Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Sisters of the Soil

A recent program on NPR discussed the growing numbers of women farmers in the US.  I guess for some that might be news.  For those of us versed in African/African-American history or engaged in urban ag in Detroit, this is far from a public service announcement.  Historically, Black women’s participation in agriculture has until recently been consistent in the struggle to provide healthy food for their families.  Black women have fought for the right to grow food to supplement the diets and the pocketbooks of Black families for many generations.  Unearthing herstories of black women farmers allows us to recognize the work of some of the sistahs engaged in the urban gardening movement here in Detroit.

The women active in the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN) have been affectionately, and even secretly, called, “the Queens Council.”  If the mainstream newspaper or television is your source for information, you would most definitely miss them.  If you are waiting on the documentaries on agriculture in Detroit to tell their stories once again, the voices of black women will be notably and noticeably absent, but we don’t need traditional media to tell us who our sheroes are.
The “Queens Council,” teaches us a few lessons about gardening as resistance through understanding their work in the current urban agriculture movement.
Redefining Resistance
The women of DBCFSN define gardening as an act of resistance.  The lack of access to healthy food in Detroit, combined with the amount of available vacant land, and the agrarian roots of the African community, these women activists take matters into their own hands, both literally and figuratively.  Instead of going to the local government or to market officials, (ie.,those who make decisions on store locations based on demographics) these women view gardening, taking unoccupied land and turning that land into a community-based food system as a demonstration of agency and a response against the various forms of racial and class oppression that a lack of food access demonstrates.
What Do They Resist?
The Queens Council resists the “frankenfood” that is found in the neighborhood liquor, party, and convenience stores, the food that is killing us.  They resist fast, fried food, unhealthy processed food, packages with ingredients that cannot be pronounced, translated, or defined.   They resist food grown with, cooked with and preserved in chemicals whose health implications are still undetermined making us the first generation of gastronomic guinea pigs.  They resist the sense of abandonment that our neighborhoods, with vacant houses and empty lots and absent services illustrate.  They resist apathy.  They resist not being asked about the kind of food local stores should carry and about the process used to grow and deliver the food to market.  They resist markets that carry food that mysteriously will not rot, that lacks an expiration date and that may ultimately outlive us.
Planting gardens demonstrates agency by creating options, healthy food options, where previously few existed.  They are co-opting a part of the food system by placing themselves in control of determining what they eat, what their children eat, how that food is grown and prepared and who benefits from the sale of it.  They resist by transforming neighborhoods and communities, they create safe, greenspaces, places where there is laughter, learning, healing and living.  They resist when they use the garden to teach young children to hear and fall in love with the sounds of their voices, voices of laughter and resistance.