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More Radical Than It May Seem
Reclaiming ancestral bonds through herbalism and farming
As I grapple with my family’s history of enslavement, growing and learning about food and herbs helps me feel connected to my ancestors’ legacy of resistance.
I am the great-great-granddaughter of slaves. But for a long time, I didn’t know it.
At least, not in definitive terms. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties that my mom confirmed just how close the histories of slavery and sharecropping (an oppressive system of agricultural labour exchange for little to no money) were in my family.
“I think your great-grandparents lived on some kind of farm, and they didn’t really get paid,” she told me one day as we flipped through a few photos of my grandfather’s mom, who we called “Ma”. I had been asking her questions about my mother’s grandparents in an attempt to piece together some family history, wondering how we even got to Cleveland if our family was from the South. For some reason, I was not expecting sharecropping to be part of the conversation that day. Like many Black American households, nobody in my family spoke directly about our shockingly recent personal history of slavery — or the sharecropping that followed it. But despite no one saying it out loud, that history hung around us, like lingering fog.
At this point, I had done extensive research and writing on American chattel slavery for my Ph.D. and was already teaching Black history courses at the college level. I felt ridiculous for having delved so deeply into this issue while not knowing the details of my own family history, and after hearing about my great-grandparents, I wanted to know more. But yearn as I might to learn about those who came before me, the roots of my family tree remained invisible: a trunk floating halfway in the air with no palpable foundation.
I know that my ancestors were brought to America during the Transatlantic Slave Trade sometime between 1526 and 1867. Along with around 12.5 million other Africans, they were ripped from the lands which had sustained them — both physically and spiritually — packed onto ships by European colonizers and forced to make the dangerous, often deadly, journey to North, South, or Central America, or the Caribbean. But I will never know the names of my countless family members who spent their lives enslaved. I have no record of them prior to my great-grandparents. I know I have generations of relatives who each had unique desires, dreams, fears, and hopes, and yet, I don’t have a single piece of paper to verify any aspect of their existence. Whenever I think about this, I get the frustrated feeling you get when you realize something has been stolen from you. I grieve for the loss of knowledge, wisdom, traditions, and stories.
But I am finding ways to re-establish a connection to these unknown ancestors, mainly through herbalism and growing my own food. These practices were central to the resistance against enslavement and enacted by Black women in particular. Reclaiming them allows me to connect to my severed family tree and to fight ongoing systemic racism in the United States.
The power of plants
Agriculture was the principal driver of the slave-based economy. Africans’ forced labour was needed to sustain and grow the emerging agricultural markets in the “New World”. African women, in particular, were considered desirable field hands because of their strong knowledge of cultivating subtropical plants on the African continent. It was centuries of their uncompensated labour that ultimately transformed the agricultural sector in the Americas into the booming global industry we know today, generating tremendous wealth for plantation-owning white families and governments.
Agriculture was the rationale for controlling and dehumanizing enslaved people, but it was also used as a means of resistance. To supplement the dire rations given to them, many enslaved people cultivated gardens or “patches” near the slave quarters — which were usually located in the woods or on the periphery of the plantation, outside of the direct guise of the master. Black women often grew medicinal herbs in their patches or gathered them from the surrounding forests. West African slaves brought herbal wisdom with them to the New World. Through contact with Indigenous Americans, they cultivated their knowledge of medicinal plants native to the Americas which they combined with their own and passed down orally through generations.
Gardening and growing medicinal herbs was more radical than it may seem. The maintenance of these garden plots required additional labour beyond their already excruciatingly long work days; but the gardens were among the few spaces Black communities, and Black women in particular, could control. Here, they cultivated the plants of their African homelands, such as okra, peanuts, and melons, which, in addition to nutrition, provided a sense of comfort, familiarity, and healing in otherwise horrendous conditions. They strengthened family and community solidarity through the sharing of produce. Often, the gardens and yards of the slave quarters included symbols and spiritual elements from African cultures, such as hanging blue glass bottles on tree limbs to ward off evil spirits. Gardens thereby became secret sites for maintaining the cultures that the slave system was attempting to strip away.
Black women also used plant medicine to exercise agency over their own bodies as midwives and traditional healers. Sexual violence against enslaved women was rampant. They were routinely raped and impregnated by their owners.1 Herbalism gave enslaved Black women some tiny semblance of control over their bodies, allowing them to use herbs to help with pregnancy, birth control, or abortion when they lacked access to other forms of medical treatment.
Because of the power of plants — and the potential for plants to be used to poison the slave masters — certain localities, such as Virginia, passed laws as early as 1748 that prohibited enslaved people from administering medicines without their owners’ approval. They could face death if caught breaking this rule. Even though the consequences were high, Black women continued to practice herbalism and maintain spiritual connections to medicinal plants. However, these laws played a role in hindering their ability to pass down herbal knowledge to new generations, as did the constant movement resulting from being bought and sold to different plantations, and the fact that most colonies forbade slaves from learning how to read and write.
Reclaiming my heritage
It is ironic to think that my ancestors’ forced labour was foundational to our agricultural system, and yet, because of slavery, I have been severed from their stories, traditions, and rich knowledge of tending farms and cultivating gardens.
After the formal abolition of slavery, my ancestors, including my great-grandparents, became sharecroppers. Like many other former slaves, they likely lived on the exact same plantations that they and/or their families had worked on while enslaved. In a sharecropper’s arrangement, workers “rented” part of the land as tenants in exchange for a share of the crop yield. Because of laws in many states, including Alabama and Georgia, where my great grandparents were based before they made the journey north to Cleveland, prevented Black people from owning land — or made it significantly harder for them to own land — for many, sharecropping was one of the only options for survival. It was not an easy life. Plantation owners frequently held their workers in perpetual debt and even inflicted physical violence, at times. African American sharecroppers were treated even worse than poor white people in the same positions. Their freedom continued to be stymied in ways reminiscent of slavery; for example, they needed to obtain written permission from their plantation owner in order to work on another plantation. They were also excluded from sharecroppers’ unions.
