Full Remarks: “Towards a New Reconstruction: Land, Racism, and Economic Emancipation”
The piece below is a longer version of Gwendolyn VanSant’s remarks delivered at “Towards a New Reconstruction: Land, Racism, and Economic Emancipation” to introduce Leah Penniman at the Schumacher Center for New Economics on October 27, 2018.
My name is Gwendolyn VanSant and in addition to being a mother, wife, sister, and daughter—the eldest granddaughter of the rural South Carolina McCrae and Johnson farmers—you’ll hear me speak about this later—I am a local community activist and organizer who works for equity and justice. My focus is humanity, collective work, and accountability with a gender, economic, and race lens.
I am honored to have been recently elected as Vice Chair of the newly inaugurated official Town of Great Barrington’s W.E.B. Du Bois Legacy Committee. As we gather here this afternoon, I am grateful to Susan Witt and the Center for New Economics for inviting Multicultural BRIDGE, a Berkshire grown nonprofit I co-founded a decade ago focused on cultural integration and equity, to partner in hosting this 37th annual Schumacher Lecture Series. I am delighted as well to have been invited to introduce Leah Penniman author, activist, and pioneer of today representing her integral role within our national conversation about land, race, and liberation.
These lectures this afternoon are even more essential as we lean in to a national reckoning with our United States as we approach midterm elections.
I’ll start by repeating and amplifying Leah’s own words. In Yes! Magazine in April 2017, she writes:
“Racism is built into the DNA of the United States’ food system. It began with the genocidal theft of land from First Nations people, and continued with the kidnapping of my ancestors from the shores of West Africa. Under the brutality of the whip and the devastation of broken families, enslaved Africans cultivated the tobacco and cotton that made America wealthy.”
In this article, she urges us to make a paradigm shift around race, food access, and land by challenging the very foundation of our country by:
1) creating food access for everyone
2) honor the people who grow our food
3) stop apartheid in food access in our country
4) support farmers of color
Leah and her colleagues are at the lead of a national Black Community Land Trust conversation and a re-emerging movement that is gaining even more traction and momentum in 2018. You can read more about Leah’s incredible accomplishments in the program, and I invite you to follow her work as author and activist when we leave here this evening. At Soul Fire Farm, which she co-founded in 2011, new Black, Latinx, Native American, and Asian growers participate in agricultural training workshops that focus on healing people as well as the land. Soul Fire Farm is also responsible for the Black-Indigenous Farmers Reparations Map, a project to promote “people-to-people” reparations.
I have been invited to provide cultural and historical context for this conversation right here in Great Barrington in the year of the celebration of Du Bois 150th birthday anniversary. What does our collective justice and equity work look like within the context of land and race?
Much of my own learning on this, as is the case with most true African American History, has come in bits and pieces. At 47, I am still uncovering so much history and collective wisdom from our Black experience. Tonight, I look to three leaders to guide us: W.E.B. Du Bois, bell hooks, and our very own, Susan Witt.
We know that our country’s prosperity was predicated on racism and its ability to provide access to land to Whites which in turn provided power, safety, and sustainability to Whites. This is evident from slavery to “forty acres and a mule” to FDR's birthing of the mortgage system and redlining and the many other times racism has been institutionalized over time. But the other story we must tell—and something Leah tells through her work—is about 1) the wisdom in the hearts, hands, and minds of Black people; 2) how white and black people who have worked together towards land access have been stopped by any and all means necessary throughout history from lynching and giving and taking away rights, to banking policy and everything in between; and 3) the progress toward racial equity we have made nonetheless.
Which brings me to my dear friend Susan Witt, the Executive Director of the Schumacher Center for New Economics. Susan recently shared this brief history of Land Trusts with me, and I will read from it now to help center us. Susan’s words show us how land and systemic racism are interconnected and why we must work collectively towards liberation.
