[PORTRAIT OF A VEGAN: LACRESHA BERRY, PERFORMING ARTIST, WRITER, EDUCATOR.]
In “Portrait of a Vegan”, I want to introduce you to vegans who inspire me on many levels, through their activism and advocacy as well as their stories and personalities. Veganism is an ethical stance, but there is so much more that defines us as people. Today, I want you to meet Lacresha Berry. She’s a performer, a teacher, a costume designer, a singer, a poet, an inspiration. Last summer, I watched her perform her one woman show “Brown Girl, Blue Grass” live in New York City. I got chills more than once throughout the show and left feeling inspired to do more, express myself more and learn about other people’s stories more. In this interview, we talk about her experience of becoming a vegan eight years ago, what drives and inspires her and what she wants to instill in others. Enjoy.
“I want people to see what a vegan looks like. This is what a natural hair woman looks like, this is what a black girl from Kentucky looks like. This is what I look like.”
Kim-Julie: Can you tell us a bit more about yourself for those who may not know you yet?
Lacresha Berry: My name is Lacresha Berry, I am 36 years old, I was born in Ohio but I grew up in Lexington, Kentucky. I’ve been living in Queens for the past 13 years, since 2003. I came to New York City to be a star [laughs]. I have a degree in theater and I fell in love with costume design when I was in college. I came here for graduate school, NYU Tisch School of the Arts. I’m an educator and a teacher, but I also really love to perform, I love to sing, act and inspire people to be great. All that stuff.
KJ: When and why did you become a vegan?
LB: I have always had food sensitivities since a very young age, but it wasn’t until college that I started getting very militant. I gave up pork and beef thinking I was doing a really big thing there and in 2006, I gave up dairy for good. The following year, I started getting sick every time I ate chicken or turkey. I had stomach pains constantly and my food was never fully digested. So, my journey to veganism started for dietary reasons at first. Then I read a few books that made me realize that I really needed to stop eating meat.
KJ: Do you remember which books?
LB: Yes, Skinny Bitch by Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin. I read Skinny Bitch and it changed my life. They were funny and cursing throughout the book, but ultimately, they made me think “OK, I need to get it together”. Becoming Vegan by Brenda Davis was another one I read, as well as snippets of Slaughterhouse by Gail Eisnitz. After reading those, I told myself “I can’t do it no more”. So in 2007, I officially became a vegan. In August of 2007, to be precise, so I just made my eight year mark last year, I’ll be working on nine this year. My body had been telling me to do it for years but I had been fighting it.
“[B]eing vegan changed my life. I mean, everything was different after that point. Everything.”
KJ: Would you say that already living a primarily plant-based lifestyle made it easier for you to be open to the ethical part?
LB: I would say so. I think that helps a lot because you don’t consider where your food comes from. And when you eat meat, you just eat it because it’s there. It’s convenient, but being vegan changed my life. I mean, everything was different after that point. Everything. It made me much more aware of suffering in the world. Humans, animals and just suffering in general. It made me more sensitive, I became more acutely aware of things. The whole transition felt like it was overnight, but only because I had been transitioning for such a long time without even knowing it.
“[T]here is a lot of judgment when you say the word ‘vegan’.”
KJ: To people who are new to the vegan lifestyle, what would you say are the biggest struggles and what is the number one piece of advice you would give them?
LB: There are two types of struggles. There are the personal struggles and then there are the outside struggles. Personal struggles include being used to your way of life and then totally changing everything. Before going vegan, I had chicken tenders, fries and broccoli at Apple Bees on Fridays all the time and social events were easy. I feel like that is a struggle sometimes now. Some people get exasperated with my choices.
They’ll say “Oh, we have to eat somewhere where Lacresha can eat” and I just have to be a lot more flexible than everybody else, because everybody else is eating meat and cheese and I’m just like “are the French fries cooked in vegetable oil?” [laughs]. As far as the outside struggles are concerned, there is a lot of judgement when you say the word “vegan”. For some reason, people get scared or highly opinionated when I mention it. I just say “I am vegan” and immediately they have to tell me their whole life story to justify why they aren’t.
Those are the main struggles that I dealt with. How to get over them? Listen to your body. I think your body is your best indicator of what you need to do and sometimes, we fight the signs. We fight with ourselves and we end up being unhappy. You have to be consistent, you can’t give up because results don’t happen overnight. You have to keep doing it, over and over again. I got rid of my health issues over time.
