Black Gardeners Find Refuge in the Soil

The school was at the top of a hill and picturesque, but its garden had acrid, lifeless soil and sporadic sunlight. I lived two blocks away, and what began as infrequent visits to help water slowly turned into weeding and planting and composting and pulling and plucking, until finally, I became a guardian to this windswept plot of two 20-foot-long stone-terraced rows.

I think often of that garden when I consider how growing from a landless place is a Black American tradition. Brought to the United States as enslaved people to work the land, Black people raised gardens on hidden plots to supplement a meager diet, and, if they escaped, grew plants on tough terrain in order to survive. They used horticultural acumen to keep themselves fed and free against the odds. For my ancestors, land has been the site of exploitation or independence. They lived off their own labor or somebody else did. Black agricultural skill established the wealth of the nation.

As the author Monica M. White said, “There has been a constant demonstration of our agency and resilience in all tough conditions — to fight for accessing land, to grow our own food, food of our cultures and food that feeds us spiritually and otherwise.”

But over the last century, Black farmers have lost almost 40 million acres. The recent $4 billion “socially disadvantaged farmers” debt relief bill, viewed by Black farmers as reparations for years of discrimination, was blocked in June by a flurry of lawsuits. The homeownership gap between Black and white Americans is as large now as it was 50 years ago. So, for most of us, land continues to be a signifier of displacement. But a garden offers the possibility that the space may be filled.

In discussing the sense of place that a garden can convey, Ms. White recalled her grandmother. She “was in a wheelchair and had an indoor container garden. And when you went to go see her, she would say, ‘Baby, go water grandma’s tomatoes,’” Ms. White said. “So while landless in the sense that she was in an apartment complex and in a wheelchair, she still had agency to connect with the land in ways that fed her literally and figuratively.”

During my time at Ida B. Wells, I also had to learn to tend a garden — which started with the lesson that land is not to be exploited for fruit but is a partner to be cultivated with purpose and in harmony. I’d grown my own food before, in Portland, Ore., in the backyard of a bungalow on Southeast Salmon Street in the summer of 2006. I didn’t properly appreciate it, but that soil was incredible: sultry, black and active. It could absorb eggshells and onion skins in a matter of days with just a few turns of the shovel. In contrast, the soil at Ida B. Wells was depleted, and before we could grow anything, it needed healing.

At our first harvest event, the students at Ida B. Wells picked radishes. There were about a dozen students out there; none had ever picked a radish, and only a handful seemed intrigued by the pungent pepper aroma and flavor. An equal number were more interested in keeping the dirt off their shoes. The radish harvest wasn’t for me to match my convictions with their experience. But still, it was hard not to think about the migration of Black Southern families all the way here in California, and how the skills that just two generations prior would have been passed down for survival became nonessential, then ornamental, then obsolete.

pevita pearce

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