The stories of people raising, harvesting, cooking and serving food cannot help but speak to core values and being. There is something about farming that makes people want to tell their family stories, maybe becasue so many of us have at least some farming in our families’ pasts — after all, in many places growing and gathering food occupied most people most of the time.
This is not to say that all family stories are the same. They are not. Also, just because your family comes from farmers doesn’t mean you understand what farming — or working the land — means for other families. My farm experiences as a child and young adult in a small family-based village in central Sweden doesn’t mean I understand the lives or histories of the Richardson or Pullen families I’ve written about and photographed in previous posts on this blog. History is too complicated for complete understandings of that kind — but there is reason to hope that stories can help us grow enough understanding and empathy to take each others’ stories seriously. There is no reason to ignore the facts that remind us that slaves and serfs and stolen Indigenous lands are all part of farming, the growing of food. But those evils do not erase connections at the heart of farming that can connect and heal — family, community, hard work, land, spirituality and nutrition. The growing of food so that people can thrive.
The link below will take you to a radio conversation on NPR that, on one level, speaks to some very topical, difficult and current discussions in America (and the world), while also reaching deep into ideas about place and being — who we are in this time and place, given the histories and communities we grow from. The guests on this show are Ashley Gripper, an environmental epidemiology PhD candidate at Harvard, and Khaliah Pitts, a culinary artist and co-founder of Philadelphia non-profit Our Mothers’ Kitchens. I hope you enjoy it. It triggered some thoughts about my upbringing in the folds of my grandmother’s farm in central Sweden. I’ll post on that soon.
I met Ted Pullen almost three decades ago, when we were both closer the the beginning o our careers than we were to the ends. That’s changed for both of us, now sliding down the backside of our chosen work. What hasn’t changed is that Ted and I still love to tell and hear stories whose result is that we’re both laughing. During phone calls and occasional meetings in person when I travel through his home near Siketson, Missouri, we share worries about our kids, now grown well past needing our worries. When I began Black Soil way back in the early 1990s, Ted introduced me to his extended family of farmers, his farming neighbors, the differences between Black and white agriculture in the Bootheel of Missouri — a place I found impossibly flat, wet, hot and humid. I’d never stood in a cotton field or a garden growing okra. There was a lot to learn. Ted was my teacher.
Ted has now retired from farming, but he still owns his land. He rents to other farmers and helps his nephew Andy Pullen with his farm, which sits on the other side of the Pullen Family Cemetery. It was at the church in that cemetery that Will Atwater and I were going to spend last Memorial Day, fully immersed in the annual Pullen Family Reunion. CoVid-19 quenched that gathering, so we’ll have to go back once we’re all travelling and blessedly socially undistanced. Based on past experience, I expect hugging and some intimately close eating at that reunion. I also expect to exchange stories with Ted — stories that may have no purpose beyond making us laugh.
“You must also study and learn the lessons of history because humanity has been involved in this soul-wrenching, existential struggle for a very long time. “– John Lewis
As I’m sure you know, on July 30, 2020, civil rights icon and U.S. Rep. John Lewis was laid to rest. Maybe less well known but also very informative, on that same day New York Times Magazine journalist and producer of the 1619 Project, Nikole-Hannah-Jones, was the guest on the latest episode of Homeroom with Sal, hosted by Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy. The show is lived-streamed daily at noon PT/ 3pm ET and can be viewed on YouTube or FaceBook. During each episode, Sal and a special guest discuss that day’s topic and answer viewers’ questions.
I’m highlighting these two events that occurred on a day filled with plenty of headlines—news about the latest tropical storm heading toward the U.S., growing unemployment numbers, and the continued rise of coronavirus infections—because I find hope in John Lewis’ legacy as a civil rights leader and inspiration in Hannah-Nikole Jones’ work on the 1619 Project. Lewis noted the importance of history, and the work to re-investigate it continues, as evidenced by Jone’s work, which asks us to re-examine who we are as a nation now that the missing pages of our backstory have been found. To be sure, 244 years after its founding and 401 years after the White Lion brought the first cargo of slaves to Virginia, America is still a work-in-progress.
In order to carve out a more perfect union, I can think of no better start than to acknowledge that the American Story is much fuller than the one most of us learned in school. How many of us had to learn about the Tulsa Race Massacre as adults? Now that you know it and can see its relevance to where we are today, it begs the question of how to share this story and others more broadly. The 1619 project offers a curriculum that fills in what our old history books are missing.
