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.
“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.
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.”
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.
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.
The folks at the Black/Land Project are deep in research. We’re working with collaborators at SUNY-New Paltz to turn the dozens of interviews we have gathered into data to describe the complex experiences, self-definitions and desires that form black relationships to land.
We began a recent work day with a walking meditation around beautiful Lake Minnewaska about the meaning of research. What does it mean to turn stories into data? What does it mean to create research that might be used against us? How do we produce research that doesn’t reinforce the idea that blackness is solely a condition of deprivation or damage?
Black/Land believes that our communities should be able to produce and control information and knowledge about the things that are important to us. Because of that, we’re wrestling with some heavy ethics. How would you answer these questions?
- From the Tuskegee syphilis experiments to Henrietta Lacks, research in our communities has often deceived and hurt black people. Are there ways to do research that do not cause harm?
- Our colleague Eve Tuck writes: “the time has come for our communities to refuse to be complicit in our further categorization as only damaged, as only broken.” How can our research tell a story that includes both recounting black pain and assertions of black sovereignty and self-determination?
- Are there some stories that don’t belong in research, stories we should not tell? Which ones? Why?
- Why should we turn our stories into research, anyway? To whom does such “research” belong?
People are talking about The Black/Land Project all over the country! Here’squick update on what they’re saying:
And we have fifty new Twitter followers, tweeting about the presentation by Allison Guess & Tavia Benjamin on land based historical traumaduring the Tierra Y Libertad panel at the Allied Media Conference #amc2013. Missed the conversation? Our good friends at HAFA-DC captured those tweets in a Storify here. Looking for the slide show that Guess & Benjamin presented? Find it on our Offerings page, here.
Oh, wait. We get it. You want a chance to talk with us, not about us. Stay tuned for some tweetups and Google Hangouts with the Black/Land Project this fall. Drop us a note about a topic you would like to discuss in the Comment box, below. And follow us @BlackLandProj for a conversation near you.
Many of the stories we hear at The Black/Land Project are about migration. Not the forced migration of slavery, but epics about mass movement across land, or family anecdotes about leaving one homeplace to build another. It is striking how often black people self-define voluntary movement as a significant relationship to land.
Joan Southgate was one of the first people Black/Land interviewed, and her story is about the echoes of black migration. She shared with us her twenty-first century story about walking the nineteenth century path of the Underground Railroad. Through this walk, Joan found a new meaning in her ancestors’ experience of moving across the land. She returned home with a new purpose, one that redefined the place where her journey started.
In her seventy-third year, Joan felt called to walk down a fugitive history: the northern stretch of the Underground Railroad. She walked two hundred fifty miles, wayfaring from the Ohio River to her home in Cleveland, Ohio. She completed her journey by traveling another two hundred fifty miles, across Pennsylvania and upstate New York to St. Catherine’s Ontario, the Canadian terminus of Harriet Tubman’s route on the Underground Railroad. Joan began this journey in an unlikely way – she started out just walking for exercise.
So, I was there doing my usual walk– which was a stroll– and my brain was complaining: Sigh. I have to get out here every day, I have to lose this weight. Blah blah blah”. And then something said, “Your ancestors walked hundreds of miles, walking for freedom.” And here I am complaining about this! Immediately, it came to me “How can I praise them?” And the answer I heard clearly was “Walk.”
Her daily walk for exercise became a training regimen to prepare for this longer journey. After walking the streets of her neighborhood in the company of her black cat (named Nelson Mandela) Joan began to walk across Ohio, retracing the routes of the Underground Railroad. She began her journey in Ripley, Ohio, where people escaping slavery crossed the Ohio River. She chose this spot because so few African-Americans know this history of Ohio and its welcome to people seeking freedom.
“Ohio has more underground railroad sites than almost all the other free states put together—that meant I could go anywhere,” said Joan. “I went to Springboro, Ohio because that was a town were a whole group of Quakers had specifically settled to build a stop on the Underground Railroad.”
Alone on foot, hitching a ride with a caravan of campers, or being joined by media and crowds of fellow travelers for part of the road, the walk changed Southgate’s ideas about Ohio as a place.
“Everywhere I stayed was with a stranger. So that’s the piece that made it alittle bit like the kind of welcoming and caring and protection that the freedom seekers were welcomed with. AndI never before understood that these people were not slaves. What they were was brave freedom seekers. And they were met all over – in white towns and in black towns and …being hidden in haywagons on country roads… by people offering hospitality. That’s how I’d describe what land means to me now: a place where people can seek freedom. And a place where free people can offer hospitality. I had never thought about Ohio and New York that way before.”
