Farming While Black: Part I – African Diasporic Wisdom for Farming and Food Justice

Leah Penniman

Leah Penniman

By Leah Penniman

Leah Penniman is a Black Kreyol farmer, author, mother and food justice activist who has been tending the soil and organizing for an anti-racist food system for over 20 years. Author of “Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land,” she currently serves as founding co-executive director of Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, New York, a people-of-color-led project that works toward food and land justice. Penniman’s keynote address at the 2020 Common Ground Country Fair is available on MOFGA’s YouTube channel. Part I of her speech (edited for length) is included here; a second installment will appear in the spring 2021 issue of The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener.

Our ancestral grandmothers in the Dahomey region of West Africa in the 1600s and 1700s were faced with an uncertain future. They witnessed their family members get kidnapped and forced into ships from which there were no report backs. In the face of that, they had the audacious courage to pick up the seeds of okra, molokhia, cotton, sesame, black-eyed peas; to take these seeds and braid them into their hair, because they believed against odds and in a future of tilling and reaping on soil. They believed that we, their descendants, would exist to inherit that seed.

My belief is not only did they braid the physical seeds, but they also braided the seeds of wisdom around right relationship with lands and human communities. What do I mean by that? So many of our agricultural practices that we often think of as European or ahistorical actually have roots in Afro-Indigenous wisdom: things like cover-cropping, raised beds and terraces; practices like perennial polycultures, rotational grazing of livestock and distributed economic practices like “Konbit.” This is a type of work party where I invite you over one Saturday to plant beans with me, and the next Saturday I’m going to help you plant your beans; the third Saturday, we’re going to help another farmer down the road. In that way, the harvest is also staggered, and we can support each other in that. The host provides the soup and the brass band – in the case of a really challenging task. The proto-credit union, the “Susu,” is another example: We all put in money and lend to each other to make sure that you could buy that cow or put in that new orchard. These technologies – these ways of being in harmony with the lands and in harmony with human communities – actually came with our ancestors in the bowels of those slave ships to the West.

When we arrive in what is now the United States, we see that there’s a really different food system. It’s not reliant on interdependence between humans and the earth, and humans and one another. Rather the colonized West has racial disparities and racial exploitation built into the food system from the very beginning, whether you’re looking at land, labor, ecology, capital or food. This is not an accident; it’s not that the food system is broken. It was designed this way, with stolen lands and exploited labor as part of its DNA.

A History of Oppression

Let’s explore a little bit of that history. We have to actually go all the way back to 1455 when Pope Nicholas put out a decree called the Doctrine of Discovery, which said that Christian nations had the authority to loot and enslave non-Christian nations. The decree justified the attempted genocide of Indigenous people and stealing 1 ½ billion acres of land. That land is what many of us cultivate today. Unless you’re an Indigenous person of Turtle Island, you are on occupied and stolen land.

The Doctrine of Discovery is not old news. It’s been upheld by the Supreme Court many times, even by our beloved Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2005 against the Oneida Nation. Once a white Christian puts down a flag, that land becomes property of that white Christian and their society; Indigenous people, fundamentally, are not allowed to have sovereignty and those rights.

Stolen land became one of the pillars of the U.S. food system. The other pillar is stolen labor. We know that 12 ½ million Africans survived the kidnapping and forced journey across the Atlantic; many more perished in the sea. People, contrary to popular mythology, weren’t snatched up because they had strong backs and strong biceps, but because they were agricultural experts. We know that the climate in Northern Europe was frigid; growing crops like cotton, sugarcane, tobacco and rice was the purview of Indigenous people of Africa. They were experts in this. Slavers would specifically target, for example, the Mende and the Wolof, who were rice growers, to bring them to the Carolinas to establish that multi-trillion-dollar rice industry.

At the end of chattel slavery, the South was in a freak-out, essentially, because their free labor source was being threatened. There was emancipation. There was the potential for Black people to start their own businesses and their own farms. A new series of laws, called the Black Codes, made it illegal to do things that previously were overlooked. Things like loitering: That means hanging around. Things like vagrancy: That means not having a job or, specifically, not having a year-long contract on a plantation farm. It was even a crime to be “not upright and honest” – the punishment for which was to have your children taken away and apprenticed to their former masters. With all of these new laws on the books, the prisons quickly filled with Black people, not for actual crimes but for imagined crimes. Then these people were leased back to the plantations, the railroads and the mines to work for free – doing the work that they were formally doing under chattel slavery under the new system of convict leasing.

