Friday, January 17, 2014

Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement

I wanted to contextualize the current work of Black Farmers in Detroit who are using a community/cooperative approach to re-build our city from the ground up. I became interested in understanding other moments when Black Farmers have engaged agriculture to build community. After lots of digging, I discovered the importance of agricultural cooperatives as a critical strategy used by Black Farmers dating back to the late 1880s. I also noticed that their contributions to the over century-long Black Freedom Movement had been largely ignored by academic and activist communities.

An analysis of Black Freedom Struggles offers gendered experiences and contributions, charismatic leaders, preachers, students, Black social/political institutions like the church, sites and locations of resistance like employment, lunch counters, schools and the voting booth. I was left with questions: What were/are the contributions of Black Farmers to the Black Freedom Movement and where are their stories?

I asked a few founding members of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives to describe the contributions of Farmers to the Movement. They all pointed me to Lowndes County (You wouldn't believe how much I love Lowndes County). They told me about the Gardner family, Black landowners who allowed Freedom Riders to camp on their land. Not only were they able to stay there, but they were also fed. In Lowndes and in other places throughout the south, they spoke of others who posted their land to bail civil rights activists out of jail.

They also spoke about the self-determination of a Farmer, the autonomy and the freedom to take a stand. Even more clear was that the success of Black Farmers wasn't a selfish, individual or independent endeavor, it was communal. Black Farmers often played a critical role in developing the community through social and political institutions, such as offering land and building schools, banking and micro-lending arrangements, health care and newsletters that were informative but also used for literacy. They shared resources and bought land together, shared tools and planted on the moon cycle to get the biggest harvest for the highest profit. They created these agricultural cooperatives that helped care for their families but also build their communities. This self-determination reminds me of a quote that Ms. Fannie Lou often said, as long as she had a 'pig and a garden' no one could tell her what to do. These stories validated what I had long suspected in the hours spent in the archives. They made clear the relationship between land, food and freedom for Black Farmers. They lived, breathed, planted and harvested dreams of freedom and self-sufficiency.

My goal in researching and writing Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement is to offer scholarship that challenges the persistent frame of agriculture as a site of oppression (i.e., slavery, sharecropping and tenant farming). The richness and complexity that is our agricultural history can be detailed from a place of resistance. These are the stories that I heard in the work of Black Farmers in Lowndes County, Alabama; Holmes County, Mississippi; and Detroit, my very own hometown.

These are the stories that I cannot wait to share with you.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014


I joined a 30-day challenge as a method of accountability to revive this blog, one of my commitments for 2014. There have been many changes in my life and the breadth of this research project. I have a new job with lots of intellectual and community support for our work. I've broadened the topic and I've met some incredible people to whom I am eternally indebted. Please know that I have thought of you often on my many research trips. I've decided to use this space to share with you some of my experiences, important stories, places and people who continue to influence my thinking on this work. I want you to meet those who live this life, as Black Farmers, community activists, and others whose efforts strive toward increasing access to healthy food, a power position in the food system and those whose very lives demonstrate the relationship between land, food and freedom, those I call Freedom Farmers. 

Saturday, June 25, 2011

New sites and strategies of resistance

Reconsidering What Resistance Looks Like

Many academics have focused on pickets, marches and boycotts as strategies of social movements and resistance.  Charles Tilly defined a social movement as, “a series of contentious performances, displays and campaigns by which ordinary people make collective claims on others.”  Tilly and other movement scholars have focused their attention on formal, structured, and organizational strategies as demonstrations of resistance.  In the process, they have missed some strategies that are defined as such by those who participate in them.

Gardening is one such form of resistance that has completely flown below the radar.  Six years ago I was laughed at when I told folks that I studied urban gardening in Detroit.  When I talked about my research on black farmers and the struggle for the right to grow food, people often asked me, “What are they fighting?  How is this resistance?  Where are the picket signs, the protest marches and the rallies?”  Allowing activists to define their own behavior and connect their actions to causes unearths a significance and a meaning to their behavior that would otherwise go unnoticed. 

Freedom farmers in Detroit challenge current definitions of resistance. Their work demands that movement scholars reconsider what resistance looks like and how it is performed.  Farming and gardening are not directly confrontational with the power structure, however freedom farmers define gardening as a resistance strategy.  Their work is internally transformative not only for themselves, but for their families and their communities in three ways:  healthy living and the production of healthy food, building community through the food system and cooking as resistance.

