Rewriting the Food and Sustainability Syllabus with Farming While Black

How one anthropologist and food activist is inspired by books that demonstrate the strength of Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, and immigrant farming and food communities.

From 2016–2018, I was in constant search of the perfect text for my undergraduate students enrolled in the course Food and Sustainability: An Introduction to the Farm at Davidson. The book would combine the how-to knowledge of agriculture with the so-what knowledge of the environmental, economic, and social impacts of agriculture. It would also center the narratives and experiences of Black, Latino, Indigenous, Asian, and immigrant farmers. As a white professor in a school that embraced inclusion and social justice, a faculty member concerned that only white students tended to sign up for the course, and a food activist concerned with creating a just and inclusive agricultural movement, I needed to find books that spoke to students of color and that demonstrated the strength of Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, and immigrant farming and food communities.

Farmer and food justice activist Leah Penniman’s Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land lays out a blueprint for practicing sustainable agriculture alongside a robust discussion of social, economic, and environmental challenges and solutions framed within the African American and African experience. Penniman cofounded Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, New York, in order to “dismantle racism in the food system” and provide training for “Black, Latinx, and Indigenous aspiring farmer-activists.” Farming While Black reflects Penniman’s more than 20 years of experience working within food justice and sustainable farming. The book is written as a testament that “to farm while Black is an act of defiance against white supremacy and a means to honor the agricultural ingenuity of our ancestors.”

Image of green grass and sky
Image description: A blue sky and clouds are visible above bright green grass. iStock

While Penniman’s book is a “manual for African-heritage people” who seek liberation on the land, it also offers robust instructions for white folks like myself who seek to support these efforts and who teach within sustainable agriculture. Following the assault on the US Capitol on January 6, it is even more imperative that white people engage in anti-racist action. As Penniman writes, “Black food and land sovereignty is the collective responsibility of the entire community, not just the purview of African American people.” Penniman emphasizes that we all have a role to play in dismantling white supremacy and building a just society and just food system.

Flipping through the pages, I was struck by the joy, vibrancy, and African-centeredness of the photographs and stories of African Americans and Africans. This set of images is largely absent from the food justice and food sustainability canon with which I am familiar. Penniman writes that the goal for African heritage food activists and farmers is “to reclaim our ancestral right to both belong to the land and have the land belong to us.” Giving students access to this resource helps to further this goal. For example, when I think about ways to welcome students of color into a class that they might approach cautiously, these photographs and narratives may affirm that they too belong not only in the study of food systems but also to the land and to the sustainable production of food.

There is great value in the canonical texts I have relied on to teach Food and Sustainability. Foremost, Natasha Bowens’ The Color of Food leads students into the vibrant agricultural lives of farmers and chefs who identify as Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, and immigrant. Elliot Coleman’s The New Organic Grower connects the dots for students between their actions (turning compost and seeding cover crops) and the environmental impacts of those actions. Philip Ackerman-Leist’s and Gary Kleppel’s books introduce students to the importance of community food systems. Farming While Black accomplishes much of this and more by grounding its narrative and instruction in African American and African experiences. The index contains not only listings for “trellising,” “turnips,” and “trees,” but also “trauma” with sublistings including “cotton,” “healing,” and “restorative justice.” The book recognizes that a sustainable agriculture is one that must also reckon with the violent history of agriculture and work towards healing and liberation on the land.

How can the book be used in higher education? First, it should be on the shelves of every college farm library. Like Coleman’s The New Organic Grower and Jean-Martin Fortier’s The Market Gardener, Penniman’s manuscript provides a blueprint for sustainable farming grounded in African and African American knowledge and experience with direct challenges to the white supremacy that can undergird the yeoman imaginary in the United States. In my own observations at the Farm at Davidson, Farm Manager Theresa Allen maintained a library of books which influenced her farming philosophy and practice. Students who volunteered and worked on the farm often spent time within these pages to understand what inspired Allen toward her life’s work and to their daily agricultural practices. An inclusive and just student farm can curate a library of works that recognizes and celebrates the diversity of farming practices that have contributed to contemporary sustainable agriculture and make explicit the ways in which racism and white supremacy shape our agricultural experiences.

Experiential learning without a critical food literacy framework can be shallow, reproducing the same structural inequalities that faculty seek to challenge.