“I wonder if my ancestors may have come down from Canada to New York for that.”
Today, Joan Southgate’s story continues at Restore Cleveland Hope, a community organization dedicated to restoring the Cozad-Bates house, which was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Southgate wants the house to commemorate more than Cleveland’s courageous anti-slavery past: she also wants to restore the memory of offering hope and receiving welcome as essential parts of movements for justice.
“Cleveland’s name on the Underground Railroad was ‘Hope’, you know” says Joan. She wants the Cozad-Bates house to shelter the memory of Ohio as a place where freedom seekers brave enough to extend their hope and trust received hospitality and protection in return.
As I hugged Joan goodbye, I wondered if “Hope” remains one important black relationship to land.
We’ll get back to this theme about migration as a relationship to land in just a minute. But first, I have a story I want to tell you. It’s a story about my own black relationship to land.
s the founder and director of The Back/Land Project, people often assume that I come from, or am passionate about, agricultural land and rural spaces. When I say that I am not, folks get confused. Some people have asked me indignantly “Well then, what IS your black land story?”
I don’t know my entire story yet, but there are two or three things I know for sure. And one of them is about how I feel about Country. That story is generational. It’s personal. It is very, very black. And I finally got it down on paper, just the way I mean to say it.
You can find my short essay about “Country” here, in the journal The Common Online: A Modern Sense of Place.
So, holla if you hear me. (Please holla in the Comments section, below.)
And if you have your own black/land story to tell, send it to The Black/Land Project’s MyStory Campaign. Because I’m waiting to hear your story, too.
When James Loewen wrote about Sundown Towns, many Americans were shocked by how blatantly today’s residential segregation was created. For much of the 20th century, thousands of northern public buildings and suburban city limits had signs that said “N—-r, don’t let the sun go down on you in this town.” Yet the human desire for relationship and connection is stronger than the boundaries of town and racial ideology. What kinds of people have we become while living in such intensely segregated places?
When Al Letson visited Pike County, OH in 2012, he found an interesting answer to that question: a sundown town where the physical markers of race have blurred, but the distinctions of racism remain brutally strong.
The former sundown town Waverly remains 92% white. The Waverly neighborhood of East Jackson, once an underground railroad settlement, is now a place where many residents have cream-colored skin, red hair, light-colored eyes– and proudly identify as black in spite of ongoing racial attacks and the presence of white supremacist groups.
Sometimes, the bitter divide of race occurs within a single family. And sometimes, these people of mixed racial heritage in southern Ohio are eager to be anything but black.
Settle down and listen to an exceptionally well-told story, “As Black As We Wish To Be” on “State of the Re-Union” with Al Letson:
This story shows us how place can define race. Residents of East Jackson are black, in part, because they live in East Jackson. The living memory of history that marks Appalachian culture is part of what keeps the sharp line of race alive in Waverly; it also points to the enduring strength of Affrilachian identity.
The people of Pike County, Ohio ask us important questions: What is blackness? A genetic relationship? A cultural loyalty? An historic legacy? A social status? A choice?
- Where in your life have features of land and place shaped who is – and who isn’t– black?
- How does staying in the community where you were born shape your experience of blackness? Has moving to a new place changed your experience of race?
Everybody is reading about it. From Isabel Wilkerson’s “The Warmth of Other Suns” to the hot new Oprah Book Club pick “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie,” stories of the Great Migration have captured our imaginations. These narratives describe the movement of six million African-Americans out of impoverishment in the rural South to become the backbone of the 20th century industrial working class.
We often speak of The Great Migration as a force that changed the shape of black families, and formed the roots of black economic power. Less often do we speak of it as a story about relationship to land.
African-Americans today often speak of The Great Migration as black people “leaving” the land. This idea presumes that the only real land is in the rural South. It forgets the place-based stories free Northern blacks told of seeking to reunite with their families during Reconstruction (a story Leonard Pitts‘ latest novel “Freeman” captures so well.) It also supposes that leaving the Jim Crow South was a form of abandonment, as if African-Americans have some essential or elemental commitment to remain in a place where they were once bound. Yet, moving across land is also a relationship, and carrying a culture from one location to remake it in another is a relationship to place that is profound.
