13 Million Acres, No Mule

Screen Shot 2015-11-12 at 11.57.24 AMIn this semester-long series, students from Dr. Catarina Passidomo’s Southern Foodways and Culture course share reflections on the class readings and discussions. Check out the course syllabus, read along with us, and share your own thoughts on Facebook & Twitter using the #SFABookClub hashtag.

Dispossession: Discrimination Against African American Farmers in the Age of Civil Rights by Pete Daniel explores the often neglected study of African American land loss in the 20th century. Drawing upon records from the USDA and county extension agencies, CORE and SNCC offices, legal cases, and personal accounts from farmers, Daniel demonstrates the tangled web of coded meanings and communication failures that effectively made federal and county governments complicit in the denial of loans, jobs, acreage allotments, and voter intimidation that, between the years 1920 and 1999, stripped over 880,000 African American farmers of 13 million acres of land (260).

As a Southern Historian, Pete Daniel adheres strictly to the philosophy of Miguel de Cervantes, whom he quotes in the book’s preface: “[T]he historian must write about [things] not as they should have been, but as they were, without adding or subtracting anything from the truth” (xi). Indeed, Daniel commands the use of his data sources. He has gathered both well-known and hard-to-find sources, and he puts them side-by-side to craft a detailed and engaging history. As fellow classmate Abby Huggins stated in class, this is a book not only for scholars; it is also a book for activists.

The issues and questions raised in this text present the unique opportunity for foodways scholars to “bring culture back into agriculture.” This phrase is often used by agroecologists as a reminder that farming is the literal root of foodways, and must be respected as such. Therefore, this book serves as a reminder to foodways scholars that the lives of farmers and farmworkers are as much a part of the foodways we celebrate as the cultures and traditions that emerge from cuisines.

Of particular interest is Daniel’s exploration of the many small farmer cooperatives dotting the southern landscape. With origins deeply rooted in the Civil Rights movement, small farmer cooperatives serving low-resource and socially disadvantaged farmers allow them to aggregate their products (often a diversified mix of commodity crops, fruits, and vegetables) and sell to a host of markets, including grocery stores, restaurants, wholesale suppliers, shipping companies, and local schools.

While Dispossession focuses heavily on the Civil Rights era in its description of small farmer cooperatives, it is worth noting the current status of these organizations. The Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund was recently awarded the 2015 Food Sovereignty Prize by the U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance. Executive Director Cornelius Blanding accepted the prize on behalf of the Federation. The October 14 ceremony was held at Trinity United Methodist Church, which has been a gathering place for civil rights and social justice activities for decades, including Black Panther breakfasts. The Federation is a member of the National Family Farm Coalition, and NFFC is a member of the international peasant organization, La Via Campesina.

This recognition certainly doesn’t repair damages and losses, but it helps give due credit and places the historical legacy of African American farmers and the southern cooperative movement in a broader context of solidarity with the national and international food sovereignty movement.

Find out more about the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund here.

By Irene Van Riper, graduate student at the University of Mississippi.