As we close out Black History Month, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I want to live and lead my life in a way that centers, celebrates, and honors my Blackness and Black history. A few events this year have pushed me to think about farming, land justice, and reparations work as focuses in my life. I am committing to standing in my truth as a Black person by reclaiming my connection to the land, a connection deeply rooted in my history as a child of the African Diaspora.
Growing up in the Bronx, I was always really confused as a kid visiting my family in Jamaica. It was like entering a whole new universe. I grew up hearing stories of the work my family members did with land – my dad’s grandma grew crops, had a few animals, and ran a business selling her produce in Cambridge. My grandpa on my mom’s side was a fisherman while my grandma managed a garden and made all sorts of tonics from herbs in her surroundings in Old Harbour Bay. In the Bronx, it was hard to imagine these things, but traveling to Jamaica made a whole new world open up.
Picture of my grandma’s house in Cambridge from across the mountain
Visiting more often as an adult, I have noticed there is a different way that people interact and exist with land in Jamaica. Concrete does not swallow up nature, but instead nature seeps out into every landscape and cityscape – with grass and mountains, trees of all kinds, and tons of animals walking around. I’ve seen people walking from door to door offering fresh fruits and vegetables for sale, I’ve experienced meals that were cooked based on what was fresh and available that day. There is nothing like eating fresh mangos, coconuts, or bananas off of trees. In the US, I am used to buying everything I eat – the closest to fresh I come is scooping up some veggies at a farmers market. During my visit to Jamaica last March, I realized how liberating it is for members of my family to have financial independence by growing some of their own goods. Instead of making trips to the grocery store all the time, my family is able to rely on some of their own produce or to exchange food items with neighbors who grow different fruits and vegetables. My experiences in Jamaica pushed me to learn more about land and farming in the US. I am convinced that this movement is the truth for those of us Black folk searching for more in our ways of being in the world.
If you have talked to me since last July I have probably brought up farming and Soul Fire Farm in a conversation. I first learned about Soul Fire from my dear friend Chef Gabriela Alvarez of Liberation Cuisine and I attended the Black and Latinx Farming immersion program last summer. The immersion program is aimed at building the capacity of Black and Latinx farmers to reclaim our connections to the land.
Soul Fire Farm is committed to ending racism and injustice in the food system. We raise life-giving food and act in solidarity with people marginalized by food apartheid. With deep reverence for the land and wisdom of our ancestors, we work to reclaim our collective right to belong to the earth and to have agency in the food system. We bring diverse communities together on this healing land to share skills on sustainable agriculture, natural building, spiritual activism, health and environmental justice. We are training the next generation of activist-farmers and strengthening the movements for food sovereignty and community self-determination.
The fact is that, as a Black person, the thought of farming or working the land would initially make me think of slavery and the subjugation of our people. But in reality Black people across the diaspora have always had a strong connection to land. The stories of my ancestors in Jamaica are just some examples. Black people in the Americas laid the foundation for agriculture as we know it and the use of sustainable, environmentally conscious practices in farming. We are the OG farmers of the world and our ability to live in harmony with nature is amazing.
Some dope facts about Black Brilliance in Farming I’ve learned from Soul Fire:
– Black people created sustainable agricultural practices that are at the forefront of sustainable farming today movements today. Tuskegee Institute created by Booker T. Washington in 1881 educated farmers like George Washington Carver and Booker T. Whatley who developed regenerative agriculture and the CSA.
– Black Farmers have a history of dope organizing. Many freed slaves worked for many years, in climates of growing hostility, tenant farming, sharecropping, and in steel/turpentine industries to save enough cash to buy farms. Political gains during Reconstruction were lost by the 1890s, but by 1910 black farmers had accumulated 218,972 farms and nearly 15 million acres, 14% of the nation’s farmland. Though this number is only around 1% today (because institutionalized racism), I’m pushed to think of the power of organizing and the sacrifices Black farmers made to make gains in the past.
– There are tons of dope Black farmers in the work. Soul Fire Farm is one of the many collectives of farmers of color doing dope shit. I spent the last Saturday of February at Wildseed learning how to tap Maple syrup. There are tons of community farms in NYC like La Finca Del Sur in the Bronx or Community Gardens with Grow NYC
I think about land as bringing together so many topics that are vital to educate students about – history, politics, economics, health and wellness, revolution, exercise, employment, liberation. I didn’t have the language or frameworks to discuss my experiences going between the Bronx and Jamaica as a student. I was seeing two different worlds, but wasn’t sure how to bridge them in my realities. I know many students have the same experiences as they travel to and from their families’ countries over school breaks.
I did not think about farming, agriculture, or environmental science as spaces for myself as a Black woman, but in reality people of color have been living in harmony with the environment FOREVER. Visiting Jamaica and learning more about agriculture there has illuminated how much my people are deeply connected to the land. Additionally, tapping into this ancestral knowledge reveals ways of being that are more positive for health, the world, and strategies that are relevant to sustainable agricultural movements at this time.
As educators, I believe we should empower Black youth and youth of color to take their rightful places in fields related to farming and agriculture. I’ve heard of students going on trips to farms and having great experiences farming because they get to be outdoors, to move around, and feel validated in bringing the knowledge they have about farming to existing environmental spaces. After learning about the ties between racism and food justice, (see this dope article by Soul Fire Co-Director Leah Penniman) Black people have an unmistakable stake in this work and it is crucial to empower our youth to be revolutionary change makers on this front.
I know Black History Month can be liberating but can also be hella depressing and bring up all the feels for Black and Brown children. But we also have to remember that we have the power. It’s in our DNA.
I am certainly not begging for any coffee – I’m gonna demand my land so I can grow my own beans and then sell them to secure my financial independence.