Healthy Living as Resistance

In a sedentary culture where people drive to get across the street, healthy living can be seen as resistance.  These farmers resist by exercising on the farm, a type of exercise that was universally apart of human existence before handing the provision of food to big agricultural companies and the popularity of manufactured environments like health clubs.  Freedom farmers direct their attention inward, toward repairing their health by growing healthy food using sustainable growing practices, and by transforming neglected, abandoned lots into healthy, vibrant, green, urban spaces developed for exercise and healthy food.  These lots were once overgrown with weeds and unkempt.  People walked out of their way in order to avoid them.  Today, they are filled with artwork, children’s gardens, laughter and play.  

Community Building as Resistance

People would never see a group of gardeners and think, “Wow, I wonder what they are protesting?”  The question should not be what are they fighting, rather the question should be what are they building.  They are re-building the community around a food system.  One way of doing this is by working the garden/farm and producing healthy, organic food.  Another way of community building is by working together and getting to know their neighbors.  They participate in collective decision making about what should happen in these new “common” areas.  It is in this movement that we witness the process of moving from individuals who live in the same neighborhood, yet who barely know each other, to people who have become neighbors.  They start talking to each other, they engage in collective problem solving, they develop a sense of social responsibility.  They come together and begin to search for ways that they can help each other…not to mention intergenerational interaction in one space where youngins’ and elders come together.  Elders offer a wealth of knowledge and kids keep them young… now that’s revolutionary!!! 

Another community building strategy through farming is in knowing, supporting and buying from folks in their own neighborhood.  Freedom farmers prioritize respectful and mutually rewarding relationships with the people responsible for the food they eat through all of the various stages of the food system.  The slogan, “know your farmer” for them is revolutionary.  We are so disconnected from the names, the faces and the stories of those who are responsible for one of life’s essentials, our daily bread.  Other behaviors they consider as resistance include buying and growing wholesome foods, neighborhood and communal dining experiences are examples of resistance for them. 

Cooking as Resistance

Freedom farmers also define other food-related behaviors, not traditionally identified as a resistance strategy, as such.  Americans dine out an average of 4-5 times a week.  The numbers are higher for poor people and communities of color.  Freedom farmers define cooking as an act of resistance.  They see the dinner table as an everyday harvest festival to pay homage to all who played a role in bringing the food from field to plate.  They see the act of cooking as a labor of love, saying to all who dine here, “I love you so much I cooked for you.” It would be safe to say that if you cook as a display of love, the food, in some way, is not only an expression of that love but also, in some way, feeds you almost like Popeye and his spinach.  

Growing up, my mother always told me to be conscious of those who prepared your food.  Their energy, she said, would be transferred to you.  I remember a scene in the book, Like Water for Chocolate where the emotions of the chef were transferred through the food to the consumer literally!!  If you look in the kitchens of many restaurants people work in challenging conditions, they are often not treated with respect.  They do not earn a living wage and there is often an impermanence in their employment.  Can you imagine the 
emotions that they experience???  

I have always found the garden as a place of peace and tranquility.  I love that the garden is a site for resistance and the act of gardening, now defined as a resistance strategy.  It is powerful to witness people create systems and structures that work to their benefit instead of participating in systems that were developed to oppress them.  I’m sure that in many ways this gardening revolution and the creative strategies that people enact in order to transform urban spaces will have academics coming up with new questions and innovative ways to address them. 

Most academic discussions portray oppressed people as being reactionary, implying that people react to conditions like police brutality, the foreclosure crisis, or even the location and health implications of an incinerator.  It describes a model that shows activists as waiting for something to happen and then they react.  This model neither appreciates nor does it respect a community’s ability to address community problems using community-based solutions.  What I LOVE about this work is that given the city's history, Detroiters brilliantly finesse a series of unfortunate situations and are currently using these conditions to their advantage and improvement.  By creating alternative systems of food delivery, one in which they are in control, they will not have to “react” to a lack of food, nor will they be at the mercy of the market, contractors or opportunist politicians who see this as the cause célèbre.

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.  

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.”

Friday, September 17, 2010

Black voices in food justice

Unearthing African American voices in food justice

Just returned from the Growing Power’s “Small Farm and Urban Agriculture” conference in Milwaukee with Will Allen and I have confirmed a few things. First, I realize that there really is a “Good Food Revolution.” There are many who believe in the importance of locally grown, high quality food using sustainable (regenerative) practices.  Second, there are many soldiers in this revolution.  People come to identify with this movement from a variety of perspectives such as health and wellness, concern for the environment, neighborhood beautification, youth intervention and food justice/security.  Some of the reasons for their mobilization are that locally grown food is often healthier, especially when eaten within days of being harvested.  Local foods are better for the environment, particularly when organic pesticides and fertilizers are being used.  Gardens and gardeners are symbiotic.  They are mutually really beautiful and illustrate in the power of working together.  With the increase of gardens and farms, especially in urban areas, there is a resurgence in public art and green spaces that were once considered vacant, abandoned and eyesores.  There are few folks who would argue against developing gardens and farms, the vast majority of citizens see the benefit of the importance of this movement and there are many believers.

