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Food as a Form of Freedom

Nelson Institute Professor Monica White expands the conversation around agriculture and the Black community

Winter 2019 | By Bekah McBride

A mother of the community helps a young girl prepare a potted plant at D-Town Farm in Detroit, MI. Aug 2017. Photo Credit: Jeremy Brockman


Growing up in the city of Detroit, Nelson Institute assistant professor of Environmental Justice, Monica White, can remember the pride she felt for her family’s garden. Whether it was the warm, vine-ripened tomatoes from her Grandmother’s indoor container garden, or the fresh, crisp vegetables from her Father’s backyard plot, White saw that agriculture promoted freedom, health, and a sense of community. For White, this connection between food and the Black community began to grow into a research interest as she watched the urban agriculture movement expand. Throughout her research, she saw that Black communities often used the connection between food production and community-based food systems to bring people together. This fascination led to exploration, which led to a greater understanding of the role agriculture and food plays in a community’s success and their efforts toward community health and wellness. This December, her interest is coming full circle as she releases her first single-authored book, Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement.

A renewed look at the history of agriculture and its ties to the Black community, Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement, combines historical analysis and first-hand accounts to expand the conversation surrounding agriculture as a form of resistance and its role in the current food justice and sovereignty movements in urban spaces such as Detroit, Milwaukee, Chicago, New York City, and New Orleans.

Monica White– Photo Credit: Warren Cameron of 5 Acre Studio
Monica White (Photo Credit:Warren Cameron
of 5 Acre Studio)

“To me, this book charts the use of food as a strategy for community development and community wellness,” White said. “Food production allows us to do so many things. For example, it brings us together. We use food to celebrate and demonstrate love. But, in moments, when people do not have access to healthy food, we see communities engaging in strategies of food production to change their lives and their children’s lives and to make communities whole again.  So, I document the use of food as a strategy, historically.”

White began the book by going back to the early years of agricultural resistance, specifically around the time of the middle passage, when the Atlantic slave trade was at its height. During this time, White said it was common for women to carry seeds in their hair as a reminder of home and as a form of resistance. From there, she says many who were enslaved began to grow food that was native to Africa and upon harvest, they would share the produce with their community as a celebration of culture and home. During the post-slavery reconstruction era of share cropping and tenant farming, White says African Americans fought hard for access to land ownership. While some prevailed, others moved north or west in response to the economic and oppressive conditions that occurred in many areas of the South. Despite the fact that the Black Panthers had formed alternative urban food systems as early as the 1960s, and led the effort to provide urban youth with meals before school, when the urban agriculture movement began in 1970s, White says that many African American communities were not visually represented in that movement.

“It’s about looking at food as an instrument historically,” White said. “So, in doing that I found this rich history of folks who have fought for the right to grow food and to increase access to healthy food. In fighting for the right to grow food, they fought for the right to have land, access to the markets, access to the seeds, the education, the distribution.”

This rich history is something that White wanted to share both at an academic level as well as a community level.

“I have always felt that my job as a public servant is to share what I find that is useful with communities,” White said. “I just want to make sure I speak to both the academy and the community, especially those who are working hard to make sure that all people have access to healthy, nutrient-rich food.”

In speaking to both the academy and the community, White hopes to offer a historical understanding of how Black farmers contributed to the Black Freedom Movement while also showcasing the lessons of their experience for present-day food justice and sovereignty movements.

“To truly investigate the relationship between African Americans and food, you have to go to the South,” White said. “So many of the folks from Detroit and Chicago came from Alabama and Mississippi and they brought with them their agricultural roots. Folks didn’t leave the South because they didn’t want to farm. They left the South because of the economically and racially oppressive conditions that tenant farming, share cropping and overall racial hostility created. So, in moving, they took with them those agricultural skills, which was to me, an indication that they wanted to grow food, but just didn’t want to be exploited.”

For White, this has been an empowering realization and she hopes that this book will help others to understand that there are positive narratives surrounding the relationship between African Americans and agriculture. White added, that while the Black community has suffered tremendously in relation to farming and the land, agriculture can heal communities and provide self-sufficiency and freedom.

“Ultimately, food can be a punishment or a form of liberation,” White said. “In this analysis, I read a lot about land loss, share cropping, slavery, tenant farming and these all represent what I consider a deficit model. While historically accurate, the legacy is still very real and felt, but also, that isn’t the whole story. There have been moments when African Americans have used agriculture as a strategy toward freedom and as a form of liberation.”

As the UW–Madison’s first professor of environmental justice, appointed in 2012, White has spent a great deal of time exploring these moments and she expands on several of them in the book, including examples from the work of Fannie Lou Hamer, the leader of the Freedom Farms Cooperative, who purchased 40-acres of land in the Mississippi Delta in 1969 to launch a community-based, rural economic development and agricultural cooperative. White also discusses the current community agriculture movement happening in Detroit and how that is positively impacting communities in her hometown. Specifically, she told the story of a mom who consistently walks past an abandoned lot and devises a plan to improve the community through agriculture.

“In the city of Detroit, there was a lot with tall grass. Everyone avoids it because no one knows what might be in there and if it’s safe. So one day, a mom decides to pamphlet the community, asking to turn the lot into a community growing space. That was a moment of transformation for that space and that community,” White said.  “In doing that, she gets to know her neighbors and her kids have a place to play. The space becomes art, music, intergenerational exercise and activity, it’s a food producer and its health care and it’s all kinds of wonderful things. In this moment we are seeing the legacy of the ‘60s and ‘70s and how agricultural shared projects are transforming communities.”

White is inspired by people like the woman in that story, Fannie Lou Hamer, Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, W.E.B. Du Bois and so many in the Black community who challenged the social norms and pushed for agricultural resistance to improve the lives of their families and those in their community. She says this book is meant to honor the centuries of those who labored as farmers and producers, but also to those that were actively engaged in movements for civil and human rights.

“It’s easy to follow the norm, so as a sociologist I’ve always been interested in the people who are willing to break a rule for a greater cause,” White said. “It may feel shaky to break a rule, but I wondered, what are the causes for which we are willing to take a risk and what are the mechanisms? How do people join movements to improve society?  I was fascinated by those questions, but I wanted to study this in a contemporary way. So, I studied the urban food movements and urban agriculture, but that sent me back to a historical analysis and the South. So, my job as a researcher is to say here’s what is happening today and here’s what it looked like before, because it’s important for us to contextualize the current work, but also to benefit from the lessons we can learn from the previous iterations.”

 For White, Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement, is about exploring the history of agricultural resistance, empowering the Black community to embrace the land and agriculture, but it is also a way to open up the discussion of race.

“We have to be okay with talking about race, because it means different experiences,” White said. “We need to have conversations about race and what difference race makes in terms of environmental movements and food production. So, I try to bring that lens, which says, it’s one thing to have healthy food, but it’s a different thing to make sure everyone has access to healthy food. It’s about making sure that there’s a justice and equity component and looking at it in terms of community.”

Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement is now available. The Nelson Institute hosted a free, public lecture titled, Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement on March 6, 2019 in partnership with the Food Studies Network and the Department of Community and Environmental Sociology. The lecture expanded the conversation around community-based food systems by combining a historical analysis of agriculture as a form of resistance with first-hand accounts of the current food justice and sovereignty movements. A video of the 2019 lecture is available here.

The recognition of White's work in this area continues as she recently received two awards for her research on agricultural resistance and the Black Freedom Movement.

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