Seeding Sovereignty and Sowing Freedom: An Afro-Indigenous Approach to Agriculture and Food Security

Before being forced to board the Transatlantic slave ships, African people braided seeds into their hair in hopes their grandchildren would be able to sow their legacy. Today, farm and land ownership remains majority white, whereas farm labor is mostly comprised of Black and Brown workers. This reality starkly contrasts the amount of Black and Brown people who struggle with food insecurity. Honoring the legacy of cultural knowledge braided into the lineage of Black and Indigenous folks means confronting the systems of food insecurity, environmental racism, and climate change that disproportionately affects colonized people.

Leah Penniman is the Co-Director and Program Manager at Soul Fire Farm, a community organization that serves more than 10,000 people each year with food justice initiatives, farm training for Black and Brown growers, food deliveries for people affected by state violence, and more. In this keynote talk at the Bioneers 2020 Conference, Penniman traces the impact of colonialism in the development of the agricultural economy and shares how reconnecting with our roots can be a powerful form of healing.

Read an excerpt from Farming While Black here, and learn how to purchase a copy for 35% off!


Greetings. My name is Leah Penniman and I am the Co-Director and Farm Manager at Soul Fire Farm in occupied Mohican territory and I am the author of Farming While Black. My pronouns are li, she, and elle, and I am of Dahomey African, Indigenous, Taino, and European descent. I am honored to talk with the Bioneers community today about our troubled history with land and food, and what we are doing to make that relationship racially just and environmentally sustainable. 

My ancestral grandmothers in West Africa braided seeds of okra, molokhia, and levant cotton into their hair before being forced to board Transatlantic slave ships. They hid sesame, black-eyed peas, rice, and melon seeds in their locks. They stashed away amara kale, gourds, sorrel, basil, tamarind, and cola in their tresses. The seed was their most precious legacy, and they believed against odds in a future of tilling and reaping the earth; they believed that their descendants – us – would exist and that we would receive and honor the gift of the seed. With the seed, our grandmothers also braided their eco-systemic and cultural knowledge. They braided the wisdom of sharing the land and the wisdom of sharing labor and wealth. They braided the wisdom of caring for the sacred Earth, such as the dark earth compost of Ghana, the raised beds of the Ovambo people, and the polycultures of Nigeria.

But when our ancestors arrived on this continent, they tragically encountered a very different system of relating to land and food. Here, the land was not shared but stolen and privatized. Authored by the white Christian Doctrine of Discovery, settlers murdered millions of Indigenous people, displaced those who survived and stole their land. 

Our African ancestors learned that even when they tried to own land, they were punished. Despite the broken promise of 40 acres and a mule after emancipation, Black farmers purchased nearly 16 million acres of land. Almost all of the land they purchase is now gone in part because of white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the white caps murdered over 4,000 Black land owners.

Our ancestors learned that even the federal government did not want them to own, or be secure on, land. The US Department of Agriculture systematically discriminated against Black farmers, leading to foreclosures and evictions, which brings us to where we are today. With approximately 95% of the agricultural land in this country being white-owned. 

In this country, it was not just land but also labor that our ancestors found to be exploited. Millions of agricultural experts were kidnapped from their homes across Africa, forced into bondage to build the wealth of this nation. Even after chattel slavery officially ended, the exploitation of labor morphed into new forms, such as convict leasing. Southerners created new laws called the “Black Codes”, which criminalized loitering and unemployment and, as a result, filled prisons with Black people who were rented back to plantations, a system that continues to this day.

The Black people who were not forced onto the plantation through incarceration were trapped there as sharecroppers in a perpetual cycle of debt and poverty. Even today, farm workers are not protected by basic labor laws and do not have the right to a day off, overtime pay, collective bargaining and other protections. Approximately 85% of farm labor is performed by people of color, often undocumented. Today, being a farm owner is one of the whitest professions in the US, while being a farm laborer is among the brownest. 

Our ancestors learned that the food system here was not about honoring the earth, but rather about extracting her resources. Industrial agriculture had burned up 50% of the soil carbon, catalyzing climate change and devastating biodiversity. 

But despite the heartbreak and terror that they experienced, there were those in every generation who remembered the seeds they had inherited and the wisdom carried in those seeds. Cooperative land ownership and cooperative labor were remembered by Fannie Lou Hamer in creating Freedom Farm in Mississippi with other sharecroppers. And by the Sherrods in creating the first ever community land trust in Georgia.

Right relationship with land was remembered by Dr. George Washington Carver, one of the founders of the regenerative and organic agriculture movements, and Booker T. Whatley, one of the progenitors of the farm-to-table movement and diversified small farms. Carver spread the word about caring for soil and community through the first extension agency out of Tuskegee University, inspiring a whole generation of organic farmers in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Right relationship to our human communities was remembered by the Black Panther Party, who fed 20,000 children free breakfasts every morning, catalyzing the public school food programs. And by the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, the National Black Farmers Associated, Land Loss Prevention Project who fought for the rights of Black farmers and farm workers who were struggling to save their land.

When I started farming over 24 years ago, I began to wonder: how could I honor the legacy of the seeds braided into my ancestors’ hair? I wondered if I could help create a farm based on the wisdom carried in those seeds.

In 2010, Soul Fire Farm was born with a mission to reclaim our ancestral belonging to land and to end racism and exploitation in the food system. Once a small family farm and now a community organization committed to this systemic and ancestral change, we pray that the words of our mouths, the meditations of our hearts, and the work of our hands be acceptable to our grandmothers who passed us these seeds.

