Meet Andrea Blackford! Singer, scholar, vegan.
Andrea we met through your work with the Washington Revels, tell us more about that….
The Washington Revels Jubilee Voices is an ensemble working to preserve African American history and traditions through a cappella music, drama, and dance. With the help of Washington Revels, a Silver Spring, MD based performing arts organization, I founded the group in 2010. We were formed specifically for performing during the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, but demand for the group’s performances have allowed us to continue beyond that commemoration, and we’ve been performing regularly at heritage sites throughout the Washington DC area, singing, sharing, and learning the stories of the people in those communities.
Our performances are often done in period dress, singing traditional music, along with spoken word, historic narratives, storytelling, and audience participation. We perform and teach these songs, spirituals, ring shouts, and other traditional materials so that folks can share them, and learn why music was such an important factor in the lives of our people. Recently, we’ve been branching out beyond the Civil War era, to include the Colonial period and the Civil Rights Movement, to show the continuum throughout history.
This music helped our ancestors to survive through times of struggle and pain; it helped sustain them as they sought freedom and helped build a movement for justice. And now, more than ever, it’s important to keep sharing that tradition. The music of our ancestors–whether they toiled on the fields in the antebellum South or marched on Washington with Dr. King–was integral to their spirit, strength and survival. Sharing the history, songs and traditions gives us an ancestral “care package,” — a source of pride, affirmation, and sustenance — as we struggle with the not-so-new obstacles we face today.
Why go vegan?
At first, I decided to go vegan for health–I’m getting older, and I just got tired…tired of eating the same old stuff, tired of feeling tired, tired of seeing people in our community getting old before their time and dying of preventable disease. I began to lose my enthusiasm for dining out. I needed to shake things up. Around the same time, I got sick with a virus that left me with vertigo for weeks. It was during recovering from that where I became extremely aware of the connection between eating healthy food, getting enough sleep, staying hydrated, and getting exercise in. If I don’t get one of those things on a regular basis, everything else goes out of whack. Through eating vegan, I’ve become more aware of my body, what goes on with it, and how best to fuel it.
But “going vegan” is more than just diet. Veganism is a lifestyle that rejects anything that has resulted from animal suffering, death or exploitation. It’s a commitment to give up meat, honey, eggs, dairy, wool, fur, leather, and so on. There is also the matter of social justice. Veganism compels one to consider the plight of all living things, and in my opinion, that includes that of our human family, and our planet. Veganism has made me mindful of injustices and oppression, and motivates me to be part of the solution. As civil rights activist Ella Baker said, “we who believe in freedom cannot rest.”Thinking about it this way helps me to stay committed, and is helping me to take the steps from “eating vegan” to “being vegan.” For me, I’m working on slowly getting rid of animal products from my closet (leather and wool–I don’t wear fur), using stuff until it wears out, or purchasing thrifted or vintage items and buying things made of alternative materials to replace them. I am doing what works for me–it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
I’ve only been at this for six months…there is still a lot for me to learn, and I find it exciting.
What do you miss?
CHEESE. In transitioning, I tapered off it gradually, which helped. Do I miss cheese? Yes, but there are enough good vegan substitutes where I can satisfy the cravings. But you have to be careful with that, too. Many of these vegan “treats” can be very processed, so it’s best to make your own at home. You can actually make a pretty amazing vegan “cheese” sauce with potatoes and carrots as the main ingredients. I kid you not.
Another challenge? You have to plan your meals and you have to cook. I prepare food during the weekend for the upcoming week–a couple of heavy dishes, like veggie lasagna or a hearty stew–along with prepped materials for making quick meals (diced onions, a pot of greens, roasted veggies, rice, roasted sweet potatoes, etc.) during the week. And I keep snacks in my desk at work. If I’m going out, I have an app on my phone (Happy Cow) that shows me restaurants with vegetarian/vegan options so I can plan. Most restaurants are getting on board, however, and if you explain that you’re vegan, they will work with you.
The funny thing is that I thought I’d really, really miss meat. I don’t. I have really enjoyed discovering new flavors, playing with seasonings (my spice drawers are overflowing these days) and I’ve been cooking up a storm.
Sometime within the last three months, I’ve really hit my stride, but it is a process. I’m still learning. I am blessed to have a supportive, wonderful husband (who still eats meat, but eats mostly plant-based foods now.) My family has been VERY supportive. And many of my friends have begun eating more plant-based foods, which is terrific. I have brought home made vegan appetizers and dishes to parties and watch with utter amusement as folks start out with skepticism, then end up eating it all.
How does your new eating practice make you feel?
In eating this way, I feel that I’m really getting reconnected with the ancestors–whose diets were founded on plants. They used meat like a condiment–for seasoning, and it’s been relatively easy to find healthier, non-animal replacements. Eating this way has been a revelation for me, as I find new and wonderful things to cook, and it helps me to understand the struggle, sacrifice and creativity our forebears used to sustain themselves.
Six months down the line, I’ve dropped a little weight; I’m sleeping a lot better, and I don’t feel as loaded down when I eat a meal. Just saw one of my doctors, who is very happy with the results!
What are your go to resources?
Anything and everything written by Bryant Terry (Vegan Soul Kitchen and Afro-Vegan); great vegan cooks/chefs on YouTube such as blogger Jenne Claiborne(SweetPotatoSoul), who has quick and easy meals and prep tips, and Gaz Oakley(Avant Garde Vegan) who produces some gorgeous food with complex flavors. Another go-to is the Afro Vegan Society, which is a clearinghouse of information, recipes, a directory of black-owned vegan restaurants, essays, and more. And a great read is Tracye McQuirter’s book, By Any Greens Necessary. Check it out!
Any favorite new recipes?
So many! I love making vegan sushi; chicken-fried cauliflower is a special Sunday treat in our house, along with vegan mac and cheese and collard greens, is a favorite. We also enjoy portabello mushroom “steak” (it’s basically seared mushrooms coated with steak spices and covered in a lovely vegan gravy). You can find many of these recipes on YouTube.
How can we see you with the Revels?
Jubilee Voices is just one of several vocal ensembles; there are wonderful activities for folks of any age, ranging from monthly community sings to educational programs for kids. There is also a signature event, “The Christmas Revels,” that celebrates holiday and turning of the year traditions from different cultures. There’s something for everyone!