Sunday, October 3, 2010

Understanding Freedom Farmers

My love and desire to study black farmers grew organically, so to speak.  I come from a family of African American urban farmers, yet never called ourselves such, the farmer part that is….My Dad moved to Detroit from Mobile, Alabama.  We always had a garden in the backyard and he would often enter into friendly contests with neighbors over who could grow the best looking produce.  My Mom is from Eden, North Carolina and was raised on farm land.  She was one of her generation whose parents grew the farm and sent their children off to faraway places for higher education.  My paternal Grandma grew food in her apartment before there was a term for container gardening.  Every year, my sister’s green thumb was demonstrated by the best tomatoes in the neighborhood.  She often threatens to sit armed at the end of the driveway to catch people helping themselves to her hard-earned harvest! 

As an undergraduate I became fascinated by African American women activist’s autobiographies.  My love for the autobiographies of Angela Davis and Assata Shakur developed my understanding of the formation of an activist identity and political engagement over the lifecycle and across the world.  While preparing my dissertation for publications, I decided to compare the autobiographies of South African women activists, who were engaged in dismantling Apartheid.  Many comparisons were evident; what I marinated on was the consistent reference to gardens as a community space where social responsibility and political education were allowed to blossom (I know, that one slipped).  Gardening was used as a troupe, especially in African American women’s writing.  I immediately thought of Alice Walker’s powerful quote, “Guided by my heritage of a love of beauty and a respect for strength--in search of my mother's garden, I found my own.”  I knew, before I moved back to Detroit many years later, that my research interests would investigate the nature and functions of community gardens in urban areas.  Still, I had NO idea this road would lead me where it has!!

In 2006, I met Baba Malik Yakini of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN) while organizing a conference that commemorated the 40th anniversary of the Detroit Rebellion of 1967.  This conference organizing group of mostly activists, exposed me to many Detroit legends whose work I had admired for many years.  

My introduction to DBCFSN was one of those moments that scholars rarely come across.  I approached the group and discussed my research project and my desire to study black farmers in Detroit. Baba Malik was clear on how I could be of assistance to the organization and he listed the intellectual and institutional support that he thought the group needed and that I could provide.  At my first meeting, they asked me questions that were swift, probing, thoughtful, and clearly demonstrated their knowledge of the research process and a desire to understand my approach to the work to which they had been committed.   

The beginning of a beautiful relationship!!  I am so grateful for DBCFSN’s acceptance of me into their family and their willingness to entrust me to relay their stories and take their voices to political, academic and activist places.  While we were in Milwaukee, I was given the title of “Garden Griot,” one that I promise to honor.  I feel especially grateful that they are willing to share their experiences as activists/farmers with me. 

There are many things that listening to my farmers has taught me.  I never approached the group as if I was the authority, I was always the student.  I asked questions about their motivation for gardening and about their access to healthy food.  What they told me and what I learned has changed my life and the way I view the world.  Asking questions about their motivation to farm/garden they told me about the obvious connection between farming and resistance.  Their actions were clearly about food security and connecting food to liberation.  While yes, they are concerned about neighborhood beautification and increasing access to clean and healthy food, they accepted their role as stewards of the environment and engage in farming as a demonstration of a community-based, food system model that could translate to community-based control of education, public safety and so many other social issues that Detroiters face.   

One of my favorite quotes from Assata Shakur’s autobiography fully describes my work as an academic/activist in this food justice movement. “I actually believed then and still believe that activism is fun! I think that the movement has done more for me as a human being than I will ever be able to do for the movement....I think that being an activist on this planet is a privilege and a pleasure.”