Black/Land Stories: Land as Self-Sufficiency

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

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.

Black/Land Stories: Land as Refuge and Self-Determination

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.

Black/Land Stories: Claiming Land by Regenerating Tradition

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.

Betty :

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.

Vera:

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.

Betty:

Yeah, until my father came home and we would have to get off that porch. Especially if there was a boy there!

Vera:

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.

Black/Land Stories: Land As A Way of Knowing

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 Hardi

Tayana Hardi

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 thisor 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.

Freedom and Responsibility: Remembering Decoration Day

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.[1]

Martyrs of the Racecourse.

Martyrs of the Racecourse.

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[2]. 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: Donate Now.

Where Are Your People From? Black/Land in Macon County, Alabama

You got people here?  is often the first question I heard when The Black Land Project spent last week in Macon County, Alabama. Our interviews focused on a region just south of Tuskegee called The Ridge, a series of small communities (Creek Stand, Warrior Stand, Roba,  Hurtsboro) along a geological elevation of soil too poor for commercial farming, but rich in game and pine timber. The Ridge is a place where having people – knowing who you are in the lineage of this place —  is how people define themselves.

Many Ridge families are descended from white planters and enslaved African-Americans who arrived during the early 1800s “Alabama Fever” land rush.  Surnames like Paceand Swanson abound. Some of these family surnames mark people who are related by blood or marriage. Others share a surname because their ancestors were from different families who worked side by side for generations as enslaved labor on a cotton plantation. After Emancipation, it was common practice for freedmen to be assigned their former owner’s surname. Even when unrelated by law, these families with shared surnames still consider themselves as family, bound to each other by hundreds of years of caring for this land and telling the stories of this place.

When people ask a newcomer Where are your people from? they can often help you to pinpoint “where” as a specific parcel of land on the Ridge. Some black families on the Ridge live on 40- to 100-acre plots that are held as intergenerational heirs property, or land protected in family trusts. Others are part of the return migration: northern-born descendants of people from the Ridge returning home to find – and sometimes repurchase- parcels of land that were owned or worked by their 19th century ancestors.

Our host Shari Williams recently acquired a single acre of land once held by her Pace family ancestors in 1890. She describes the act of reacquiring land through ownership as the power of connections to ancestry: “My relationship to land is not really just about ownership. It’s spiritual.”

When someone asks you ” Where are your people from?” what do you say? How far back can you trace where your ancestors lived?

The Problem In Flint

Flint River. Photo by Black/Land Project.

Flint River. Photo by Black/Land Project.

Everybody across America now knows what many health and political figures have known since 2014:  adults and children in Flint, Michigan are quickly being poisoned by water filled with lead. Many people are looking for someone to convict, to hold responsible or to blame.

What most people do not understand is how this disaster has happened. Many of the people of Flint do not themselves understand why their taps are spewing murky, unpotable water, or why the cost bringing that poisonous water to their taps is so high. Print journalists interview expertsand political leaders.  Late arriving national news shows images of bottles filled with rust-colored water. Rarely do either focus on the lived experience of people in Flint.

In 2012 and 2013, I spent a lot of time in Flint, interviewing residents about their relationships to land and place. I learned that the majority of Flintonians are African-Americans whose families were part of the Great Migration from the rural Deep South.  They know a lot, and care a lot, about water and land.  Others had been Michiganders for generations. They shared stories of grandparents who fished in the Flint River, or grew their kitchen gardens on its banks.

These people expressed more resignation than anger when I asked how it felt to learn that their river is still poisoned by chemicals from CSX rail lines and heavy metal by-products from GM’s Buick City plant that thrived there in the 20th century.  They shrugged as if to say “We didn’t have a say in those decisions. How could anything have been different?”  It seemed to be the price of those good-paying industrial jobs, jobs that are now mostly gone.

What they were actually angry about was their water bills.

The high cost of water and sewer service in Flint is such a frequent topic of conversation that, as a stranger, I could use it to engage even the most reticent person in an exchange. Hey, how much was you water bill last month? I’d ask. And I would hear an earful. I heard stories from people who borrowed to pay a water bill that was greater than a mortgage payment. I heard tales of hauling bottles and buckets of water from a neighbor’s house until the shutoff bill got paid.

Yet when I asked people *why* their water bills were so high, they looked at me dumbfounded.  Many of them had never considered that there was any reason beyond government malfeasance for the cost of water and sewer service in their city to be so high. The average monthly water bill for a household in Flint is $140, although residents in neighboring suburbs pay less than half that.

Here’s a truth about Flint and its poisonous water that no one wants to talk about. The problem in Flint is not just children with damaged brains and bones from drinking lead; it did not start with brownfield runoff into a river that is now so toxic it corrodes the pipes that deliver water to homes, leaching rust and lead. Flint’s water crisis is the aftermath of decades of urban sprawl, followed by decades of population loss.  The problem in Flint is that every solution to this problem inflicts greater suffering upon people already in pain.

House marked for razing. Photo by Black/Land Project.

House marked for razing. Photo by Black/Land Project.

Urban sprawl is not sexy.  Its results rarely makes headlines anymore. It was last a hot public health issue at the end of the 20th century, as we began to understand the environmental consequences of unfettered expansion of infrastructure for cities that spread across more and more rural land.  As we have accepted increasing urbanism as inevitable, something we did not imagine has emerged: great, sprawled cities were left vacant when the people who once lived there moved away.

As factory jobs moved to Mexico, thousands of adult children of Flint’s auto workers followed opportunity to megacities like Chicago and Atlanta and the suburbs of D.C.They left behind housing developments without young families to purchase them; aging parents living on fixed incomes; entire neighborhoods blighted by vacancy and arson after the home mortgage bubble collapsed. By the early 1970s, 196,000 people lived in Flint; General Motors alone had 88,000 employees. After 25 years of recession, only 99,000 people live in the entire city today.

Yet Flint still has a water supply network that was built for almost 200,000 people spread out over 34 square miles. The problem in Flint is that there is nobody left to pay to their upkeep.  The two years of cover ups are indefensible, but the search for a cheaper water supply was not born of a desire to do intentional harm. No Mayor or emergency manager can pay to maintain this level of infrastructure with a tax base that has fled.

So, the problem in Flint is that everyone who wanted to leave has already packed and gone. That leaves behind to deal with the current crisis only the people who’ve paid off their homes and deeply love their city, a group that strongly overlaps with those too poor to flee.

Closed Fire Station, Flint MI. Photo by Black/Land Project  

Closed Fire Station, Flint MI. Photo by Black/Land Project

 

If you talk to people in Flint, you know that the people who are living with un-filterable levels of lead in their water are the same folks who refused a plan to “right-size” the city in 2010 by reducing the boundaries of municipal services. Urban planners saw them as short sighted and stubborn. Flintonians say they recognized a redlining scheme when they saw one. They have already lost police protection. Half of the city’s fire stations are closed and boarded up.  They are unsurprised to lose their municipal water service, too.

When I asked the scores of people with outrageous water bills what they though should be done about the mismatch between the size of the city’s infrastructure and the number of taxpayers left to support it, they answered that Flint is a good place. The seemed naïve when they told me that they are “just waiting for people realize that, and come back.” They are looking for a silver bullet, and praying for a corporate savior.  And when I listened a little while longer, they told me about how their parents came to Michigan because they were cheated and threatened and forced off their land in the South. They won’t be forced out of the place they call home ever again.

Were I Governor of Michigan, I would not want to be the one who had to tell those 99,000  people that the place they live is dying, poisoned by water from the river that gives the city its name.  I’m sure he’s anxious about what will happen to the few jobs left in Michigan if the local Nestlé Pure Life bottling plant feels endangered by the public image of Michigan’s water as something other than live giving and pure.

The problem in Flint is that people from across the country are now watching, and they want simple answers and quick political fixes to complex long-term environmental problems.  They offer no insight to Flint’s struggle to integrate the politics of race and environmental place into sustainable tax policy, urban planning, and financing public works.  And they don’t help the people of Flint understand why this has happened to them, and what they can do about it.

There are post-industrial cities all over America testing their tap water while you’re reading this essay. The leaders of those cities are worried. They are worried about many things, but one of them is that we still haven’t learned how to think about the problem in Flint.

Black/Land in the Black Belt: A view from the Ridge in Macon Co. Alabama

This week, the Black/Land Project will be conducting interviews and writing in Macon County, Alabama.

