Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land, Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, Vermont, 2018, $34.95
Leah Penniman’s Farming While Black is a groundbreaking contribution to the fight for social justice in the United States. Part political manifesto, part how-to guide for new Black and Brown farmers, part meditation on the meaning of solidarity, Penniman shines a light on two central questions in American history: land and labor.
Not one to pull punches, Penniman begins by quoting Malcolm X in his “Message to the Grassroots” to make her point, “Revolution is based on land. Land is the basis of all independence. Land is the basis of freedom, justice, and equality.” When he delivered this message in 1963, the majority of Black listeners were only one or two generations removed from the land. Unfortunately, giant agricultural corporations and banks have run so many small and medium farmers out of business that the vast majority of people in the U.S. no longer have any direct connection to the land, so Malcolm X’s point today might sound antiquated, or just metaphorical. But it’s not.
Control over the land and those who labor was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be the relation that determines economic and political power in this country. It was true when the Pilgrims initiated the long war against Indigenous people, it was true during two-and-a-half centuries of slavery, and it is true today. The outcome of this struggle “was no accident,” stresses Penniman. Specific decisions by specific people at specific times have led us to our specific circumstances.
For example, on January 16, 1865, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15, allotting land and the use of Army mules to newly freed people. The destruction of outright slavery by the end of the Civil War opened a period of Radical Reconstruction in the former Confederacy. Politically, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments granted African Americans citizenship, civil rights, and (male) suffrage, leading to the election of Black Congressmen and a large number of state officials and a certain degree of expanded Black land ownership. Yet, the economic failure to honor Sherman’s promise of forty acres and a mule across the entire South doomed America’s brief experiment in multiracial plebeian democracy. It left the land in the hands of the powers that be and robbed free Black people (and poor whites) the chance to establish their own “independence” on the land, as Malcolm X pointed out.
However, if forty acres and a mule was never put into practice and the majority of Black families were forced into sharecropping for wealthy white landlords, tens of thousands of Black families found ways to farm for themselves. Penniman explains that by 1910, “the height of Black land ownership, 16 million acres of farmland—14 percent of the total—was owned and cultivated by Black families.” In 2020, there were approximately 900 million acres of farmland in the United States. If 14 percent of that were farmed by Black families, that would mean 100 million acres.
Yet capitalists in the South and the North understood Malcolm X’s point as well as anyone and they launched a 100 Years War to destroy Black farms by means of “maiming, burning, deportation, economic violence, legal violence” all to ensure, as Penniman writes, “that our roots were not spread deeply and securely…[and n]ow less than 1 percent of farms are Black owned.”
Given that, it might seem that the war is over. But Penniman isn’t having it. “This book, Farming While Black, is a reverently compiled manual for African-heritage people ready to reclaim our rightful place of dignified agency in the food system. To farm while Black is an act of defiance against white supremacy…”
Fortunately, Penniman is not alone in her faith, nor is she relying on the written word alone. She’s a proud farmer herself and tells the story of how she and her partner—and a dedicated group of supporters and fellow farmers—have built up Soul Fire Farm in Upstate New York into a successful farm and an incubator for the Youth Food Justice program. Along the way, she uncovers the deep connection Black farmers have always had with civil rights and freedom movements, from the New Communities movement in Georgia to Fannie Lou Hamer’s Freedom Farm in the late 1960s and early 1970s. And, she uplifts more recent organizing efforts such as the 500-strong National Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners Conference (BUGS).
There’s a long road ahead to reclaim what has been robbed from generations of Black farmers, but Penniman’s book and her practical success at Soul Fire Farm will open the door to countless young people who most likely never would have imagined that farming while Black was not only an obtainable life’s work but also an important contribution to the freedom movement.
Towards that ends, the bulk of Penniman’s book focuses on practical advice and resources for Black people interested in finding land, paying for it, following sustainable growing practices, marketing, cooperative structures, fund-raising, and much more. It’s an invaluable guide to starting a farm and challenging White Supremacy.
Which brings me to one last consideration. It’s likely that the majority of people reading this review are white while Penniman makes it clear that her book is for Black farmers. So should you buy the book if you’re not Black or not a farmer? Absolutely.
First off, Penniman’s political view is expansive and global. She provides a vision and pathway to social justice relevant to all people. Second, her book shares invaluable historical and contemporary analysis useful to all antiracists. Third—and most valuable for me as a new farmer (who is white)—Farming While Black is one of the most expertly written and practically relevant books I have found if you are interested in starting or growing a farm. Alongside Jean-Martin Fourtier’s The Market Gardener, Eliot Coleman’s Four-Season Harvest, and Daniel Mays The No-Till Organic Vegetable Farm, Penniman’s Farming While Black deserves a spot in the middle of your bookshelf.