For Black people, Black southerners in particular, land is sacred and our relationship to it is complicated. The land swaddles the bones of our elders. Our histories are rooted deep beneath surfaces (made) rich with Black blood.
And that Black blood marks the spot where Afro-futuristic possibilities are waiting to be unburied and rediscovered.
For some people, forty acres and a mule has become a mere cultural reference far removed from socio-political and economic implications. For Dara Cooper, 41, national organizer with the National Black Food and Justice Alliance (NBFJA), the graveness of the injustice, which encapsulates the inherent dishonesty and structural white supremacy of a nation that mythologizes its own character, is incalculable.
Farming While Black
“Do you remember Pigford vs. Glickman,” Cooper asks, before recounting details of the 1999 “Black farmers lawsuit” against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for racial discrimination.
During the height of the Civil Rights era, the USDA openly discriminated against Black farmers, with those radical enough to attempt registering Black voters being targeted by the state. In the food justice context, this occurred primarily through the denial of farm loans, financial assistance and resources, as well as limited access to land.
Though President Jimmy Carter, beloved by the majority of the agriculture community, positioned himself as a progressive ally, things like structural racism were of no concern to his Republican challenger Ronald Reagan, who, as governor of California, opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
Soon after defeating Carter in the 1980 presidential election, the newly-elected Reagan abolished the USDA’s Civil Rights Division, leaving Black farmers open to blatant, sustained, state-sanctioned and state-protected discrimination for over 15 years. In 1997, Black farmers brought a class-action lawsuit against the USDA, and a judge decided in their favor in 1999. The average settlement was approximately $50k.
“That wasn’t enough,” Cooper tells ESSENCE. “There has to be some kind of repair of the harm done systematically. That $50k doesn’t pull Black farmers out of the debt they incurred trying just to stay afloat. It is no where near what they lost financially, nor is it near how much land Black people lost on a personal and community level.
“We never got any of the forty acres that were promised to us, and we lost 98% of Black farmers,” Cooper continues. “The little bit of land we managed to save and scrape up for, we lost all of that to and from white terror. And that’s really important to name because there has to be reckoning with that. There has to be.”
For Cooper, no conversation about reparations is complete without creating an agenda around the recovery of the land.
“We need the ability to feed and nourish our communities, and the repair of the systematic harm that has and continues to be done to Black people,” Cooper says emphatically. To that end, “[NBFJA] is working on a broad campaign in coalition and community with Black-led “Free the Land” focused organizations. We need to shift away from the ways in which capitalism teaches us to have private control over land. We have to move away from extraction of land for a very few, and shift toward land reform that addresses indigenous right to sovereignty and Black people’s right to self-determination in our communities in a collective way.”
According to the Census of Agriculture, between 1920 and 1992 the number of Black American farmers declined from 925,000 to only 18,000. The devastating impact on Black communities can be seen in everything from maternal morbidity to chronic illnesses, such as diabetes and hypertension, in so-called “food deserts,” a term that the food justice community rejects wholesale.
Getting the Language Right
From Houston, Texas, and Atlanta, Georgia, to Birmingham, Alabama; Baltimore, Maryland; Nashville, Tennessee, and Jackson, Mississippi, the long, treacherous history of redlining in this country aligns with where food redlining (or food apartheid) is prevalent today—and that is unambiguously state violence.
“Just looking at food alone, hunger, the inability to feed ourselves,” Cooper tells ESSENCE. “That’s violent. To be hungry and malnourished is a very violent phenomenon.
“Bank redlining specifically happened to Black communities and folks in proximity to Black communities,” Cooper continued. “When you look at all we’ve had to endure—from banking and housing discrimination, to food insecurity, displacement, theft of land, and our ability to feed ourselves—everything had to do with race, even though so-called remedies, like the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act, didn’t name that and still don’t.
“We’re talking about the dismantling of Black and Brown communities, and massive displacement of Indigenous people,” she added. “It is absolutely state violence, and it’s systematic terrorism.”
While Cooper is clear that “there’s never been any course correction, reckoning with, or repairing of any of this violence,” she also makes it a point to make it plain:
We all we got.
“We have to think about how we, Black people, are investing our energy, resources, brilliance into building our own systems to care for our people,” Cooper says with determination evident in your voice. “So, a lot of the work we’re doing is around a collective land trust where we’re able to help communities return back to regenerative practices that are in better harmony with the earth and with each other.”
Black Women On The Frontlines
Time does not, and cannot, erase the scars of white, state-sanctioned terror. It’s necessary to sit with the magnitude of what was lost, what was stolen, what was promised, and what is owed formerly enslaved Africans, and, by right, their descendants: repair, reparations, and a rightful redistribution of land and resources. The multi-generational efforts to ensure a sustainable food infrastructure for Black communities is something that gives Cooper hope when progress appears to be at a standstill.
“There’s an urban gardeners conference every year, and you get to see hundreds and hundreds of intergenerational folks, Black people who are deeply invested in a sustainable food system and a sustainable way forward together in collective ways—and so much of that leadership is Black women,” Cooper says with a smile. “When we look at the literature and scholarship coming out, so much of that comes from Black women, too.
“There’s Monica White, author of Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement; Leah Penniman [Co-Director and Program Manager of Soul Fire Farm], and author of Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land; Ashante Reese, author of Black Food Geographies: Race, Self-Reliance, and Food Access in Washington D.C.; and Naa Oyo Kwate, who has a book coming out called Burgers in Blackface, which shows a direct correlation between fast food industries and anti-Blackness.”
Shirley Sherrod, the former Georgia State Director of Rural Development, is also still doing her part to free the land.
For Cooper, freeing the land is foundational to Black liberation, which is why she dedicates so much time, energy, and heart to imagining, envisioning, and creating a world in which it is so.
“Free the land indicates Black people’s right to self-determination,” Cooper teaches. “So, that means freeing the land from corporate control, freeing the land from white supremacy, freeing the land from extractive capitalism, and freeing our people.”
Click here to learn more about the National Black Food & Justice Alliance.