Macon County is home to many black land stories: enslaved African-Americans brought to clear and settle colonial Alabama, and their freedmen descendants (of which this writer is one); the HBCU Tuskegee University; and the black churches where people were rounded up for the infamous U.S. Public Health Syphilis study. Those stories exist at a crossroads, intersecting with  homeland of  the Mvskokie (Muscogee) Creek peoples. A classic novel of the Harlem Renaissance, Ollie Miss, is set in rural  Macon County, where the Black/Land Project will be working.

We will be the guests of The Ridge, a Macon County Archaeology Project. The Ridge literally unearths the long and layered history of indigenous people, colonial planters and traders, and African-American people who have lived onthis land. Tucked into the tiny hamlet of Warrior Stand, they are documenting the complex history of this section of the Black Belt south. We are so very grateful to Shari Williams and The Ridge for hosting our Macon County work.

Black Futurity Month

It is February and the Black/Land Project is offering no Black History Month programs. We are writing no Black History Month blog posts or Facebook updates.

Carter G. Woodson

Carter G. Woodson

That isn’t because we think black history is unimportant, or that learning about it is not valuable. Often, the people we interview tell us stories about the fabled landmarks in black American history – the Great Migration, the Black Power movement, urban renewal –  in an intimate way. We are always invited to offer our workshops and presentations during February, but most often we decline.

Although the Black/Land Project uses narratives to understand the story of how black people self-define their relationships to land and place, we are not an oral history project. We are interested in oral narratives about the past and present because they help us to articulate the trajectory of black futurity.

The notion of blackness exists in order to exclude. It is used to exclude the people racialized as black from opportunities for self-determination. Blackness is used to exclude them from full recognition of their social contributions, and from fully benefiting from their labor. This exclusion is made possible by erasing and misunderstanding the black past; to end anti-black racism that past must be named and claimed.  At the same time, the U.S. carries a notion of blackness as something that occurs only in this suppressed and misunderstood history, casting blackness as something that only exists in the past.

Blackness was created to exclude, but any act of trying to keep some things out, inevitably seals some things in. Those things sealed into blackness are creative, dynamic and alive.  Life insists on casting forth root tendrils and gametes and seeds, experimenting with xenogenisis, and generating a future.

Even if we are moving toward a future that includes the end of race as a category for understanding people, the artifacts of blackness leave their trace in everything including the story of relationship to land. These black traces perpetually regenerate and re/create traditions and everyday cultural artifacts Black/Land interviews track these artifacts to help us describe a new social imaginary, one whose  shape we see in acts of collective agricultural economy and social disruption on public land. Visual artists and writers tell stories that casually reference the creative leaps of Afrofuturism. They theorize understandings of the natural environment to include high-rise buildings and human interventions in rural landscapes all as a single ecosystem, with no part seen as unworthy or excluded.

So, during February, just as every month, The Black/Land Project is interested what renewed and continued existence of black relationships to land tell us about our future. Those stories point to how we can resist exclusion as the future premise for organizing life on this planet. They tell us what is valuable and unique about blackness as the creative space for imagining a future in which all of us can be free.

We invite you to spend the month of February thinking with us about the future of blackness.  We are certain that Dr. Woodson[i] would approve.

[i] Carter G. Woodson was the historian who founded Negro History Week in 1926; fifty years later, this became Black History Month.  Born to an impoverished family in Virginia, Woodson went to college in his late 20s at Berea College in Kentucky. He was the second African-American to receive the PhD from Harvard University, preceded only by W.E.B. DuBois.

Where You’ll Find Us

Dear Readers,

This blog tracks the Black/Land Project through our travels. It shares themes from our interviews, and the questions we wrestle with about race, land and landscape, place-making and self-determination. In partnership with our Offerings page, this is where we share what we are learning. 

But we also get lots of information about events, popular books, scholarly papers, fascinating blog posts and breaking news about black relationships to land. We wanted a place to share these with our wider Black/Land community quickly & easily.

So now, you can follow us on Facebook. The Black/Land Project  Facebook page will have fast links to a variety of news stories, links to others editorials, blogs , events andtimely opportunities that you can participate in about black people’s relationship to land and place. (I’ve even heard rumors of a pop-up reading group emerging there!)

