Professor Monica M. White recalls growing up on Detroit’s west side and everyone she knew – family and neighbors – grew food.
Her professor father would spend hours in his garden, tending to his collards, tomatoes, and kohlrabi. While she didn’t particularly care to get her hands and knees in the dirt, she joined her dad to spend time with him.
When he wasn’t gardening, White’s dad was in the kitchen, often fixing her favorite, feijoada, a Brazilian black bean stew.
“Cooking was his love language,” White says. “My dad was known for his feijoada. In Detroit, everyone just called it black beans. He was known for his black beans.”
White’s paternal grandmother, restrained to a wheelchair, had a container garden. White’s extended relatives in Mobile, Ala. and Eden, North Carolina also grew food.
But therein lies the contrast between White’s experiences and what she read in local and national media about the urban agriculture movement in Detroit in the early 2000s.
“I know people who grow food, but when I’m reading about what’s happening in Detroit, nobody looks like me,” White tells Tostada Magazine. “I said, ‘oh no. We got to fix this. This isn’t the whole story.’”
The story of black farmers in agriculture is typically rooted in oppression and exploitation, but in her new book, Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and The Black Freedom Movement released in December, White turns that narrative on its head.
Instead, the assistant professor of environmental justice at the University of Wisconsin, Madison provides a historical framework about the work, roles, and contributions of black farmers who used agriculture to resist and empower themselves. The book humanizes and gives voice to those key players, and how they used land to challenge white supremacy and political and economic exploitation, starting from the late 1960s.
Part of her research includes looking at her own family’s roots, in both Detroit and the South, which were uncovered by an aunt as she was making final revisions to her book.
When White was young, she spent summers alternating between Mobile and Eden. Her maternal grandparents in Eden operated a farm and small store out of the living room of their home. White has fond memories of her grandparents slipping her the occasional sweet behind her mother’s watchful eye. Through her aunt, White later learned that there was also a powerful story behind that store.
It was called the Community Store, created by White’s grandfather and eight other black farmers who pooled their resources to co-own a car and start the cooperative store.
“Without even knowing it, I was writing my own family history,” says White. “I get goosebumps every time I tell that story. I didn’t realize until after I had written the whole book that I was writing about my granddaddy.”
The book is organized around four communities of black farmers mostly concentrated in the South, aside from her hometown: the Freedom Farm Cooperative in Ruleville, Mississippi, North Bolivar County Farmers Cooperative in Rosedale, Mississippi, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives Mount Beulah, Mississippi and Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN).
While the first three cooperatives reflect on the past, the Detroit network is used as a case study for how urban agriculture can rebuild a community against the backdrop of economic, social, and political crisis now and in the future.
White met Malik Yakini, co-founder of DBCFSN, and told him she was interested in studying the reasons why black folks were returning to their agricultural roots. She became a member of DBCFSN, and her involvement grew incrementally, from crew leader to code director of the Education Committee, board member, and then president of the board.
“I wanted to understand the movement before I started recording anything or asking too many questions,” she says. “I just wanted to be involved.”
From their organizational beginnings, White documents DBCFSN’s role in the creation of the Detroit Food Policy Council and D-Town Farm. In 2006, DBCFSN created its first garden on Detroit’s east side. A year later, it moved to a half-acre on the west side of Detroit and was named D-Town Farm. D-Town Farm has since grown into an internally-recognized institution for creating community spaces, teaching healthy eating, promoting wellness and encouraging co-op buying.
White uses two terms to describe DBCFSN’s work: collective agency and community resilience. White coined the concept of collective agency to describe the action of individuals who come together and decide on a strategy to support and advance the group. Community resilience is a theoretical framework that focuses on everyday strategies of resistance.
“Detroiters have an ingenuity and a sense of innovation that I think has not been fully recognized,” White says. “Detroiters are showing how to rebuild a community using agriculture as its base in a way that includes equity, justice, and community wellness.”
What makes DBCSFN’s model standout from other collectives?
“I think there are lots of food justice organizations that are not led by folks who are food insecure,” White explains. “What makes DBCFSN important and critical is that it’s black-led, it’s majority African American, and rooted in a history of struggle,” White says.
This article was made possible by the Detroit Journalism Engagement Fund, a project of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, that’s working to increase quality journalism and help better inform communities.
Author: Brittany Hutson
Brittany Hutson is a freelance journalist based in Detroit. She has written for Black Enterprise Magazine, Essence Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Shelterforce Magazine, and Diverse: Issues in Higher Education. She is the creator of the blog, Fed & Bougie a destination for stories about food, people and community.