On October 27, 2017, farmer and food sovereignty activist Leah Penniman and artist Syd Carpenter sat down for a conversation about the importance of land in American history, its role in African Americans’ lives historically and today, and the intersections between art and farming.
What brings us together is one important element, and that is land. I can’t emphasize how much land—as an idea, as an experience, as content—has been important to my work on so many levels.
One of the most profoundly disorienting, disruptive, and devastating events in the experience of any person or group is to be forcibly removed from the land you call your home. Having roots in that place is your sense of belonging. Without that place, you are adrift, vulnerable and perpetually agitated, and at risk—a state all too familiar to America’s indigenous peoples, African Americans, newly arrived immigrants, and the undocumented. For this reason, land ownership becomes paramount in sustaining those essentials to well-being, allowing for deeper roots extending over generations, and assuring a firm cultural footprint that, in turn, contributes to the broader narrative of humankind. I see land as being viscerally a part of my ability to feel sustained, to feel as if I have a stake in the general narrative that we think of as culture.
Leah, watching what you do, the way you have broadened that attachment to the land to include issues around well-being and sustainability, access to good food, and community—your project, to me, is enormous. It has allowed me to react to it as an artist, because that’s what artists do. We react, respond, and provide tangible content that can be used over time to document what we, as a people, have done at any given time. I see you as an artist because of the creativity, the initiative, and the constant need to solve problems, which is what I do as an artist. But also seeing you as this black female farmer, to me, is so inspiring and amazing, and it’s people like you that give me the root to do my work.
You’re so generous to include me in your definition of “artist.” I don’t think of myself that way. But I do deeply resonate with the idea that we’re both motivated and inspired by our love of land and an understanding that land is the foundation of our culture, our belonging, and our sense of wholeness. I’m both devastated and motivated by the fact that we, as black people, have been robbed of almost all the land that we’ve held in stewardship in the history of this country.
From the turn of the century to 1910, our people had almost sixteen million acres of farmland and composed 15 percent of the farming population. Now we compose less than 1 percent, having lost fourteen million acres of land. And that wasn’t an accident; that wasn’t a choice. Our own federal government, the United States Department of Agriculture, systematically discriminated against black farmers. Farming is a highly subsidized industry, and when the cotton boll weevil epidemic came or when there was drought, black farmers didn’t get relief when white farmers did. Over time, that compounded and compounded. Black farmers owning their land was a threat to sharecropping and tenant farming. The Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups, oftentime who were part of the government themselves, would target black landowners with violence, burning crosses, and the “strange fruit” hanging from the tree. And that drove our people farther out. So, it’s not an accident.
You can look at the issues from an economic standpoint of who’s producing food and what that means for the economy and for black people’s abilities to sustain ourselves. And that’s important. But I also believe that when we were exiled from the red clays of Georgia to the paved streets of Chicago and Pittsburgh and Boston, there was a piece of our souls that got left behind. And there’s a little emptiness that we’re looking around and trying to fill and that we can’t quite name.
In my experience of farming in the past twenty years, when black folks come back to land and experience the tilling, the harvesting, the reaping, the sharing food, that unnameable emptiness, which has been empty for generations, is filled. And that’s what keeps me going; farming is not easy work. But to see a deeper healing, a reclamation of our ancestral right to belong to the land and have agency when it comes to food and land is profound. And for you to take the time and visit black farmers and listen to them all across the South and then turn their stories into beauty to share with the world is really profound.