Spring 2021

Living Science

Photo by John Ficenec


When Monica White joined the UW faculty in 2012, she was already hard at work on the project that would become Freedom Farmers, a book that tells a different story about the relationship between African Americans and agriculture. Early on, as a new assistant professor in Department of Community and Environmental Sociology at CALS and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, she traveled regularly to gather more information for the book. It was time well spent.

Freedom Farmers, published in 2018, was an immediate hit, selling out before its official release date. White later received the 2019 Eduardo Bonilla-Silva Outstanding Book Award from the Society for the Study of Social Problems and the 2020 First Book Award from the Association for the Study of Food and Society.

Now an associate professor, White says there was a big resurgence in book talk requests in 2020. “A lot of people are asking questions like, ‘What stories don’t I know?’” she says. “And the story of Black agriculture is one of those stories that people don’t know.”

Book cover image courtesy of the University of North Carolina Press

What motivated you to write this book?

I was applying for a position in Detroit that would allow me to move back home and take care of my parents. I needed
a research question, and I’d heard about the urban agriculture movement in Detroit, and some of my family members grew food there. But the press didn’t include many African

Americans in their coverage, so the stories that were being held as examples were missing folks like my family — as well as groups like the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN).

Some of the people who founded the DBCFSN, their parents had grown food in the South and then moved to Detroit [during the Great Migration] to work in the automobile industry. And almost everybody had a backyard garden. They kept growing food. That was just what we did. I really wanted to understand why DBCFSN members choose to grow food. And when you create these community-based food systems, how does that change the community itself?

The relationship between African Americans and agriculture has often been told through the lens of tenant farming, sharecropping, and slavery. Working with the African Americans in Detroit, who were reconnecting to their agricultural roots as a way to provide nutrient-rich food to their community, I heard a different reason. For them, agriculture was a strategy of resistance and resilience and a way to build healthy, whole communities.

My book offers a counter-narrative about the relationship between African Americans and agriculture, moving from one of tenant farming, sharecropping, and slavery to one that emphasizes a positive relationship between land, food, and freedom.

How did you get started?

I didn’t want to ask any questions at first. I just went to all the meetings, every event, all the Harvest Festival dinners and related functions. I did a whole immersion for two years. And I fell in love.

I offered to help with an organizational history and organize their papers. I ended up serving as the co-director of the education and outreach committee. They trusted me because of my willingness to do whatever they asked me to do.

What did you learn by participating?

I found that many DBCFSN members have backyard gardens for themselves, but they also contribute to the collective. Many of them said things like, “My kids are grown and gone, but I want to make sure the children in the neighborhood have nutrient-rich food for breakfast instead of pop and chips.” They also prefer a co-op [over a chain grocery store] because it’s a regenerative model. When they buy produce, they want to know the farmer and the farming practices. And using a co-op model, they know that the money regenerates within the community.

It made me question, have there been other times when African Americans have turned to agriculture to provide for their families but also as a mechanism to transform their neighborhoods, their communities?

I recognized that, at every economic downturn, African Americans would turn to agricultural roots. And if that’s what we did in hard times, the only frame to understand it could not have been using a deficit model of slavery, tenant farming, and sharecropping. There had to be another lens. It couldn’t have just been oppressive. It had to also be liberatory.

I decided, before I could write a case study of Detroit’s urban agricultural history, I had to set a theoretical framework. That, then, meant it couldn’t just be about Detroit; I had to follow where that led.

Where did that lead you?

How do you get to Detroit? You’ve got to go to the South. Many Black people left the South because they were tired of being exploited by doing agricultural work with the deck stacked against them. They weren’t able to benefit from the fruits of their labor, literally and figuratively, because of deeply entrenched exploitive relationships. That’s why they left — not because it was hard work.

But some people stayed. And they started the Southern Cooperative Movement. There’s not a lot of scholarship on it, so I was reading, reading, reading [old Black agricultural co-op records]. And I found that these co-ops had economic, political, and social agreements, or strategies.