We hope this will help you find the just-right place – on this blog, on our Facebook page, on Twitter, or in our occasional newsletter – that helpsyou to connect to the power of black relationship to land and place.

Allison, Hannah, Tavia and Mistinguette – The Black/Land Project crew

Cleveland: Where Black Land Matters

If you were at the Race Food Justice conversation on April 5th in Cleveland, OH , you might have been part of the Black Land Desire Mapping Conversation. You heard about health disparities related to place from  Fred Collier and the City Planning Commission . You saw our slide show about Black Relationships to Land in Cleveland’s history, and  began a conversation about what you want your block, your neighborhood and your community to look like in the future.

We’re keeping that conversation going right here!

cleve-desire-mapping.jpg

What questions did you leave with?

 

What things did you want to talk more with others about?

 

What do you want to know, and do, here in Cleveland?

Narratives of Desire

Many black travel narratives focus on racism, ignorance or exotification. Other damage-centered stories focus on forced movement or displacement. When we only hear and tell these kinds of stories about black movement across land, we showcase narratives of black bondage. One impact of these narrow appraisals is it keeps black people us in the same place, preventing us from experiencing the freedom that moving can also bring.

Leah Penniman at Soul Fire Farm. Photo by H Sultan.

Leah Penniman at Soul Fire Farm. Photo by H Sultan.

We have been blogging about black people on pilgrimages as a liberating and authentic relationship to land.  Another story about moving across land we hear is about moving from the city to the country.

Leah Penniman moved from Albany to rural upstate New York, where she and her husband began to build their own home and farm. Penniman vividly describes the complexity of this move:

“I hated this land a lot too. We bought it. It’s beautiful. It’s a spiritual vortex. It’s amazing. It’s the only place with fields and the whole mountainous area. But the work, the work and the money almost killed me. It almost made me kill [my husband] actually. I think that he almost killed me too! But we’re here so, it’s good…. The thing is that it’s hard to make a decision to live early on land because...it felt like it was leaving the Black community.”

Penniman’s account of moving across the land is balanced. It is not a story about force. She talks about the beauty, the building process and the freedom while still acknowledging the losses , complications and the getting used to a new place. Penniman’s relationship to moving across land is complex and all desired centered.

In what ways have you or your family moved across land because you were going toward something you wanted, instead of moving because you were being displaced or getting away from something ?

Check out Leah’s Soul Fire Farm Black and Latino Farmers Immersion courses this summer!

Putting Our Business In The Street?

I know what comes next in this story, but I’m not sure if I should write it. I could really use your advice.

The last several blog posts here have followed Joan Southgate and Ingrid Askew through their movement across land. Pilgrimage is a very specific method that black people use to seek their own definitions of land and their terms of relationship to it.  Those self-definitions are important. It says something significant that “hope” and “hospitality” are the relationships Southgate names for her freedom seeking ancestors, not “slavery.” Askew juxtaposes beauty and poverty, and contrasts owning land and working the land, to tell a different story about the ways  black people hold complex relationships to land.

But whether it is in the background or the foreground, these black land narratives also contain stories of trauma and pain.  And writing about black experiences of historical trauma is tricky business.

Any time we listen to black people describe their relationships to land, stories of damage are abundant. It is important for us to share and unpack these stories in order to understand how a history of violence and dispossession becomes a repeating legacy of land loss.

However, many people interested in Black/Land are frighteningly eager to hear stories about suffering, and eagerly await a narrative about degradation and pain. Their interest in historical trauma comes from an idea that black people’s bodies are essentially suited to hold, endure and symbolize suffering. This poisonous notion is internalized by black as well as non-black people.  Other non-black readers, particularly those early in the journey of dismantling racism, still see black people as resources for extraction:  if not for extraction of labor, then for extraction of authentic culture or as opportunities to extract emotional catharsis.

So I sit here at the keyboard trying to puzzle this out: how can I write about how black people understand historical trauma among ourselves when I know I may hear these words back from mouths that do not mean us well?  How can we claim space to tell each other our stories without putting all our business out in the street?

Dear Reader, what counsel would you offer me?

