Updated: Jul 13
Trauma passed down from systemic racism can affect the human body in a number of ways. We've talked about colorism and how it influences imposter syndrome, however, the black identity wasn't the only thing slavery attempted to destroy. Our health and access to proper nutrients also suffered as a result of being enslaved. The first group of enslaved Africans in America are said to have arrived on prison ships around 1565 in St. Augustine, Florida. (Click here to read Times article on Slavery in America). According to History Magazine, in the 1510s and ‘20s, ships sailing from Spain to the Caribbean settlements of Puerto Rico and Hispaniola may have contained as few as one or two enslaved people, or as many as 30 or 40. By the mid 1520s historians report seeing over 200 to 300 enslaved people on ships at a time, with some apparently jumping overboard prior to becoming death victims of malnutrition. Death by malnutrition was the common fate of many enslaved African people aboard slave ships to what today is known as Haiti; a fraction of the island of Hispaniola.
The phrase “tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are” was coined by French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in 1823. The successful insurrection of Haitians against the British and French colonizers occurred a number of years prior in 1804. During this time, enslaved people enjoyed pumpkin soup: a delicacy that originated in France and was considered forbidden to Haitian slaves during the war. Food is an inherent resource for life that provides energy and materials for the formation of living tissue. It is also an important source of enjoyment, and a remarkable indicator of economic, social and cultural differences among human communities (Guzman, 2013).
In the field of applied behavior analysis, food is an unconditioned reinforcer necessary for survival along with sleep and the desire for sexual activity. Related stimuli will elicit the desire to engage in behaviors that will increase access to amounts of food until you're satisfied, hours of sleep until you're rested, and a climactic orgasm for sexual fulfillment. These behaviors are likely to occur in the future, when you come in contact with related stimuli thus resulting in reinforcement. The theory of reinforcement describes an increase in future occurrences of a behavior, as a result of, the consequences that directly follow the behavior. For example, many Haitian people still eat pumpkin soup on January 1st of every year, as a result, of the fulfillment of freedom that occurred at the end of the war in 1804.
The health benefits of pumpkin include improved vision and Vitamin A for immunity against infectious diseases. However, French slave masters settled on the island of Hispaniola withheld these nutrients, and the slaves ultimately inherited their diseases and died from starvation. The island of Haiti became the first independent black republic, but after the war the land was greatly destitute. Haitians still have not recovered from this disparity and as a result of a deconstructed government, economic drought, and natural disasters nearly 42% of the Haitian population suffers from acute hunger. According to USAID, 53% of Haitians are undernourished and 59% live on less than $2.42 per day. For this reason, many of the people migrate to the United States and experience financial gain while also suffering from obesity as a result of the inexpensive and nutrient dense foods they readily access in this country. The dietary behaviors of the Haitian diaspora have been influenced by the caste system that was established by French and British colonizers many years ago and are reinforced by the country's current economic state. Obesity, which increases the serious risk of health problems is considered a sign of affluence in Haitian culture. An obese individual is considered to have defining status because they are likely able to afford energy-dense foods while the poor do not have this same buying power.
A history of reinforcement mirrored by the economic wealth & success of French and British men over African slaves created a pattern of economic despair, famine, and illness in the country of Haiti. The people engage in survival behaviors daily and repeatedly fail to establish a higher standard of living across the island. Haitian cuisine remains heavily influenced by African and French cultures, but now reflects a balance between hot and cold, or light and heavy foods that are necessary for maintaining good health. The diaspora celebrate their independence by eating a hot bowl of "soup joumou" also known as pumpkin soup. In their morning routine, some Haitian people like to drink cold papaya juice as a lighter food option that will ease digestion throughout the day. The Haitian Revolution has created a longstanding history of disparity for the nation, but this has not limited my people from establishing new and healthy behaviors that will increase their life span and maintain our proud sense of freedom for generations to come.
Written By: Sindy Victor, MS, BCBA, LBA