This is the fourth of four essays in July about the complexity of the relationships black people hold to land. This interview reflects the ways farming and gardening as a relationship to land has communal and social implications for black people, implications that are overlooked by the dominant culture and its policymakers.
Land as Self-Sufficiency with Dorsay Ross
Dorsay Ross is an unlikely land use policy advocate. He was born in Phenix City, Alabama, but for decades has called Flint, Michigan home. He is imagining new ways of building relationships to food, land and economic self-determination in Flint using his own resources, including land he owns just outside the city.
Only time I go to the grocery store now is to buy meat. Otherwise, you know, I don’t need to go to the grocery store. I have a garden about seven to six hundred square foot. So I do a lot of canning, freezing, and a whole lotta other stuff. Drying food. So, I really appreciate it. It save me money. It really makes me work hard. But it is something that I can appreciate, more just having that [food handed] in front of me. I appreciate being able to do that.
I have access right now to twenty acres of land here, as well as another five acres of land in different location, in Mount Morris, which I plan to put to use this spring. I have a group of people– it’s about seven, eight people– that want to utilize the land to grow food. They want to start a co-op, which we started meeting for the last month and a half. And hopefully we– it — can hopefully come to fruition by May.
When I looked at property, I looked at economy. I looked at what can it do for me, and how can I serve others. And, thus far, you know, it has been working out on both advantages. I’m not here to just make money but I don’t want to lose money.
And [I see] people in Flint who cannot afford the high grocery bills. So, what’s the next best thing? “If I can’t afford it, let me grow it.” With my garden, I just have people over. Hey, you want food? Come help me grow it. You can’t get here? I’ll pick you up. Let’s get it done.
Still, if I want to sell veggies out of my garden, they can’t come to my garden and buy. I have to take it to the Farmer’s Market so they can purchase. Which, people can’t afford, you know? They gotta get on a bus or walk to the market, [but] they live next door to the garden. Why can’t you just come over and buy, or whatever? So I just put a little sign up, “donation.” I don’t like to sell stuff anyway, on the most part. Other people, that’s their livelihood, so some of the policy needs to be changed.
This is the third in our series of Black/Land stories, illustrating how black people self-define our relationships with land.
Land as Refuge and Self-Determination with Terra Turner
Terra Turner is an artist, healer, community leader and urban gardener in East Cleveland, OH. She is one of the founding board members of the Black/Land Project.
[Land as home] ownership is important because home, it’s the place where your people gather. When I bought this house, the intention was this could be a place where people could be, and where I could be with people that I love. That’s why I needed a house. I needed a place for my records, my books, my pictures. And I needed a place for the people that I love.
I think for us, particularly us black women, that’s huge. It’s the place where you are safe in the world, a place where nobody can talk over the children, nobody can be mean to the old people. There are some things that just can’t happen here, because I need to be in a place in the world where that shit don’t happen. I think that that piece is huge for our connection to land . It’s the space where we can control what the f*** happens. Because we can’t control what the f*** happens out there. We can’t.
This is the second in a series of Black/Land stories that illustrates the unique and complex ways black people self-define their relationships to land.
Claiming Land by Regenerating Tradition: Vera Smith and Betty Evans
Vera Smith and Betty Evans are sisters and organizers who grew up in Detroit’s Black Bottom/ Paradise Valley neighborhood, former farmland that was once the heart of Detroit’s black community. As they shared memories of being displaced from Black Bottom, they remembered regenerating the Black Bottom community traditions to carve a familiar relationship to a new place.
Here’s what I remember about the evening: The (adults) had one of those old recorder things and we would dance. The kids would dance. The grown people would dance. The house had a porch on the back of it, and no grass … it just was dirt. There were clotheslines where everybody hung out their clothes when they washed them. In the evening, all the people, all the adults would sit on the porch and talk. Now, I can’t tell you anything they’ve talked about because we were not allowed to approach that area once they sat out there on the porch and started talking, so that was their time. … They were talking freely with each other and probably talking about things the kids didn’t need to hear and know.
But I made a connection with while you were talking that was this porch life. When we came to Kendall as kids, we created a porch life. When we moved over to the northwest side (of Detroit) , there were a lot of kids on the block. We were all right around the same age. So the Junior Block Club, the kids, would gather at our house and we talk. They would come gather at the end of the day after school day was over [until] dinnertime. We would play and mess with each other, tell each other great stuff and just have fun. It was a fun time. We were playing games.
Yeah, until my father came home and we would have to get off that porch. Especially if there was a boy there!
It occurred to me just now that we emulated the relationship, porch life, the way people related to each other with that kind of porch life thing, when we moved to another place. We could stay out until the porch light or street light came on. The kids would end up at our house almost every night. And so, what you would start to hear once it got dark and the streetlight came on is parents calling their kids up and down the street. “Kenny, come home!” It struck me that when we were in Black Bottom that the adults did the same thing, but on an adult level, so we were emulating that.
People are often surprised that most Black/Land stories are not about farming. Most black people live in cities, but have rich relationships to land that are not about agriculture. When given the opportunity to define their relationship to land on their own terms, even farmers and gardeners talk about land as a way of regenerating ways of knowing and ways of being in community, not simply ways to grow food. They describe the sustenance land provides as access to both physical food and cultural shelter.
