Sustainability and Community Autonomy in Urban Gardens
by Pancho McFarland
In the September 2012 issue of Z Magazine, Robert Hunziker reports that a climate change-induced food crisis in the Middle East was the central cause of the Arab Spring of 2011. In Syria, the drought of 2006-2011 left 75% of farmers from the northeast and south with total crop failure. He writes that: “According to the UN, 800,000 Syrians had their livelihoods totally wiped out. One researcher notes that ‘the single factor that triggers riots around the world is food.’” In 2007, 48 countries experienced food riots.
Meanwhile, in the US, the 12-month period between July 2011 and June 2012 was the warmest on record. The Midwestern drought has destroyed the corn, soy and wheat markets causing prices in the US and around the globe to rise rapidly. Hunziker concludes the article with this thought: “As certain as riots are expected in many underdeveloped countries in the world, a North American Spring is not out of the question.”
I read Hunziker’s article after just having finished Daniel R. Wildcat’s, Red Alert: Saving the Planet with Indigenous Knowledge (Fulcrum, 2009) and working and learning in our community garden alongside veteran gardener, H., who explained the wonders of ancient Kemet. After studying Wildcat’s book and reflecting on the lessons offered by H. and our relations in the garden, I keep thinking about the following question: How can we use ‘indigenuity’ in our urban gardens and in the food justice and just sustainability movements, generally, to make our communities more ecologically resilient and politically autonomous in the face of ‘global burning’ and the capitalist attack on the working classes, people of color, and first nations?
Indigenuity in the nature-culture nexus
Wildcat (48) explains that indigenuity is “the ability to solve pressing life issues facing humankind now by situating our solutions in Earth-based local indigenous deep spatial knowledge.” Indigenous knowledge is rooted in experiences of place. It starts with the humility, the recognition that humans are but one, albeit key, species among the many inhabiting the planet. Attentiveness to this fact is the basis of ‘indigenous realism.’ “To know it—reality—requires respect for the relationships and relatives that constitute the complex web of life…it entails that we, members of humankind, accept our inalienable responsibilities as members of the planet’s complex life system, as well as our inalienable rights” (Wildcat, 9).
Peoples whose identities and cultures emerge out of the places in which they live recognize that you know through doing. Knowledge or understanding results from a cooperative engagement with all our relations residing in our immediate environment. Indigenous realism provides a framework for developing solutions to global burning, climate chaos, the health and food crises, and many other problems that afflict us in urban and rural settings alike.
Getting real in the garden
The work gets us thinking, the conversations flow, and our knowledge grows. I become more and more convinced that it is through creative praxis — i.e., via interaction with the soil, water, wind and all our relations present at the community garden — that we learn to ‘live well’ in our place. We begin to learn and live the good life through “complementary participation in the world whereby we ‘find ways to live in environments’ not dominate them” (Wildcat 77). With our hands in the soil we become ‘in tune’ (as H. described it one morning) with our relatives. Every moment that we spend in communication with our natural world as relatives, not as consumers, makes it easier to unplug from the unsustainable lifestyles associated with the consumer ethic.
H. defines communication with our natural world as “a buzz of energy” that we can become a part of through sustained activity in natural environments. Wildcat (75) describes several elders who he has known that “have been almost matter-of-fact about their ability to exercise interspecies communication with animals.” Recognition of and attention to animals and other-than-human relatives offered indigenous peoples many valuable lessons. The indigenous living system of knowledge results from “deep experiential knowledge that is capable of change and innovation, the ability to figure out what works in a particular place for the people of that place” (Wildcat, 70). Only with a deep and sustained relationship to place can we truly know it.
Native spirituality and that of other indigenous peoples is not analogous to the hierarchical monotheist Abrahamic religions based on myth and faith. It is based on indigenous realism developed through communication and connection to the other-than-human world, which is a process that places identity within a nature-culture nexus. Indigenous place-based identities and cultures develop within ‘a symbiotic relationship that recognizes the fundamental connectedness and relatedness of human communities and societies to the natural environment and the other-than-human relatives they interact with daily” (Wildcat, 20); as is related in the ethics of mitakuye oyasin (Lakota) and in lak ech (Lacandon Maya).
The rupture of the nature-culture nexus makes it difficult for many persons in our urban communities to overcome the soul-crushing effects of racism and capitalist exploitation. We begin to misperceive the current system as omnipotent and learn how to cope with it or become willing participants in its violence. We are disempowered and become dependent on a culture and value system with little concern for the interests of the working classes, people of color, and indigenous peoples and even less respect for our other-than-human relatives. In conversation with Wendell Berry, bell hooks (belonging: a culture of place, 195) describes the loss of place-based, culture, and identity when she tells the following story:
Gone was a world where black folks understood the limitations of white power. My Daddy Jerry, my paternal grandfather, as he plowed with this mule would say; “you see that sun — the white man can’t make it rise — no man can make it rise — man ain’t everything.’ Daddy Jerry knew that there were limits to white power and to human power. We are living in a world right now where many black people and other people of color feel that white power is absolute. They see themselves as victims. They feel constant defeat and despair. In the culture of southern blackness, of Kentucky farm culture, you and I evoke, black folk were able to maintain integrity, dignity, creating beauty in the midst of exploitation and oppression.
