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October 2002
Taking the Lessons My Mother Taught Me to the African-American Community

By Seba Johnson



I am an African-American, the daughter of a Tutsi tribesman from Burundi, Africa, an Olympic alpine skier—and an animal rights activist. If you think this last description doesn’t go with the first three, you aren’t alone. I have devoted my life to sharing a message of compassion with others in my community. I believe that the animal rights movement is vitally important to all people, regardless of their skin color. It is the responsibility of each of us—every man, woman, and child on this planet—to try to lessen the total amount of suffering in our world.

This is the lesson my mother taught me, and it is deep within me now, as important a part of me as my heart. My mother never suggested that African-Americans had too many problems with racism to worry about speciesism. When I was forced to stare the ugliest kind of racism square in the face, her words stayed with me. I was only 14, the youngest alpine ski racer ever and the first black female downhill skier in Olympic history. I knew I was ready for the challenge; I had worked for this opportunity throughout my childhood. But there were some who disagreed. They sent frightening letters warning me that skiing is a “white people’s sport.”

This upset me terribly, but I thought more about other beings and how they might need my help than the ugly attitudes of a few people. My mother taught me and my sister that we must always consider how our actions may affect others. Countless times, she shared with us the story of her life-changing visit to a slaughterhouse. A cow, hung upside down on a slaughterhouse conveyor belt, her eyes blinking with fear, stared at my mother as blood trickled down her body, dripping onto the floor by my mother’s feet. From that moment on, my mother could never eat another animal, and the seeds of my future as an animal rights activist were sown. She raised us as vegans, and as my bones grew strong on this healthy diet, I felt good that I was not taking lives to sustain my own. I looked right through the cellophane packages of meat in the grocery store and saw nothing but misery.

During my high school years, my mother ordered videos from various animal rights organizations and I witnessed unspeakable acts of cruelty—and saw that there were people who were working to stop it. One such video documents animal experimenters in the University of Pennsylvania’s federally funded Head Injury Clinic bashing the heads of primates, and it still haunts me. I can close my eyes and see the faces of two experimenters, laughing at a brain-injured baboon. The monkey looked back and forth at them before her eyes rolled back in her wobbling head. She looked as if she were about to die—or wanted to. When the government pulled this laboratory’s funding, I learned that change is possible.

My mother also taught me to stick by my beliefs, especially when I am in a position to make a difference. It was only natural for me to speak up for animals during my ski racing career. I was disqualified from a 1989 World Cup ski race in Park City for refusing to wear a sponsor’s ski suit because it had wool and a patch of leather on it. The story of my refusing to race received more press coverage than the winner did! I boycotted what would have been my third Olympic Games in 1994 in protest of Norway’s whale-killing. In every interview—with USA Today, Good Morning America, and CNN Sports, for example—I made it a point to attribute my racing ability to my vegan diet: “I’ve never tasted a glass of milk and I’ve never broken a bone,” I’d say.

When I was invited to appear on Burundi government television as the Olympian daughter of a native Tutsi tribesman, I spoke about the hippos who had to cross a busy street when they emerged from Lake Tanganyika to feed. Impatient motorists screamed obscenities, honked their horns, and flashed their lights in the animals’ eyes. How, I asked, could people be in such a hurry that they could forget that the hippos had no choice about where people chose to build streets?

Never turn your back on an animal in need, my mother taught me, both here in America and in Burundi, where we visited my father. She showed me countless roadside zoos, which are sprinkled throughout Africa. It was ironic and heart-breaking to see gazelles languishing in cement pits without shade, when their wild cousins could be seen from any car window bounding through the landscape. Once, several monkeys followed a trail of tangerine peels and climbed through the window of our cab. Examining their lovely, expressive faces, I thought of the video of the baboon who was tragically pummeled to death by a hydraulic device designed only for maiming and killing these remarkable animals.

During my last visit to Burundi, I saw my father for the last time. He died early this year from diabetes. He never shared my mother’s passion for animal rights, and it may have cost him his life. Although many Africans share a diet rich in vegetables and fruits, the same high-fat, high-cholesterol diet that killed my father is creating disastrous health problems for people of African descent everywhere. As part of my outreach, I hope to educate my brothers and sisters about the not-so-great American diet, a nutritional nightmare overloaded with meat and dairy products, and how it has boosted heart disease, stroke, and cancer to the top of the killer list.

I find much to encourage me as I continue my outreach efforts. Speciesism, like racism, is a learned attitude, and both can be unlearned. On my side is the African-American community’s openness to new ways of thinking. Perhaps people who have themselves felt the sting of oppression are more sympathetic to the plight of animals. I have found that African-Americans are more likely to take leaflets, watch videos, or just stop to listen and ask questions. Maybe it’s because we’ve been on the picket lines ourselves that we have respect for others who are protesting injustice.

A perfect example of this openness emerged in a Zogby poll revealing that as many as two-thirds of blacks, compared to 61 percent of Hispanics and 45 percent of whites, said that they were more likely to give up meat and dairy products after hearing that eating meat was linked to life-threatening ailments.

I know this is just the beginning. We owe it to our fellow humans and to the animals to reach out to the African-American community, and I hope that all animal protection groups will do more to bring people of color into their efforts. Animal rights is not a movement for “whites only,” it is a movement that every one of us, regardless of our ethnicity, must embrace. We will be better people for it.

Seba Johnson is a lifetime vegan and the former Coordinator of African-American Outreach for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. She can be contacted at


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