Even after the end of sharecropping, the history of dispossessing African American farmers continued. Black farmers were excluded from land purchases by federal programs and policies; their legal protections related to intergenerational property transfer were limited; and it remained harder for Black farmers to access the capital needed to maintain their businesses because of discriminatory lending practices. Combined with the fact that most farm subsidies have continued to go to white farmers, this means that access to agriculture within many Black communities in the US is limited. Today, less than 1.5% of farmers in the US are Black. And although gender-disaggregated data is not available, we can assume even fewer are women.
Right now, in Columbus, I live in a “high need” area, meaning a part of the city with significant poverty. It is predominantly working-class people of colour who live here. Although a nearby Save-A-Lot store prevents my neighbourhood from officially being a “food desert”,2 the produce available there is expensive and is often old, sometimes even spoiling on the shelves. (Currently, more than half of Cleveland residents and a quarter of Cuyahoga County, the Northeast Ohio county that includes Cleveland and its nearly 60 suburbs, towns, and municipalities residents live in what are considered to be food deserts.) This has serious implications for the health and well-being of the people in these communities.
Urban agriculture is often touted as a potential solution to these problems, which are structural in nature and relate to systemic disinvestment by governments and corporations in marginalized neighbourhoods. Afro and Indigenous-owned urban farms, like Soul Fire Farm in New York, receive attention in headlines and documentaries, but despite the legacies of Black farming and resistance (and the fact that people of colour are more likely to live in so-called food deserts), the face of the contemporary urban farmer remains largely white.
When I moved back to Cleveland for a year after completing my undergraduate and master’s degrees, I worked for a nonprofit community development organization, where one of my projects was to build a database of all of the urban farmers in the area. Although the neighbourhood was populated mainly with working-class people of colour, only two out of the 10 urban farmers I identified were Black. In a country where Black people are nearly three times as likely to be living in poverty, it is white people who have the access to land, meaning the wealth required to obtain land and the connections needed to build an urban farm from the ground up. No matter that the success of this country’s land came on the backs of Black people. Black people who do farm are met with suspicion: the two Black farmers from my census, a sister and a brother, had turned a rented vacant lot into a hyper-accessible farm host to a plethora of community activities, only to see their land access swiftly rescinded when a neighbour complained about the need to “clean up” the property.
In the face of these oppressive forces, I’m more determined than ever to shape my own future through the act of growing food and herbs. These days, I grow carrots, celery, greens, rainbow chard, tomatoes, basil, sage, broccoli, and onions on my own small plot in the backyard. I find comfort in using the bounty to make healthy vegetable stews. I usually make up the recipes as I go along. With the help of books such as African Holistic Health by Llaila Afrika, I’ve been teaching myself about herbalism.
When I cultivate sage and basil from my garden, I’m reminded of the generations of women before me who did the same. The medicines that prior generations of Black women made gave them a sense of freedom, and helped them to combat illnesses and injuries that resulted from the unlivable conditions they were forced to endure and their lack of access to formal healthcare. As healthcare inequality, medical racism, and the toxic stress of living in a racist society continue to take their toll on Black people’s health, I see making anti-inflammatory and stress-relieving teas from the basil and sage in my garden as a small act of reclamation within an unjust system. As I think back to the ways my ancestors might have exchanged knowledge of these herbs with indigenous people — who were also dispossessed of their connection to the land — I reflect on the complexities of cultivating land in a settler-colonial context. I’ve started presenting workshops for youth groups and various community organizations about backyard farming, cooking produce from the garden, and the relationship between food and health. Soon, I’ll start my own program dedicated to accessible education about health, food, and herbal medicine.
Thinking about the role that agriculture played in my ancestors’ past and about the barriers being faced by my communities to land and food access in the present, gives me a sense of purpose as I dig my hands into the soil working to reclaim the knowledge and connection that were stolen. By growing my own food and teaching others to do so, I am engaging in a subtle act of resistance and enacting agency within an environment that has attempted to deny me, my communities, and my ancestors fresh, healthy food and the land on which to grow it. And I ensure that the history, labour, innovation, resistance, and humanity of those who came before me will not be forgotten.
Alice Ragland is a professor, community educator, and writer. She’s also an aspiring herbalist and has been studying various forms of healing intergenerational trauma since finishing her Ph.D.
Even when the international slave trade was outlawed by 1808, the domestic slave population continued to increase due to “breeding” or forced reproduction of slaves and ongoing rape by slave owners.
Although “food desert” has become the most widely used term to describe low-income areas that lack sufficient food access, it has been criticized for “naturalizing” the scarcity of food in certain spaces (in part because “deserts'' are naturally occurring) thereby failing to capture the systemic reasons behind this inequality. Some critical scholars and activists have started using the term “Food Apartheid” instead, to reflect the structural racism and oppression that has fostered this food-related injustice. The use of “food deserts” to conceptualize food inequality in urban areas has also been critiqued because it relies on an assumption that low-income people living in these areas are somehow limited by their neighbourhoods; in reality, research suggests that “individuals may bypass nearby stores in search of better prices and quality” or may seek out provisioning opportunities within their broader spheres of day-to-day movement throughout a city. This suggests a need to account for social and physical connectivity when addressing the challenges posed by inequitable food environments.