What does Juneteenth Mean For Black Farmers in 2020?

June 19, 1865 marked the official end of slavery after Union soldiers finally made their way to Galveston, Texas to deliver the news the war had come to an end and slaves were now free. This news came about two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was enacted on January 1, 1863. Despite this declaration of freedom for enslaved Black people, the 150+ years to follow came with growing challenges to acclimation to the American social landscape due to varying tactics of racial oppression, systemically. Resilience has become a bittersweet defining term for the human experience of Black Americans living in the face of Jim Crow, redlining, the Civil Rights Movement, and even today within the current Black Lives Matter movement and very recent events of violence & police brutality against Black people.

Yet and still, Juneteenth in 2020 brings forth a deeper meaning than ever for Black Americans in reflection of what freedom means. Over recent years, particularly for Black farmers, a growing sense of freedom has been found in growing food and stewardship of land as an act of resistance and empowerment. In recognition and honoring of the Black farmers on WhyHunger’s staff, it was important for us to hear from our Co-Directors of U.S. Programs and co-founders of Black Urban Growers (BUGS), Suzanne Babb and Lorrie Clevenger on what Juneteenth means to them as Black Women Farmers.

 

Suzanne: This Juneteenth feels especially bittersweet given that it’s just a couple of weeks after the violent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. A hundred and fifty-five years later, Black people still have to demand an end to systemic racism and fight for equality, freedom and our lives. At the same time it makes sense because the same state, the same set of power exists to exploit our labor and reduce our humanity. It’s also bittersweet because we have lost so many people in the Black community to COVID-19 due to the direct consequences of systemic racism: Less employment opportunities, housing discrimination and less access to healthy food that lead to chronic health diseases leaving us more susceptible to catching this deadly virus.

Juneteenth is a time to celebrate our freedom from bondage and maybe a time for us to think about the other ways that we still need to be free. Black people struggle so much to work against the system, and it is necessary, but Juneteenth is a time for us to celebrate our existence because that in itself is a triumph. We are our ancestors’ wildest dream. I want to celebrate our existence, our resilience, our strength, our joy, our laughter, our food, our culture and our history. It’s also time to take pause because every day we are fighting to struggle and it’s a beautiful day to celebrate, be with family and community and honor a day that is about us.

The question is what does Juneteenth mean for me as a Black farmer. Farming is freedom; [Freedom] to express our culture, to decide what you eat, what will nourish you and your community. I think about how our ancestors were kidnapped from Western Africa and brought over to the Americas to work the land because of our agriculture skills. We had to work the land in inhumane conditions. Work land that did not belong to us. Land that indigenous people were in deep relationship with. During this enslavement, we often always found ways to grow a small patch of food in a way that was in the right relationship with the land and to nourish ourselves with. Farming is a connection to our ancestral culture and knowledge. Seeds were often the one thing our ancestors brought with them through the Middle Passage and sustained them during their enslavement. Our ancestors weren’t allowed to express other parts of their cultures; they couldn’t speak their own languages, they couldn’t celebrate their own holidays or practice their own religions; nothing except maybe being able to grow their own food.  The ability to still continue to grow food and pass ancestral ways of farming down is freedom to me. So as we celebrate Juneteenth and the true emancipation of Black people I think about the request from Black leaders for 40 acres of land and a mule for each family after enslavement.  Land is freedom. Being able to be in relationship with land that you can grow food that is life-sustaining and nourishing for your families and for community, that is connected to your culture is what it’s all about and what it means for me to be a Black farmer. To grow food ourselves, to cook food for ourselves in the ways that we know how and to be community and to celebrate who we are. Even as our culture has evolved over the 400 years of us being here, I think it’s the celebration of our connection to our ancestral culture and knowledge that allowed us to survive, to be resilient, that allowed us to exist beyond bondage and continue to always strive towards freedom, expression of culture and community through food.

I said before that this is a tough Juneteenth but celebrating Juneteenth is essential more than ever because what is as important to our freedom as our struggles is our joy.  Food and farming will always play a role in our joy.

 

Lorrie: As a mixed race – half Black, half white – person, raised in a poor white, single parent household in rural Missouri, I did not grow up knowing about, let alone celebrating Juneteenth.  It has only been in my adult years and through my journey of becoming a Black woman farmer that I’ve become aware of Juneteenth and its significance to Black communities and to the too often glossed over truths – suppressed in the dominant, white supremacist narrative – of America’s status as a nation of freedom and justice for all.

Juneteenth is a holiday commemorating June 19, 1865, when enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas – the final holdout of the confederacy – were informed they were free.

General Orders, Number 3; Headquarters District of Texas, Galveston, June 19, 1865

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

The news arrived over two and a half years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and while the order declared freedom for the now formerly enslaved people, there was no process of enforcement set in place.  There were no labor laws protecting the “hired labor.”  Many of the newly freed men, women and children in the state of Texas continued to endure the same treatment as before when they were legally enslaved.  For many people who decided to fully embrace their freedom and leave their former masters/now employers, they were captured and beaten or murdered and hung from trees as warnings to others. The order itself is rife with issues and accomplishes the end of slavery on paper but not through any form or process of enforcement.

As I began learning about the full history of Juneteenth, I initially experienced a sense of disillusionment and confusion.  And then I read a quote from Henry Louis Gates, Jr. from his article “What is Juneteenth?”

Hardly the recipe for a celebration — which is what makes the story of Juneteenth all the more remarkable. Defying confusion and delay, terror and violence, the newly “freed” black men and women of Texas, with the aid of the Freedmen’s Bureau (itself delayed from arriving until September 1865), now had a date to rally around. In one of the most inspiring grassroots efforts of the post-Civil War period, they transformed June 19 from a day of unheeded military orders into their own annual rite, “Juneteenth,” beginning one year later in 1866.  — Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Juneteenth is an annual celebration of Black resilience and our ability to see a way forward despite the odds and the barriers continually being put before us.

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In upliftment of Black voices and leaders in the food and land justice movement, Civil Eats provided a recent list of great Black-led organizations dedicated to food justice, farming, education, agricultural awareness and empowerment for BIPOC communities.

Colin Lawton

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