Black Food: Liberation, Food Justice and Stewardship | With Karen Washington and Bryant Terry
The influences of Africans and Black Americans on food and agriculture is rooted in ancestral African knowledge and traditions of shared labor, worker co-ops and botanical polycultures.
In this episode, we hear from Karen Washington and Bryant Terry on how Black Food culture is weaving the threads of a rich African agricultural heritage with the liberation of economics from an extractive corporate food oligarchy. The results can be health, conviviality, community wealth, and the power of self-determination.
Karen Washington, co-owner/farmer of Rise & Root Farm, has been a legendary activist in the community gardening movement since 1985. Renowned for turning empty Bronx lots into verdant spaces, Karen is: a former President of the NYC Community Garden Coalition; a board member of: the NY Botanical Gardens, Why Hunger, and NYC Farm School; a co-founder of Black Urban Growers (BUGS); and a pioneering force in establishing urban farmers’ markets.
Bryant Terry is the Chef-in-Residence of MOAD, the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, and an award-winning author of a number of books that reimagine soul food and African cuisine within a vegan context. His latest book is Black Food: Stories, Art and Recipes from Across the African Diaspora.
- Executive Producer: Kenny Ausubel
- Written by: Kenny Ausubel and Arty Mangan
- Senior Producer and Station Relations: Stephanie Welch
- Program Engineer and Music Supervisor: Emily Harris
- Producer: Teo Grossman
- Host and Consulting Producer: Neil Harvey
- Production Assistance: Monica Lopez
- Additional music: Ketsa
This is an episode of the Bioneers: Revolution from the Heart of Nature series. Visit the radio and podcast homepage to find out how to hear the program on your local station and how to subscribe to the podcast.
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Neil Harvey (Host): Like other foundational contributions to American culture, the influences of Africans and Black Americans on food and agriculture have been variously erased, scorned and belittled. African American agrarian history is doubly complicated by its intimate association with the trauma of slavery. Africans who were violently forced into captivity and brought to the Americas to power the plantation economy were highly skilled farmers with expertise in agriculture founded in ancestral African knowledge. Their traditions were ones of shared labor, worker coops and botanical polycultures. At the heart of their worldview was reverence for the sacredness of the Earth.
Across centuries of enslavement, African-descended people survived savage injustice and suffering. When slavery ended, Black farmers were able to purchase nearly 16 million acres of land. Today almost all of that is gone, the result of stolen lands, terrorism and structural racism including by US government programs: the modern US Department of Agriculture has been legally found to have discriminated against Black farmers on a mass scale.
These burdens of history are the context for today’s radical health disparities between Black and white communities, including an epidemic of diet-related diseases.
But renowned urban farming trailblazer Karen Washington says it’s time to overcome those burdens of history and remember the deeper African-American lineage.
Karen Washington (KW): So it starts by understanding your history. I grew up in an area where farming was equivalent to slavery. And now that’s starting to change because when the elders speak to young people they say, you know why we were brought here enslaved? We were brought here because of our knowledge of agriculture.
We weren’t brought here because we were dumb or strong. We were brought here because we had agriculture in our blood. We’re an agrarian people. We brought seeds in our hair to feed this country, and when you start talking to that—to black and brown people, all of a sudden they understand the power that they have, their connection to food.
Host: Inspired by a rich African agrarian heritage, Karen Washington sees food justice as a seminal space to uplift Black communities holistically. She has been recognized by Ebony Magazine as one of the hundred most influential African Americans, and the New York Times referred to her as “urban farming’s de facto godmother.”
As a tireless advocate for the economic empowerment of communities of color, she is a powerful force for creating the conditions for people of color to have equal access to health, distributed wealth and power.
Karen Washington spoke at a Bioneers conference.
KW: For so long, the negativity that has been instilled in our head when our relationship to food—when the truth comes up—and also when it’s spoken from the elders who knew about farming, knew about the history—it changes, and then all of a sudden people say you know what, I want to be in the game. I want to understand my relationship to food because all around me I see the diet-related disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, obesity that’s happening. But yet they’ll tell you my grandparent lived to 100 years of age because they ate the food from the Earth. And so, again, talk about your history, that rich cultural history. Bring it up to the surface so that people around are now proud of that history, and proud of that relationship to food and who they are.
Bryant Terry (BT): You know, I always talk about the idea of Sankofa, this West African concept of, you know, looking backwards as we move forward, and bringing with us the best practices and traditions.
Host: Bryant Terry grew up in the South where he worked in his grandfather’s diverse urban garden. They grew grape vines, nut trees and a variety of vegetables, along with raising chickens and pigs. At the time, he hated weeding, harvesting, and shucking corn and peas. Now he looks back in appreciation of the life lessons he learned at that backyard garden in Memphis.
