Juneteenth celebrated by African American farmers

For Juneteenth, the holiday that commemorates the emancipation of African American slaves in the United States, an organization known as A Growing Culture hosted a day-long internet broadcast on Friday featuring the voices of Black farmers and gardeners and the fight in Black communities for a just food system.

“The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops,” said the organization’s founder Loren Cardeli, “but the cultivation and perfection of human beings. Farming is the basis of humanity.  It is about saving and cultivating culture. That is why we call ourselves, ‘A Growing Culture.’”

Much of the discussion focused on food sovereignty — the concept of owning land on which farmers and gardeners decide what to grow and control the methods to produce their crops. “You can be self-sufficient and self-sustaining if you grow your own food,” said Queen Quet, chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation, a historic community of African American farmers on the southern Atlantic Coast of the U.S. “Food apartheid is the opposite of food sovereignty because you are controlled by who controls your food supply.”

The Gullah/Geechee Nation provided an example of the way a community controlled its own food. “We are agrarian people that do subsistence farming for ourselves and family members,” Queen Quet said in the keynote address of the online conference. “We grow to feed ourselves, so we grow in a slow and healthy way to insure we sustain our lives and the land.”

Smallholder farmers like the Gullah/Geechee produce 70 percent of the world’s food, but they only control 19 percent of all cultivated land. Nearly a billion of world’s 7.8 billion people are undernourished, Queen Quet pointed out. Even with industrial agriculture, more than 2 billion people suffer from a lack of essential vitamins and minerals in their diets; and nearly 6 million children die every year from malnutrition and related diseases.

Most of those suffering from hunger and malnutrition are smallholder farmers or people who are landless, she said. Most are also “women and girls, living in rural areas without access to productive resources.”

The first panel, “Land and Liberation,” was moderated by Sawdayah Brownlee, board president of the Brooklyn-Queens Land Trust in New York, which creates open spaces for communities, many of them gardens on formerly abandoned lots. Growing food shines light on the history of African Americans in this country, she said, because farming was inseparable from stories about the crops people grew. The oral history of when and where to grow plants, and even what meals were prepared with them, were part of a cultural history passed down through generations.

Panelist was Malik Yakini, who is co-founder and executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network and a food co-op, shed light on that history in Detroit. He explained that Black residents living in northern industrial cities had older relatives who migrated from the South to work in expanding industries. These new jobs, like those in the automobile industry, gave them a better standard of living still but they grew their food.

“Many Black folks in Detroit, including my own grandparents, had backyard gardens,” Yakini said. His first exposure to agriculture was working in his grandfather’s backyard garden. A program started in the 1960s under Mayor Coleman Young, Detroit’s first Black mayor, encouraged residents to start gardens on vacant lots near their houses. The city provided access to tractors, compost, seeds, and seedlings, Yakini said.

In Detroit, this long history of African Americans pursuing food sovereignty continues to this day.

In another presentation, Iyeshima Harris, director of the East New York Farms, in New York, described her group’s project that began about 22 years ago, and which now has three farms and a farmers’ market in a Brooklyn neighborhood. “The program’s focus is to promote economic stability in the community and to hire youth interns to work with community gardens,” she said. These paid youth internships last for nine months. The farmers’ market sells garlic, spinach, kale, bitter melon, long beans, and several varieties of hot peppers. “Everything we grow is representative of the community,” Harris said, a significant portion of whom are Caribbean immigrants.

The farm also sponsors a healthy soil initiative, testing soils for lead and toxic metals and providing new soil if the dirt is contaminated. The program educates the community on the dangers of heavy metals, ensuring gardeners and residents are avoiding toxic food.

The series is a weekly live broadcast, The Hunger for Justice, about how to feed people in a post-Covid-19 world.