Many Black/Land narratives include stories about migration. Do you have a migration story of your own? Are you a descendant of The Great Migration? Or migration from another country? Where are your people from, and what do you know about their journey? How did they go about setting down roots in a brand new place?
HAFA-DC (Healthy Affordable Food for All) , a coalition of advocates, service providers and local food advocates in Washington D.C. neighborhoods hosted a Black/Land presentation by webinar. On July 17, local host Zachari Curtis of Bread for the City facilitated discussion among fifteen people in five locations for a 90 minute exploration of how black people describe their many relationships to land. The discussion was emotionally deep and lively, and focused on how listening to black people’s narratives might change how we frame issue-based community organizing.
Of course, many people in the D.C. have long been thinking about black people’s relationships to land and place. This slide show, excerpted from the webinar, raises some of the questions we considered.
We discussed the unique issues that shape black relationships to land and place in the District, where the challenge of gentrification raises different issues than those faced by depopulating black-majority cities in the Midwest.
This Black/Land conversation in the neighborhoods of D.C. is just a beginning. It continues in many virtual and real-time spaces, and you are invited to join in!
– Join the conversation here on the Art in Praxis blog
– The conversation continues live and in person on Monday nights from 6pm-8pm at the Center for Green Urbanism, as part of the HAFA-DC Work Group.
Black people must think about what constitutes a just and equitable relationship to urban land, and quickly. White flight has left many major cities with populations that are mostly black, presenting both a painful continuation of segregation, and an unprecedented opportunity.
Majority-black cities like Washington DC, Baltimore, Atlanta, Detroit, New Orleans, St. Louis and Newark (to name a few) have a fast-closing window ofopportunity to define and articulate the values black people hold about urban land, and the uses of that land we will embrace or reject.
Detroit is one city that embraces urban agriculture as a valued activity. D-Town Farm and the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network have been leaders in this thinking, growing and doing. But does that mean that anyone doing any kind of growing in the city is a good thing? Or are there criteria for what urban agriculture should look like within black definitions of just relationship to land?
Eric Holt Giménez’s recent article in The Huffington Post asks if Hantz Farms, a planned 175 acre tree farm in the city of Detroit, is the kind of urban agriculture Detroiters have in mind. Hantz Farm describes itself as “Detroit’s Saving Grace,” but Giménez describes it as a land grab:
In the short run, the purchase by Hantz cleans things up, puts foreclosed lots back on the tax rolls and relieves the city of maintenance responsibilities. If the tree farm expands, it could provide a few jobs. In the long run, however, Hantz hopes his farm will create land scarcity in order to push up property values — property that he will own a lot of.
Giménez places this story in a global context, describing Hantz Farm as an example of what is happening to land currently occupied by black people all over the world. As land becomes a scare and more valuable resource, the 21st century Scramble for Africa seems to extend to African-American neighborhoods on Detroit’s East Side.
What do you think?
- How can we embrace the urban farming movement without pushing — and pricing– black people out of our homes and neighborhoods?
- Where have you seen the desire for urban food security used to greenwash a land grab in other cities?
- What opportunities and new perspectives open up when we think of this situation as part of black people across the globe competing with others for the right to remain on black land?
It’s clear that many black people enjoy the great outdoors: some fish or hunt, others bike or ski. There are even historically black recreation communities with campsites, like Idlewild. So why do we so often hear people say that black folk don’t camp?
While it’s no joke that black folks are less than 6% of the visitors to our national parks, we at Black/Land are ROTFL at the way the Black Public Media series “Black Folk Don’t” is tackling the idea that Black Folk Don’t Camp head on:
Don’t forget to listen for the catchy theme song at the end! And please check out other episodes of the thoughtful and funny “Black Folks Don’t” series.
Do you camp? Why or why not? How do you think camping got a reputation as something black people don’t do?
The Black/Land Project is back in school! We’re at a week long course at the City University of New York’s Public Science Project. We are learning new ways to gather and share stories about black people’s relationship to land and place.
UPDATE: You can download a free copy of the final report of Beyond Fields and Factories on our Offerings page.
Everyone has a relationship to land and place. So why does understanding the particular relationships black people have to land matter?