I am grateful to be among those who see the community benefits of urban agriculture.  I have also returned from Growing Power more determined to engage and unearth the voices of African Americans in the battle for food justice and food security.  There are many reasons that African American communities have been and are critical to the resurgence of urban agriculture.  I can only touch on a few.

1)  Here is what we know:  Race influences access to clean and healthy food.  Known as the grocery store gap or the supermarket shortage, among communities with similar demographics such as education, income and occupation, but differ in terms of race, African Americans are less likely than whites to have access to grocery stores (if we call that access to clean and healthy food, but that is another blog!).  In an earlier post, I mentioned that in 2002 article in the American Journal of Public Health findings show that 32% of white census tracts (neighborhoods) have at least one supermarket, only 8% of African American census tracts have one supermarket.  Poor neighborhoods have 55% of the grocery store square footage of  wealthier neighborhoods.  Given these harsh realities, there is no wonder that African Americans suffer most from diet related illnesses.  Preventable diseases such as hypertension, heart disease and diabetes are “preventable.”  These illnesses are progressive and debilitating and can be avoided.  Ashley’s data finds that gardeners/farmers consume 3-5 times more fruits and veggies than their non farming counterparts…that’s substantial.  Urban agriculture offers a space for exercise and improved access to clean and healthy food with the potential to prevent or reverse the damage caused by unhealthy diets.

2)  African Americans are critical to urban agriculture as collectively, we must be at the forefront of the food justice/food security movement to challenge the racial and economic oppression that contributes to food insecurity.  Many of those who fight, organizationally, for food justice and food security are not those who experience food insecurity.   Look around many of the meetings for food justice and those looking back at you are rarely faces of people of color.  How can it be that those who experience food insecurity are not present at these meetings?  One reason is that African Americans are often engaged in forms of resistance with others who share race as a collective identity.  Often these acts of resistance take place within the context of African American organizations, such as Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, affectionately called the “Black Panther Party of the food justice movement”.  Is the presence of African Americans in interracial organizations enough? Of course not.  In order to respond to the social realities and conditions of communities of color, people who experience these conditions must be at the forefront of these movements, it is through demonstrations of agency and being in control of their own liberation are those who are oppressed able to create structures and institutions that respect their humanity. 

3)  The third reason that African Americans are essential to the urban agriculture movement is that through this movement, we are the ones transforming our neighborhoods and we are able to point to the farm as an example of what could be.  In my interviews with D-Town farmers, what is important is that not only do farms represent self-determination, these farms are a visible example of what happens when people pull together to change their environment, to change their reality and to come up with solutions for the conditions they experience.  These urban gardens, providing spaces for social interactions, with the urban art projects, with the community activities that take place like blood pressure/diabetes screening and education, operate as an oasis, a green space within our cities for healing.  The farm has become a tangible example of collective work, self-reliance and political agency.  In repurposing this vacant land, D-Town activists are engaged in reviving a city left behind by racism, poverty, politicians, the automobile industry, merchants, supermarkets and grocers who once serviced Detroit residents, one plot at a time.

African American farmers are revolutionaries!  In spite of everything, the odds, the hard work, the struggle and the challenges, they are reclaiming their responsibility as stewards of the environment.  Through their work, the earth becomes a food source, a community center, a hospital, a social network, a playground and yes, a place for political education.  The earth performs as an instrument, or a strategy used in the transformation of our spaces and our community.  This relationship is not unilateral…both benefit and heal and grow and through the power of struggle, both are allies for their collective liberation.   

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Eastern Market

Eastern Market

Every Saturday when I was a little girl my Dad and I would go to the Eastern Market in Detroit.  I remember purchasing fruits and veggies, freshly butchered meats, spices and feta cheese from Rocky’s. Afterward we would buy something to snack on and sit and people watch.  Eastern Market was one of the places where people of different ethnicities would gather.  One could purchase foods from many places around the world along with those who appreciated a connection to their respective Motherlands.  My Dad would often ask me to tell a story about the people we saw, who I thought they were to each other, what they were doing and what I thought was the nature of their interaction, thus began my realization that I was a social scientist. 

