It has been said that black people are not interested in issues of sustainability, ag policy, and good food in general. But in late November, over 500 black-identified people, representing urban and rural farming networks, food justice organizations, government officials, policy makers, and good foodies traveling from Oakland, Denver, Philly, Detroit, Durham, D.C., and points elsewhere, attended the First Annual Black Farmers & Urban Gardeners Conference in Brooklyn. People of color are in the fields, the co-packing facilities, and the commercial and restaurant kitchens of the good food movement, but they’re conspicuously and consistently absent from the dialogue that is transforming Americans’ relationship with food and farming.
We appear to be suffering from an historical amnesia about the relationship between agriculture and people of color in the U.S., when we assume that black people are not into good food and farming. Long before The Greenhorns, Farmer Jane, Alice Waters, Radical Homemakers, Joel Salatin, Agchat, Homegrown, Michael Pollan, Punk Domestics, and Brooklyn Homesteader identified and gave voice to the thousands of (mostly white and/or middle class) people across the country by reclaiming American food and farming cultures, black people were in the fields and the kitchens, growing and nourishing generations, fusing European, Native American, and African farming and culinary traditions into distinct, regional American subcultures.
Black farmers and gardeners have been growing and raising food before it was cool, when it was what one did for survival. They were organic before organic–few could afford fertilizers and modern farm equipment; biodynamic before biodynamic–the earth-cosmos-animal-human connection has always been a major tenet of pre-Christianity African-centered spirituality and farming; sustainable before sustainable–can’t misuse what you ain’t got; local before local–black farmers’ had limited local selling power because of few profitable wholesale and retail opportunities and institutionalized racism; and, they are all small family farms.
So why do black farmers and urban gardeners need their own conference? Here’s why: at every good food and sustainable ag event I attend in NYC, I am one of less than three nonwhite attendees, and chances are, I know the other two. This is the case so often that I and a good friend and colleague of mine keep tallies via text when we are unable to attend the same events. At these events, while the information is sometimes new, the food usually good, and the networking opportunities abundant, they are irrelevant when it comes to the real work involved in creating just and sustainable food systems.
These events might appeal to my middle class upbringing, but they do nothing to address the lack of sociocultural relevance to black people and their agricultural legacy in this country. I am aware of my various earned and unearned privileges, but try bringing this up in a room full of well-meaning white folk–why aren’t there any black people in your documentary, book, panel?–and you’ll quickly discover just how largely unaware white good food advocates are of how their covert and normative whiteness shapes conversations about food, privilege, race, access, and even geography–and renders the rest of us invisible.
I can name at least 10 nonwhite good food fighters and organizations in NYC without trying, but events focused on food and farming in the region only manage to secure one (usually the same one, now token) person of color, or, more often than not, none at all as speakers, panelists, and case studies. I’m not (necessarily) asking that POCs be included in these largely white spaces, but, just sayin’.
While the Black Farmers & Urban Gardeners Conference is not the first event of its kind to focus on the agricultural, social, and economic issues specific to black farmers, both rural and urban, it is the first to realize the importance of the two coming together in the same space, as rural and urban communities share similar needs in terms of food access, food security, land, and economic development. The socio-historical significance of creating a North-South black agricultural alliance was itself not lost on the attendees. While many Northern blacks turned their backs on their sometimes painful Southern agricultural legacies in favor of what they thought would be a more economically viable Northern future, they kept much of their traditional foodways, maintaining kitchen garden plots and food preservation techniques in their new urban spaces. What makes this particular conference even more significant was the event’s capacity to grab the attention of social media’s most prolific good food communicators, where so much of the conversation about sustainable food is going on, that it left one to question if anyone is actually still farming, buying and eating food, or even participating in traditional media. The speakers and panelists offered an open and sometimes unapologetic look at the way racism and industrialization has prevented black farmers from acquiring resources and recognition of their role in rural America.
I had a difficult time in deciding which two of the 20 breakout sessions to attend, from one identifying resources for rural and urban farmers, to others on forging rural-urban relationships, understanding the farm bill and the role of farm cooperatives in creating sustainable food systems, and recognizing how black food culture has been co-opted by Big Food. One day is never enough to work through all of these issues.
Nearly two weeks later, I am still hyped over being part of such a momentous occasion. Maybe it was because I have never been in the same room with so many black, brown, and yellow faces talking about food and farming. Maybe it was because it validated my opinion that people (black and white) have misguided assumptions about what black people think, feel, and know about agriculture. Whatever it is, it is clear that black people have and will always be a part of the conversation, whether they are visible or not.