I am reposting this article because the role of urban agriculture in the food system is an important topic. Activist, educator, and farmer, Karen Washington is a leader in the urban agriculture movement and has valuable insight to share. To learn about the fund she co-founded please visit https://www.blackfarmerfund.
This article was originally published by Bioneers, and is an edited excerpt of a presentation Washington made at a past Bioneers Conference.
I live in a marginalized community in the Bronx in New York City. Out of 62 counties in New York State, the Bronx is rated number 62 as the unhealthiest county in the state. People in marginalized communities have been labeled as people in need, as people who have deficits. We have to change the way we look at marginalized communities, and it starts with the food system.
Shifting Power in the Food System
The food system is not broken; it’s working exactly the way it’s supposed to: as a caste system based on demographics, economics, and race. If we’re going to transform this food system, we have to look at power and who has power. The current food system is controlled by a handful of people who are predominantly white men.
The dynamics have to change so that people of color have wealth and power. I’ve been involved in urban agriculture for a long time, and there have been some advances for people of color, but we don’t have power in decision making, and we don’t have the power in policy. In order for that to change, we have to change the way we look at ourselves and change the language of being called poor.
In my community, I see people who have done so much with very little resources. I see the power in those communities, rather than viewing them as weak. But, I have mixed feelings about the promise of the urban agriculture movement—because I don’t see our faces, and I don’t see our voices, and I don’t see our power.
The food system is not broken; it’s working exactly the way it’s supposed to: as a caste system based on demographics, economics, and race.
In my community and communities that look like mine, we are trying to form our own destiny. We don’t want to replicate the capitalistic system that extracts wealth, but rather we want to tap into the value of the social capital within our communities. Time and time again we’ve asked for help, but to no avail. So, now we look at our communities as a force and a power to come together to challenge the industrial, capitalistic system and to look at the impact of inequity when it comes to wealth and land.
Urban Agriculture: Local Control of Food and Economics
People have been growing food in cities for thousands of years. There seems to be a feeling that if people are able to grow food in their communities that things are going to change. For me, growing food isn’t enough. We need to address the structural, industrial, and environmental determinants that reinforce racism in our society.
When we first started growing food in New York City, it was about taking back ownership of a community that had been devastated because of the exodus of white people—white flight. The people that stayed in those communities were usually people of color.
People began community gardens collectively, coming together to change something that was devastated into something that is beautiful. Community gardens were a way to take ownership and to control the food and economics in our neighborhoods. Those things were unheard-of in marginalized communities. Twenty years ago, we started a community-based farmers’ market, which was unprecedented in a low-income neighborhood.
Growing food isn’t enough: We need to address the structural, industrial, and environmental determinants that reinforce racism in our society.
Marginalized communities are surrounded by a charity-based, subsidized food system. In addition, on every block there’s a fast food restaurant. From Monday to Saturday you can go to a soup kitchen or food pantry. I’m not saying that those things are not important, but they don’t encourage local ownership. In order to change the structure of a charity-based, subsidized food system, people have to understand the language of financial literacy, economic development, and entrepreneurship so that the money that we make in our community stays in our community. That’s number one. Starting a farmers market in communities of color is an opportunity to make money and take ownership.
Overcoming Political Obstacles
But whenever communities of color try to move forward, politics come into play. In New York City, there is a growing problem between open-space community gardens and development. How do we make structural change when the local food economy is up against city politics? If we’re going to move forward in the urban agriculture movement, we have to understand the politics that make it difficult to grow and sell food in the city.
The city said it was illegal to raise chickens and bees. Bees were designated as ferocious animals. We had to correct that misconception and educate the city that bees are critical to pollinate many crops. We had to explain the social impact of those restrictions.
We are trying to change the system so that the power of financial literacy and economic development is in the hands of people who have been oppressed.
I view community gardens and urban agriculture as a way to change the dynamic of the power structure, because people within marginalized communities are not going to advance unless we take back power. For me and for a lot of people in my position—not only in New York, but in Detroit, Baltimore, and Oakland—we are trying to change the system so that the power of financial literacy and economic development is in the hands of people who have been oppressed.
That means we have to change the dynamics of the power structure so that people in those communities have control over their food system, but that’s a difficult task. I hear the promise of urban agriculture, but it’s not going to be fulfilled unless the people in those communities have ownership of land, have the right to grow, and have ownership of an economy that is a base for building from the ground up.
Building Social Capital and Community Wealth
A group of people in New York City have decided that we’re going to create something else that’s unprecedented—a Black Farmer Fund. We have been waiting for support from the USDA for a long time. We have been waiting for the government to solve our economic dilemma, but the only way we’re going to move forward is by building social capital and wealth within communities of color in place of the capitalist system that extracts wealth and resources.
The Black Farmer Fund in New York State has started to put the power back into the hands of people that look like me. We’re starting to form a language that is totally different. We’re trying to get people who have been out of wealth building, who have been out of the context of economic development and entrepreneurship and making them understand the power that they have within their own community to build wealth. Wealth building is never talked about in our community. Financial literacy and ownership are not talked about in our community.
I’m working to change that dichotomy, change the language, and help people understand the power that they have by coming together, sharing resources and putting money into a system that’s going to change the economic outlook so that farmers will be able to purchase seeds within their own community, purchase land, and purchase resources. It’s not going to come from outside. It’s not going to come from the government, it’s going to come from the social capital that’s built within those communities.
If this is your first time to Cultivating Justice: Welcome!
This project is the happy collision of decades work done by Will Atwater and Laura Lawson — who have worked with community agriculture, land ownership, justice issues and such for a long time – with the photos I’ve made with Black farm families in the Bootheel of Missouri since 1993. Our hope is that others’ works and efforts will collide with Cultivating Justice, too, in hopes of giving a full and dynamic view of the intersection of race, agriculture and land ownership in the United States.
Looking back and forward from my perspective here in the summer of 2020, it feels like the conversation about race and land in America has moved into spaces unimaginable when I started photographing the Richardson family, and others, in 1993. On the other hand, it feels depressingly similar, as if we are just going around and around, as we constantly find new ways to engage but not move forward. I choose to think of this as an opportunity for all of us who want to be relevant and constructive in the conversations we must have and actions we must take, and I hope that this collaboration can make some contribution to making that real.
I will post more pictures of Joe and his family, as well as some from the Pullen and Peat families near Sikeston, Missouri, from visits I’ve made between 1993 and 2018.
Please follow us and keep coming back. Better yet, join the conversation.
The world has changed a lot since I last posted! In March, my colleague Torsten Kjellstrand and I were planning a trip to the Missouri Bootheel region to collect stories and photographs of farmers and community members, but the pandemic arrived and forced a stop to this plan. We hope to make the trip once it’s deemed safe to do so. When we do make the journey, we’ll share the experience with you in the form of photographs and video footage.
In response to the Coronavirus pandemic, which continues to hover over the planet and the social unrest gripping our nation, I’ve found myself needing to take a step back, to slow down, and to devote more time and energy toward supporting my family and loved ones in whatever way I can as we, like many of you, grapple with the uncertainty and chaos currently dominating daily life. Most of my efforts to support those I care about have felt inadequate at best. Recently, I have felt emotionally and physically drained by my Groundhog-Day-like routine. But if nothing else, I’ve tried to create a space where I can listen to and encourage family and friends, even when I’m not sure how to respond or resolve their concerns. The silver lining in all of this is: I may emerge a better listener and, as a result, a better husband, father, son, and friend. Fingers crossed!
My apologies for rambling on … I just thought I should take a minute to brief you on what I’ve been up to since my last post. Now that that’s out of the way, I’d like to share some information related to the Cultivating Justice project.
I’d like to thank Sylvia-Chan Malik and Badi Malik for inviting Laura Lawson and me to address a group of avid gardeners and food activists via a Zoom meeting, which took place on Sunday, July 5. The group meets bi-weekly on Sundays to discuss topics related to vegetable gardening. Laura and I were invited to discuss Cultivating Justice, the multiplatform documentary project we’re developing that chronicles the history of African Americans in agriculture, starting with the emancipation and continuing to current times. We were excited to engage with people from different parts of the country, including California, Michigan, Connecticut, and New Jersey. Laura and I came away from the Zoom meeting feeling energized and grateful for the opportunity to converse with such a thoughtful and informed group! Additionally, we are taking this time to explore alternative ways to produce content for the blog while also remaining in semi-shutdown mode due to the pandemic. We’re confident we can and look forward to the challenge!
