February 2020 Book Review “Freedom Farmers”

What’s in this post: Review of the 2018 book, Freedom Farmers, by Dr. Monica M. White

Overview

“Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement is the subtitle to the book and if the concept of agriculture as a resistance movement doesn’t pique your interest, you should read it to learn more about the history of the intersection of agriculture and black freedom in the United States. She gives depth to important historical figures, particularly the work of Fannie Lou Hamer, George Washington Carver, W.E.B. DuBois, and Booker T. Washington as well as to the much-underappreciated black cooperative movement, which continues today.

“While Black people have suffered tremendously via exploited labor and the violence of slavery in this country, that is not the summation of our history with land. Dr. White documents important historical lessons for us and shows us what we’ve known and at times forgotten–that the land both heals and frees us.”
Dara Cooper, National Black Food and Justice Alliance, as cited in Real Food Media review

Dr. White teaches environmental justice at the University of Wisconsin, and sometimes her academic side comes on a little strong if you are reading this, as I was, for personal interest and not as research material. In the book, she successfully builds a case that prefigurative politics, economic autonomy, and commons as praxis contribute directly collective agency and community resilience. (See notes, bottom of this post.) On the flip side, if you’re reading for research material, you may come up underwhelmed, depending on your needs.

This book expanded my knowledge of not only black history, but also the past and current relationship of black Americans to farming, food, and autonomy. One of her major objectives is to “connect contemporary urban-farmer activists to an earlier time when African-Americans turned to agriculture as a strategy for building sustainable communities.”

My favorite parts

  • Brief outline of foods introduced through the Middle Passage (okra, cowpeas, hibiscus, rice, sesame, sweet potatoes and more) and raised by the enslaved which became the earliest examples of agriculture as resistance.
  • Detailed overview of Booker T. Washington and his founding of the Tuskegee Institute; W.E.B. DuBois as one of the founders of scientific sociology; and George Washington Carver’s selfless contributions to advance smallholder farmers. She addresses some of the more controversial aspects of the legacies of these men while acknowledging their myriad of contributions.
  • Recognition of George Washington Carver as a pioneer of agricultural sustainability and the field of permaculture: “the highest attainments in agriculture can be reached only when we clearly understand the mutual relationship between the animal, mineral, and vegetable kingdoms, and how utterly impossible it is for one to exist in a highly organized state without the other.” (He also turned down a six-figure salary from Thomas Edison in favor of staying to work at Tuskegee.)
  • The chapter devoted to Fannie Lou Hamer and her Freedom Farm Cooperative in Mississippi. Kicked out of her sharecropper house of 18 years for her volunteer work to register voters, Hamer was beaten and threatened, but she undauntedly led civil rights work and grassroots community organizing at the local, state and national levels.

Worth your time?

Yes. There’s much more to this book than just the snippets I mention above. Dr. White carried out much needed historical research that “charts a new narrative,” as she aptly states. Given the familiar and painful stories of slavery, sharecropping, tenant farming and black land loss, her book recovers a more positive history that has to be considered alongside these other stories as we move forward.

“Freedom Farmers … uncovers black people’s complex relationship to the land–as a way to understand, share, and ultimately write a different kind of narrative.”
– Dr. Monica M. White, Professor of Environmental Justice and author of Freedom Farmers.

Find it at your local bookstore or library:

Freedom Farmers

Dr. Monica M. White

UNC Press

Link to a WUNC “State of Things” interview with Dr. White is here and a Civil Eats interview with her is here

Notes

In case, like me, you don’t know what these phrases mean:

Prefigurative politics are the modes of organization and social relationships that strive to reflect the future society being sought by the group” Gandhi’s quote about “being the change you wish to see in the world” is like the individualized version of this concept.

Commons as praxis: Commons referring to the land, tools, knowledge, practices, etc. used by a community as a “common” good instead of privately held and “Praxis … is the process by which a theory, lesson, or skill is enacted, embodied, or realized.”

Economic autonomy: Wherein a group or person is self-supporting and doesn’t depend on outside assistance nor do they have to provide assistance outside themselves or their group. It does not mean economic isolation, but more simply self-support.

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