Alvenia Fulton, Soul Food, and Black Liberation: An Interview with Travis Weisse

In Nursing Clio’s first annual best article prize, honorable mention went to Travis Weisse’s excellent and groundbreaking “‘Alone in a Sea of Rib-Tips’: Alvenia Fulton, Natural Health, and the Politics of Soul Food.” Known as the ‘Queen of Nutrition,’ Alvenia M. Fulton was a Black alternative health practitioner and health food promoter in Chicago from the 1960s to the 1990s. I had the pleasure of interviewing Travis about his article on Fulton and all it teaches us about the intersecting histories of race, food, and health.

Emily: First off, congratulations on your honorable mention for this fantastic article, which also won an Honorable Mention for the 2020 Belasco Prize for Scholarly Excellence from the Association for the Study of Food and Society. What has it been like to receive such affirmation for your scholarship from both academic communities?

Travis Weisse received an honorable mention in Nursing Clio’s annual best article prize competition.

Travis: Thanks very much, Emily! I’m incredibly honored to have received this recognition from Nursing Clio and the history of medicine community. To have gotten similar recognition from food studies–my other academic home–is almost too much! Above all, I’m grateful for this opportunity to share more about Alvenia Fulton and her legacy, especially during this contemporary moment. And having this work resonate with both communities points to a great potential for more work like this at the intersection of the histories of food and medicine.

Emily: Your dissertation examines a fascinating selection of four diet gurus and how they navigated issues such as scientific authority and expertise, public relevance, and self-empowerment for patients. What drew you to this topic, and to Alvenia Fulton’s story in particular? How is she similar and different from the other diet gurus you research?

Travis: I became interested in the history of dieting’s medical applications for personal reasons. I grew up in a health-conscious household where eating was always restricted–not in the name of weight loss but longevity and disease prevention. I didn’t see the history of this kind of dieting-for-health reflected in other histories of dieting, so I decided to excavate it myself.

Fulton was actually the first guru I investigated. While researching for a Race in American Medicine seminar term paper, I stumbled across Dick Gregory and found several interesting works exploring his role in raising Black health consciousness.1 Gregory himself was clear that his understanding of health and nutrition came from his teacher, Alvenia Fulton, about whom no one had yet written anything substantial. The more I looked into Fulton, the more interested I became in unearthing her story. One of the things that really piqued my interest was that her heavy investment in natural foods and vegetarianism in the mid- to late-1950s predated the hippie movement with which these trends are more commonly associated.

To your second question, Fulton was not entirely dissimilar from other diet gurus in her health philosophy, the products she sold, or her ideas about the medical establishment. However, the ends to which Fulton mobilized her dietary reform efforts were different–Fulton was far more devoted toward achieving a kind of embodied racial justice. Of the four gurus I examine, Fulton is one of two gurus of color (the other being Michio Kushi, a Japanese immigrant who led macrobiotics) and the only woman. Generally speaking, Fulton was far more overtly political than white diet gurus, tying the cause of healthy eating not just to reversing chronic disease for its own sake, but to help achieve the larger missions of quelling global violence by bringing the body in line with non-violent or anti-racist politics as well.

Emily: You draw from a rich food studies literature on Soul Food that explores its complex culinary and cultural histories rooted in the experiences of slavery, the first Great Migration, and the social change of the 1960s and 1970s. How does your article’s exploration of the relationship between Soul Food and health further deepen our understanding of this cuisine, in the past and today?

Travis: There is so much fantastic scholarship on historical Black foodways in the US and southern-style cuisine looms large in such discussions. Psyche Williams-Forson, Jessica B. Harris, Fred Opie, Adrian Miller, Doris Witt, and Michael Twitty have all given us tremendous insights into the origins, migrations, political contestations, and transformations of Black cuisine in America. These histories really helped put into relief some of the important questions Fulton’s work raised about how to best embody one’s politics, especially when ‘politics’ is expanded to include health politics and the moral imperative to preserve life.

Alvenia Fulton with Roberta Flack in the Chicago Defender, March 29, 1971. (Courtesy New York Public Library)

Fulton helped to change the conversation around what it meant for food and food choices to align with Black political aspirations. She struggled to imagine Black liberation if cuisines like Soul Food–intended to celebrate community identity and shared history–entailed Black people eating their way to premature deaths. According to the nutritional wisdom of the day, fatty Soul Food was anathema to heart health, which was a growing yet invisible (in mainstream re: white media) epidemic among Black men. Complicating matters, medical racism and structural inequities in the US healthcare system ensured that Black people had worse experiences and worse health outcomes when they sought care for the same health problems as whites. Before the fundamental inequities of the healthcare system could be resolved, Fulton thought it best to minimize one’s need for orthodox medical care altogether by preventing disease from taking root.

