Leah Penniman Q&A: Black Earth Wisdom

Leah Penniman is the co-founder of Soul Fire Farm, a community farm committed to ending racism and injustice in the food system. She is also the author of the award-winning book, Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land, and has recently written another book, Black Earth Wisdom, Soulful Conversations with Black Environmentalists. Through her work, Penniman is a leading voice in the movement for food justice and land reparations for Black, Indigenous, and people of color communities.

Below, we talk to Leah about her new book, what inspires her work, and connecting to the Earth.

Read an excerpt from Leah’s Black Earth Wisdom, Soulful Conversations with Black Environmentalists here.

What inspired you to work on the Black Earth Wisdom project?

As an introvert who is more at home “speaking flowers” than any of the oral human languages, the written word has become a place for safe and joyous expression. Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land (2018) was my first full-length book, and it helped to shift the dominant narrative about the role of Black genius in creating organic and regenerative farming technologies. From the time when our West African ancestors braided rice seeds into the hair before being forced into the bowels of Suriname-bound slave ships, Black folks have been contributing crop varieties, soil-building techniques, cooperative labor strategies, polyculture design, and more to the agricultural canon. 

In a similar vein, my hope is for Black Earth Wisdom to unequivocally define the past, present, and future of environmental stewardship as inexorably connected to Black brilliance. The inspiration for the book came from a dream vision that visited me during Ifa initiation ceremony in 2020. In this vision, all of the forest animals crowded into my home. The deer, hawk, snapping turtle, coyote, barred owl, black bear, and hummingbird moth surrounded me and asked me why I had forgotten the covenant of my childhood – why I was not listening to them anymore. They spoke the truth. In my focus on educating the rising generation of Black and Brown farmers, I was paying less and less attention to the voice and needs of wild creatures. They told me to write a book that centers the narratives of those who remember how to listen to the earth.

What do you hope this book accomplishes?

It stands to reason that any hope of solving the environmental crisis will require an examination and uprooting of the white supremacist ideologies that underpin the crisis. The voices and expertise of Black, Brown, and Indigenous environmentalists, amplified by all those who have eschewed white supremacy, must be heeded if we are to halt and reverse planetary calamity. Ecological humility is part of the cultural heritage of Black people. While our 400+ year immersion in racial capitalism has attempted to diminish that connection to the sacred earth, there are those who persist in believing that the land and waters are family members, and who understand the intrinsic value of nature. In this moment, we are acutely aware of the fractures in our system of runaway consumption and corporate insatiability. The path forward demands that we take our rightful places as the younger siblings in creation, deferring to the oceans, forests, and mountains as our teachers. 

My hope is that Black Earth Wisdom helps humanity to revive our ancient ancestral practice of listening to the Earth to know which way to go. As Dr. Carver offered, “I love to think of nature as unlimited broadcasting stations, through which God speaks to us every day, every hour…How do I talk to a little flower? Through it I talk to the Infinite. And what is the Infinite? It is that silent, small force…that still small voice.”

What is one thing justice leaders can do to better honor the links between racial and environmental justice?

Justice leaders can give away resources and power to Black- and Indigenous-led ecological projects. Organizations like GirlTrek, Outdoor Afro, Taproot Earth, Urban Ocean Lab, Rise St. James, National Black Food and Justice Alliance, etc. 

On the systems front, we need to support #LandBack, take a stand for Reparations, and advocate for Rights of Nature policy. 

The learning journey is lifelong, so start diving into Black and Indigenous eco-literature today, starting with Unbowed, All We Can Save, and As Long as the Grass Grows. A list of Black eco-projects and media can be found at blackearthwisdom.org

How did working on this book change you or help you grow?

I was deeply inspired to learn about how “silence” is a practice used in the Black community to deepen our connection to the earth. As someone who cherishes quiet, it is affirming to see that my community has valued this practice. 

For example, the Mbuti people of the Congo deeply value silence. The forest is always talking, and the quiet pauses between sounds, called ekimi, are the source of peace, while the noise, called akami, is the source of conflict. Silence makes space for the wisdom of the ancestors, and that silence is a form of spirit speech. 

John Francis Planetwalker saw wisdom in silence. After witnessing the devastation caused by the 1971 oil spill off the coast of San Francisco, John Francis decided to give up motorized transport, a commitment that he kept for 22 years. He additionally took up a vow of silence that lasted for seventeen years, during which time he walked across the nation advocating for environmental protection, using his drawings and banjo playing as means of communication. He earned a Ph.D. in Land Management from the University of Wisconsin-Madison during his period of silence. He was also employed by the US Coast Guard and helped develop legislation on oil spill management, including the landmark Oil Spill Act of 1990. 

In Gloryland, Shelton Johnson wrote, “Wilderness is just a word, and the wind got no use for anything that come out of our mouths except songs or prayers. Only then are we speaking from our hearts and are worth listening to. Otherwise we should just be quiet and let trees and sky do the talking. The wind’s been talking since the world began. I’ve been listening to it since I was born, and I ain’t been bored yet.” 

What have you read lately that inspires you?

Inciting Joy by Ross Gay! In this masterful, raw, and stirring collection of essays, Ross has once again coaxed his readers to awaken to our full humanity. There is no way to dance through these vivid and skillful recollections of life’s truest moments – planting a community orchard, witnessing a loved one pass away, eating your first fresh fig – without emerging misty eyed at the hallowed beauty of what it is to be alive. Ross Gay helps us to understand that our joy and pain are fundamentally tangled up with each other, and when we can invite sorrow close to share a proverbial cup of tea, that is when our deepest joy is incited. In caring for one another, in paying attention to what we mourn and love in common, in emulating the generosity of the garden, in inhabiting our sacred and unpayable debt to the earth  – therein lies our kinship and the possibility of collective joy and liberation. Inciting Joy will make you gasp in wonderment as your truest truths are laid bare, and you will go back and reread the lines over and over, whispering, “This, yes, this!” 

What are you working on next?

The mad dash to get things ready before my Sabbatical.

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