More than any other population in the United States, African Americans are likely to live in food deserts where vegan food, let alone fresh produce, is anything but affordable or easy to come by. African Americans are more likely to die from heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and high blood pressure than white people. Linked to meat and dairy consumption, these conditions are often preventable by a whole-food, plant-based diet.
For these reasons—and many more—actress and filmmaker Jasmin Leyva created her groundbreaking new documentary, The Invisible Vegan. I saw a rough cut, and it’s like nothing I’ve seen before. Inspiring, informative, and chock-full of interviews with African American vegans ranging from Cedric the Entertainer and Stic of Dead Prez to Dr. Milton Mills, the film covers a ton of ground and makes the case to African Americans that veganism is not “just for white people.”
Mercy For Animals spoke with Jasmin to learn more about what inspired her to make this film—and when we will see it released nationwide.
1. How did you become vegan, and how long have you been vegan?
About a decade ago, I met Chef Babette Davis, owner of a vegan soul food restaurant in Inglewood, and she was one of the most stunning 65-year-old black women I had ever seen. She told me that she worked out consistently and followed a vegan regimen. Aside from her look, there was something about her vibe that resonated with me; I wanted to age as gracefully as she did. Whenever I encounter people I admire, I am interested in their habits, and I decided to put hers to the test.
In college, I committed to a month of nothing but vegan food. Every day I was ridiculed by roommates, and while I missed my regular pastrami sandwiches and chili cheese fries, the acne that had plagued my self-esteem started to subside, pounds fell off, digestion was smoother, and some of my feminine problems went away. It was like taking medicine without taking medicine.
For the better part of a decade I ate mostly vegan, but cheated whenever I saw fit. Then, two years ago, my reason for being vegan evolved from cosmetic to ethical. Cheating on my diet had risked a pimple or two, but now cheating on my diet means participating in a cruel system of slaughter and torture that I want no part of.
2. What inspired you to make The Invisible Vegan?
I enjoy a lot of the vegan documentaries on the market, but they are not formatted for everyone. To be completely candid, even at the expense of being politically incorrect, a lot of people where I come from—southeast DC—do not relate to 60-year-old white male experts throwing out statistics or animal abuse videos.
Before I met Babette Davis, I thought veganism was a "white people thing," a "Hollywood thing," an "elitist thing" because I did not see images I related to present in the message. I want to fill that void with The Invisible Vegan.
3. How is African American history linked to food justice now?
Racism and classism are so sneaky and slick. People have picked up on black bodies being gunned down and police officers not being held accountable, but not as many people ask why most health food stores are in affluent neighborhoods while the hood is covered with fast-food restaurants that lead to disease.
During slavery, the masters would eat the most desired parts of a meal, and the slaves would eat the scraps. Today the same thing is happening.
The healthy food stores and restaurants with fresh-cut, organic, hormone-free, genetically unaltered vegan food options go to the well-off white neighborhoods. And the liquor stores, carryouts, and second-rate grocery stores with bruised, pesticide-sprayed, genetically altered, poor-quality food that one might call scraps go to the low-income or minority neighborhoods. That's racism and classism poorly disguised as a coincidence, and I am glad that more people are calling America out on her shit.
4. How do you think black vegans have been made invisible?
Black vegans have been made invisible on a variety of levels. In the past, most of the images I saw in conjunction with the health and animal justice movements were white and not relatable to me. I never saw the dark-skinned, urban chic, size-10 shawty with cornrows eating a vegan Jamaican patty or a Michelle Obama-type holding an animal rights sign. These types of women exist. These are the types of women that would have caught my attention growing up and would help diversify the movement. But in the past, they were rendered invisible because they were "not universal enough." They were not put in the forefront of mainstream veganism.
Luckily, a lot of black vegans are responding to this lack of representation by using social media, hip-hop, and film to spread this message to people who have been left out of mainstream conversations.
5. Where can people find this film and how can they further support you and this cause?
The film is complete, but a lot of the music and images are from third parties, so I cannot distribute it legally. I launched an Indiegogo campaign to cover third-party licensing fees and post-production costs. If you would like to donate and see that this film gets out there, you can go to www.theinvisiblevegan.com. You can also follow us on Instagram at @theinvisiblevegan and Twitter at @invisiblevegan. Or you can go to the Invisible Vegan Facebook page.