It looks lively for a class that started with dead women. It’s 6 p.m. on a Tuesday, the end of a workday for most people. But more than 50 women trickling into the gymnasium at Weeping Willow AME Zion Church on Milton Road, in Charlotte, N.C., are charged up and ready to go. They’re laughing, joking, waving and greeting. They’re wearing everything from sweats to office clothes. The Charlotte Observer reported that they range from retired women with silver hair to working women with kids in tow, and every body type from trim to obese.
What brought them here is Denise Hairston and her free, six-week course on lifestyle change: a combination of exercise, nutrition advice, cooking demonstrations and recipes that turn soul food on its head by taking out the frying and the meat.
What brought Hairston here are the dead women. They were women in her family, and they all died within six years of each other, starting in 1998. Her grandmother one year, her mother the next. One aunt two years later, the other two years after that. “I was shocked,” she says. “They all died so suddenly.”
She was living in her native St. Louis at the time, and when her second aunt died, it hit her: “Something’s wrong. Black women aren’t supposed to be dying.”
Hairston is a financial planner, not a health professional. But all that loss drove her to do something. Her loved ones had died of different things: lung cancer, heart disease, kidney failure. But it was really all the same thing — preventable lifestyle diseases. “I replayed my family and my family history. My aunt who drank a case of Pepsi every day. Why wouldn’t I think she would die of kidney failure?”
Hairston describes her family as a typical middle-class, African-American family in the 1950s and 1960s. Her parents left Tennessee for opportunities in the Midwest. Her dad drove a Greyhound bus and her mom raised the kids and cooked the way she knew — lots of fat, frying and meat. Trips back to Tennessee were total soul food immersion: biscuits, fried chicken, rice and gravy. And that was just breakfast. “We had comfort food every day. It was killing us, but we didn’t know that.”
Hairston became a vegetarian by starting slowly, cutting out red meat first, then chicken, and finally fish. She learned the value of gradual change. Before her mother died, Hairston would get her to try healthier recipes. “I saw with my mother that women want to change. They want to find an easy — not easy, because it isn’t easy — but a comfortable way to do it.”
In St. Louis, Hairston and a small group of friends started getting together to cook and share healthier ways to do things. Friends invited friends and the group grew to 20 and then 25 women. Hairston loves to cook and talk, so she’d show how to change dishes to cut the fat and cholesterol, taking familiar recipes and swapping meat for soy-based substitutes and boosting flavor with low-sodium seasonings. They formed a nonprofit group called the Black Women’s Health Network, modeled on the Washington-based Black Women’s Health Imperative. They put together a 31-page manual that took women through a six-week course, focusing on three problems: diet, lack of exercise and stress. Stress is a big one, Hairston says. Culturally, Black women often lead their families.
“The mother runs everything. Even if she doesn’t work outside the home, she runs it all. The father, the house, the children.”
The course was shaped by what Hairston knew women want: they want to socialize and support each other. They want to make changes that don’t feel too steep. They want familiar food. “It’s important that it is cultural, that it’s African-American women approaching African-American women,” she says.
Back in St. Louis, Hairston — who will only say that she is in her 50s — went through a few changes. She divorced and she opened a restaurant, the Lifestyles Café, with soul-tinged, mostly vegetarian food. It suffered from a tough location, on the outer edge of St. Louis’ Delmar Loop near historically Black Blueberry Hill, and it closed after a year. By that time, one of Hairston’s daughters was married and living in Charlotte.
“Everyone said, ‘You should come, you’d love it,’” Hairston says. She came to Charlotte three years ago, throwing herself into the community. She got the Black Women’s Health Network restarted here and put together Meatless Soul Food, a self-published cookbook and a DVD of simple cooking demonstrations. She really wanted to keep the lifestyle course going. So she approached African-American churches by writing to both the church health coordinator and — more importantly — to the “first lady,” the wife of the pastor. “That makes a huge difference,” she says. “If the first lady says, ‘This class needs to be done,’ then it will be done.”
Her first taker was Pleasant Hill AME Zion, where the pastor found money to pay for the class last fall. Now she is teaching two classes, on Tuesdays for women at Weeping Willow AME Zion Church and Greenville Memorial AME Zion, and on Saturdays at Greater Salem City of God. Both are supported by grants from the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association, with money from the Merancus Foundation, which supports local health initiatives. Hairston says it is important to her that the classes be free for members. She uses the grants to pay the people who help, including local registered dietitians and exercise trainers from Nettie Reeves’s N’shape with’N.
At the class on a recent Tuesday, Hairston swept a small group of volunteers into the kitchen to cook barbecued tofu, vegetarian collard greens, smothered turnips, potato salad and vegan cornbread. Meanwhile, 30 or 40 other women crowded around the kitchen pass-throughs and shouted encouragement. Grace Hines from N’shape got them out on the gym floor, shouting, dancing and marching for 20 minutes. Dietitian Allison Mignery reviewed food journals and praised the women for eating more vegetables and drinking more water. Everyone sampled the night’s dishes. The vegetarian collards got high marks, the barbecue tofu not so much.
“If I had Oprah’s cook and I could come home to it, I could do this,” Brenda Cofield joked.
Hairston sent everyone off with words of encouragement, assuring them they’re doing the right things. “I love this,” she says. “This is what I’m going to do until I die.”