Eastern Market was such a part of my upbringing that continued through my graduate years. When I was in town, our visits included checking in on my Grandma.  I still make the Eastern Market apart of my Saturday ritual, for some nostalgic reasons, Dad no longer goes with me, and some practical reasons, it is one place, of many, where I can purchase my fruits and veggies from farmers.  My visits are such a high point of my weekend.   I love seeing people from the local food movement and the artisans who sell their wares at the market. 

Originally known as the Detroit Farmer’s Market opened in 1841, the Detroit Eastern Market opened its doors in its current location in 1891.  Current estimates suggest that approximately 45,000 people frequent the open air market every weekend.  Progressively, the vendors are retailing the produce that they purchased wholesale, yet, “Grown in Detroit,” offers a space where local Detroit farmers are able to bring their harvest to market.  Other farm families like Vang Farms and Hampshire Farms, offer Detroiters sustainably grown, exotic greens, beans and grains.  Dan Carmody, President of the Eastern Market and his staff, have done a great job restoring the market, renovating and finding funds for this Detroit gem.  
Aside from the fact that farmers are the coolest, nicest, friendliest and politically conscious folks you can find, there are three reasons why it is important for you to know your farmer:

Contributions to the Local Economy

Issues such as African American land loss and the admitted discrimination by the USDA against black farmers brought to the fore the importance of the faces and families behind the food that we see in the grocery store.  Many of these farmers are generational and the money earned over the growing season allows their families to survive throughout the year.  Most of the food that we see in the grocery stores has been shipped as far away as 4,000 miles.  Food miles, or the distance between where food is grown to where food is consumed, have huge implications on the grower, the purchaser and the environment.  When farmers sell their produce locally, they contribute to the local economy through the purchase of goods and services, they employ local people, and they reduce the amount of air toxins in moving food from one place to another.  Not only this, knowing your farmer provides an opportunity to influence what they grow. 

Locally Grown Fruits and Vegetables are Healthier

Food shipped 4,000 miles is not allowed to ripen on the vine.  It is picked early, and in the case of the tomato, gassed using a petroleum-derived, flammable gas, (C2H4) in order to produce the texture and color of being fully ripened1. I use the tomato as an example.  It is far from alone on the list of synthetically ripened produce.  There is no comparison between the “grown” tomato and the “gassed” tomato in terms of its nutritional content; likewise in taste.  Many of us tomato aficionados can identify the homegrown, heirloom tomato blindfolded with our hands tied behind our backs.  As vegetables are allowed to ripen naturally, they reach their peak in terms of nutrition. 

Local farmers can also be encouraged to grow a variety of crops, instead of engaging in monocropping, growing only one kind of crop year after year.  When farmers diversify their crops they pull different nutrients from the soil and are able to grow fruits and vegetables more naturally.  Monocropping, takes the same nutrients, depleting the soil of its potential to grow healthy food and forces farmers to use often artificial means to fertilize, which leads to soil and groundwater contamination.  Many of these fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides cannot be washed off with water and are thus consumed.  In this one example, we have spoken about the contamination of water, food, soil, air and the body.  Something to think about…

Know your farmer, know your food

I know this sounds clichéd but it is true.  When you know who grows your food, you are more in control of what goes into your body.  You can also learn about and try new fruits and vegetables, as farmers are usually eager to share their knowledge and information.  Ask Mama Jackie of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN), each week at the SEED-Wayne farmers market.  She has a new recipe based on the produce that appears on the table.  Similarly, in the Bordeaux region of St. Thomas, Mama Benita, a native Detroiter, told us how the farmers wanted to grow bok choy.  When they first brought the vegetable to the market, no one knew what to do with it or its health benefits.  Within a few months, Mama Benita said, it was “difficult to keep bok choy on the table because the community has grown a taste for it.”  Knowing our farmers teaches us respect for the people whose hard work and dedication bring our food from “seed to table.”

My last point is that knowing the people who grow our food allows us to vote with our dollars on what we eat, how the food is grown, and how people who grow our food are treated.  With each dollar we spend, we are making a statement.  Each dollar spent with the people who grow our food is a vote for the local economy, for healthier food and for a cleaner environment.  These are dollars are not spent supporting big agri-business and the contamination, pollution and exploitation of communities and countries for their land and their labor. 

For more information on the history of the Eastern Market, check:
Grown in Detroit:
Eat local movement
Detroit Black Community Food Security Network
Bordeaux farmers: