The reason I have always wanted to be a farmer is because I believed then and believe now that the farmer is the only free man we have in our race.” Benjamin Carr, Black farmer, 1914
By Atieno Nyar Kasagam.
I was at a National Women in Agriculture meeting in Detroit, a week ago, when my comment about the dominance of white millennials in urban agriculture in the city was challenged, by an elder. She, a middle-aged beautiful black woman, argued for the longstanding presence of black gardeners in the city, who rival, in number, the white folk/ white institutions that are most often featured in media, and who receive the most resources and praise for this work.
Yet in the same breath that upraised African Americans’ historic earth work , she confessed that for a very long time, farm work has been for her, a repulsive, dirty, proletarian, undertaking: a sentiment shared by so many of her peers.
Folks left the south to leave farming and all its baggage behind.
The promise of Detroit was the promise of a whole new way of life, access to higher wages, a higher standard of living, and an aesthetic that is resonant with a modern, industrialized, urban culture.
Queue the classic (white) American Dream: rolling turf, white picket fence, a dog and 2.5 kids (or cats to substitute)
Lorenzo’s auntie called our farming work, about two years ago, below ghetto. His older brother could only tolerate Lorenzo’s identifying with the work as a hobby, because he needed to be doing some real stuff, that would bring real money, a good car, a wonderfully repaired home and a lifestyle that was consonant with a college graduate.
Luckily, his parents have come around to our farming work, even mentioning us highly around their peers, in meetings, and so on, but still wont regularly harvest and consume our over-abundant produce, which proliferates in our back and front yard. Zo doesn’t want me pushing lump-some amounts of produce at them either, because it only goes bad in the fridge. Very little ever gets used, and they go back to Parkway or Indian Village to shop for more greens, salad mixes, but mostly frozen, ready to go vegetables.
His parents live right across the street from our house. It is a one minute walk from our front door to theirs. The produce is free. They just have to pick it themselves.
It is very difficult to make sense of this, to understand why you would opt not to help yourself to fresh picked, mostly culturally-appropriate vegetables en masse, grown by your children, and go all out to a grocery store, to purchase small packs of less tasty vegetable mixes, at an inflated price.
Even with a sign on our front yard and by the curb last season, inviting everyone to come through for free vegetables, there was marginal interest. Only two ladies on the block came by, once, and even though I tried to encourage them that it was because of our sheer over-abundance that we needed to share, it was such an absurdity, free greens and veggies, that it was easier, more sensible to drop dollars at kroger, trader joes or maybe even whole foods for the more ambitious ones.
There is a history of enslavement and forced labor on farms that taints the culture of farming, and that must be engaged, no doubt. It is perhaps as a result of this that most city-dwelling African Americans distance themselves vehemently from the identity ‘farmer/gardener’ even if this is work they may do at whatever scale in Detroit. And because they don’t experience this work in the white cultural fashion, as a subprofession or profession, they don’t tap in, and they don’t receive as much of the money, the media coverage and the political clout that white folk do.
Furthermore, it is possible, that from the same effort of distancing (them)selves from farming work, there is a forgetting that has taken place, and a mis-association of food with (predominantly white/middle-eastern owned) grocery stores. Food from the soil is absurd. Food for free is absurd. Food picked by (one)self is absurd. Food near us, right adjacent to our home, is absurd.
It is below ghetto.
“Why don’t they do that in their back yard?” A child from next door who rode by our home told me that her grandpa would ask of us.
Aint nobody wana see that.
Aint nobody wana see no okra.
Aint nobody wana see no pumpkin vines slithering all over the place.
Aint nobody wana see no plump purple bean stalks by your curb.
Aint nobody wana see no strawberry suckers running onto your pathway.
Aint nobody wana see no dandelions on your lawn.
It is below ghetto.
They din called the police, the city of Detroit blight task force and animal control on us several times, and they are devastated that we are crushing their home values.
Black folk ,
Brothers of the Nation,
in our neighborhood,
murmuring all types of nasty shit,
at this work that liberates us,
because it is this very work that enslaved us,
that impoverished us,
that wore us out to the bone
and turned our skins raw,
and with hardly any positive givings.