Review: Freedom Farmers

Freedom Farmers

Monica M. White. Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement. University of North Carolina Press, 2018. ISBN # 9781469643694. xviii+ 189 pp

Joan Gross (Oregon State University)

In the wake of the new Covid-19 relief package that cancels billions of dollars of debt held by farmers of color, we would do well to read Monica White’s book, Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement to understand why such federal help is warranted. She cites Martin Luther King pointing out how the U.S. government decided not to follow through with giving freed Blacks 40 acres and mule while it granted millions of acres (stolen from native peoples) to white homesteaders. With this came millions of dollars in federal subsidies. However, White’s focus is not on the discrimination (that we learn in passing), but on the incredible perseverance and cooperation on the part of Black farmers to improve agriculture and to form organizations to help one another farm and market their products.

White consulted numerous archives in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Wisconsin, and New York in order to put the historical part of the book together, but she also spent time with Black farmers in Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, many of whom were active participants in the civil rights movement. She states that she “sought to embody the African principle of sankofa: studying the past to understand the present and, from that, to forge a future of our own making” (19). White’s commitment to the topic comes through in her wide-ranging networks, careful scholarship, and her profound respect for Black farmers.

The book is divided into two sections. Part 1: Land, Food, and Freedom lays out her theoretical framework and research methods as well as the historical background of Blacks in U.S. agriculture. Part 2: Collective Agency and Community Resilience in Action devotes 4 chapters to case studies of alternative agricultural movements in Black communities. White identifies as an activist and urban ethnographer of the food justice-urban agriculture movement in Detroit. She states in the information-filled Introduction that one major objective of the book is “to connect contemporary urban farmer-activists to an earlier time when African Americans turned to agriculture as a strategy for building sustainable communities” (5). She traces the historical background of enslaved Africans travelling to the Americas with many seeds and foods and the knowledge of how to perpetuate them in new soil. White uses the framework of collective agency and community resilience to bring to light acts that lead to self-reliance and sustainable communities. She uncovers three strategies that have been used to achieve these goals: commons as praxis, prefigurative politics, and economic autonomy.  By commons as praxis, she  highlights the ways in which resources can be pooled to enhance community well-being. Prefigurative politics encompasses the creation of alternative democratic systems that allow community members to move from oppression to self-sufficiency and self-determination. Economic autonomy is an important part of obtaining self-sufficiency within an economic system that has been rigged against you. She outlines these strategies in the Introduction and comes back to them in the Conclusion, illustrating how they were used in the organizations that she describes.

The Introduction is followed by a chapter entitled “Intellectual Traditions in Black Agriculture.” The well-known late 19th century African American scholars, Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, and W.E.B. Du Bois, all understood the importance of agriculture to the Black community. Washington built institutional resources for farmers at Tuskegee Institute and encouraged growing subsistence crops. Carver produced and disseminated ecologically-based agricultural knowledge that allowed farmers to make enough profit to purchase their land and achieve economic autonomy.  Carver promoted composting, crop rotation and diversification long before J. I. Rodale came on the organic farming scene. Du Bois reviewed the long history of collective behavior and economic cooperation in the African American community and encouraged alternative democratic systems, or what White calls prefigurative politics. White shows that each, in their separate ways, saw agriculture as a strategy of resistance. She does point out an important gap in their work, the role of women in agriculture.

This brings us to the second section of the book which begins with Chapter 2 on Fannie Lee Hamer’s Freedom Farm Cooperative (FFC). She founded the farm in 1967 as an anti-poverty strategy for farmworkers who had been “dispossessed of access to land and displaced by mechanization” (65). By 1972 FFC’s crops served more than 1,600 families (76). Unlike the well-educated men in the previous chapter, Hamer had to leave school at age 13 to work full-time in the fields. This organic intellectual gave voice to the struggles of the oppressed and proved to be a stellar political organizer. White’s focus on the FFC is meant to draw attention to the ways Black farmers created self-reliance and self-determination in a racially hostile environment.

Chapter 3 takes us to another cooperative in Mississippi, the North Bolivar County Farm Cooperative. Like the FFC, this cooperative was formed to combat unemployment, hunger, homelessness, and other social ills, but this one was a regional effort. The Federation of Southern Cooperatives (FSC) expanded the geographical reach further by uniting Black cooperative efforts throughout the South and becoming the “co-op of co-ops.” This organization is the focus of Chapter 4. The FSC offered bookkeeping, technical and financial services, resource development, and training in agricultural skills (99). By 1974, 134 cooperatives had joined from fourteen southern states. A third of these cooperatives were agricultural (102). One of the things the FFC offered was legal advice on the transmission and distribution of landownership to heirs following the death of the primary landowner. The issue of heir property and how clouded titles are being taken advantage of by contemporary investors such as TIAA had recently come to my attention while listening to a panel at the AAA 2020 Virtual Conference, “Corporate Farmland Investment and Continuing Processes of African American Land Injustice.” A link to FSC’s Land Assistance Fund (https://www.federation.coop) was provided to the listeners.

Chapter 5 follows the Great Migration north to Detroit where African Americans found themselves in economic peril after the bankruptcies of General Motors and Chrysler in 2009. White explains how they resisted the pressure to leave by building sustainable communities around agriculture. Detroit’s urban agriculture movement had been attracting attention since 2000, but virtually excluded Black Detroiters. In 2006 Malik Yakini rectified this situation by forming the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. The Network is “grounded in an antiracist, anticapitalist mindset and emphasizes cooperative effort and collective wealth-building”  (121). The urban D-Town Farm was created as part of this network to build community and intergenerational dialogue as well as healthy food for distribution.

In her Conclusion, White quotes bell hooks who asks us to remember that “Black people were first and foremost people of the land, farmers.” She uses a wonderful farming metaphor to characterize her own work in this book as turning “overlooked and forgotten scraps of history into nutrient-rich historical compost, revealing multiple narratives of resistance that illustrate how and in what ways land has mattered to Black people’s struggles against marginalization for independence.” (142). This is a nice illustration of the principle of sankofa that she introduces at the beginning of the book.

 In sum, this book is a welcomed addition to the literature on Black cooperative farming in the U.S. It is written in a clear and engaging fashion, suitable for both undergraduates and graduate students. I will certainly be using it in my Agrifood Movements course next year.

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