Last week, community leaders in Flint, Michigan wrestled with just that question. Like many cities in the Great Lakes region, most black people over 50 in Flint came from the fields of the rural southseeking good factory wages during the 1970s. Like its sister cities, Flint became a majority black city at the same time as it faced economic and political destabilization caused by deindustrialization and population loss. For those under fifty, economic and social poverty in Flint have been pervasive for their entire lifetime, and seems entwined with blackness itself.
Three things revealed themselves as central to our discussions:
- Black relationships to land are shaped by 400 years of public policy, specifically laws designed to prevent blacks from owning, settling on, inheriting or building economically sustainable communities;
- In spite of such policy, black Americans successfully worked, settled, owned and created wealth through land, and recreated displaced communities through culturally unique patterns of resilience; and
- Many elders in Flint are already quietly engaged in work to transcend historical trauma and begin to regenerate community.
Flintonians were eager to have this Black/Land Conversation. Flint ispreparing for its first municipal master land use planning process in 50 years, and they are determined for it to include everyone.
Observed by gilt-framed portraits of the Mott family, leaders from community service, nonprofit, faith and government groups gathered in the formal living room of the Applewood Estate, and continued their discussion for nearly two hours after the Conversations workshop closed.
On Saturday, a full workshop gathered at Foss Avenue Baptist Church. Everyone, from Flint Mayor Dayne Walling to neighbors who had just heard about the event on the radio that morning, came together to envision a future Flint. This workshop was challenging: while some participants brought new ideas and personal visions for how Flint’s historically black North Side could begin to thrive, others could only recount the history of municipal neglect of the North Side and couldn’t envision a future that looked different from that past.
This story from Flint is not unique. Black/Land Conversations are not about black history: they are about whether black people will be participants in shaping America’s present and future.
Are black people in your city engaged formal community planning processes? Why or why not? When engaged, do they bring dreams for the future of their community, or are they trapped in historical trauma and only able to recount injustices done in the past?
Close your eyes and envision a black relationship to land. You might picture a farmer: a man whoseweathered hands match his wise, deeply lined face. He might be anywhere in the deep south, slowly driving a tractor across the hundred acres of earth his people have farmed for generations.
Now, open your eyes and meet today’s black farmer.
Leah Penniman is a young and female, part of the new trend of black women entering commercial agriculture as a social, as well as economic, enterprise. Like many of today’s new landholders, she earns much of her income off the farm: she works full time as a science teacher at Albany’s Tech Valley High School. And Penniman’s Soul Fire Farm isn’t in the steamy or dusty south. You’ll find her feeding her pullets at the end of a short dirt road off Route 2 in upstate New York.
As part of a working farm family, Penniman is quick to dispel romantic notions about what it took to move from a city to have access to rural land for farming:
We lived in the ’hood for five years, on Grand Street in downtown Albany in a predominately African-American neighborhood with the community garden, the preschool, all our friends around the corner… All the time we were living in Albany, we were also coming out here on the weekends putting in the road, putting in the barn, the septic, the well … I mean everything. With our hands. From the ground up. Talk about relationship to land!
I hated this land a lot, too. We bought it, it was beautiful, it’s amazing, it’s a spiritual vortex, it’s the only place with open fields here in the mountains. But the work, the work and the money, almost killed me…. But we’re here. So it’s good.
In addition to teaching, Penniman and her husband are rearing two children, raising a flock of laying hens and growing 75 varieties of veggies each season. Running a CSA, especially one “committed to making real food available to everyone” with a sliding price scale, means she is also running a business. She drives more than 40 miles on Fridays and Sundays to deliver eggs and vegetables to her 25 CSA shareholders in Albany, Troy and Rensselaer, NY.
Penniman’s story reminds us that rooting ourselves in rural agricultural land requires a level of physical labor that is new to most of us. Equally challenging to new farmers who are not on heritage land is the level of financial and emotional commitment to place farming requires. That commitment may be deeper, and more demanding, than anything a non-farmer will ever have a chance to know.
Do you grow food or raise livestock? How is your relationship to land different than it was for black farmers in the past? What cultural strengths and lessons do you draw on when things are hard?
At today’s Northeast Organic Farming Association – Vermont Winter Conference, we held an unusual Black/Land workshop. We talked about how what we are learning in Black/Land interviews can be useful in a place like Vermont – where black people are a very small part of the population. We hope Vermonters will continue to explore these questions –which we’ve posted below – about public policy and land, and recognizing historical trauma. And we’ll never forget to name the contributions of Booker T. Whately!