That’s where the book’s central concept — my theoretical framework — of collective agency and community resilience comes from. This was the new foundation on which to build my case. The book starts out talking about the Black intellectual traditions of agriculture. Then it really digs into three co-ops that implemented this concept.

What do your studies say about DBCFSN?

In the midst an economic downturn, you’re seeing a community where folks choose to stay and create their own food system, which we know is not easy. So you’re seeing collective agency and community resilience.

Something that was an eyesore, such as a vacant lot overgrown with grass and weeds, has been transformed into a purveyor of social services. At DBCFSN’s D-Town Farm, during the Harvest Festival, you can get your diabetes checked, your blood pressure measured, learn how to cook organic veggies from a culturally appropriate perspective. There’s music, there’s art, there are all kinds of celebrations.

This book helps people understand the historical precedent for today’s urban agriculture. It shows how communities respond to catastrophic events by engaging in food production as a way to have a greater voice, to feel partly in control of the decisions that impact our lives. The ability to feed oneself creates all kinds of political, social, and economic options that people wouldn’t have if they were beholden to somebody else.

Feeding ourselves is the beginning of a conversation of transformation. Because if we can create some form of alternative food system, then can we also talk about community education? Can we talk about community policing? [It can be a step toward] having a greater voice in what happens to the community.

How do you hope this book impacts people?

People think they understand the relationship between Black people and agriculture. Nobody says, “Let’s ask the question again.” That’s the danger of the single story. I think that’s a part of the reason that the book appeals to people: It answers questions they thought they knew answers to.

I also hope that Freedom Farmers allows us to think differently about farmers. We don’t often think about the laborers, all the hands that touch our food from the seed to the grocery store. And so it is my hope that we can appreciate the centuries of Black farmers who have been central to our food ways.

Can you talk about the interesting connection you discovered between the co-ops you wrote about and Madison, Wisconsin?

Yes, I was shocked. There’s a really important relationship between Madison and Ms. Fanny Lou Hamer, the woman who founded Freedom Farm Cooperative in Sunflower County, Mississippi in 1969.

Ms. Hamer came to Madison to participate in a conference hosted by the Center for Cooperatives. She ended up being invited to the home of the Reverends Goldstein, who were leaders in Measure for Measure, a Madison-based philanthropic organization founded by progressive clergy and academics.

Measure for Measure supported the goals and provided a lot of funding for Freedom Farm over the years. They did lots of hunger walks [to raise money], and a lot of the products made at the co-op were sold in Madison. Sometimes they sent cash, other times books for education programs, children’s books with black characters, dolls, or just clothes. The poverty was just so devastating that they sent whatever they could. I have pictures of tractors that went from Madison down to Ruleville, Mississippi.

Ahead of one of my first talks at CALS, someone reached out and said, “Hey, I heard about your upcoming talk on Ms. Hamer. I don’t know if you know this, but the Reverends Goldstein were friends of hers.” I was like, “No flipping way.”

So, I reached out to them. This was before the gentleman Reverend passed. And I invited them to the talk and got a picture with them, and they were so excited to talk about her.

So, yeah, it’s amazing. There’s this synergy between Madison and my research.

What are you working on these days?

Right now, I have a fellowship through the Institute for Research in the Humanities. For that project, I’m working on a family biography of the first black USDA loan officer, George Paris, and his sons and daughter-in-law. The majority of the scholarship that we study on the Great Migration follows those of us who moved North. But there are millions of families who stay, and yet those families don’t get any of the attention. So, I’m presenting the Paris family experience as a way to talk about how and why they stayed. And what did it mean for them to stay?

I also have a book proposal bootcamp that I do with food justice activists every week. There are a lot of resources in the academy to help us [professors] write our books, but there aren’t the same resources for community activists. A number have reached out to me, saying they have a book in them, but they don’t know what to do. So, I’m literally taking them through the process of writing book proposals.

I’m also starting to work on a Black angler project. You see a lot of African Americans who fish in Madison, and people assume it is for food security, right? Food access. But I don’t know if that’s the answer. I don’t think there’s any scholarship on the racial differences that exist for why people fish, so I’m developing a whole list of research questions to explore that.

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