We got to work regenerating 80 acres of land through Afro-Indigenous farming and forestry practices, we began sharing the harvest of the land at no cost for people impacted by state violence, and we have been supporting families in building their own self-sufficiency gardens. We got to work equipping the next generation of Black and Brown farmers through training, mentorship, and connection to resources. We got to work using the land as a tool, to heal from the trauma of centuries of land-based oppression, recognizing that for many of us the land was the scene of the crime, even though she wasn’t the criminal. We got to work creating natural buildings using straw bale, solar, cob, cluster development and energy efficient design. We put the land into a cooperative, giving nature rights and a vote on the council, and returning land rights to the Mohican people through a cultural respect easement. 

We wondered if one small farm could help make a big change, and we are excited by the progress we’re already seeing in our movement. The regenerative farming practices that we inherited from Carver, Hamer and the Ovambo people.

We have restored the soil here on this mountainside to its pre-colonial levels of organic matter, and increased native biodiversity. We have witnessed neighbors across the capital region of New York pitching in to cover the cost of vegetable deliveries to those in need, allowing hundreds of people to receive a weekly share of fresh food, and seeing the power of localized small food systems that are able to adapt on a dime in COVID to keep people fed. We are seeing thousands of new Indigenous and Brown farmers and food justice activists being trained in 35 states, and the majority of them going on to make powerful waves in the food system. And for the first time since the early 1900s, we are seeing the slightest increase in the number of Indigenous farmers nationally in the Census.

Our alumni even catalyzed a new land trust to share the lands back with people who’ve been dispossessed, as well as a reparations map to return stolen wealth to Earth stewards for their crucial work. And we’re building powerful networks with Black Farmers United New York, Heal Food Alliance, the National Black Food Alliance to get at the root cause of exploitation of the Earth and those who tend and care for her. Together in these regional and national and international networks we’re changing the conversation about food and land.

And folks are finally listening, from presidential candidates to major media outlets, society is waking up to the fact that we cannot have a healthy food system if we ignore racial justice and if we ignore the health of the land. We are in an uprising and a portal to something ancient and new. 

But the question is: Are you willing to carry on the seeds of sovereignty and fight for the rights of all people to carry on those seeds? Or will you let them die out? Beyond the great unraveling, what will you do to weave a world anew?

My daughter, Nashima, talks about the food system as everything it takes to get sunshine onto your plate. Every aspect of the food system – land, labor, capital, ecology, food itself – needs to be infused with justice. And the good news with such a wide arc of possibility is that there are so many right answers about what to do. For some of us, the right answer is reparations; it’s giving back resources to those who’ve been dispossessed. For others it might be renaturation of land to Indigenous people, handing deeds over to tribal governments and Native organizations. For others of us, we might advocate for policy, like the Justice for Black Farmers Act or the Fairness for Farm Workers Act. For others, with purchasing power in our institutions, maybe we’re sourcing from Black, Indigenous, people of color producers, or transferring our institutional resources, power, and dignity to Black, Indigenous, and people of color leadership.

A powerful story illustrates this from the Haudenosaunee community. The people of the Long House were dropping from hunger in the long winter months. Three sisters arrived at their door. One of them was dressed in green, another yellow, another orange. Disguised as beggars, they asked the people for food. And because they were generous of heart, they handed over the last scrapings of their baskets and their bowls to feed these strangers. Touched by that generosity, the sisters revealed themselves as corn, beans, and squash, the basis of the three sisters milpa garden with the corn growing tall and providing starch and niacin for the people, the bean sister winding around her older sister and providing nitrogen for the soil and protein for the people, and squash, laying low on the grounds, shading out weeds and providing vitamins and fats in the seeds so the people would never go hungry again.

The powerful thing is that Indigenous folks of Turtle Island shared this bundle of seed, these three sisters, widely, with settlers who did not have their interests at heart, and did not understand the covenant with these sisters. And we look at corn now, we look at maize, how it’s been pulled apart from squash and beans to be grown in monocultures and monocrops, how this 8,700-year-old synergy of teosinte and Mayan hands has been weaponized, turned into soil-sucking fields, GMO genetic drift, corn syrup, fueling diabetes in our communities, animal feed driving climate change. They appropriated and scandalized our seed heritage, commodified our sacred, violated the law of sharing, and ripped her away from her sisters.

My belief is that the work of this moment is to return maize, both literally and metaphorically, to her sisters, to restore the covenance, to restore the polyculture, the carbon sequestration, the agroecology, and the honoring of our ancient and powerful ways.

I want to close with the words from Pablo Neruda: “Pardon me if when I want to tell the story of my life, it’s the land I talk about. This is the land. It grows in your blood, and you grow. If it dies in your blood, you die out.”

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Leah Penniman is a Black Kreyol farmer, mother, Vodun Manye (Queen Mother), and award-winning food justice activist who has been tending the soil and organizing for an anti-racist food system for over 20 years. She currently serves as founding Co-Executive Director of Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, New York, a people-of-color led project that works toward food and land justice, which she co-founded in 2010. She is the author of: Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land.

Soul Fire Farm is an Afro-Indigenous centered community farm committed to uprooting racism and seeding sovereignty in the food system. Their food sovereignty programs reach over 10,000 people each year, including farmer training for Black and Brown growers, reparations and land return initiatives for northeast farmers, food justice workshops for urban youth, home gardens for city-dwellers living under food apartheid, doorstep harvest delivery for food insecure households, and systems and policy education for public decision-makers.

Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land

In Farming While Black, Leah Penniman offers the first comprehensive manual for African-heritage people ready to reclaim their rightful place of dignified agency in the food system. This one-of-a-kind guide provides readers with a concise “how-to” for all aspects of small-scale farming. 100% of the profits from this book will be donated to Black Farmers.

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