Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement

Freedom farmers: The upside of segregation

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By John Schmid, Special to the AFRO

“We talk about people who owned land, but we often ignored those who worked the land,” Monica M. White, Assistant Professor of Community and Environmental Sociology, University of Wisconsin-Madison told her audience, Saturday.

White was at Red Emma’s bookstore to promote her scholarship “Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement.”

Monica M. White, assistant professor of Community and Environmental Sociology, University of Wisconsin-Madison, believes Black farmers have historically made major contributions to the Civil Rights Movement and Black economics; and their stories remain hidden and untold.

Aware of what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls the “the danger of a single story,” White seeks to reframe the narrative of Black civil rights and economics literally from the ground up.

“I believe that in order to transform communities and for the Civil Rights Movement to have been successful at all, it was the organizing of farmers that really made this possible,” White said.

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“Freedom riders… who fed them? Who housed them?” White proposed. “And what was the mechanism of Black farmers in the South that allowed for this to happen? Why do we not know what role that Black farmers played in this freedom struggle, and why do you think that those stories have been muted?”

In a narrative that includes the voices of Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. DuBois, George Washington Carver and Fannie Lou Hamer, White work aims to shed more light on why the struggle for justice and equity continues, and what resources made for the successes of the past.

“When you talk about resistance strategies, you think about protests, marches and boycotts, White said. “And all of these are energies expended against those who are against us. I think agriculture is a different sort of frame for understanding resistance. How Black farmers organized into collectives and cooperatives as a strategy against racial and economic oppression.”

The old saying goes, “an army marches upon its stomach.” For White, conducting research was an arduous undertaking. White pointed to the recent Highland Center arson as a reminder of the reasons record-keeping is spotty among the most vulnerable populations in this country.

“There is an attack on Blackness, nothing new, but it is really important, critically important that the generations following us, will be able to assume the legacy,” White said. “And the way that they do that is through our documents and making sure that we keep really good records.”

From the records remaining, White has constructed a new narrative around Booker T. Washington’s going slow and conciliation with racist southern Whites, as a form of long-term institution building based on a system as it was, and as it was likely to develop.

“Booker T. Washington teaches us about institution building, the importance of Black institution building. While very complicated, Booker T.’s statements were really, really hurtful,” White said. “My effort was to erase what I thought I knew, to read as openly as I could, to read his words and to think about the legacy of what he did. Many people don’t know that while students graduated from Tuskegee, they would then return to their home counties, they would buy land, and would establish their own Tuskegee-like institutions. These paths were helping over a million farmers.”

“What do you think would be valuable for this generation and I’m gonna say anybody from 40, 30, 20, embarking on this work?” an audience member asked. “What do you think would be a really valuable way to translate that to the neighborhoods that are really suffering?”

“In the food movement more broadly, folks would often say ‘kids come out to the farm and say “I ain’t no slave,”’” White answered. “And so, while that does happen, I also think that there has to be a counternarrative. So if we think about agriculture as a strategy of exploitation and oppression, we have centuries of scholarship on that. But we also, to avoid the single story, have examples of the relationship between land food and freedom.”

Baltimore City estimates that over 160,000 city residents live in food deserts-just under a fourth of the city’s population. City officials now refer to them as “Healthy Food Priority Areas.”

It’s a grim present, and a stark reality of Baltimore’s entrenching segregation.

But White sees an opportunity, hope from what worked before.

“Under segregation, we can pool our resources, we can take that time and think about how we want to engage those who oppress,” White said. “I think it also creates free spaces for us to consider what our options are to move toward a stronger position. So, it’s these free spaces, often excluded from the political process whether formally, informally or otherwise… who are self managing in these organizations. And there’s a political education, a political education is necessary. Because we have to read in order to learn and utilize the options that are available.”