Liberation by Soil

Ashia Ajani

Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land, by Leah Penniman, Chelsea Green Publishing, 368 pages, $22.72

Environmental justice recognizes that environmental burdens, such as industrial factory placement and lack of access to healthy food, are also matters of race, gender and socioeconomic status. The concept arguably hails back to the Civil Rights Movement and has evolved so that its work no longer only involves combatting the unequal distribution of environmental burdens. It is also a rallying cry to return to sustainable, communal roots. Alongside proponents of liberation work––the effort to redefine our relationship to the current state, to take institutional power and return that power to people who have been historically marginalized––proponents of environmental justice are committed to creating alternatives to extractivist farming techniques, which cause soil erosion, water pollution and rely heavily on pesticides and other chemicals. By growing our own food, creating our own markets, and rebuilding our own communities––thus asserting our autonomy on the land––we subvert the notion that we are reliant on current, oppressive systems for survival.

On Soul Fire Farm, a seventy-two acre farm in upstate New York that is on the original territory of the Mohawk and Munsee people, Leah Penniman and her team live out the principles of environmental justice and liberation work. There they grow healthy, organic produce that is rooted in the cultural histories of Black and Brown people. Okra, cassava, leafy greens and herbs fill the wide expanse of hills. Children ages five through eighteen weed, sow and cook produce. Sometimes they go on scavenger hunts in the surrounding forest. They speak to the trees; the trees communicate back to them by sharing water and anaerobic resources.  On the land of  Soul Fire Farm, everything seems a practice of symbiosis.

In Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land (2018), Penniman, the farm’s founder, uses her own experience on this farm, historical analysis and reference, spiritual practice, liberation politics, technical information, and ecological science to create a holistic guide to tending the land, written specifically for people of color interested in the sustainable food movement. Farming While Black reads like a basic instruction manual for how to acquire land and establish your farm business. Yet Penniman has greater ambitions. This book shows how deep the roots of removal, oppression, and cultural innovation run in farming and food practices. It is a testament to the ancestors who paved the way, and a call to return to our ancestral ways of life through their farming practices, communal economics, and spiritual work.

Penniman founded Soul Fire Farm in 2011 with the mission to “reclaim our inherent right to belong to the earth and have agency in the food system as Black and Brown people.” She describes herself as a “multiracial, light-skinned, raised-rural, northeastern, college-educated, cisgendered, able-bodied, Jewish-Vodun practicing biological mother who grew up working class.” Growing up as a brown child in a predominantly white community lead her to seek empowerment and security in natural spaces. She writes that the land will tell you when you belong to it. When she visited plot of earth that would become Soul Fire Farm, it told her to wait. She returned with offerings, and the land welcomed her and her kin.

Part of Penniman’s mission is helping farmers of color claim ownership of the land, which is particularly powerful given the lack of resources available to Black farmers and non-Black farmers of color in a world that largely depends on their labor and innovation. Due to the history of slavery, oppression, and marginalization, Black and Native peoples are frequently left out of larger discussions about farming practices, or find it difficult to acquire loans for land purchases.  Penniman asserts that land is the basis of liberation: how can people of color become liberated if they do not have access to land resources? For her, redefining relationships to the land is an important step toward land stewardship, and an important step toward healing. Once we stop seeing land as the thing that oppresses us, and instead view it as the thing that has always protected us, the healing can begin.

The book also serves as a call for white people to reevaluate their relationship to the land.  In a section entitled “White People Uprooting Racism,” Penniman  discusses how the concept of whiteness  removes culture and ancestry from white identified people by replacing European roots with a false origin. Whiteness has no origin rooted in place. It is an ideology used to oppress other groups of people. Penniman later provides discussion questions about cultural appropriation, what it means to be anti-racist versus non-racist, and how white people can be better advocates for marginalized people. How do these skills relate to land stewardship and agriculture? White people own upwards of ninety-eight percent of the rural land in the United States, whereas Black people own about one percent, and most ancestral indigenous land is held in “trusts” by the United States federal government. Penniman calls for white advocates to redistribute their unearned wealth, have tough conversations about race and inequality with other white people, and invest their time and money in historically marginalized communities.

For someone unfamiliar with the agricultural industry, Farming While Black may seem overwhelming and complicated. Penniman has gathered a lot of material, ranging from the practice of squatting and how it can be a form of temporary land tenure to agroforestry for soil restoration. It is a thick, difficult read. But as we come upon an era of both self-reflection and environmental (social) crisis, it is a necessary tool in the fight against injustice and climate change. It not only provides history, but it treats the knowledge and application of that history as a solution to many problems, whether they be racial, socioeconomic or environmental. What would the world look like if farms followed the model of sustainable, culturally-significant agriculture that is embodied by Soul Fire Farm? What if students had a place where they could learn not only about agriculture, but about the legacies of innovation and resistance to historical models of agriculture? What if we all remembered that we came from somewhere, and that while intergenerationally we have experienced pain and removal, there are productive steps we can take and a community to remind us that we have purpose and worth?

One has to question the applicability of farming techniques in upstate New York to farms in places like Phoenix, Arizona or Seattle, Washington, where the weather and the growability of various crops differ greatly. But Penniman does not set out to create a blanket solution to global or even national agricultural problems. What she does is provide the reader with options and perspectives—even readers who are not looking to get involved with agricultural systems directly. Penniman emphasizes movement building and the ways consumers can combat exploitative agriculture practices through boycotts, economic and emotional support, and by teaching children about sustainable, intersectional agriculture.

More than anything, Farming While Black asks us to recognize that food is not just something we eat. It is not just a commodity or something with which we nourish our bodies.  It has significant cultural and ecological roots that we cannot ignore. When someone knows where their food comes from, when they have meaningful involvement in the cultivation and protection of the land that births their food, they are much more willing to protect Mother Earth, to see other human beings as their siblings in the reverence of earth systems.