Food Is Just the Beginning: A Conversation with Monica White

Ten years ago this week, CNN reported that a “revolution” was underway among Black communities in American cities and it was happening in the garden. In the ensuing decade, urban gardening has been one of the most vibrant and visible centers of environmental politics and anti-poverty efforts. But a movement that CNN described as atavistic, a “reawakening” or “renaissance,” has a long, unbroken history—just ask scholar Monica White. She has recovered the place food and farming occupied in the work and thought of both world-renowned and local activists in the Black freedom struggle for more than a century.

In June, students in my summer history course, “Race and Environment in U.S. History,” and I had the chance to sit down with Dr. White to talk about her new book, Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement (University of North Carolina Press, 2018). She not only put the current vogue around food politics in its historical context, she helped us see that when it comes to food justice, in the past and today, food is only the beginning.

Stream or download our conversation here. Interview highlights follow.

Interview highlights:

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Brian Hamilton: Agriculture in African American history long has been thought to be primarily characterized by subjugation. When did you first come to think it could instead be a means of resistance?

Monica White: I think that agriculture in history—not just African American history—has been seen that way for a long time. The way we grew food with the stolen labor from the continent of Africa and the stolen land from the Indigenous communities that were here has been a system of exploitation and oppression. The history of slavery, tenant farming, and sharecropping for African Americans was a part of the stories I grew up with.

But I knew a different story from my personal experience. My father has always had a garden. My grandmother was in a wheelchair and had a container garden. Even my sister grew corn and eggplant on the east side of Detroit. So I knew that food production, in and of itself, was not exploitative.

When I moved back to Detroit to care for my parents and teach at Wayne State University, I needed a dissertation topic. I was studying the autobiographies of the original members of the Black Panther Party, and some of the them were having conversations about growing spaces. When folks would see African Americans congregating, they would automatically assume that these were political discussions. But nobody questioned what they were doing in the garden, so this is where they could actually have those conversations.

Hearing about the burgeoning urban agriculture movement that was happening in Detroit, I started engaging with folks and was struck by the ways in which they describe their work. It wasn’t just a matter of amazing-tasting tomatoes. It was about the person who makes a decision about how my food is grown also impacts my life in significant ways. I approached the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network and said I interested in understanding African Americans who are returning to agriculture. And they offered me a whole different doctoral program. It was a whole series of classes, a whole language, a whole way of thinking about the importance of knowing where the seeds came, knowing how the food was grown, knowing how to benefit from the produce once it was harvested—making sure that it was a regenerative model, not an extractive model. Connecting with food production allows us to think about what sustainable cities look like.

Brooke Holder: The first chapter of your book explores the legacies of Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, and W. E. B. Du Bois. In high school history classes, we often focus on how they are different from each other. But how do you see their work intersecting? What were their common goals?

MW: Great question. It’s really interesting how we reduce historical figures to just a few bullet points. I think of Chimamanda Adichie’s conversation around the danger of a single story. When you focus on one frame it allows you to overlook other components and a nuanced way of thinking about history. For me it was difficult because I practically had to delete that file of what I thought I knew about all of them. Most of the time you hear about Washington and Du Bois as combative. You hear the “talented tenth” and hear Washington’s phrase “cast down your bucket where you are,” which is really problematic when you’re talking about communities that are oppressed and exploited.

But they both believed that you needed an African American population that was educated. They both talk about the importance of community and institution-building. They talk about the conditions of segregation and the legacies of slavery. Booker T. Washington actually invited Du Bois to Tuskegee for a job. So there are lots of conversations that people don’t hear. In the full trajectory of their lives there was more synergy with their ideas. If Du Bois was talking about the talented tenth and Booker T. was talking about the other 90 percent, what does that mean for how we move forward?

Five students stand next to large wooden tables looking at tomatoes in a balck and white archival image.

Tuskegee students learn how to pick tomatoes suitable for canning. Photo by Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1904.

Isaac Matthias: Through my studies, I’ve become a fan of Fannie Lou Hamer. I was really struck by your characterization of her as an “organic intellectual.” Could you say more about what you mean by that, and how seeing her that way helps us better appreciate her work at Freedom Farm?

MW: I love Mrs. Hamer. Knowing who she was as a historical figure fails in comparison to reading about her, meeting folks who knew her, visiting her final resting place, putting my hands on the documents that she signed. Even at this moment I have goose bumps just talking about how incredible she was. I say that Booker T., Du Bois, and Carver were the “three wise men” and Mrs. Hamer is the sister who showed them how to do it. She showed us what it looks like on the ground. The academy often prioritizes those who receive formal training over working folks. But our scholarship is meaningless if we don’t have folks to whom this work speaks and on whose shoulders we stand. We often overlook the organic brilliance that comes through when we watch what people do and listen to explain why they’re doing those particular things.

Fannie Lou Hamer poses in a field holding a hoe making a stoic expression.

Dr. Monica White calls activist Fannie Lou Hamer, who founded Freedom Farm in Sunflower County, Mississippi, an “organic intellectual.” Photo by Louis Draper, 1971.

Mrs. Hamer had what was considered a sixth grade education, and the school year started only after the harvest in November and ended when the crops need to be planted in March or April. The beauty of Mrs. Hamer’s work is that while she wasn’t formally educated, she was able to intellectualize access to food as both a weapon of oppression and an instrument of liberation and freedom.

