How Black Farmers Are Freeing Themselves & Preserving Our Culture

Photo: Jeremy Poland/Getty Images.
When Nigerian artist Tems encouraged Black folx to listen, reflect, and release in order to survive the troubling times via her song “Free Mind” in 2020, there was no mistaking the urgency simmering beneath her sweet, enchanting voice. The song became a mantra that remains a timely reminder to orient our collective spirit toward the cardinal directions of freedom, joy, service and creativity. Today, as food and healthcare costs and rising inflation contribute to instability across the nation, we are especially in need of more free minds. 
As a storyteller, artist, and farmer, this spirit of freedom is most evident to me within the context of Black agriculture. Many of the modern practices widely regarded as organic, sustainable or regenerative were derived from the imagination of Black people. For example, we can trace early examples of polyculture — the process of growing plants and different species as a way to increase plant biodiversity and make crops more resilient to climate variability — back to Indigenous farmers in Western Africa. In Ghana and Liberia, African Dark Earth — a type of super rich compost that sequesters 300% more carbon than standard topsoil —  is made by mixing bone char ash, residues from soap, and crops. “It was created by women [and] continues to be so important in the community [that] each person is responsible for adding to the layers of the soil,” says Leah Penniman, co-founder and manager at Soulfire Farm in Grafton, New York. It’s important to acknowledge that some of the earliest creative farming practices have deep cultural roots and belong to us, especially as modern ecological movements often erase Black women from the historical record. 
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The idea of freeing one’s mind is an ancestral call-to-action; a sentiment which has been echoed by Black people for as long as we’ve existed, wherever we’ve existed. And all over the world, we can find examples of people of African descent turning to the​​ practice of building community to move beyond limitations — internal and external — in order to uplift and preserve Black culture. 

It’s important to acknowledge that some of the earliest creative farming practices have deep cultural roots and belong to us, especially as modern ecological movements often erase Black women from the historical record.

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“Historically, culturally, Black women, Black mothers, Black grandmothers were the primary farmers and so the carriers of this legacy as primary seed selectors and breeders, the seed keepers and the story keepers, the primary ones who are actually doing the farming,” Penniman says. Mothering is a process that can be found in all of nature. It is the nurturing of life before birth and the care and feeding of young until they can for themselves. Black women provide the practical and philosophical education that helps us imagine ourselves as independent, free beings. Without it, our ability to celebrate and preserve our culture might not be possible. 
Mama Ira Wallace of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange teaches communities about seeds and stories spanning decades, cultures and traditions. “It’s not just the seeds that you know [are] important. It’s the stories and the places that they came from. These are like little time capsules you know traveling into the future, bringing a piece of the life of a different time and place to people right now. And if you don’t save that story a lot of that is lost.” says Wallace.  Sharing stories helps us connect to our heritage, empowers us to reclaim our agency in the present, and protects our future.
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Fortunately, land-based stories are universal; all humans exist on land and have some connection to it. This means that we also have unlimited access to the liberating practices of Black women. New Orleans transplant and multimedia artist JESSCX uses music, visual and fiber arts to find freedom and move beyond limitation. For her first solo exhibition called “Perfect Memory” — which investigated the ancestral memory held by Black people in America by means of waves and water — developing an intimate relationship with water was vital to her practice. “It’s not just a place to receive, but also to let go as well. Which feels just as important for making space for new ideas and visions to come to me,” she muses. Tapping into our free minds begins with listening; to the needs and desires of ourselves, our environments and of those around us.   
Listening, however, is an endeavor that requires enormous effort. Especially when the history of land displacement and structural inequality in America remains unreconciled, it is hard to remain still enough, long enough to fully acknowledge our personal and collective needs. It’s why Penniman insists on using land and labor practices like cooperative land ownership, education and community supported agriculture as an attempt to move beyond purely extractive relationships with the environment and community served at Soul Fire. By holding informal conversations and focus groups to develop programming that serves the directly stated needs of those to whom they are accountable, Penniman asks, “What are the ways that we can serve better?”— especially since the farm resides in Grafton, New York on unseated Mohican territory,  a fact that contextualizes the insidious and nuanced challenges of land-based work in America.
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In order to resist white supremacist, patriarchal, heteronormative capitalism and find freedom in our creative agency, we must remember who we are. Remembering is part of being made whole.

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Yet in order to resist white supremacist, patriarchal, heteronormative capitalism and find freedom in our creative agency, we must remember who we are. Remembering is part of being made whole. Our ancestors knew that developing an intimacy or deep relationship with our environment was the key to our collective futures. 
By 2050, 89% of Americans and 69% of the global population are projected to live in urban areas and will need to use creativity in order to remain in relationship with life sustaining soil. Spaces like the Black Urban Growers conference, which convened for its 10th year this October, are critical for bringing together hundreds of urban growers from around the country to learn from one another and remember the creative solutions of our ancestors in order to apply them in urban contexts. I was fortunate enough to attend for the first time and left the weekend feeling energized and encouraged — confident that remembering who I am is both powerful and contagious. “Origin, or returning to the source is where the power lives,” media powerhouse Stephen Satterfield explained in his keynote speech. And he would know. His critically acclaimed Netflix series High on the Hog uplifts the stories that unite us through power, access and agency. “Having access to ancestral memory gives me so much context. I love when I get to learn more about my ancestors from people that knew them more than I did when they were on this earth [and] realizing that no part of me came out of nowhere,” says JESSCX. Having access to our past provides context for what we’re doing and being in this lifetime and beyond. 
In short, ​when we can tune into the liberating Black legacy of community care and remembrance, the messages of freedom, love, and service can be transmitted and downloaded in our hearts. And we can inspire others around us to do the same, finding fulfillment and alignment with “free minds.” Penniman agrees. “To [be] in community with creatives and artists together with the scientists and the mathy people and the folks who like to make five year plans, [we] actually all belong together,” she says. “I think that intersection is where our strongest work can come alive.”

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