Restoring Honor to Farming

Self-determination in a changing society and bringing back honor to the work of farming were key points in our Conference plenary speech by Malik Yakini, Executive Director of the Detroit Black Food Security Network.

Malik’s message is clear, but it could also feel a bit “sharp” to some in the audience who are not accustomed to the frank discussion of a reality faced by many people of color. Malik described the analysis and strategies required to look broadly at a fair and just food system – “we must examine the history of oppression and undue favor and privilege to white skin. Capitalism and the class system play a role, especially as profits become more important than food.  There is no aspect of society that doesn’t interact with food, so let go of those antiquated notions of race, gender and class”. For African Americans, these struggles for justice go hand in hand. The progression from slavery, to sharecropper, to tenet farmers, has led to the de-valuation of the farming work for African Americans. But their survival and sovereignty are tied to the value of farming.

We have the responsibility to do the work of restoring honor to farming -  it will take “sheer zeal to just make it happen”. Malik encouraged us to endorse the ability of communities to self-determine their own way and learn from the indigenous knowledge of people of color among you. 

After cheering his inspirational speech (for me) and waiting to speak with Malik and thank him for his respectful mention of “so-called Native American’s”  I joined my friends for a rousing and somewhat emotional discussion of his “sharper” points and some deeper analysis of the long history of oppression in America.

Our small group of three came from very different backgrounds – African American, Native American and “good ole’ English Heinz” Anglo American. (geesh, how do we talk about our cultures better?). Our “white” friend was hurt by Malik’s words about “well meaning young whites coming in with a Missionary attitude to bestow answers on a person or community”.  My “brother of color” and I both assured our friend that she does not operate that way and we were able to convey the type of person Malik was describing so that she understood his point. We both shared our understanding of the deeper levels of Malik’s analysis and she apologized for becoming emotional and shutting her ears to Malik’s reality and leaving the room before hearing more.

Sometimes we have to listen through some uncomfortable information or situations to hear the reality or essence of someone’s story. Sometimes listening is the best thing we can do. We cannot fix the past, we cannot solve anyone’s problems, but we can always listen. I always learn something too. Over the next day, I kept hearing conference attendees talking about “cow peas” and each time I pictured a slave ship with African foods in the holds coming onto shore. The story of this food coming to America will stay with me always.

As a Native American woman and farmer, I can share our agricultural history of cultural loss, land loss, forced removal and distancing from our creation stories of “Selu – Corn Mother”. Most tribal peoples were forced away from the sovereignty of subsistence living and feeding our peoples- I understand Malik’s story in my blood and feel it in my bones.

Later, in another session, a different group discussed the need to bring back honor to the work of farming, of feeding ourselves and others. We talked about creating a new reality where healthy food is no longer “alternative” but mainstream. Even some of the younger participants discussed how farmers have “internalized the stigma of farming”, especially in the traditional commodities producers. Here we move away from a racial lens into the class issues facing every farmer. But the young people participating in this conference, the many babies in bundles and buggies, all give me hope that honor has returned.

I enjoyed following this thread of “Restoring Honor in Farming” flow out from a dynamic and historical plenary speech into the small groups of strangers and friends finding common ground and shared histories through food. Join us with your story, your culture,  and create our own shared history of food! 

Pam Kingfisher