Moving on, in keeping with a major focus of this blog, which is to share information, I’d like to draw your attention to two recently published articles and one short documentary I feel are worth exploring. Blog contributor and Cultivating Justice cofounder, Laura Lawson, is cited in the first article published in Mother Jones. The second article is also published in Mother Jones and addresses the issue of land tenure. In keeping with the theme of tenure, How Black Americans Were Robbed of their Land, is a short documentary I recently discovered. Produced by the Atlantic in 2019, the film documents discriminatory practices faced by black farmers that extended over several decades and ultimately resulted in the Pigford v. Glickman class action lawsuit brought by black farmers against the United States Department of Agriculture(USDA) in 1999.
I learned the seasons, the rhythms and timing of tobacco or at least when they were supposed to be. They weren’t always in sync with each other. On this fall Monday morning, it was the rhythms of Al Green’s music that led me to tobacco and the stripping room.
It was back in 2001, I had seen Mr. Winn in church the day before. He told me he would be stripping tobacco in his barn the next morning if I wanted to come. Mr. Figgs had gone to Mr. Winn as the the seasons changed. I suppose I now made the cut of friendship, which allowed me to call him that. He said I could find him in the stripping room at 9:00AM.
If Mr. Winn needed extra help he would often drive down to the Salvation Army and find people in need of work and pay them in cash, always more then minimum wage. He is that kind of kind person. That Monday, I headed out to his barn. I had been all over that barn a number of times. But this time I walked in and could not understand for the life of me where the stripping room was. I could not find it. Then I heard Al Green and he had a back up singer, Mr. Winn. Now I love Al Green, but Mr. Winn, that man can sing! The music and dust were seeping out and under a small door. I walked in, Mr. Winn with his ever present corn cob pipe, Roslyn with her fresh braids, Clarence, the gas heater and Al Green warming up the room. There was a rhythm besides the music, one that I did not want to interrupt, and I don’t know that I could have anyway. They had a speed, a system, a rhythm of their own. I went unnoticed, snapping photos as they worked on.
I had been told about a tobacco press, and like the room itself, I could not find it. I suppose I expected something mechanical and shiny, not pieces of wood. The process involved stepping on the leaves, and then they were tied up and pressed. Time flew by; so much so I didn’t realize the fine coat of dust that had built up on and over me, and all my equipment until I left. It was like I had been in a room time forgot and the dust had settled in and on everything, including me. Old school Al Green music seeming like it was brand new.
The Homeplace is comfort. The place you can go back to no matter how many years have passed. It will always hold something familiar something safe.
The sky passes in blurs, fleeting and fast moments. It began as I stood looking through a machine of glass and mirrors trying in an instant to capture all that was. I now feel the blur of lives that have left and I have lost. I am left with those static moments. Wishing those moments would move and bring me back to all that was.
I am strapped down and can’t move. I know I have something running through my veins, as the pain is less. The florescent lights overhead are all that I can see. They blur as I am wheeled quickly through the halls. I am the patient that they make way for. The captain of the medevac is still pushing me. Numbers are called out, stats of heart rate and blood pressure. What is my name? What is my birthday? Do I remember what happened? I feel the tears run down my cheeks. I don’t. I know my daughter is alive and safe. I know that the medevac team was like the cavalry coming to take me out of the small ill equipped and scary hospital that I was in. I have always been afraid of helicopters. Today, in my morphine haze, I have never been so grateful to have been in one.
I am being wheeled through the emergency room of UK hospital in Lexington, Kentucky. I am brought into yet another emergency room I can still only look up. I see the eyes that are Derek’s, the same eyes his daddy had. He strokes my hair that is matted and covered in dried blood. His warm coal colored hand holds my cold pasty white one. The nurse says, “Only relatives are allowed in here how are you two related?” I hear the smile in Derek’s voice, “It’s a long story.”
Twenty years ago I stood in the middle of Frogtown Lane with a map in hand. I didn’t know a soul. Now twenty years later, I know everyone on that lane and those who have passed away. I have been to basket meetings, funerals and family reunions. Even when I am not there in the communities they are always right here with me.
My project is a tribute to the residents of these hamlets, a salute to the elders who learned of slavery at their grandparent’s knees and endured the Jim Crow South. Who lived ‘separate but equal’ and saw the decades of milestones and their impacts, including desegregation, social segregation, and ultimately the election of Barack Obama. The residents did much more than endure and survive negative circumstances; they rose above them and thrived.
