A book review of Farming While Black
by Ciana Hamilton
When I first got my hands on Farming While Black, I felt my soul rejoice. I have always felt a strong connection to land; whether it’s a long walk in the woods or growing a zillion tomatoes in my garden. Something in my soul sets on fire whenever I find myself intertwined with the earth. Even though this love of land comes naturally for me, I can’t help but feel misplaced, disconnected and even hurt whenever I attempt to foster a stronger bond with Mother Earth. From the moment you open Farming While Black you can feel the dedication, energy and love that Leah Penniman poured into this book. In its most practical form, Farming While Black is a hands-on how-to guide for everything to do with tending to the land. Once you begin to dive deeper though you realize it is so much more than a generic farmers guide. Farming While Black is 16 chapters of beauty, colour and testimony. It is as pragmatic as it is reflective of Black peoples’ history, connection and rehabilitation towards farming.
Penniman described Farming While Black as the book she wished she had growing up. Throughout the chapters, she seamlessly integrates her years of farming expertise with her personal journey of finding true liberation working on and with the land. Chapters such as, “Finding Land and Resources” explores different points of access to land, whether it is leased, communal, bought or through a land trust. In chapter six, you can find vital information on crop planning, transplanting seedlings and days to maturity for a variety of herbs and vegetables. In each of these more practical chapters, Penniman includes UPLIFT subsections that draw connections to African ways of farming and present day uprising within Black communities. In one chapter, “Feeding the Soil”, one UPLIFT section speaks on African Dark Earth, a highly fertile and dark soil that was created 700 years ago by women in Ghana and Liberia. Farming While Black is easily the best book for Black (Indigenous, Brown, Latinx) folks who feel the duality of detachment and yet, the desire to build skills in farming.
For most of us, it doesn’t take much to get outside and get our hands dirty. There is nothing really stopping Black people from contributing to urban community gardens or being involved with farm internships. But where the work gets tricky is when it comes to repairing the internal damage that many Black people carry as a result of slavery. In short, slavery has destroyed our relationship with land. That pain I sometimes feel towards land, is a pain that is felt by most Black folks across Turtle Island. It is the same pain that is shared with our Indigenous cousins and others who have been displaced at the hands of colonialism. It is the pain we often try to bury; and in an attempt to forget, we sabotage ourselves from regaining identity through something that has been in our history for centuries. There is no question that even Leah Penniman felt this distorted disconnection when she first began her journey of farming. The history of Black connection to land has been greatly misconstrued to fit a narrative of white supremacy. We are perpetually told and reminded that our only real connection to farming was when our ancestors were enslaved, exploited and forced to endure hard labour. Rarely is there a discussion around Black farming prior to slavery or Black farming after slavery. Rarely is there any discussion on African culture and how intertwined our African relatives were with nature, land and crops. The space that Penniman dedicates towards healing our land legacies in Farming While Black is what sets this book apart from any other farmer’s how-to guide. Chapters such as: Honoring the Spirits of the Land, Plant Medicine, Cooking and Preserving and Healing from Trauma are the parts of this book that invite readers to dig deep within themselves and recognize where healing needs to begin. In “Healing from Trauma “ Penniman said, “Many of us have confused the terror our ancestors experienced on land with the land herself, naming her the oppressor and running toward paved streets without looking back. We do not stoop, sweat, harvest, or even get dirty, because we imagine that would revert us to bondage.” What makes Farming While Black a book of true deliverance, are the constant reminders from Penniman, and all those at Soul Fire Farm, that farming is in our blood. Whether it is through the UPLIFT sections throughout the book, the wealth of knowledge (old and new) or the beautiful photographs of Black, Brown, Indigenous and Latinx folks working harmoniously on the land, Farming While Black is the reminder that our history in slavery will not erase our history of land stewardship.
I am a descendant of African heritage. The women in my family were farmers, caretakers and keepers of the Earth. Farming While Black is my awakening to remember and honour my ancestors. With every shovel of dirt, every seed planted, every vegetable harvested, I vow to never forget that they were proud people of the land and today, so am I.
Ciana Hamilton is a happy nappy freelance creative writer & journalist. When she’s not writing she can be found doing fun shit with her kids.