Bryant Terry went on to author landmark books bridging traditional African American foods with veganism. But, he says, food is about a lot more than food.
BT: And I knew coming from these strong middle class black communities going to Atlanta and Chicago and Georgia, and other parts of the country and visiting black folks that 1) my first encounter with this idea of veganism came from Seventh Day Adventists, black Seventh Day Adventists in my community. And then in high school, when I had to go through my obligatory – after reading the autobiography of Malcolm X – my obligatory obsessive period with the nation of Islam, I learned about Honorable Elijah Muhammad’s How to Eat to Live two-book collection that talked about the rejection of the standard American diet and embracing foods that are for healing and life. We can talk about Rastafarians and the Ital diet. We can talk about comedians – Dick Gregory, and his activism around food and health issues. We can talk about—I mean, the impetus for me even shifting my whole habits and attitudes and politics around food was hearing the song Beef by blastmaster KRS-One at Boogie Down Productions, a hip hop song that talked about factory farming.
Beef, what a relief
When will this poisonous product cease?
This is another Public Service Announcement
You can believe it or you can doubt it
Let us begin now with the cow
The way it gets to your plate and how
The cow doesn’t grow fast enough for man
So through his greed he makes a faster plan
Host: Research has shown a direct link between diet and disease. Due to a severe lack of access to healthy foods and easy access to the Standard American Diet of highly processed carbohydrates, unhealthy fats and sugar, Black Americans suffer disproportionately from diet related disease compared to whites.
At the same time, racist attitudes have disparaged traditional African and African-American foods that have sustained Black people through centuries of struggle and privation.
BT: In the spirit of anti-blackness, everything we do is vilified, you know, including our food. And we know historically and contemporarily —and it’s not just a wider culture, it’s even—this is the thing that hurts and upsets me, and why I write books and why this book is so important, because it’s even people of African descent. Black folks who will be talking about our food as “slave food”, to vilify and talk so negatively about our historical and cultural foods.
And I’m not going to deny things like chitlins and pigs feet and, you know, whatever, the kind of discarded parts that plantation owners might force many enslaved Africans to eat. That’s about ingenuity and creativity and making the best with what people had. So that’s one part.
But then the other one is that when people talk about black food, they’re imagining the big flavored meats and the overcooked vegetables and the sugary desserts that you find at a soul food restaurant, right?
I’m not denying that red velvet cake, and mac’n’cheese, and ribs, and whatever — But what about collards, mustards, turnips, kale, dandelion, sugar snap peas, pole beans, black-eyed peas, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, kale? These are our traditional foods. These are the types of food that have sustained people for generations, and we can’t leave this out of the conversation, because it’s been intentionally erased. You know? These are the types of foods that any Western-trained allopathic physician, nutritionist or dietician would say we should all be eating. Collard foods is black superfoods. You know? They’re high in A, C and E. They have a lot of anti cancer-fighting compounds. Okra, which is like one of the king staples of black foodways coming from the continent and spreading around, it helps to lower blood pressure. So…
Our liberation is embracing our cultural foods. I think that’s a very important part spiritually, physically and otherwise. We have to be embracing these foods because it’s our birthright. They were there before us and they’ve sustained us through the roughest times. And I think they will be a powerful way to address this exponential rise in preventable diet-related illnesses that we see in our communities.
Host: Food at its essence is nourishment. It’s health and wellbeing. It’s family and community and culture. It’s a daily thanksgiving to the Earth and ancestors.
Then again, it’s one thing to embrace cultural foods and food culture. Yet how do you do that within a fundamentally extractive, commodified, and intensely monopolized food economy?Again, Karen Washington…
KW: And if we look at the food system closely, we can see that it’s in like four quadrants.
There’s the production, there’s the processing, there’s the distribution, and there’s the consumption. On one hand you have the movers and the shakers, the shakers being the policymakers and climate change, the other side is the movers, labor and energy and waste. It’s being fueled by land and resources.
But if you look at those four quadrants, what is the common denominator that you see? It’s labor. This land that we are on was built on the backs of indigenous and enslaved people, that even today our food system, again, is being built on labor from prisons, and now it’s the migrant workers that are providing the cheap labor in this country, and you wonder why there’s such a disconnect of people trying to understand where their food comes from, trying to feed their family, where for so long the food system is supposed to be helping those people but instead it’s exploiting them.
And so, for me, it’s about shifting of power, shifting of power. The way the food system is going to change is shifting the power from those who for so long have had power over others back into the hands of the community.
BT: We can’t just talk about food in isolation because what our industrialized food system has done is create it as a commodity, and then you have this huge chasm where so many of the things that have been traditionally so integral to the way that we grow food and cook it and eat it, like art, like culture, like community, like building around the table, like growing food in a sustainable way, like feeling like we can do it in a communalistic way and not in this individualistic capitalist way. My work, through books, through activism, through talking has been about reintegrating that so that we can have all those things in concert with each other, because it’s not just about food as fuel, it’s about life, it’s about connection, it’s about love, it’s about all these things that capitalism has stripped it of.