The Black/Land Project exists to describe the unique and complex ways black people self-define their relationships to land. Each week in July , we will share some of the stories, and the storytellers, from The Black/Land Project.
Land as A Way of Knowing: Tayana Hardin
Tayana Hardin, is a scholar with roots in rural Kentucky. We spoke while she was a doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan.
As I’m doing this intellectual work, I’m also standing that work besides the words of my great grandparents who couldn’t read, but could tell us things like you cut your hair when the moon looks like this or you plant when the moon looks like that. You extract a tooth when the moon looks like this. I think about … knowing how to learn and understand from a book, but then also from what the land can tell us, what the moon can tell us, what a sun dog can tell us. All these little things have really started to create a real special presence for me again as a part of the intellectual work that I’ve done.
It’s been interesting how attention to one has really helped to open up my relationship to the other, the natural world and the intellectual world. And whenever I’m writing and I get stuck, I just take a walk and to really feel that the — for lack of better word — the magic that’s happening in the trees when the leaves disappear, and know that those roots are still thriving down there, are still talking, and that there is still a magic happening even though it looks very bare up top. My own intellectual process is very much wrapped up in all of this.
Before there was Memorial Day, there was Decoration Day. Decoration Day is the American Day of the Dead, a ritual of consecration originating in the action of African-Americans who walked toward freedom, in gratitude. Decoration Day is an African American holiday dedicated to building acts of memory, justice and repair. It is the annual commemoration of a complex relationship we hold with the history of this land.
The Washington Race Course and Jockey Club was the place Decoration Day began in 1865. Today, the course remains as a one mile track surrounding Hampton Park in Charleston, South Carolina. In February of every year since 1792, the Club turned that park into a festival: thoroughbred horses flat raced and leapt hurdles on the course while South Carolina planters wives in the grandstand were served by the gentlemen who escorted them. A public exhibition of the social connections that maintained the antebellum south, the Race Course was a stage for many purposes. It was a parade ground for review of Confederate martial brigades; its perimeter sheltered duels fought over matters of honor; and it served as the auction site for property of value to the landed class: eight thoroughbred horses imported from England, or a field wench with her two children, one a boy about 10 years old, and the other a girl about 8 years old.
During the Civil War, Charleston’s Confederate planters were forced to turn their beloved racetrack into a prison camp for Union Soldiers. Two hundred fifty seven men died from the deplorable conditions in this outdoor prison camp, and were buried in a mass grave behind the bandstand. In the spring of 1865, the City of Charleston fell to Union soldiers. One of the first actions of the newly emancipated African-American residents of Charleston was to exhume each of these 257 Martyrs of the Race Course and give them a proper burial.
After the burial, there was a remarkable and somber parade. Ten thousand Charlestonians, most of them black, marched in cadence to the Race Course turned burial ground, led by 3,000 children carrying flowers to decorate the new laid graves. This reclaiming of land once used by the white aristocracy for leisure, and consecrating it as a burying ground for those they once held captive, was a powerful symbol of liberation and justice. It marked the end of enslavement with an act of collective self-determination: providing honor and respectful burial of Union soldiers who fought to end the bondage of African-Americans. Following the parade, there were family gatherings and picnic meals held on blankets on the lawn, marking the day as a celebration of collective independence and family ingathering. This first Decoration Day marked of the conclusion of the War Between the States and the beginning of a new era of Freedmen.
Many African American families we have interviewed continue to celebrate Decoration Day traditions, even if we do not know this history or name. We return to the places of our great-grandparents’ origin to clean the graves of our ancestors each year on what we now call Memorial Day weekend. This annual ritual is not merely symbolic. In the deep South, entire graveyards become overgrown with lush southern brush; a headstone can disappear beneath it in just a few years without care.
As generations of African-Americans dispersed northward during the Great Migration of the 20th century, this ritual of returning South to clear and decorate the tombs of ancestors created an annual family reunion. Because the births and deaths of black people were not regularly inscribed in official government records until the mid 20th century, these clusters of headstones and grave sites provide some African-Americans with their only reliable genealogical records. Multi-generational pilgrimages to tend ancient graveyards were occasions for sharing family histories, and opportunities to pass on cultural rituals and lore.
While the Decoration Day tradition fades among those who are a few generations away from Southern roots, fragments of observation remain intact as a cornerstone of African-American culture. Some continue to celebrate Memorial Day as the holiday to convene gatherings of extended family; the tradition of the African-American family reunion as a picnic is linked to those pot luck meals shared on blankets on the lawn at the Charleston Race Course. Others African-Americans maintain the tradition of gathering far-flung family members to tend their ancestors’ burial grounds, passing family stories and family names to new generations.
In 1868 Memorial Day was named a federal holiday to commemorate all who lost their lives in any act of war. Today, most Americans mark it with a flag-waving parade, and plans for the first three-day weekend of summer.
But for African-Americans, Memorial Day has a different significance, even if we no longer remember why. It is not just a day when we remember our dead. It is the memory of freedom and responsibility to claim land in the names of those who defended and protected us. It is the day when we remember freedom brings responsibility, and loyalty is celebrated in the rituals that connect us to all our kin.
Are these stories about the relationship between contemporary and historical black land traditions important to you? Please consider making a tax deductible gift to support the work of the Black/Land Project here: