by Sean Croxton
I’m actually a bit embarrassed about this one.
Tomorrow morning I’ll be hopping on a bird and flying to the great State of Georgia to speak at the Black Male Empowerment Summit at Georgia Southern University.
My presentation, entitled How to Survive College with Your Health Intact, will offer these young men simple tips and strategies for avoiding the typical health challenges — weight gain, depression, blood sugar dysregulation, and more — that students often encounter by the time they make that final walk across the stage.
But that’s not what I’m embarrassed about.
What’s had me feeling a bit ashamed over these past couple weeks, as I’ve prepared for my talk, is my complete disconnection with the history of agriculture and its impact on the Black community.
It’s been 25 years since I moved from Oakland, CA, where my neighbors and classmates were pretty much all of color, to nearby Alameda, a predominantly White community where I was one of only three Black kids in the entire school.
I’ll never forget the first day of fourth grade at Saint Philip Neri Elementary School. I sat in Mom’s Volvo station wagon crying my eyes out as I looked out into the playground trying to find a single Black face. Talk about culture shock!
Alameda is where I would call home until I left to attend San Diego State University in 1995. I probably don’t have to tell you the demographics there.
By no means are my memories of living in a Black community ones of poverty or hardship. My father was one of the best shoe salesmen Macy’s had ever seen. Mom worked for the phone company.
We lived in a two-story house with a well-kept lawn and a tall palm tree in the front yard. My brother and I had a room dedicated to toys — The Toy Room, we called it — and a swing set and basketball court out back.
Every night, we sat around the kitchen table, talked, and ate Mom’s home-cooked meals. I can even vaguely remember Mom (then again, maybe it was Dad) growing strawberries, tomatoes, and lemons in the backyard. But the vivid memories of spending many Saturdays on my hands and knees pulling weeds will never leave me.
I hated pulling weeds.
Soon after my parents divorced, Dad hit the road and never looked back. My brother and I were two young Black kids being raised by a Mexican mother in a White community. We were mixed up, both literally and ethnically.
As I grew older, I became well aware of the fact that I was missing out on Black culture. In an attempt to make up for it, I read books like The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Soul on Ice, and Manchild in the Promised Land. I can tell you all about the Black Panthers, Fred Hamptom, and the FBI’s programs to destroy the reputations of black leaders (and more).
But one thing I couldn’t tell you about is the connection between agriculture and the current state of the black community. It never clicked. That is, until now.
I have Will Allen — an urban farmer based in Milwaukee, WI — and his book The Good Food Revolution to thank for that.
What’s Race Got to Do With It?
I’m sure many of my readers are wondering what race has to do with it. We live in a time when a Black family lives in the White House. Haven’t we moved beyond race?
In some ways we have, and in others we have not. Yes, we have come a long way in terms of race relations, but all is not well and not everyone is healthy.
Although we as Americans have a right to choose, many of us are running low on options, especially when it comes to our food supply. This fact is no more evident than within this nation’s Black communities where it is easier and much cheaper to purchase a Hostess apple pie than an actual apple, where the closest supermarket is 20 minutes away but the convenience store is on the next corner, and where the food is almost always fast.
In his book Will Allen quotes his good friend Sharon Adams as saying, “Any time you live in an area where you don’t have healthy choices, you don’t have a healthy community.”
Modern disease has run rampant amongst all races, but lack of healthy choices has hit the Black community hardest of them all. It is said that one in every two Black babies born in the year 2000 will be diagnosed with diabetes at some point in his or her life. The odds are 1 in 3 for babies of all other races. Four out of ten Black men and women over the age of twenty have high blood pressure. And Blacks are thirty-percent more likely to die young from heart disease than Whites. (Allen, 7)
Race has a lot do with it.
Lack of access to healthy food has a lot do with it.
Unfortunately, not much is being done about it.
The Great Migration
What never quite struck me until now is that it has only been 3-4 generations since Blacks were agriculturalists. Our ancestors worked in the fields where they grew and harvested asparagus, collards, parsnips, watermelon, and more. Not only did they grow these foods, but they also knew how to prepare them. Farming and cooking techniques were passed down through the generations. Through their knowledge and experience with managing soil and thus the production and preparation of nutritious foods, Black men and women were able to maintain their physical health.
And then it stopped.
This country’s agricultural system was built on the blood, sweat, and tears of Black slaves and sharecroppers. With the Emancipation Proclamation came uncertainty amongst the freed slaves. Allen writes, “…some were said to have walked to the entrance of their plantations only to turn directly around and come back.”