Pilgrimage to Transcend Trauma

Ingrid Askew

Ingrid Askew

Continuing our theme of historical pilgrimage a way to explore black relationships to land, we return to the Interfaith Pilgrimage of the Middle Passage (read more about the pilgrimage here).  Ingrid Askew led this twelve-month walk through the eastern United States, the Caribbean, Brazil, West Africa, and South Africa, to reverse and revise the direction of the Middle Passage symbolically and geographically. The pilgrims were a multiracial, interfaith group that included Ingrid’s daughter, Raina.

Much of the pilgrimage was a reckoning with the historical trauma of enslavement and colonization as a transnational experience. Many African-Americans know about the history of slavery in the United States; yet embodying the Middle Passage and confronting the emotional scope of this historical trauma in very personal terms transformed them. Ingrid described helping her daughter through such a moment of confrontation and understanding while the pilgrims were encamped in Puerto Rico.

I got in the tent one night, and [Raina] was crying her eyes out. And I was like, “What’s the matter? What’s going on?” She said, “I get it now, Mommy. I get it, I’ve learned enough. I don’t want to know anymore, I don’t want to learn anymore. I just want to go home.  I don’t want to do this pilgrimage anymore” she said. “It’s too painful. I’m not going to go to Africa, I’m going back to the states, Mom.”

 

And I said, “No you’re not. No you’re not, I can’t allow you to do that, because I don’t want to spend the rest of my life regretting not making you do it, and I don’t want [you] to spend the rest of your life regretting not having done it. No. You’re going.  When you signed on for this pilgrimage, you didn’t sign on for yourself, you didn’t sign on for me, you signed on for your ancestors. That’s who you’re walking for. That’s why you’re learning all this painful stuff. For them. Think about them. Think about the pain they felt. You’re going. I’m sorry, honey.

Guided by the fierce determination of mama love and an intuitive understanding that the emotional trauma caused by slavery must be fully faced before it can be released, Ingrid asked what brought on her daughter’s feelings of being overwhelmed. Raina told her:

“Mommy, I’m just thinking about Haiti.” She loved Haiti. She said, “And I’m thinking about every place that we have walked on this pilgrimage so far.  Mom, it’s been 6 months, and every place that we went, the people [who] were suffering, look like me. But I get it now. I get it. I get why there’s this, why there’s all this wealth for such few people, and why there’s such dire poverty in the world. It’s all about the greed. I get it, but I don’t want to know anymore. Cause it hurts, it just hurts.”

Ingrid pauses at the memory of helping her daughter cross the threshold from thinking about the historical trauma of the Maafa to knowing it.  “And I just held her in my arms all night. And she just cried and slept, and woke up and cried some more.”

The Geography of Blackness

Relationships to land are complex. They exist in a physical place that can be mapped, but they also exist as an emotional relationship to an historical landscape, a history that is often flattened when describing the experience of black people. Exploring the fullness of black relationships to land requires a consideration of what place means across the dimension of time, and the emotional impact those stories hold for us today.

Ingrid Askew

Ingrid Askew

One way African-Americans explore the geography of blackness is by retracing the historical movement of their ancestors across land. Earlier this year, we wrote about Joan Southgate, who walked a northern route on the Underground Railroad, recovering a story of hospitality and hope. (Joan was recently named one of Yes Magazine’s “Grandmothers We Love”- check it the story here.) Such pilgrimages thread themselves through many black land narratives, but none more fully than the story told by Ingrid Askew.

The founder and leader of the Interfaith Pilgrimage of the Middle Passage, Askew began her Black/Land interview by telling me she didn’t know if she had anything to say about land and place. I found this remarkable, considering that Ms. Askew led a group on a two-year journey, by foot and by boat, from the mill towns of New England, along the slave ports of the Atlantic coast to New Orleans, and then to Haiti, Puerto Rico, Brazil, Senegal and southward to Cape Town, South Africa. Her journey 1998-99 journey to retrace the route of the Middle Passage was a way of deepening her understanding of the many places people of African descent have learned to call home. Those places evoked a history of wonder, discovery and deep spiritual awakening; they also required facing a contemporary experience of deep pain.