In a recent article in The Huffington Post, Tiya Miles explores another context for black relationship to public land. In Miles’ description of how “An Emergency Manager Would Put Belle Isle at Risk” the MacArthur Fellow and scholar of African-American studies connects black people’s relationship to public land with the very fundament of democratic self-governance.
The ongoing financial crisis in Detroit may lead to appointment of an Emergency Manager for the city, an administrator whose authority would over-rule all of Detroit’s democratically elected municipal bodies. Linked to this possibility is the sale of land owned by the people of Detroit; the beautiful public park filled with old growth forests in the Detroit River known as Belle Isle.
Detroit is a city where 82% of its residents are black. Miles reminds us that non-democratic governance and seizure of land have particular meaning in the history of black people in America:
If Detroit is a black city, then Belle Isle is black land. It is precious, peaceful, protected land held in trust for the people of the city. Land is the basis for human livelihood and prosperity. And yet, across this nation and for centuries, African Americans have had valuable land stripped out from under us– think of those 40 acres that never materialized after the Civil War, of the many black families who lost farms to illegal deals and swindles after Reconstruction, of the Geechee and Gullah communities on the sea islands of Georgia and South Carolina who lost their land to resort development, and of the struggling residents of Detroit who are losing their own backyards to foreclosure. The loss of Belle Isle to private purchasers, beholden only to themselves, would be a sad addition to this lamentable list.
Miles’ essay leads to questions that strike at the root of whether black people are full participants in American democracy:
- Are public green spaces something that, during hard times, black people have to live without?
- Is race connected with the appointment of Emergency Managers in economically struggling cities?
- American democracy is based on the idea of a “public commons,” the elements of our physical and cultural environment that all of us share. How does the threat of losing this physical commons affect black people’s civic engagement and participation in democratic institutions?
What do you think is the relationship between democracy, black people and public land?
Public green space are rarely the first words that comes up when Black/Land asks people about their relationships to land and place. African-American relationships to urban land in the post-industrial Midwest hold especially complex stories. How does the mix ofagricultural roots, displacement through urban renewal, neighborhoods plagued by illegal dumping, and the strong inter-generational neighborhood ties that characterize black urban communities today connect to a vision of green cities full of parks, community gardens, mature tree cover, and peaceful walking trails?
Damien Forché has such a vision. He sees public land — like the urban farm he is building on a leased public parcel – as way torestore natural beauty to urban areas. He sees beauty as something essential to improving his community’s health, just like good jobs and wholesome food.
Forché is the farming force behind Rid-All’s Environmental Science and Commercial Urban Agriculture Training Center, in Cleveland Ohio. Alongside his tilapia tanks and hydroponic salad greens, Forché is committed to cultivating green space as a place of pleasure, safety and imagination for the black residents of Cleveland’s Kinsman area.
“This is park land.” says Forché, gesturing to the 1.8 acres that hold his greenhouse and hoop houses. “This is Otter Park. You know, they never really give us parks” he says wistfully, describing how unmanaged open space in the neighborhood where he grew up became illegal dumps for commercial waste, garbage, even dead bodies.“This is green space [now]… but it had been a flat piece of land since the 1970s” when hundreds of homes were destroyed by fire or razed during urban renewal.
Forché reminds us that a poverty of local green space affects health and well-being as much as lacking food or money. A recent Place Matters study showed a 24 year difference in life expectancy among residents of Greater Cleveland depending upon where they live.
Forché has designed Rid-All’s farm to make natural landscape a part of the Kinsman area’s well-being:
“I’m going to set it up so you can walk through it, and it can just be a spot of tranquility, where you can sit down and just enjoy the sound of the Rapid [Transit trains] going by. We’re going to build benches back there… We’ve left the big trees tall, so we have a family of hawks, and the deer. When you live in a congested city, you can’t see that. You’ve been so closed in for so long, it makes a difference in your mindset, to where you can’t see what you can do with land. … If you’ve never seen it, you can’t seethe importance of land.”
Leave a Comment: How is public green space used in black communities where you live? Does access to green space affect how you think about land?
When Black/Land comes to a community to do interviews, we find creative ways to return what we learn from those stories back to the places that have shared them with us. During October, we were in Michigan exploring the unique stories black women tell about their relationship to land and place.
Watch this video, and leave us a comment: What stories do black women have about relationship to land and place that are valuable and unique?