History of Cooperative Land Access
Fifty years ago Fannie Lou Hamer, a leading figure in the Civil Rights movement, together with others purchased 680 acres of Mississippi Delta land, which they named “Freedom Farms”; The goal was to provide access to land so that Blacks could grow their own food cooperatively… “When you’ve got 400 quarts of greens and gumbo soup canned for the winter, nobody can push you around or tell you what to say or do,” Mrs. Hamer said.
There is a recognized tradition in Black communities of organizing around cooperative land access. Two years earlier, in 1967 in Albany, Georgia, Robert Swann, a pacifist and builder who later founded the Schumacher Center for a New Economics, joined Slater King, President of the Albany Movement (the Movement that preceded the well recognized Birmingham to fight segregation) and a civil rights activist, out of a common concern to provide access to land for Black farmers in the rural South.
They contracted to purchase a 5,000 acre farm and began a planning process with local residents to structure ownership and plan a settlement of homes and farm buildings. As part of their research they traveled to Israel to study the legal documents of the Jewish National Fund that separates ownership of land from the ownership of buildings on the land... New Communities, Inc., the first community land trust, was formed out of those planning meetings. The story of its creation and its struggle, including a “car accident” that killed key leaders of the initiative, is detailed in the 1972 publication, The Community Land Trust: A Guide to a New Model for Land Tenure in America by Bob Swann and others.
The movement has since grown to include over 250 community land trusts throughout the US and is widely understood as the best model for developing permanently affordable homeownership opportunities in regions where land prices are escalating.
I’ll stop here.
This tells us so much and gives us a much-needed historical baseline for our work on land trusts. I hope that we can acknowledge the “car accident” that erased so much African American history and cooperative history—it shifted the story of the work around land trusts to white control and framing. Acknowledging this is how we begin to create safety and prosperity and spaces for healing for today’s new farmers and our greater African American community in relationship with our neighbors.
I want to note that it is Susan who has been teaching me this land trust history first; I didn’t get it in any textbook. We need each other’s stories and wisdom to stay resilient in our activism.
Which brings to me to bell hooks.
In bell hooks’ belonging: a culture of place, confirming Susan’s support of the Black Commons, she writes:
“Living in modern society, without a sense of history, it has been easy for folks to forget that black people were first and foremost a people of the land, farmers.”
And on the role of White citizens, she says:
“it remains the responsibility of white citizens of this nation to work at unlearning and challenging the patterns of racist thought and behavior that still is a norm… if whites and blacks alike do not remain mindful of the continual need to contest racial segregation and to work toward a racially integrated society free of white supremacy, then we will never live in a beloved community.
And perhaps my favorite line, hooks writes,
“When we love the earth, we are able to love ourselves more freely.”
I can’t read bell hooks’ words and not think of my own belonging and the land I come from. I want to take a moment to honor my own history because this is what Black Community Land Trust work and reparations work does for so many. Tonight, I am more aware than ever of being the first granddaughter of Rural South Carolina landowners and farmers. Most of the time this is not an identity I lead with unless a family member passes, there is talk of a family reunion, or we eat one of my family’s traditional meals. And then when I have the opportunity to share magical moments at places like Harmony Homestead with heroine Barbara Love, talking in the kitchen as we traditionally do about the complicated relationships we hold as Black women today—both within our extended families and with the land our families own or once owned and lost.
hooks writes of her own maternal grandparents as if she were speaking in the voice of my Grandmother Josephine or Grandpa Wilbur, telling the story of my younger years on the Kingstree farm with them on summer visits to South Carolina:
“...my maternal grandparents, were radically opposed to any notion of social and racial uplift that meant black folks would lead us away from respect for the land, that would lead us to imitate the social mores of the affluent whites. They understood the way white supremacy and its concomitant racial hierarchies led to the dehumanization of black life. To them it was important to create one’s own culture--a culture of belonging that rooted us in earth.”