Today, Soul Food remains popular, so Fulton’s work and thought (along with those of her contemporaries) didn’t ultimately affect the cuisine’s place in Black community life as much as create new spaces for people to re-imagine Black identity, cultural authenticity, the mandate to preserve one’s health, and the embodiment of anti-racist, feminist, non-violent politics in new ways.

Emily: I so appreciate your exploration of “the cultural ownership of healthy eating practices,” and how Fulton drew from her knowledge of vernacular herbal practices, as she also “digested and transformed” white health traditions for a Black audience. How do you consider the dynamics of race and anti-Black racism (particularly what you call “white healthism”) within the history of dietary and health advice?

Travis: The history of healthy eating efforts in the United States is inseparable from ideas and constructions of whiteness and white supremacy. When Fulton attended health lectures in Chicago in the 1950s, not only were the speakers and audience overwhelmingly white, many of the products, ideas, and practices that these lecturers espoused had been used around the turn of the century to prop up eugenicist claims about race superiority. And Fulton adopted some of these practices, like fasting, for herself. Yet, because white health food so often accompanied white politics, Fulton had to develop a pathway for Black cultural ownership that was consistent with Black political aspirations.

People in these healthy-eating communities still have a lot of reckoning to do when it comes to racial justice. One of the major reasons dieting skews so white in the first place is that, for the most part, health foods and dieting are assumed white, and that’s still reflected in contemporary journalism and scholarship alike. Bolstering whiteness is the fact that the basic staples of these diets, even vegetarian foods, have been branded as elite nutraceuticals and sold at a premium, making them largely inaccessible to those people whose health is (according to their own reasoning) most in jeopardy. Not to mention the ways in which diet communities still displace and enact economic ruination on indigenous communities in their quest for the latest superfood without any sustained interest in the health problems (let alone social or economic challenges) facing such groups.

This is one of the things I most admire about contemporary Black veganism–that it poses a critical and intersectional challenge to historically white veganism (which ostensibly had an anti-violence posture of its own) to account for racial and gendered violence.

Emily: We’re having this conversation in early June 2020. Protests are taking place in cities large and small across the United States and around the world to assert the humanity of Black lives and the urgent need for change in policing, incarceration, and other institutions upholding white supremacy. What do you hope Alvenia Fulton’s community food activism teaches us within this contemporary moment and the fight for Black liberation?

Travis: As a nation, we’re confronting a lot of the same fundamental racial inequities today as we were in the 1960s and 70s, except now the conflict is erupting during an inescapable global pandemic and economic catastrophe. As a healer, I think Fulton would have us consider police brutality and the coronavirus as twin public health crises and to acknowledge the degree to which both are symptoms of an underlying structure that gives preferential treatment to white lives. The devastation wrought by this pandemic has, in many ways, as much a legacy in systemic racism as police brutality. Fulton pressed her community to understand their disproportionate burden of health problems as a function of systemic oppression. To fight against this system, however, Fulton reasoned that Black activists needed to live longer, healthier lives to preserve their valuable institutional memory and train future generations of activists. For Fulton, Black health was both a function of systemic racism and critical to its undoing. Creating a nation in which Black lives matter requires reforming all of the institutions that affect the quality and duration of Black lives. The same kind of broad systemic reform that’s needed to fight the justice system is just as important in a healthcare system that permits glaring health disparities that cut Black lives short as much as or more than police brutality, even if these effects are less visible.

Notes

  1. For more on Dick Gregory, see Doris Witt, Black Hunger: Soul Food and America (University of Minnesota Press, 2004); Fred Opie Hog and Hominy: Soul Food from Africa to America (Columbia University Press, 2008); Clovis Semmes, “Entrepreneur of Health: Dick Gregory, Black Consciousness, and the Human Potential Movement,” Journal of African American Studies 16, No. 3 (September 2012): 537-549. Return to text.

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2 Comments

Carol Starks

Carol Starks July 24, 2020

So happy to see Alvenia Fulton featured in this article. My husband took me to see her in 1994 when I was diagnosed with stage 2 beast cancer.
Even though I had to use traditional therapies I realized that Alvenia Fulton had opened my mind to natural healing and a Vegetarian lifestyle.
She set me on the path of taking responsibility for what I put in my body and placing my health at the forefront of my food choices.

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