Host: Bryant Terry is constantly seeking ways to counter this shrink-wrapped racial capitalism that dominates the food economy.
At a high tide of racial reckoning in 2020, he was inspired by reading Toni Morrison’s book celebrating Black culture. Titled The Black Book, in it Morrison wanted to explore this provocative question “What would your life be without racism?”
Bryant Terry decided to pose that question to Black cultural leaders and asked them to share family recipes and stories for his book Black Food. It was going to be published at an epic moment when the Movement for Black Lives was becoming the biggest and most diverse in American history. Publishers were scrambling to fabricate a more inclusive, anti-racist image. Bryant Terry seized the moment.
BT: This book came on the heels of, in 2020, when we were as a country dealing with this, what people describe as a racial reckoning, really looking inward, and facing the realities of how we have treated black folks, people of African descent and other folks of color, but specifically black folks, because this was coming on the heels of the state murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
And in the midst of that, there was a revelation of a lot of racism in food media. I don’t know if you all are aware of this, but there were some legacy food magazines that were being called out for their racist behavior, their failure to support their employees of color, the mistreatment of many of their black and other folks of color employees. And then there were some publishing companies – it was revealed that they were doing some horribly racist things to some of their authors, as well as employees. And one of my friends, I literally learned about this horrible way in which this major publisher in New York City treated her and practically tried to erase her from her book because she co-authored with a white woman. And they thought that the white woman would be a better face of the book than this heavyset black woman.
For me, it was a moment where, this book that I had been thinking about putting together for years, when I contacted all the contributors or potential contributors, what I told them is that you can’t write a book like this without touching on the ways in which black people have been exploited and marginalized and erased. That’s just a reality that we know we contend with all the time. And I feel like so many of the books that are talking about our realities do focus on our struggles and focus on our historical marginalization and oppression. And we know about these realities, so we don’t have to talk about it to each other because we’re aware of it. And one of the things that I was clear about is that this book, I wanted it to be created without concern for the white gaze. I wanted this to be about black people speaking to each other, having conversations about our deep connection to food, and about our different foodways and how they’ve developed throughout the globe. And of course we want to invite the world in to be a part of the conversation, but we’re not modifying, we’re not trying to make it pretty, we’re just speaking about our realities.
BT: I’m just gonna be real with you all, when everything was going down with the racial reckoning with a lot of these companies and corporations, they were embarrassed, and they were invested in repairing reputational harm.
I was trained as a historian, I’ve seen this before, and I was very clear that there was going to be this period in which these companies were working really hard to repair reputational harm, and they’re going to be doing everything to make black folks happy or perform their kind of solidarity or blackness or whatever it looked like, and I was clear that that door was going to be open and then it was going to shut again. And I wasn’t clear about how long it was going to be, and it’s been interesting, because I have been talking about, yeah, I feel like the door is shutting.
I was in Philadelphia at this conference. Korsha Wilson is this journalist based in New Jersey. She wrote a big profile on me in The New York Times, and we were in conversation. And I brought up the fact that I felt like the door was closing. And she said it’s already closed. She talked about in 2020 how she was getting like an avalanche, a waterfall of like, you know, jobs from magazines and newspapers. And this is a respected, seasoned journalist and she said it slowed down to a trickle. So imagine those up-and-coming budding writers who are trying to do this work and get into like food media.
And so what I was clear about with my agent is this is a moment to grab power. This is a moment where we need to move beyond just being rewarded as talent, which often happens.
You know, when I first started publishing, the first thing when I got my first contract and I talked to my parents about it, the first thing my dad said to me is like, you know, Son, I’m proud of you; you know, Penguin Random House is a reputable publisher and I’m glad they’re going to put your book out, but let me just say this, and I want you to remember this always: You need to think like Master P. I don’t know if you all know who Master P is. He’s an older rapper and entrepreneur, but for the younger people, but, you know, he was one of these pioneers where he was just like, look, it’s not just about making music, it’s about ownership; it’s about creating your own labels, it’s about controlling, it’s about self-determination.
And so, in many ways, now that I have my publishing in print, sure, it’s still under Penguin Random House, but like honestly, I’m looking at it as like a prestigious and well-paid internship because the goal for me is to learn about the internal logic, the structure, like the way that publishing operates so that I can eventually have my own independent publishing company and not even have to rely on like some big multinational corporation doing the work.
Host: Bryant Terry has received the James Beard and NAACP awards for his writing and activism. He is currently the chef-in-residence at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco where he also creates public programming at the intersection of food, farming, health, activism, art, and culture..
