Friday, April 8, 2011
CHARLES JOHNSON AND THE GOOD STUFF
After dating for two years, my wife Joan and I married in June, 1970 when we both were 22-years-old. (Our birthdays are seven days apart so I’ve always joked that our fathers probably impregnated our mothers at the same moment, therefore we were karmically fated to meet and marry.) During our first two years of marriage we were strict vegetarians because we considered that choice to be the morally and spiritually right one. I never missed meat, not once, and the reduction in our weekly grocery bill when I was in early graduate school was a blessing.
But I had a black, college friend who was raised as a vegetarian. He told me that he ate meat for the first time, in his twenties, when he visited a lady friend for dinner. “I was rolling around all night on the floor in pain,” he said. And so my wife and I had to consider what we’d do if and when we had children. Raise them as vegetarians and perhaps let them endure an agonizing night like my friend experienced as their stomachs adjusted to something foreign? Or let them eat meat while we stayed vegetarian, and have to work out two different menus for our family every day? Furthermore, back in the early ‘70s in southern Illinois, it wasn’t easy to find restaurants that offered vegetarian meals. And so after two years we drifted away from not “eating anything that has a face,” as my friend mendicant Buddhist monk Claude AnShin Thomas once put it, for he is devoted to ahima or harmlessness toward all sentient beings. Just as a footnote: our 29-year-old daughter Elisheba, curator and owner of Faire Gallery Café, is by choice a vegan.
These early 1970s experiences and reflections no doubt played a big part in my thinking about the cultural, social and phenomenological meanings of food and eating when I wrote my second novel, Oxherding Tale, a philosophical, comic slave narrative for late 20th century readers.
The story’s protagonist, Andrew Hawkins, is the product of a black butler, George Hawkins, and his master’s white wife. Out of compassion, his master secures for him a tutor, Ezekiel William Sykes-Withers, a brilliant yet tragic Transcendentalist and correspondent with Karl Marx, who makes a cameo appearance midway through the novel. Ezekiel, a vegetarian, weans Andrew off meat-eating, and convinces his black step-mother Mattie to do the same, an act that leads in Chapter Two to an explosively comic scene in the slave quarters (where Andrew is raised or exiled to) when his black, meat-eating, biofather George racializes food and equates vegetarianism with everything he (now a bitter, black cultural nationalist after losing his job as a butler because he impregnated his master’s wife) associates with the curious and effete ways of white folks. He wants what he considers to be “black” food (pig’s feet, chitterlings, collard greens, ham, fried chicken, black-eyes peas, cornbread) and not the “funnylooking roots and raw tubers, paste, rice, and wood fiber without salt or syrup or anything like I was bird or an English poet…” which is how he describes the meal that Mattie puts on his dinner plate one evening. “Naw,” says George, who sees Ezekiel as a 19th century version of a hippie, “eatin’ vegetables and walkin’ round the woods nekkid like I seen Ezekiel do—oh yeah, I seen him---is for white people. Colored folks got enough sense to stay in their clothes…Soybeans ain’t hardly food. Beans or vegetables are okay for extras, but I need somethin’ that’ll fill up this emptiness and stick with me! Some things you got to kill for survival!” And so he does, storming out of the house with his gun, dragging Andrew along with him as he kills, then skins a deer.
Young Andrew is horrified by this act and thinks, “What if all Ezekiel’s talk about how poleaxing preceded porkchops was saying that violence of the shotgun blast, the instant before the final explosion of dust, stayed sealed inside like a particle, trapped in the dying tissues, and wound up on the dinner table---as if everything was mysteriously blended into everything else, and somehow all the violence slavery crime and suffering in the world had, as Ezekiel suggested, its beginning in what went into our bellies?”
In Oxherding Tale, I wouldn’t take Andrew’s words too seriously. After all, Hitler was a vegetarian. But while I’m not a vegetarian now, I expect to one day return to my dietary choice during the years 1970-72 before the end of my life. (Hell, I’d start again tomorrow if the mood hit me in just the right way. Remember how comedian Dick Gregory critiqued heavy “soul food” dishes? They are not an example of healthy eating.) If one takes the appropriate dietary supplements (which my wife and I didn’t know about in the early 1970s), vegetarianism is---or so I truly believe---the most civilized and moral of eating choices, one that avoids the industries that brutally slaughter animals daily, and pump them with chemicals so they unnaturally produce more eggs and offspring at an accelerated rate---all that so far too many Americans can waddle around looking like inflated balloons ready to burst. Visit a slaughterhouse for cattle---or watch a video of one---and you’ll never again want to eat a McDonald’s hamburger. Or anything that “has a face.”
Posted by Ethelbert Miller at 4:01 PM