Those who were not forced to work on the plantations through incarceration were toiling under a debt peonage system called sharecropping. This system was so insidious that more sharecroppers actually found themselves in deeper poverty at the end of the year than at the beginning. They worked an entire year – 80-hour weeks out in the field – and actually had less money at the end, when they paid off their debts, then at the beginning. You’re not allowed to leave the farm if you still have a debt – you’d go to debtor’s prison. Sharecroppers ended up being trapped in a form of neo-slavery.

Black Farmers on the Land

Despite all this Black people still had a yearning to own their own lands. Black farmers saved up money from working extra jobs, in addition to their cotton farming, and were able to purchase, by 1910, almost 16 million acres of land. Albeit these were often small parcels – 2-5 acres of marginal land – but it still was their own. They were able to start to have some modicum of independence. This was a threat to the status quo of the sharecroppers and the plantation owners. The Klu Klux Klan, the White Caps and the White Citizens’ Council burned down the homes of these farmers. They lynched people and drove people off the lands. There are over 4,000 cases, that we know about, where land was seized in a violent manner. This became a push factor for the Great Migration when 6 million African-Americans fled the rural South to the urban North and Midwest, seeking some respite from the violence.

Of course not all black farmers fled to the North. Many stayed in the South – in the Carolinas and Georgia – and tried to hold onto their land and businesses. There was, tragically, a new enemy against the Black farmer: the government itself. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is responsible for lending loans to farmers for technical assistance, crop allotments, crop insurance and other programs that support farmers – but Black farmers were systematically denied access to these programs.

If you went to register to vote, if you signed a petition, if you joined the NAACP, you could be pretty sure that your loan application would be thrown into the trash. In the times of drought or a pest outbreaks, if you couldn’t get a loan to install your irrigation and to get the extra equipment, that could mean foreclosure. USDA discrimination became the leading way that Black farmers started losing their land throughout the mid-1900s into the 1980s. The consequence of Black land loss was not only the loss of these businesses and farms, but also generational wealth – 80% of wealth in this country comes through inheritance, mostly through property. Some calculations show that at least $120 billion of generational wealth was lost to the Black community through the forcible dispossession of land.

One of the major ways that systemic racism in the food system has perpetuated itself is through redlining, which started in the 1930s when the federal government commissioned maps that ranked neighborhoods from most desirable for banks to lend to down to the least desirable. Black and Brown communities were outlined in red – indicating do not lend to these communities. This prevented Black families, who were moving north, from getting their own homes and establishing businesses. Because you couldn’t own a home within the red lines, you were subject to absentee landlords and unscrupulous lenders – and you were excluded from being able to build wealth through property ownership.

Racism and the Food System

Today farm labor is predominantly Brown and Black. Over 85% of the people who bend their backs over every day – to tend the fields, to harvest – are people of color. These farm workers, especially in the age of multiple pandemics, are essential, essential workers, yet are not treated as essential human beings in terms of adequate rest, labor protections, protection from wage theft and sexual abuse on the job, personal protective equipment (PPE) and access to information in their native language. We have a food system that would fundamentally collapse without them, and yet we have not figured out how to get away from that DNA of stolen land and exploited labor in our food system.

Almost all of the farmland is white-owned. In fact, in the 2017 USDA census, depending if you count by acreage or by land value, between 95 and 98% of the arable land in this country is white-owned. That’s worse than it ever was. You can probably tell by now – based on this whole history of forced expulsion of Indigenous people, of forced expulsion of Black people through house burnings, lynchings and government discrimination – it is not an accident that the land ownership is concentrated in this way. And I believe that the way that we treat one another in our human community is also echoed in the way we treat the earth.

It’s no surprise that industrial agriculture is a leading driver of climate change, water withdrawals, water pollution, conversion of wildlife habitat into managed habitat and of biodiversity loss. Industrial agriculture is one of the most important factors that we need to address when we talk about continuing to live and breathe and thrive on this sacred planet earth. It’s not that we don’t know how to farm in a way that honors the earth and honors one another. Remember those seeds that were braided into our ancestors’ hair before being forced to board transatlantic slave ships? We know how to do it, but – in the name of racial capitalism, in the name of concentration of wealth and power, in the name of domination of the earth – our society has chosen a very, very dangerous path.

We see this even more exacerbated in the time of multiple pandemics. We have COVID. We have wildfire. We have police violence. We have despotism. This is highlighting the already existing cracks in the industrial food system and in racial capitalism. We are seeing disproportionate burdens of disease falling on communities who were already hungry, and on farm workers who were already struggling to get food to all of our tables. We see the disproportionate impacts on Black communities in terms of being over-policed and subject to police violence.

This is a time, I believe, of awakening. My hope is that it is not just a fad or trend to care about Black lives, to care about the earth and to care about local food systems, but it is a permanent awakening and a permanent call to action that will catalyze us into that next phase of justice and sustainability.

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