The U.S. leg of the journey threw the economic history of land ownership into sharp relief. I asked Askew what it was like to retrace the steps of slavery across land in the rural south:

Seeing a lot of the poverty right in my face, and seeing a lot of the wealth. And seeing how gorgeous this planet is, and how beautiful this country is, and how unfortunate and how unfair that we all can’t share in this together, you know. Because it’s certainly enough for everybody, you know. And, so it made me think a lot, made everybody think a lot, about racism. About our connection to each other, and to this place. And to land, and see who owns it and who’s working it.

 

In the south, we passed a lot of cotton fields and saw who was out there working… I remember one time there was a field of cotton on this small country road we were walking on, and some of the pilgrims actually ran out there and started picking with the people, and talking to the people about this particular farm that we walked by. And they weren’t the owners, you know. So, it’s … still [the same].

Askew highlights the difference between the pain of facing the ongoing economic and social legacy of picking cotton, yet defines her relationship as more than that pain.  Aware that she was free to enter and to leave those emotionally laden fields, Askew describes her relationship to that land as a complex understanding of wealth and beauty, injustice and bounty, racism and connection. While those who worked that land and those who owned it have not changed, moving across that land changedAskew’s relationship to it.

Pilgrimage – moving across land – is a way of moving across time, witnessing what is changed about the land while observing what is changed within the self.  For Askew, the pilgrimage helped her to acknowledge the pain associated with race-based enslavement and sharecropping without being defined by it.

It went beyond the idea of examining racism, you know. All the other stuff just opened up: what this world is, and how I fit into it. How I fit into it.

Power. Love. Justice.

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“Now, power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political, and economic change… What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power, at its best, is love implementing the demands of justice; and justice, at its best, is love correcting everything that stands against love.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

from Where Do We Go From Here?

Delivered 16 August 1967 at the SCLC Annual Convention in Atlanta Georgia.

Read the full text of this speech here.

Who owns your Church Home?

When we ask black people about their relationships to land, churches are a primary consideration for  African-Americans. When asked “Where do black people in your town call home?”  a frequent answer is  “Church.” A black pastor described his relationship to land and place by saying “Where I live and this church are inextricably bound together.”

Centennial Baptist Church, Helena AK. Photo by Dave Anderson

Centennial Baptist Church, Helena AK. Photo by Dave Anderson

Stories of fried fish dinner fundraisers leading to mortgage-burning celebrations mark the history of black churches as a form of collective land ownership.  Black church archives hold not only the history of births and baptisms, but also the histories of community leadership and church funds loans to members for the purchase of homes and land. They remain one of the few private spaces for black people to hold community conversations about aspirations for social and economic self-determination.

With this ear to black churches as markers of black autonomy and authority, we watched this Southword multimedia story, broadcast on NPR, of the Centennial Baptist Church in Helena, AK. Their relationship to landemphasizes the economic and cultural value of black controlled places, as well as the value of the history of the people on that land. This quest for a self-determined future in the face of an under-resourced present is a story greater than Helena Arkansas: it is the story of the values of an African-American community, and the values of those who would be their allies, and the very different relationships they hold to black land today.

Land and Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Day is a day of return, the day when we re-weave the threads of our diaspora around the tables of family and friends. You may be undertaking a journey, across town or across the country, in order to get to that bittersweet place you think of as home.

Home is perhaps the most primary relationship to land: land as memory, land as gathering ground, land as the place where we bind ourselves in relationship to each other. One Black/Land interview participant from rural Ohio recalls her father’s purposeful making land and family memory one:

“I don’t know where this came from in him, but [my dad] started planting trees and bushes for major events in our lives, the death of one of his brothers, the birth of a baby. So every tree and bush in our yard has a meaning, has a purpose. There’s one — Caitlin has a tree, my nephew has a tree. There are trees for all of his siblings who passed away. So it’s this beautiful piece of land, all these great trees and bushes and evergreens and they all have a history, a purpose. You ought to see it now. It’s beautiful.

As we gather to reflect upon what gives shape and meaning to our lives, may we be attentive for the story of the land upon which we gather. When you assemble at Big Mama’s homestead;  bow your heads in a room overlooking a suburban yard or a city block; or arrive back home to the family farm, take a moment this Thanksgiving to listen for, and to pass on, those black land stories. They tell us who we are together, and for what we must give thanks.