Leah Penniman discusses race, food justice

Photo courtesy of Amelia Green ’20   Leah Penniman, an educator, farmer, author and activist, gave a talk about food justice on campus on Nov. 29.

Photo courtesy of Amelia Green ’20

Leah Penniman, an educator, farmer, author and activist, gave a talk about food justice on campus on Nov. 29.

BY MERYL PHAIR ’21

“I feel like so often we’re supposed to have everything figured out,” said Leah Penniman, a black Kreyol educator, farmer, author and food justice activist to the audience gathered in Hooker Auditorium on Thursday, Nov. 29. “But the first step in healing and making change is to admit that we don’t know everything.”

Penniman’s talk, “Farming While Black: African Diasporic Wisdom for Farming and Food Justice” explored the history of farmland stewardship by people of color, ways to restore Afro-indigenous farming practices and potential solutions to food apartheid.

Penniman started off her talk inviting the audience to stand up and face east. She explained that in African traditional cosmology, east signifies the direction of Africa, the home of ancestors and the source of good character. She invited each member of the audience to say the name of an ancestor who made a sacrifice so they could be standing where they were that day.

“It would be disingenuous of us to do any talking or any learning without acknowledging the earth and the original stewards of the lands upon which we sit,” said Penniman. Soul Fire Farm, which Penniman co-founded in Grafton, NY in 2011, is built on stolen land. It’s on Stockbridge Munsee Mohican land that was stolen from the Mohican people in the 1800s. Very few Mohicans remain in the capital district of Albany today, but Soul Fire Farm is working closely with those remaining to figure out ways to share the land.

“We’re in this together,” said Penniman. “I think that it can be dangerous sometimes, how we look for heroes in this culture, there must be one person who’s going to save us but it’s always a we thing. It takes all of us together. Just because I’m telling you the story doesn’t mean that I am the story.”

Penniman said that when her grandma’s grandma’s grandma’s community members were forced to board transatlantic slave ships, that ancestor and many others made a “bold and audacious choice” to weave seeds in their hair. These seeds, that the family had been growing for generations, were considered their most precious legacy. They believed in a future of working with the land.

“It can be really discouraging to be fighting against an empire, something so big,” said Penniman. “You have to remember: if our ancestors who were facing unimaginable trauma and oppression could make the choice to braid a seed in their hair, then who are we to give up on our descendents?”

Penniman explained the symbiotic relationships that her ancestors’ communities had with each other and the land. Through polycultures, irrigation and a mutually shared economic system, her ancestors knew how to work the land without trashing it and how to feed themselves without exploiting one another.

In America, these systems were destroyed by the ideals of settler colonialism. Penniman discussed the history of land ownership and how the processes created to regulate stolen land are instilled in property laws as well as the operation of our food systems today.

“Our food systems were built on stolen land and we still haven’t rectified that,” said Penniman. “It was also built on stolen labor.” Penniman explained that the transatlantic slave trade, which kidnapped 12.5 million Africans from their homes, severely impacted African farming practices, as well as American ones.

Skilled farmers from West Africa, where the climate was hot and dry, knew far more about how to farm the land in the climates of the South than American settlers, who came from the cold climates of Europe, so they were particularly targeted by slave traders. African communities suffered from what Penniman describes as a “double hit.” Their communities were ripped apart by the terrors of slavery while suffering the loss of their farmers with the most skilled agricultural knowledge, a loss that still harms many West African nations today.

Penniman also spoke about the passage of the 13th Amendment, which, although it abolished slavery, also contained an exception clause that made slavery legal for those convicted of a crime. A series of special laws, called the Black Codes, came out outlawing vagrancy, loitering and truancy. “You have to invent a reason to incarcerate people to keep those economic wheels turning,” said Penniman. From 1866 to 1870, 73 percent of the Alabama state budget was spent on leasing black prisoners back to plantations, mines and railroads, trapping people in systems of neoslavery.

“What kind of food system have we created that the jobs necessary to keep it running rely on people who literally have no other choice?” Penniman asked. “We have a global food system that has created desperate people.”

Another process that has created ‘desperate people’ is redlining, which started with the National Housing Act of 1934. The federal government commissioned maps that outlined “at risk” neighborhoods in red, masking them as undesirable for banks to grant loans to. These areas were mostly black, Indigenous and Latinx, and policies like redlining worked to limit these communities’ access to food.

“The system we live in is a food apartheid,” said Penniman. “It’s not a desert because a desert is a naturally occurring phenomenon. Apartheid is a human system of segregation that leads some people to opulence and others to scarcity. If you’re a white child in the United States you have a chance of being hungry. If you’re a black child in the United States, you have a chance of going hungry.”

85 percent of food is grown by people who identify as Latinx and Hispanic, but only 2.5 percent of farms are managed and controlled by them, according to Penniman. It’s not just about protecting agricultural laborers, but about giving them agency and a voice.

“We have those seeds braided in our hair, we know how to do this a different way,” said Penniman.

Penniman’s own farm is built on three pillars: of feeding the community and gaining stewardship of the land, training and equipping people with the tools to grow and catalyzing reparations. Penniman believes that activism starts with real work on the ground. She organizes food programs, affectionately known as “Netflix for vegetables,” that deliver fresh produce to communities that suffer from food apartheid. The programs operate on a sliding scale, meaning that people pay whatever they can to participate. Refugees, immigrants or those that have an incarcerated loved one pay nothing; their food is paid for by their neighbors.

“We didn’t come up with this idea of feeding our community,” said Penniman. “Our ancestors every step of the way have been resisting and it’s up to us to carry on that legacy.”

Penniman pointed out that when the first generation of colonizers came to this country, the organic matter in the soil was cut in half from an average of nine percent to four percent. This led to the first spike in the graph of climate change. Soul Fire Farm uses low and no-till farming methods, which have doubled their organic matter and begun to introduce carbon back into the soil. They are also re-indigenizing the land through the technologies they use to grow their food.

Soul Fire Farm has a multitude of training programs such as the BlackLatinx Farmers Immersion, Youth Food Justice Leadership trainings and Uprooting Racism trainings. They are involved in the development of community-based farms across the country and around the world. Currently, Penniman is working on a regional land trust project, an interethnic collaboration that works to get land back and redistribute it to its indigenous owners.

“All of us have the responsibility and power to create change,” said Penniman. “If you want to solve racism you have to listen to the people impacted by racism.”