Over the years, like so many other documentary photographers, I apply for grants to help me fund my work. I would love to be rewarded with funding; it would certainly help, but rewards come in different forms. As was the case when I first read this, written over ten years ago by one of the residents.
“Her presence in our communities over the years has renewed a pride in the old hamlets. She is well-known and received by the older members of the communities who are often very skeptical when visitors “show up” but yet have been revitalized because someone is taking the time to show sincere interest and concern for them. I only wish I could fully express the importance of her work and what it means to all of us. From Maddoxtown to Jimtown, from New Zion to New Vine, from Utteringtown to Peytontown, from Bracktown to Cadentown (to name a few), she has made good friends, who eagerly anticipate her arrival each time she ventures from Chicago, Illinois. As a result, she has compiled a list of names—friends given her by local residents—that is quite extensive and she manages to keep in contact with many of us by phone. She is so highly favored because she did not come to take away from us like so many do, but unknowingly, she has restored a sense of pride once again in our African-American heritage. “
I feel Derek squeeze my hand, I breathe shallow and painful breaths, but I breathe. I realize that I am not done yet, that I am back home at The Homeplace, and I am rewarded yet again.
What began as strictly a documentary project turned into something else along the way. My life became intertwined with those in the communities I have been photographing. They became my friends, my family. Back in 2003, a photography publication did an article on me and included my statement that I was not an objective observer. That still holds true. Especially here.
In the spring of 2001, I was visiting Miss Lydia. She said I should go next door to meet Miss Sarah. After visiting and photographing Miss Sarah, she had me go next door, on the other side, to meet Mr. Figgs. And so it began, and continues.
He wasn’t out in the field where Miss Sarah said he would be, so I knocked on the door. He had me come into the kitchen, and he explained to me how it was too muddy to be out in the field this day. He had me sit down, and I began to learn about his life, the community and tobacco. He spoke of working with the horses, which he had done for a number of years, but it he had not always been treated nor paid fairly. With tobacco he told me, he could rely and count on himself. He still had a few cows back then and at least 20 acres of land. We talked and I photographed and he invited me back anytime. It wasn’t until July that I made it back, by then the tobacco was already in the ground.
I found Mr. Figgs out in the field with “old blue” as he called his tractor. On this day, Ole Blue was a bit stubborn as far as wanting to keep moving forward.
None of us work in a vacuum. There’s a history behind every picture, every oral story, every recording, every single utterance we make. For a lot of the work I did in the Bootheel of Missouri, I didn’t quite understand that context. I felt like I was the only person paying attention. Sometimes that feeling scared me. It was too much narrative weight to carry to think that the only stories told about this area, these families, these issues, these people would be the ones I could find a way to tell.
Few of us can carry such a load. There’s a risk that we adapt by either adopting either a narcissist’s point of view (Only I can do this. This is my story and no one else has the right to tell it. These people are lucky to have me around to tell their story. And so on, into an infinity of self-inflating bullshit), or despair (I’m not a good enough photographer/writer/filmmaker/ researcher/whatever to tell this story. I don’t have the lived experience necessary to understand this story. Etc into paralyzing inaction). Both of these sins descend on our storytelling heads when we forget that there is context to every story. There is a past, there is a present and there is a future. We are simply a part of that continuum, and our job is to bring whatever skills, sensibilities, education, knowledge, lived experience and wisdom, if we have any, to the storytelling.
So, Will Atwater and I went to the National Archives outside of Washington DC (back when public appearances in public institutions was still part of normal life) to go see what we, as taxpaying United States citizens, owned in the way of context for stories we hope to place within Cultivating Justice. We were overwhelmed by the kindness of the archivists, who seemed genuinely excited about the project and who knew the collections impossibly well. Taxes well spent.
What we found was the past, as expected, but also a connection to the present. The photo at the top of this blog is a great example. We don’t know anything about the people in this photo except for the very sparse caption attached. But it is not hard to think about what this photo might get us to think about — from land ownership, economic relationships, race, history and any number of other ways to see. What do you see?
Note: We will post more of the amazing photos we found in the archives. When institutions open for public consumption again, we’re planning to go back for more photo research and a serious look at the Archives film library, as well.