And now, people are starting to realize “oh, Lacresha doesn’t age. Oh, she always has a lot of energy. Oh, her hair is really, really healthy. Oh, her skin is pretty fabulous. Oh, she has maintained her weight for the past nine years. So there must be something to it.” It’s consistency across the board, I would say.
KJ: In your opinion, what are some of the biggest misconceptions some people have about veganism?
LB: Vegans only eat vegetables, salads, fruits, they’re all skinny minis, they’re all blonde-haired, blue-eyed hippies that live in California or somewhere else on the West coast. They all look anorexic, they’re not muscular, not in shape, not black. And I think that is wrong, we’re both great examples of all those stereotypical things that we’re not. And then a lot of times people have conversations about my shape as a vegan. I ask them “excuse me, but how many vegans do you know to compare me to?”.
“I want people to see what a vegan looks like.”
Often, it’s not even a real portrait of a vegan, it’s just an assumption of what a vegan should look like. Am I the only vegan you met? Yes? So, of course I am the thickest vegan you met, because I am the only one you met. What do you have to compare me to? Yes, there are meat eaters that are smaller than me and then there are also vegans that are bigger than me. So what do you want? A lot of body shaming, judgement. And that was already happening when I wasn’t vegan. I don’t like that and I fight it all the time.
That is why I take a lot of pictures of myself. I want people to see what a vegan looks like. This is what a natural hair woman looks like, this is what a black girl from Kentucky looks like. This is what I look like.
KJ: Speaking of Kentucky, can you tell us about your one woman show “Brown Girl Blue Grass”?
LB: “Brown Girl Blue Grass” is a story about a brown girl, vegan [laughs], no, I’m joking, it has nothing to do with veganism, not really. I grew up in Kentucky, I am from Lexington. I was raised there for 20 years of my life. I know Kentucky very well. I went to school there. It made me realize that there were not many stories I learned about that had black children, women or men in them.
My father passed away in 2010, my grand father passed away in 2011, my father’s mother died six weeks before him. I thought “Everybody is passing away and transitioning in front of me. I need to have a document of what my life was about while they were in it, so I won’t forget.” So, I decided to talk about my family, talk about the agriculture and the industry of Kentucky and what Kentucky is famous for and I also wanted to tell my story.
So, here is my family, here is my story, here is Kentucky.
It’s paired with monologues and poetry and music. I sing, I act and I spit poetry, all in one show. It’s a one woman show on identity, culture, heritage, claiming history that is ours and making sure that we are represented. We always need balance in the world. And I feel like the world is imbalanced. What “Brown Girl Blue Grass” does is provide balance to the stories of Kentucky.
” What I say is, we are going to be invisible by our own choices, because of the things we put in our bodies.”
KJ: Earlier, when we were talking, you mentioned how people keep wanting to save the world but they can’t really save themselves. Can you elaborate?
LB: A lot of my friends are part of movements that talk about how our lives are important and how we fight for people to see us as we feel invisible. What I say is, we are going to be invisible by our own choices, because of the things we put in our bodies.
I have a lot of activist friends who are down for the cause but who are then eating the worst things possible, putting fried chicken wings in their bodies while saying “I am down for the cause. Black lives matter and women’s rights matter and children’s right matter. And education is the new civil’s right.” But we are haggard, we are dying of diabetes, we are dying of heart disease. To me, it seems like your lives don’t matter that much to you if what you are putting in your body do not match the words that are coming out of your body.
I think that sometimes you’ll see a two-faced activist. It’s late at night and I have nothing else to eat, so let me go ahead and put these five thousand Doritos in my mouth. Let me go ahead and eat everything in this deli right now. As opposed to “I have to be energetic for the cause, I have to be healthy for the cause.” I mean, being on stage and having all that energy, takes commitment and discipline. I know of many artists who have died from drug overdoses or not taking care of their bodies. Why do we have to live the lifestyle of an artist? That’s stereotypical.
Can’t we be a healthy artist so we can keep producing amazing content? I always fight with my friends about that. Not necessarily fight, but I want to make sure it’s included in the conversation. Making sure health is wealth and that we know that and that we carry that on to the next generations.
“My family inspires me, my mother, my brothers. They are my first inspiration.”
KJ: You said that you want to inspire greatness in others. Can you tell me who inspires you ?
LB: My family inspires me, my mother, my brothers. They are my first inspiration. I looked up to them in every way. My older brothers would always push me to try harder. I got tougher playing sports with them, I got tougher because they trained me to be that way.
My mom was very opinionated and strong-willed. I saw that living in Kentucky stifled her as well. Speaking your mind in Kentucky, you will be ostracized and left out of things because you are not on the same plane. The moment I got to college, I had college mentors as well. They pushed me beyond what I could have ever imagined. One of my college professors, Nathan Fields, told me “Do what you have to do and then leave here. You have to leave here, you have to get out of here.
There are some things that you have to take with you when you go to New York. Don’t forget where you came from, but go, leave. If you have the opportunity to get out of here, do it.” Whenever I felt I was struggling with a class, he was there and it was exactly what I needed. Even though I love my family, no one from my family went to college except for me.
“I thought, if they can do it, I can do it.”
Nobody even really finished high school. I didn’t have people telling me that your education is important. You just finished school, you got a job and you made money. Writers also inspired me. Frank X Walker, for instance, and women like Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, Anna Deavere Smith and Suzan-Lori Parks. Those are all the women that I read when I was in college. I thought, if they can do it, I can do it. They were like my far away mentors.
“As black female vegans, we will always be under-represented, just like we are under-represented in everything else.”
KJ: This reminds me of the importance of role models in general and having someone you can relate to. A friend of ours, Odochi Ibe, wrote an article called “It’s not easy being young, black and vegan” in which she addresses the problem of under-representation of African Americans in the vegan movement. What are your thoughts on that?
LB: I totally agree. I think that in general, whenever you are dealing with a subcategory, there is under-representation. In the food sphere, you have omnivores, vegetarians, vegans etc., that’s what I mean by sub-categories. You will always get lower representation when it comes to sub-categories. I’m a black woman, I’m a black woman from Kentucky, I’m a black woman from Lexington. You can go smaller and smaller down your list.
As black female vegans, we will always be under-represented, just like we are under-represented in everything else. Veganism is only another category to be under-represented in. And again, that is why I make it my business to let people see me and not because I’m so stuck up on myself. I want people to know that this is what I look like. I’m a black vegan, I’m a black vegan woman and I will keep putting it in your face unapologetically.
“I have felt that exact same way too, that I could not make a difference.”
KJ: I often get messages from young people telling me that they don’t think them being vegan would make a difference. Sometimes it’s their own parents who told them that. Since you are a teacher and you work with young people all the time, how would you make them understand that what they are doing matters?
LB: Wow. That’s a big, big question to answer. I’ll talk about what has worked for me. I have felt that exact same way too, that I could not make a difference. First of all, you need to know that people are conditioning you to think that. One of my students that I taught a few years ago is now a senior in high school. She told me that her teachers told her that she would never get into her dream school, Parsons School of Design. And yet, she persisted and she got in.
People are telling you that you can’t do certain things. What I tell my kids is this: Sometimes, you’re going to make people upset, you will. Even your parents may shun or ostracize you, but then you’re going to have to find people that support you and that are going to love you in a way that is going to help you grow. I know sometimes parents are not out there to be hard on their children, but I think that they are so conditioned to think one way. We don’t know what entrepreneurship looks like, we don’t know what making your own money looks like.
We know that you should get a pension and that you should get a 401K and that you should work for somebody else. The reason why kids inspire me so much is that they go for it and they take risks, but I worry that when they get to be older, people will make them believe they can’t make a difference, but they can.
“If I want to break or shatter all of my inhibitions and all the things that I’m scared of, I’m going to make sure I face it and get over it.”
KJ: When you say you want to inspire greatness in others, how do you define greatness?
LB: I think greatness is finding your weakness and then working on making it your strength. For example, If I can’t do a pull up, but I want to, I’m going to keep on doing it until I master it. Or, If I want to run a 5k, I’m going to keep practicing until I get there.
If I want to break or shatter all of my inhibitions and all the things that I’m scared of, I’m going to make sure I face it and get over it. I think that is what greatness is, as well as becoming better at the things you’re already good at. Just keep pushing yourself, keep improving yourself. For me, that’s being a better communicator, being a better educator, being a better model for veganism or being a better model for a working, teaching artist.
It’s living to do what you say you will, not just sitting on your dreams and not doing anything about them. If I’m not committed to my dream, then that’s not greatness. Being great means always striving to be better than your present self.
KJ: Your favorite vegan meal?
LB: There are so many… You can’t go wrong with Thai food. Anything with coconut milk and curry, like a green curry, that’s my favorite. I’m a big fan of kale chips and I can eat a pound of those!
KJ: Your number one piece of advice for someone who is interested in to veganism?
LB: One day at a time.
Find Lacresha on Instagram: @berryandco //All pictures by Kim-Julie Hansen.