The forced separation of people of color from the land through slavery and genocide, the capitalist transformation of the Americas, colonialism, and Americanization have deprived us of the relationships and knowledge that would help us forge community autonomy and solidarity needed to solve numerous ‘urban problems.’ Indigenous realism of the sort developed and nurtured through work in urban community gardens provides a framework upon which to rebuild local, place-based, democratic community institutions and identities.
Place and identity in the urban food justice movement
Negative associations with Africa, African-ness, slave labor, indigeniety, and migrant farm work have driven [email protected], [email protected] and Black Americans to assimilate the U.S. capitalist ethic and value system while rejecting anything that is ‘too African’ or ‘too Indian.’ Exposing young people and adults to the pleasures of working with the soil and the great histories of agricultural innovation and genius of Africans and Native Americans can begin to ‘re-place’ their consumer identities with empowered, rooted identities.
Every season members of the Green Lots Project and the Roseland community plant okra, tend it, admire its beauty, and eventually feast on it. We also learn from the practice of working with okra. Our time with okra teaches us about its habits, the soil quality of our little plot, and the necessary conditions under which the crop flourishes and generously supplies us with sustenance. It can also teach us about humanity.
Okra was domesticated in the West African savanna more than 4000 years ago. During breaks from the difficult work of harvesting and cultivating okra, I replay for fellow gardeners what I have just learned from the work of Judith A. Carney and Richard Nicholas Rosomoff in In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World (University of California Press, 2009). Doing my best to represent Carney and Nicholas’ arguments, I explain that Africans were the first to domesticate livestock and domesticated thousands of plants, many of which have become important for the global food supply. It took Africans millennia to carefully experiment with wild plants and develop those that they learned to be beneficial for nutrition, medicine, livestock fodder, and crafts such as instruments, ladles and containers.
During the Atlantic slave trade and plantation slavery, Africans developed their foodstuffs as a means of survival in conditions of extreme deprivation. Armed with their vast botanical and agricultural knowledge, slaves transplanted domestic African plants and adopted Amerindian crops. African slaves and their progeny planted important staple crops that continue to constitute the basic diets of the African population in the Americas. Yams (nyam), plantain, bananas, okra, black-eyed peas, rice, and coffee all have strong connections to Africa and Africans.
We also plant a lot of beans. The frijol offers its lessons of Mesoamerican horticultural and life arts and sciences. Thefrijol, maíz, and calabacita (las tres madres) share space in the garden. We see the complementary nature of species. Las tres madres (the three mothers) serve as a metaphor for the possibilities of human groups to solve our problems through cooperative and complementary relationships. The psychic and physical violence experienced in Roseland requires such a response. The violence to our bodies that many experience due to lack of access to quality food in urban ‘food deserts’ also requires community mobilization to feed and heal ourselves. Las tres madres provide another lesson.
These ancient foods, like the traditional African staples, form the foundation of a nutritious diet that can prove once again useful in this new era of colonially-imposed deprivation. [For a discussion of the Black American population as a colonized population see Jared Ball, I Mix What I Like!: A Mixtape Manifesto (2009) and for a discussion of the Chican@ population as colonized see my Chican@ Hip Hop Nation: Politics of a New Millennial Mestizaje. Knowledge of the horticultural technologies and practices of our ancestors is empowering decolonial knowledge. Through conscious use of our indigenuity we can decolonize and ground our identities in the cultures of our grandparents. We can challenge the disempowering racialized identities imposed on us through the psychic violence of the institutions of colonial domination (see Ball) including schools, entertainment, mass media, and many religious institutions.
Toward a Native North American Spring
Back to Hunziker’s proposition and Wildcat’s solution to the environmental and food crises. What might a North American Spring look like? Would we solve the problems of poor urban communities like Roseland by occupying the streets? Can we develop community autonomy and sustainable lifeways using the protest politics witnessed in the Arab world and the ‘Occupy Movement’? From my perspective in the urban food justice and community self-determination movements protest politics will fall short of these goals. The path to a revolutionary new society requires a change in paradigm from Euro domination to indigenous realism. The deep experiential knowledge of indigenous and land-based peoples provides a remedy to the always-expanding cancer of capitalism and industrialism.
The success of a North American Spring will depend on the participation of communities of color and especially our young people and it will last more than one season. The struggle for community empowerment and democracy will take years of developing place-based identities through the deep spatial knowledge of indigenous realism. Solving the world’s crises requires local knowledge and action. We have begun to develop our local knowledge through collective community garden work and attention to the needs of all our relations especially our children.
Pancho McFarland, Ph.D., is a former b-boy, current hip hop head, professor of sociology at Chicago State University, author, martial artist, and father. His book, Chicano Rap: Gender and Violence in the Postindustrial Barrio, is the first book written about Mexican Americans and hip hop. He is an activist within the food justice and local food movements. This essay originally appeared on the Environmental and Food Justice blog.