Penniman’s book is also an excellent farming resource. I used a section on terracing to calculate the slope of the land and begin the process of slowing soil erosion on the hilly Berea landscape of my first home. Chapters two through twelve lay out farming techniques like terracing for beginner to advanced farmers, including approaches to identifying land and resources, planning a farm business model, maintaining and rejuvenating soil, planning crops, saving seeds, and keeping livestock. Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, and immigrant farmers will appreciate Penniman’s careful documentation of the historic and contemporary challenges they might face when it comes to acquiring land and credit, and confronting stereotypes of the farmer archetype. These racist realities tend to go unacknowledged in the sustainable agriculture canon, and white farmers and food systems advocates would do well to learn about these experiences in order to amplify Penniman’s message and strengthen inclusivity. Many experienced farmers will also find the depth of African and African American agricultural knowledge Penniman brings to her readers’ attention refreshingly new.

For those looking for texts to use in courses on sustainable food systems and food justice, the manuscript opens and closes with an introductory chapter, “Black Land Matters,” and several concluding chapters including “White People Uprooting Racism,” “Movement Building,” and “Healing from Trauma” that offer critical arguments for how to reshape the food system. Penniman’s introductory chapter offers a powerful historic tracing of the wellsprings of African and African American agricultural knowledge as well as the linkages between colonialism, racism, and the food system. Linking the original theft of Indigenous lands, the forced enslavement of West Africans with the Black Lives Matter movement, the prison-industrial complex, and food apartheid (food deserts), the book illuminates the pervasiveness of racism and its reverberations within and beyond our food systems. “Youth on the Land” would be a valuable chapter to those engaging with young people to both recognize the trauma they confront in their everyday lives (police violence and food insecurity, to name only two) with the healing that can come from a restorative justice approach. “White People Uprooting Racism” would serve majority-white serving institutions well through instructions on how to “call in” (rather than “call out”) racism in our colleagues and friends, through discussions of repatriation in its myriad forms, and through a clearly laid out approach to amplifying the work of communities of color.

We should also not doubt our students’ agricultural curiosity. Many of them have limited experience with soils, seeds, and plants, and they may actually want to know how to grow things. The interior chapters would be excellent fodder for understanding sustainable agricultural practices. Moreover, if students are engaged in service learning on farms and gardens, it is crucial that we ground their lived experience in food systems literature. As scholar and food activist collaborators Lina Yamashita and Diana Roberts have written, we need a “critical food literacy” pedagogical approach because it is not enough to simply get students’ hands in the dirt. Experiential learning without a critical food literacy framework can be shallow, reproducing the same structural inequalities that faculty seek to challenge. Penniman’s book provides both the farming techniques and an alternative and robust history to those sustainable farming techniques. “Uplift” columns weave African and African American history and figures throughout the interior chapters. These include features on Fannie Lou Hamer’s Freedom Farm Cooperative as well as African and African American soil testing, rice cultivation, and irrigation practices. I was excited to find an excerpt on anthropologist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston, who conducted extensive ethnographic documentation of farming and folklore in the American South. Some of the songs and stories documented by Hurston are included in the book as well as the practices of Soul Fire Farm. There is also strong recognition of Indigenous sovereignty and Indigenous knowledge throughout.

With this book and several new publications, a sustainable food systems course could easily be designed to feature only the work of Black women scholars and to celebrate the lives of Black farmers and Black food systems. The course reading list could include Penniman , Natasha Bowens, Zora Neale Hurston, Hanna Garth, Ashanté Reese, and Monica White. Hurston’s 1921 oral history Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” (2018) tells the story of Cudjo Lewis’s forced passage across the Atlantic and agricultural life in Alabama. The 2020 edited volume Black Food Matters by Ashanté Reese and Hanna Garth demonstrates the ways in which Blackness is contested through food, emphasizing Black agency. Reese’s book, Black Food Geographies, illustrates the ways Black people create food geographies, emphasizing agency while simultaneously recognizing the structures of food apartheid. Monica White’s Freedom Farmers (2019) examines how Fannie Lou Hamer and southern Black farmers built an alternative food system in the South. Given that Wendell Berry, Elliot Coleman, Michael Pollan, and many other white men have dominated our food syllabi for decades, why not, for once, celebrate a Black women’s canon?

Amanda Green is an assistant professor of anthropology at Eastern Kentucky University. She studies and teacheswithin the fields of food activism, food justice and food insecurity.

Amanda Green and Kelly Alexander are section contributing editors for the Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition.

Cite as: Green, Amanda. 2021. “Rewriting the Food and Sustainability Syllabus with Farming While Black.” Anthropology News website, March 31, 2021. DOI: 10.14506/AN.1610

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