“Session Three: Player” (2010) by Xaviera Simmons, from the project Thundersnow Road, North Carolina. Chromogenic print, 40 1/8 x 50 x 1/8 inches (101.9 x 127 x 0.3 cm). Edition: 3. Collection of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. Commissioned by the Nasher Museum with support from Duke University’s Council for the Arts

March 23, 2021

Promise and Purpose

By Amanda Little

In “Arachis Hypogaea,” a poem titled for the Latin name of the peanut plant, Marilyn Nelson explores the complex intimacy between the farmland of the American South and the enslaved people who tended it. In Nelson’s work, land is the “laboratory of a slave.” American soil is a cruel and complicit medium that demanded slave labor, absorbed their blood, and bore passive witness to their pain. But that same soil is also generous—it grew the manna, nourished the seeds of a severed history, and gave way to forests that hid the escape of thousands from bondage. 

Nelson is one of many Black poets who’ve described the fraught bond between slaves and farmland. In “To the Negro Farmers of the United States,” Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson writes: “God washes clean the souls and hearts of you / His favored ones, whose backs bend o’er the soil . . . God places in your hands the pow’r to do / A service sweet. Your gift supreme to foil / The bare-fanged wolves of hunger in the moil . . .” This work is all the more poignant knowing that the relationship between African Americans and Southern farmland became still more troubled after slavery ended. 

In the final weeks of the Civil War, Union Army General Sherman made the first (and, until recently, the last) major attempt by the United States government to provide reparations to former slaves. He promised forty acres and a mule for each freed family. After Lincoln’s assassination, President Andrew Johnson reneged on Sherman’s promise and returned the land to its former Confederate owners. From then on, freed men and women had to overcome long odds to buy farmland without governmental help. They did so tirelessly, because property ownership made tangible the meaning of freedom. 

According to Agricultural census figures, the peak of African-American land ownership was around 1910, when Black farmers collectively had more than 16 million acres, nearly all of it in the South. At that time, nearly 1 million farmers—one in seven—were Black. A century later, there are fewer than 50,000 Black farmers in the United States; approximately 95 percent of Black landowners have been dispossessed of their property. Total Black land ownership today has declined to an estimated 3 million acres. 

This erosion of land ownership was caused by decades of discriminatory practices within the United States Department of Agriculture that made it all but impossible for Black farmers to hold on to heavily taxed land. Lawsuits against the agency, along with investigative research by the Associated Press, ProPublica, and the Atlantic, have exposed the USDA’s long record of rejecting loan applications from Black farmers, delaying the processing of loans, and providing insufficient funds—while making the process much more expedient for white farmers. Without these loans or access to USDA support programs, like crop insurance and disaster relief, Black farmland became increasingly vulnerable to forced sale and foreclosure.

As land holdings declined, descendants of Black farmers continued moving north to seek jobs outside of agriculture, an industry that for many still carries echoes of bondage. The loss of land took with it solvency and political power and a sense of community, home, and belonging. 

The 1999 class-action lawsuit Pigford v. Glickman, which yielded a more than $1 billion settlement to Black farmers, brought attention—but not an end—to systemic discrimination within the USDA. In recent decades, farm real estate prices have only been climbing and little has been done at the state or federal level to stop the bleeding of Black land. 

Yet recent months have brought new hope. The Biden-Harris administration and leaders of the 117th Congress have vowed to end the legacy of racial discrimination at the USDA and restore a lost agricultural heritage. Reparations for slavery are being seriously considered for the first time since the end of the Civil War in city and state legislatures from North Carolina to California. A new generation of farmers is leading a resurgence of interest in Black agriculture. Chris and Annie Newman and their two girls are raising cattle, poultry, and hogs on Sylvanaqua, a regenerative farm in the northern neck of Virginia. Soul Fire Farm’s Leah Penniman, an educator and food sovereignty activist, farms indigenous and heirloom foods on eighty acres with her community in upstate New York. James Minton of Triple J Farm, also in New York, left his childhood on a farm in South Carolina to live and work in Harlem. He later returned to the land, establishing Triple J for his eleven children, twenty-eight grandchildren, and forty great-grandchildren in whose interest he coined a motto that has begun to spread through social media: #MakeFarmersBlackAgain.

In November, U.S. Senators Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, and Kirsten Gillibrand introduced the Justice for Black Farmers Act, a bill that would transfer approximately twenty million acres of land to a new generation of Black farmers over ten years. In a divided Congress, the act may not pass, but it has crystallized a call to action, drawing attention to a human and economic injustice that can no longer be ignored.

Half a century ago, Malcolm X made a similar appeal. In November 1963, when delivering his “Message to the Grass Roots” at the Northern Negro Grass Roots Leadership Conference in Detroit, he said: “Revolution is based on land. Land is the basis of all independence. Land is the basis of freedom, justice, and equality.” The message today is powerfully relevant: If the Biden-Harris administration and the 117th Congress are serious about restoring justice and equality to our republic, they must root their mission in the land.