She wanted us to stay in the South. She said everything comes from the land. If you leave the land, you leave an oppressive condition here but you’re moving to a condition that you don’t even see as oppressive in the automobile plants of Detroit or out west in California.

Rachel Azuma: My classmates and I are doing research on food deserts and food insecurity. What is your definition of a food desert, and what are promising solutions for food insecurity?

MW: I want to push back a little bit, lovingly. The phrase “food desert” is something that activist communities find offensive. It assumes that there’s a lack of. But we know that the desert has a very healthy ecosystem. (If you don’t believe me, stay on the desert overnight and you’ll get to see how alive the space really is.)

The other problem is the phrase doesn’t concentrate on the structural forces that disconnect people from access to nutrient-rich food. It acts as if it’s something naturally occurring, not something based upon intentional decisions. The work I do started in Detroit, a city of 140 square miles where, in 2011, the last major chain grocery store closed. Yet you cross 8 Mile Road and go into the suburbs and you may have four or five major chain grocery stores in a one-mile radius. There’s scholarship that shows that when you have African Americans and whites with the same levels of education, kinds of occupations, number of children, annual income, etc., African Americans are still over a mile farther away from accessing nutrient-rich food than their white counterparts.

So the community prefers concepts like food apartheid or food redlining. There is an activist and dear friend of mine, Ladonna Redmond, who says we shouldn’t try to find a pretty phrase to make us feel better but instead call it what it is: white supremacy. White communities have access to the kinds of things that African American and Latinx communities often have to fight for.

If people can control access to food, can we also think about community control of schools? Community policing?

We know there is absolutely no reason for anybody in the world to be hungry. We produce more than enough to feed absolutely every person. However, we make decisions about where we should locate, what we should locate, how should we process, and what should our food look like. The scholarship says that about a third of the food that we produce goes to waste. I’d be willing to say it’s probably even more than that.

So it’s a structural failure, a failure of distribution—and a failure of a society to make sure that our basic human right to food access is met. Thinking about solutions, I absolutely think local food movements are incredible because it allows us to reconnect with the process of food production. They also encourage respect for those who labor in the fields, some of whom are food insecure themselves.

Another solution would be a living wage. I think it’s more than just saying oh, well we need to teach people how to eat. I promise you most people want healthy food for their children. But there are convenience factors, financial factors, time constraints—all kinds of reasons that people make other decisions. We’re doing the best we can. When we change the structure to ensure nutrient-rich food for everyone, food won’t be the only thing that gets fixed.

Two women smile behind a table of fresh produce beneath a sign that reads "D-Town Farm/Fresh/Local/Organic"

Dr. White’s conversations with members of Detroit’s D-Town Farm inspired her to write Freedom Farmers. Photo by Michigan Municipal League, 2014.

BH: I’ve heard education policy folks get frustrated about how we expect schools to solve all the country’s problems: poverty, obesity, the racial wealth gap, global competition, sexism, crime, preparing a workforce for a changing economy, and on and on. Lately, I sometimes wonder if that’s the way the discourse around food is headed—as if it’s a cure-all for the troubles facing urban communities. But one thing that is inspiring about your book is that while all of the activists you write about articulate the benefits of growing their own food, none of them stop there. Food is always part of a bigger program. 

MW: That’s right. I do think that we expect too much of schools and we expect too much of food. Access to food is a problem. We know that. But I don’t think we should see it as a panacea, as if we just gave people enough to eat, the problems of the world would resolve. I don’t think that that’s the case. I think that food is often a strategy. Food is a starting point.

For the folks I work with, nutrient-rich food is absolutely part of the reason that they’re doing it. But food is only the beginning of the conversation. It allows us to begin to think wow, OK, if we can control the food that we eat, what else can we do?

I’ve seen that happen in Detroit. You have a vacant lot that has overgrown grass and a mom who cuts the lawn to make it a growing space. It becomes a place for food production. It becomes a place for music, a cultural space, a health space. And you get to know your neighbors. And then you begin to have conversations and the distance between you and your neighbors gets smaller.

If people can control access to food, then can we also think about community control of schools? Can we think about community policing? Can we also then think about other ways to gain control over the decisions that are made for us, without our engagement?

I see food as an instrument of community engagement. It’s an opportunity. It’s a necessity. It cannot solve all the problems, but it is a part of that conversation.

Featured image: Monica White examines crops in Mississippi with Ben Burkett, recipient of a James Beard Foundation Leadership Award and coordinator of the state chapter of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives. Photo by Bryce Richter, 2015.

Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.

Monica White is Associate Professor of Environmental Justice in the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and the Department of Community & Environmental Sociology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She is the author of Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement (University of North Carolina Press, 2018), recipient of the 2019 Eduardo Bonilla-Silva Book Award from the Society of Social Problems. Website. Twitter. Contact.

Brian Hamilton is an Edge Effects editor and a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin–Madison writing a dissertation entitled “Cotton’s Keepers: Black Agricultural Expertise in Slavery and Freedom.” His most recent contribution to Edge Effects was “Woke Environmentalism” (July 2018). WebsiteTwitterContact.

Rachel Azuma is a senior at the University of Wisconsin–Madison majoring in conservation biology. Contact.

Brooke Holder is a senior at the University of Wisconsin–Madison majoring in history and political science. Contact.

Isaac Matthias is a senior at the University of Wisconsin–Madison majoring in Afro-American studies. Contact.