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Race, Food, and Justice: Decolonizing the Collective Black Relationship to Land

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September 23, 2020

Race, Food, and Justice:

Decolonizing the Collective Black Relationship to Land

*Part I of a potential series* 

With lockdown and social distancing in effect due to quarantine, time was in abundance. We were all forced to travel inwards and explore our repressed and procrastinated passions and projects, whether that be home renovations or baking bread. I was no exception to this and took time this summer to finally invest in a skill set that has been on my heart for many years: farming.

Okra from my farm

I set up my little “Black Eden” in my backyard, tilling the soil, sowing seeds, and tending to my okra and tomatoes. I saw my own hands amongst the blackness of the Earth and smelled the freshness of the soil, and I would feel inspired. Of course, there was a learning curve, but eventually, my farm ended up being a place of solace amidst the madness of the pandemic.

Reveling in the therapeutic benefits, I would casually wonder why more Black folks don’t do this (I can see now how this question lacks the nuance and care needed for the history of the answer, but this is where I was at the time). Coincidentally, in a book I was reading during my farming endeavors, The Stars and The Blackness Between Them by Junauda Petrus, the author touches on the Black community’s detachment from the land. “Black folks should know how to grow our own food, even if the white man done made us associate being with the land with being slaves. Our ancestors lived with the land and grew their own medicine and food, and we trying to teach y’all how to love and be comfortable with the land.” This only furthered my curiosity in attempting to understand Black folks relationship to land and the ways in which we can decolonize the narratives of our history.

The Stars and The Blackness Between Them by Junauda Petrus

I’ll be using the end of the Civil War as a starting point. However, it’s crucial to acknowledge that Black folks began to face adversity in relation to land theft dating back to the genocide of Black indigenous communities as a result of European colonialism that ravaged the American continents during the 1400s. Post-Civil War, a military order known as Special Field Order No. 15 was legislated to set aside land on the northeast coast for formerly enslaved Black Americans, as an attempt to redistribute land. This is what we know as “40 acres and a mule”. This order was reversed by President, at the time, Andrew Johnson, forcing Black Americans into sharecropping as a means of earning money and buying their own land. These institutionally created inequities in Black land ownership continued for the next 150 years.

Through resiliency and assistance from proponents of Black agricultural education, like Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver, Black land ownership saw its peak in 1910, amassing 14 million acres of land. By the 21st century, 90 percent of that land was lost due to the Great Migration, when Black folks fled the terrorism in the South to the more industrial North and were sectioned off into racially marked ghettos with very little land or ownership. A lesser-known part of the story is the Black southerners who remained down South and tried to hold onto their land, attempting to work with a legal system designed to disenfranchise them at every stop.

Today, most farm subsidies go to white farmers, who make up 90 percent of the agricultural workforce. This has been sustained by racist and discriminatory USDA laws and practices. Only 1 percent of rural land is owned by Black folks today. Additionally, in urban spaces, gentrification, white flight, and redlining have continued to fracture and displace Black communities in American cities for generations. It’s through these conditions that we see “food apartheids,” a term coined by food justice advocate and urban farmer, Karen Washington, to describe the multiple intersecting social inequalities that exist throughout the food system, like race, geography, health, and economics. I prefer this expression over “food desert,” which generally refers to communities with limited access to food, but it fails to describe who is primarily impacted by this and how.

External barriers aside, I have observed a mental resistance to being with the land amongst many Black folks. How many times have we heard “Black people don’t do that” in reference to just about any outdoor activity? As Junauda Petrus alludes to in her novel, there is this idea that agricultural work is akin to slavery and thus, regression (which is a conversation that’ll involve a deeper analysis into one’s respectability politics, but I’ll save that for another day.) Unfortunately, Black folks have learned to be disconnected from the land as a result of inherited generational trauma from the oppression we’ve experienced.

Our ancestors knew that land served not only as a source of income but as a foundation of physical safety and familial stability over generations. Land and “food sovereignty”, a term founded by indigenous people in Central and South America, function as key components to survival and freedom. The people in power know this too, and that’s why they deny us access to these basic human rights so vehemently. This is no accident.

Black folks share a rich history of growing food and having farmers markets, where the community gathers and food is shared from neighbor to neighbor, and knowledge is passed down from the elders to the younger generations, but now we’ve been so far removed. Yet, it is never really out of reach. Despite the many injustices in our food system, power and resources can be shifted to the communities most impacted.

photo from @blackpeoplegrow on instagram

So how do we go about attaining land sovereignty? To start, a demand for reparations is in order. Reparations has a controversial connotation, but I encourage you to look more into its applications and learn how attainable it really is. America can never atone for the harm they’ve done to the Black community, nor can they really ever address the gap in wealth, power, and access. However, reparations in the form of redistribution of wealth and resources is a place to start. Black folks at Soul Fire Farm have already begun this work and created a Reparation Demand, an online tool where Black and Brown farmers and land stewards can get direct support for their projects. 

Concurrently, we need to rewrite our narratives for ourselves. This colonization of our communities and mentalities is not our fault, but it is our responsibility to eradicate. We can acknowledge the harm and violence that our people have experienced by the hands of white colonialism without a rejection of our own cultural practices. Our relationship with the land predates white supremacy and will be present long after it’s gone. A quote by Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm resonates so deeply with me: “I think of my ancestral grandmothers, who braided seeds into their hair before being forced onto Trans-Atlantic slave ships so that I could have seeds, right? And that horror is unimaginable to me, of that moment. And if they didn’t give up on us, right, then who am I to sort of lay down my hoe right now and give up on my descendants?”

The impact that land sovereignty has goes beyond learning how to grow your own produce and never spending another dollar at the grocery store. When we practice this sovereignty, we give ourselves a meaningful opportunity to connect with the land and our roots. We can tend to the Earth in the same way it has always tended to us, and in that, we can find healing. 

Additional resources & Black Farmers to Follow:
Three Rivers Agricultural Land Initiative (TRALI)
Soul Fire Farm Action Steps
Exploring Racial Equity and Access in Our Food System: History, Land Access, and Race
Farming While Black

Karen Washington
Ron Finley “The Gangsta Gardener”
Leah Penniman
Garden Marcus

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