When we return… Can a broken food system that systematically disadvantages low-income communities actually be transformed? Can community-based wealth creation challenge the concentration of corporate power over our food? And how do we begin to build a more just economic system and a healthier food system? It comes down to power.
I’m Neil Harvey. You’re listening to The Bioneers…
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Access to healthy, affordable food is a basic human right. Yet 34 million people in the US suffer from food insecurity – in other words, hunger. Black households experience food insecurity at almost three times the rate of white families.
The term food desert is used to describe the countless communities where healthy food is flat-out unavailable. But Karen Washington says “food desert” is an outsider term imposed on communities which have been held back by structural racism.
She has, instead, coined the term “food apartheid.” It signifies the institutional inequities that result in poverty, hunger and lousy food access. Just bringing in a food store to these communities doesn’t change the underlying causes of injustice.
KW: 7.8 billion people on this Earth, but a handful of companies control the food, the water, the land, the seeds, and we sat back and let it happen. We’ve become so complacent and so silent, and yet a handful, predominantly white men control the food system of 7.8 billion people on this planet. When do we wake up to grab our power? Where is the urgency for us to collectively I talk about social capital and communal wealth. I don’t want a hand out, I want a hand in. The system has to change so that we have the power to make decisions within our own community. But we’re not doing that. We sit back and let politicians and other outside organizations make change for us. The time is now for us to start coming together collectively, collectively to shift the power back into our hands. And we can do it.
Host: Two companies now control 40% of global seed sales. Three companies control over 50% of the grocery sales. The food system is one big monopoly board.
From seed to grocery shelf, corporate consolidation stands against the ability of communities to produce, process and distribute healthy, affordable, culturally-appropriate food.
Karen Washington and Bryant Terry both call for a shift of power into the hands of local communities.
BT: The things that we often look at when we talk about health, food and farming issues is, you know, the things that I think are seemingly apolitical, like growing food, like cooking meals, like building around the table and eating with people in our formal and informal kinship networks. These are highly political, dare I say radical, in a food system that’s controlled by five multinational food corporations that largely control our food system. They don’t want us growing our own food. They want us buying their crappy food that they’re producing on these big farms. They don’t want us cooking. They don’t want us deepening our cooking practice because they want us buying their ready-made processed packaged foods, fast foods.
And I’m not blaming the victim, because structurally I understand why people are going to fast food restaurants and getting industrialized foods. But what I’m saying is that in the face of that, doing things like making—growing your own food in rural areas, in urban areas, making meals from scratch, building around a table, they want us eating our food in our car, over our sink, when we leave one low-paying job to the next low-paying job.
So I think that it’s important to understand that these are radical acts of resistance that we can do on a daily basis, and I think that cooking is a very powerful and radical act where we can exert our agency over how we feed ourselves.
Host: Karen Washington says that as crucial as food pantries and soup kitchens are for people’s survival, they are also part of the problem because they’re baked into the system.
KW: Folks, it’s emergency purposes only. It’s not people’s way of living. And I tell the nonprofits to get out of the way and let people start thinking about self-sufficient and self-reliance, and that means having the economic power or thinking about social capital and communal wealth, teaching people how to flourish in terms of economics, financial education, entrepreneurship, owning their own businesses, having money and resources that are being made by the community coming back into the community, and teaching communities the power of giving and loving and sharing.
Host: To build a food system with those values, Karen Washington and a group of fellow New Yorkers developed a plan to empower those at the very heart of the food system. It’s called the Black Farmers Fund. Instead of waiting for the government, the Fund is designed to empower and support economic development, entrepreneurship, jobs, ownership, and community wealth building.
But Washington also believes we need to rethink the very concept of ownership that led us to this predicament.
KW: And I’d rather say instead of saying ownership, we should say stewards, because that’s what we are. We’re stewards of the land because I don’t believe you can own anything. You don’t live long enough on Earth to own anything. You know, why is it that we’re always trying to go against nature instead of working with nature?
But if you say that you want land so you can steward the land, so that you can work with nature so that the land is an element that’s part of this whole ecosystem, then it makes sense, and it’s not threatening because you’re not grabbing it to hold onto it, you’re using it as a way to preserve this ecosystem that we’re all part of.
When we left the land, we lost our power. We lost who we are. And I tell people of color, look at the color of your skin because the color of your skin is soil. And when you look at that color, when I put my hands in that soil, Bryant baby, and I look at that brown skin, I say hello, ancestors. Thank you, thank you, thank you. And we’ve got to start thinking about that and start embracing us, embracing us together. Don’t let people separate us. Think about us collectively as a group of power. We stand on the shoulders of kings and queens. And I tell my young people sometimes when your crown is crooked, go in that mirror and make sure that crown is straight, because you are the remnants of kings and queens on this Earth.