the environment and even to devote more time and attention to the relationships amongst humans of various “tribes” or groups. There are also some forms of healing that simply cannot take place without there first being a disruption: large-scale environmental destruction, for instance, cannot be halted by the changes of heart and mind of a few individuals. These are consequences of economic and political policies that will not change unless people actively, visibly disrupt them.
In short, I found this essay to be incredibly moving, and just one of many reasons Sistah Vegan is a must-have on the bookshelf of anyone even mildly curious about social justice, the environment, and/or human health. I am grateful to have a better understanding of womanism and its offspring, ecowomanism, and expect that my activism will now be much more mindful in light of these principles. The perspective of social injustices as social wounds from which we all must heal—including those who, knowingly or otherwise, perpetuate them—speaks to me as a crusader for empathy as well as justice, and may be of some value to those scores of activists out there who find it difficult to contain their rage at those who hurt others and mock us for caring.