I wish I had had more time to experience how Grandpa Wilbur had all of those rolling acres of cotton and green beans and hear more stories of its significance. It was a source of pride. I want to understand more deeply the fortitude of my Grandmother Josie, what it meant for her to buy her own plot of land and start yet another farm of her own. I know for sure even though Both have passed on by now that I am of these McCraes and Johnsons of Kingstree, South Carolina.
There are connections that hardly ever get named. There are losses we have yet to find ways to process and heal from. This is why I am so passionate about my work today at BRIDGE, where among many other things, I help financial institutions look at their own historical legacies in the systematic institutionalization of racism. It is why I am so moved by the people who have self-selected in my OLLI course this fall, “Unpacking Systems of Oppression.” We are sharing and learning from each other as we take an intergenerational journey through race, class, and gender.
I know W. E. B. Du Bois would approve of my looking to bell hooks, a Black feminist writer, who names how all of these conversations are inseparable from blackness, whiteness, white supremacy, racism, and healing.
A quick note about Du Bois and Black feminism as we welcome Leah tonight.
So many years before his time, Du Bois urged us all to acknowledge Black Women’s experience. In Darkwater: Voices from the Veil (1920), he stated that the full participation of women in social, economic, and political life is essential and “is next to the color line and the peace movement, our greatest modern cause.” He asked, “But what of Black women? The world that wills to worship womankind studiously forgets its darker sisters.” As my colleague Francisca Oyogoa shared recently during a talk as part of the Great Barrington 150th Du Bois Birthday Festival, Du Bois was a kind of “proto-intersectional feminist.” He had things to learn, but on a fundamental level, he understood the power of women leading social justice movements for change... just as Leah is doing today.
Du Bois loved the land and getting back to nature. For example, when he spoke of another place dear to him, Idlewild just east of Lake Michigan, he described it as a place of refuge, escape, and solace where Black thinkers could generate new ideas and rejuvenate. According to esteemed African American historians and researchers, Du Bois also submitted a commissioned proposal on the Black Commons that was “lost.” We must retrieve and lift up each other’s work. So as I officially welcome Leah to the stage, I feel Du Bois is welcoming Leah, too, for his 150th birthday year. I want to share this excerpt from when he returned to Great Barrington to give a speech at the local high school graduation and spoke of saving the Housatonic River that runs through his hometown, this beloved community. He said:
Always when I come back here I go down to look at the river in spite of the indignation and almost physical nausea which most of it invariably causes me today and then I remember that brook. It came down from the slow sloping of the western hills; it wandered miles up Castle Hill way, through grove and meadow, and finally mirabile dictu it went right through my front yard. That brook had everything to delight a boy’s soul, rushing falls, gurgling murmurs, placid bits of lakes on gravelly beds, trees, bushes and little waterfalls. It was a complete and long and magnificent brook, and it brought its waters down the hills and through the yards and across town and emptied them at last in triumph into the Housatonic.
I hear bell hooks’ voice again, too: “When we love the earth, we are able to love ourselves more freely.”
I want to end with Leah’s words:
“[Black farmers] are not just growing food, either. The ones you’ll meet here rely on survival strategies inherited from their ancestors, such as collectivism and commitment to social change. They infuse popular education, activism, and collective ownership into their work.”
“As we work toward a racially just food system, abandoning the “colonizer” mentality that first created the problems is crucial. The communities at the frontlines of food justice are composed of black, Latino, and indigenous people, refugees and immigrants, and people criminalized by the penal system. We need to listen before we speak and follow the lead of those directly affected by the issues.
Leah Penniman has over 20 years of experience as a soil steward and food sovereignty activist, having worked at the Food Project, Farm School, Many Hands Organic Farm, Youth Grow and with farmers internationally in Ghana, Haiti, and Mexico. Her organization Soul Fire Farm’s mission is to reclaim our inherent right to belong to the earth and have agency in the food system as Black and Brown people.
And now Let’s hear from Leah herself!