Many of these freed slaves became sharecroppers, entering into agreements with their former owners. These agreements allowed the sharecropper to use the landowner’s farm and tools to grow crops. At the end of each growing season, the landowner would take the crops to market and split the proceeds with the sharecropper.
In theory the sharecropping system seems far more appealing than slavery. However, sharecroppers often had to borrow money from their landowners at the beginning of each growing season. Once the harvested crops were eventually sold at market, there was little, if anything, left of the sharecropper’s split. Season after season, many found themselves in worse debt than when they started.
The breaking point occurred when the Great Depression drove crop prices way down. Sharecropping was no longer worth the trouble. Southern Blacks packed their bags and hopped aboard segregated trains to the North in hope of new opportunities.
It is said that over six million men and women took part in The Black Migration. Most simply wanted to put the hardships of slavery and sharecropping behind them. In so doing, a long history of self-sufficiency and survival through agriculture was lost. Life on the plantation was, for many, a source of shame. Gone was the pride of living off the land. Thus began a community’s dependence on a food system that reflects everything that has gone wrong with agriculture since.
Stay tuned for Part 2 next week. We’ll discuss how Will Allen has brought agriculture back into the inner cities. It’s an inspiring story.
Hate to leave you hanging, but I have to get ready for tonight’s FREE webinar on adrenal dysfunction. It’s at 5pm PT/8pm ET. If you haven’t registered click HERE! Or come back to this blog Monday to watch the recording.
Author, The Dark Side of Fat Loss
Good job with this. Thanks for speaking out on the plight of African Americans in this country. It is not often that someone speaks about the quality of food or lack of quality in the inner cities. I think african american and hispanics really get a raw deal when it comes to health in the U.S. Since most of these racial groups are economically disadvantaged, they are often unhealthy as well. I really wish african americans would wake up and realize there needs to be a change if we are to be a healthy race of people.
I just listened to your webinar on adrenal fatigue and loved it!
I have been studying nutrition and listening to your speakers for some time now and have been increasingly interested in agriculture. In fact I recently did an internship on a farm and even went to Will Allen’s Urban/Small Farm Conference a few weeks ago in Milwaukee. He is truly inspirational. Unfortunately, the food industry has failed us and Will provides inspiration to teach ourselves and our communities that we have the power to grow our own food; not to sit back and eat GMOs that are readily available and basically killing our society. I just bought his book and can’t wait to read it. Sean, you are the best and I’m so happy you brought this up!!
Some really good points Sean. Indigenous and minority groups around the world have been hit hardest by the Western diet and lifestyle.
Being Māori (indigenous New Zealander), I’ve noticed that our detachment from our traditional sources of food, is closely linked to unhealthy communities. Similarly, only a few generations ago, Māori had a similar migration toward urban areas and with that move came a loss of knowledge, skills and the resources necessary to hunt, fish and grow traditional crops like sweet potato.
I believe that re-learning these skills, and being able to obtain quality sources of REAL FOOD with your own hands, is an essential part of enhancing our health and overall well-being.
There *are* still Black farmers! Granted, they only make up 1% of farmers (compared to 14% in 1920), they are still out there! I applaud Will Allen and other urban, Black farmers for doing their part to create local, sustainable food systems for those who may not be able to afford the food otherwise. Also, it’s not just the Black Migration that drove Blacks away from farming. Racism and racist practices are still alive and well in rural America; a fact which I imagine is very discouraging for a Black farmer or rancher trying to live off the land. Just last year, a $1.2 million dollar settlement was awarded to Black farmers for discrimination by the USDA between 1983-1997 (Pigford v. Glickman (“Pigford”) and Brewington v. Glickman (“Brewington”).
@ Darren – I want to add that there are plenty of Black who are wide awake! I volunteer at a food bank on a weekly basis and encounter many, many mothers who are fully aware of how they should be eating but do not think/know they have the resources to feed their children healthy food. And, yes, there are others who have no idea how or what they should be eating and don’t have the time to figure it out because they’re too busy trying to just survive. IMO, Blacks need to be provided with the tools to make empowered choices and given consistent access to healthy, affordable food. If given the choice and access, there are plenty moms who would choose the apple over the Hostess Apple Pie! Many of these moms don’t know that Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s or pretty much any gourmet supermarket accepts food stamps. They don’t know that SNAP offers “discounts” when they shop at farmers markets – heck, I’m sure many don’t even know most farmer’s markets accept food stamps! What does it matter if you know you should be eating organic foods if you don’t think you can afford to buy them, y’know?!