Farm Aid: The Black and White of It
By Jo Nubian
My family has been farming since slavery. I say this in a literal sense, not using the metaphor of how we all sew and reap the harvests of our lives. We have gone from slaves to sharecroppers to owners of our own land and crops. Our story is uniquely and beautifully American. As such, my father planted a few stalks of cotton every year along with his tomatoes, okra, banana peppers, and cucumbers in our family garden. As a child, he taught me how to pick cotton without being cut by the sharp edges of the plant.
I used to be embarrassed by my father’s insistence on planting those cotton seeds as I saw nothing but pain for him, for us, in that planting. It was not until I truly studied my family’s history, and the collective history of our people, that I realized what I was viewing as defeat he saw as triumph. You see, not only had he survived the fields of those tenant farms, but he had produced these beautiful and gifted children who would carry his dreams further than he, his parents, and his parent’s parents could ever have imagined.
My uncles still work the fields, growing cane and corn and whatever crops they feel will thrive in the midst of the ecology that global warming has produced. Sometimes they win at the end of the planting season, sometimes they lose, but they never fail to sew their seeds (okay I did add a bit of metaphor in that statement). I remember viewing those great Farm Aid concerts and promotions as a child, you know the ones with Willie Nelson singing about the glory of the American farmer, and wondering where the men and women like my father, mother, aunts and uncles were. In this romanticized (and White) postcard of American agriculture, as in the many images of this nation, my people were overlooked and ignored.
Shirley Sherrod’s family, like my own, has fought to rise above violent racism and White supremacy in a way that most only read of in textbooks and published memoirs. The Klan, aided by the local government of Bakers County, Georgia, terrorized Sherrod’s family and eventually saw to the murder her father. Surviving such a horrific ordeal would make one despise this land and the government that commands it, but instead Sherrod became an apostle on its behalf. I am always perplexed at the ways we define our heroes, or more so who we decide our heroes should be- but I never fail to recognize courage.
One would imagine that in 2010 as America moves towards its grand ideas of post racial-ism, a case like the firing of Shirley Sherrod would be a source of outrage, contempt, or at least a frank and honest table conversation about how racism damages those who hate as much as those who are hated. Then again, idealistically I would expect the national media who is covering, non stop, the possible discrimination that one White family of farmers has encountered to also cover the thousands of Black farmers who are knowingly being discriminated against by the USDA. I choose the word knowingly quite carefully because not only have these farmers filed suit against the USDA for vast and exceptionally overt discrimination as they have fought through the years to maintain their farmland, but they have won. Yet in their victory many of these farmers have yet to see a single penny of the compensation, wait reparations, that they have been promised.
As I note the firing of Shirley Sherrod for being honest about an instance where she used her own bitterness towards the racism that she and her family endured to (possibly) not fully serve a White farmer, I think of all the Black farmers who have yet to receive the justice that they have been assured would come. Here in lies the dichotomy of how our government, and its citizenry, responds to our collective needs. Sherrod should be celebrated for realizing and stating what the many USDA workers who discriminated against Black farmers were never made to do- admit that our struggles to feed ourselves and our nation have absolutely nothing to do with race.
I’ll be honest, as Sherrod was, and admit that it is difficult for me to muster feelings of anger or sadness at the possibility of the Spooner family (who consequently came forward to credit Sherrod for saving their farm) being the victims of reverse racism and discrimination. I have a few explicit words however for the USDA, Tom Vilsack, and of course the not so honorable Ben Jealous of the NAACP who before fully examining Sherrod’s case publicly ridiculed her and called her actions racist.
Can we be clear in admitting that a post racial America should constitute advocacy for families like the Spooners as well as families like Sherrod’s and mine? On most days I consider how much our progress as a nation has been stunted in this new age of neutrality and assimilation- and more importantly what it costs us as Americans. As we take up the task of moving towards this “one nation” that we continually claim through our pledge we aspire to be, we must visualize what we desire in and of it. Or as Baldwin states, because he just always says it way better than I ever can:
What is really at question is the American way of life. What is really at question is whether Americans already have an identity or are still sufficiently flexible to achieve one. This is a painfully complicated question, for what now appears to be the American identity is really a bewildering and sometimes demoralizing blend of nostalgia and opportunism.
Opportunism indeed sir Baldwin, opportunism indeed.
Jo Nubian is a freelance writer whose writing focuses on human rights, especially issues of race and gender. She is currently based in Houston, Texas where she is completing her masters of arts in literature and writing for various journals, magazines, and other publications. Her thesis work discusses the theme of womanism in the life and works of Zora Neale Hurston.