Review: A book celebrating Black American farming history

“We Are Each Other’s Harvest: Celebrating African American Farmers Land and Legacy,” by Natalie Baszile (Amistad)

Farming would seem to be one occupation that Black Americans could find refuge from discrimination. Consumers choose their fruits and veggies by their size and vitality, unconcerned about the hands that raised them. How different America would be if agriculture were that ultimate meritocracy, rewarding those who master the science of soil, plants and the environment.

However, the celebration Natalie Baszile refers to in “We Are Each Other’s Harvest: Celebrating African American Farmers Land, and Legacy” is leavened by hard truths and cruelties of efforts to run Black farmers off the land.

For decades, the might of the United States Department of Agriculture systematically tried to wreck Black farmers’ livelihood. Baszile cites figures showing that, for example, the U.S.D.A. lent $1.3 billion to farmers to buy land in 1984 and 1985. Of the approximately 16,000 farmers who received these loans, just 209 were Black.

That’s one reason why, as Baszile writes, Black farmers cultivate less than half of 1% of the nation’s farmland today.

As the author writes however, Black farming family ties to the land extend for generations, their origins traced to ancestors who braided seeds of okra, sorrel and black-eyed peas in their hair before they were loaded onto slave ships.

“This country was built on the free labor of enslaved people whom carried their agricultural expertise with them when they arrived on America’s colonial shores,” writes Baszile.

That knowledge endures.

The Penniman family of Petersburg, New York, grows vegetables, fruits and herbs and also raise poultry on five acres using Afro-indigenous regenerative practices that leaves the land with more organic carbon and biodiversity each year.

“We belong here,” says family matriarch Leah Penniman. “Bare feet planted firmly on the land, hands calloused with the work of sustaining and nourishing our community.”

In Sondheimer, Louisiana, the Nelson family has been tending the land for four generations, surviving numerous efforts to cheat them out of their land.

For those remaining Black American farmers, justice appears finally to have arrived in the form of $4 billion in federal grants and forgivable loans designed to help farmers of color regain their land, pay debts and resume raising crops.

Baszile has recruited some strong writers to tell their family farming stories of perseverance and a kinship with the land best understood by people who work the rhythms of soil, plants and weather.

Their ancestral farming links from Africa to America are best illustrated on the book’s cover, a picture of two women holding hoes, a farming tool invented in Africa centuries ago.

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