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Online, Black gardeners are celebrating the act of working their own land

These Instagram feeds are about joy — and an oft-forgotten legacy.

By A. Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez

Late in the summer of 2020, I started gardening. At first, my main goal was having sides to go with dinner. But growing vegetables also presented an opportunity to improve my virtual space. Working the soil distracted me from endless social media posts about the pandemic and the nation’s racial reckoning. My own Instagram page filled with greens, browns, and yellows. I posted snapshots of my littles with dirt-caked fingernails and bare feet, seeking the best way to pluck bottleneck squash from the vine. 

One day I used the hashtag “#blackgirlgardening” on a post and received a notification that an Instagram feed called @Blackgirlsgardening had shared my photo. Curious, I browsed the page, which had tens of thousands of followers and hundreds of images.

I’d been transported to an online reality where Black people were celebrating the act of working the land — on Instagram pages such as @Mint2grow, @Blackinthegarden (which is also home to an excellent podcast), and YouTube channels like Broadway Gardener and Youtube’s B Betta Garden. The @blackmenwithgardens Instagram account, which has over 138,000 followers, hosts a tapestry of photos of Black men and boys in joyful conversation with the natural world — a toddler helps his father ride a tractor and pick tomatoes; an apartment dweller shows off a lovingly tended collection of succulents. In one post, a man is engulfed in a field of sunflower seeds, eyes closed, a look of blissful serenity on his face.

In common culture, the relationship between Black Americans and farming is often portrayed through a narrow lens, focused on the traumas of slavery and the exploitations of the sharecropping industry. But these pages are about joy, not trauma. And they present a story about gardening and agriculture that makes Black farmers the protagonists, not the victims.

I’d been transported to an online reality where Black people were celebrating the act of working the land.

That’s a welcome lens for viewing Black culture, says Rachel E. Winston, an archivist focusing on the Black Diaspora at The University of Texas at Austin. A lack of historical documents that show Black people enjoying nature “can make it seem as if Black Americans historically have not experienced the outdoors,” she says.

Some American cultural institutions are starting to correct the record. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture has an exhibit about Lyles Station, Indiana, showcasing that community’s long history of farming on Black-owned land, predating the Civil War.

But what Winston calls “contemporary nontraditional archives” — such as Instagram feeds — are another way to show that Black people can have a relationship of power and agency with the land.

Take @mint2grow, the Instagram feed of a West Palm Beach-based gardener and small-batch seed seller who goes by the name Professor Mint. Her feed is a technicolor display in expertise, with close-ups of freshly picked tropical fruits and vegetables. Professor Mint, with her shock of electric blue curls, offers up tips on weeding raised garden beds and recipes for passion fruit whipped cream, sharing her knowledge with palpable confidence and joy.

Confidence in gardening is a quality I was surprised to find even closer to home, during a conversation with my maternal grandfather. I was absentmindedly griping about my inability to grow my sweet potatoes, and I expected the bad advice — “just bury and water them” — I had received from every other elder. Many people are unaware that sweet potatoes and “regular” potatoes belong to different families and have different growing methods. 

But my grandfather was an exception. “You have to let sprouts grow on the potatoes and then bury them sprouts,” he said in his hybrid Tex-iana (Texas and Louisiana) accent. 

“How did you know that, Granddaddy?” I asked, in equal parts excitement and disbelief. 

He reminded me that he’d spent a portion of his life as a sharecropper, laboring in the fields to support his parents when he was as young as 10 or 12. By 19, he was assigned his own four-acre plot in Oak Ridge, Louisiana, which he worked for roughly a dozen years before moving to Dallas to look for work in other industries. My paternal grandfather, it turned out, had a similar history. 

Until that conversation, I hadn’t realized I came from farmers. Nor had I thought about how the term “sharecropper” — which refers to someone working another person’s land in exchange for housing — devalues the knowledge Black farmers acquired that helped them gain self-sufficiency.

A century ago, Black farmers accounted for 14% of U.S agricultural sales. Today, professional farming is exceedingly rare in the Black community: Only 1.4% of farmers in the U.S. are Black, accounting for just 0.4% of total annual U.S. agricultural sales. The federal government is now asking whether it helped create that disparity. In September, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced plans to launch The Equity Commission, a project to help identify USDA programs and policies that “have contributed to, exacerbated or perpetuated discrimination.”

The small-scale gardening that flourishes on Instagram suggests a way to pass farming’s legacy to future generations, who could see it as a true career and way of life. Unlike my grandparents, we now have new tools to document our challenges and successes in homes that we own. It’s a privilege to witness my children excitedly spill pails of water designated for our plants. We’re harvesting the veggies of our labor for ourselves.

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A. Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez writes about race, health, and reproduction for The Washington PostThe GuardianThe New York TimesTeen Vogue, and other publications.

 

Illustration by Erick M. Ramos

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