‘Queen Sugar’ author cultivates stories of the lives of Black farmers in her new book
Black farmers in America have every reason under the sun to be discouraged, distrustful, bitter or forlorn. Working in the demanding, fickle world of agriculture, Black and Brown farmers have operated for centuries under the added burden of racist systems and laws designed according to white privilege that cater to white landowners. It’s a miracle they are not, like dinosaurs, extinct.
Instead, as richly profiled in San Francisco–based writer Natalie Baszile’s marvelous compendium, We Are Each Other’s Harvest, Black farmers emerge as ingenious, creative, energetic, business savvy and environmentally astute. Overwhelmingly, they are community-minded owners and stewards of the land.
Baszile is the author of Queen Sugar, the story of an African American woman who unexpectedly inherits from her late father 800 acres of prime sugarcane farmland in Louisiana. The novel was developed for television by writer/director Ava DuVerney and co-produced with Oprah Winfrey for the Oprah Winfrey Network. The award-winning series on OWN is currently in its fifth season. Baszile has a master’s in Afro-American Studies from UCLA and is a graduate of Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program for Writers. She is a member of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto.
Baszile’s new book of essays, interviews, poems and photographs collectively tell the story of Black farmers’ past, present and future. In an interview she explains the curation of a multiplicity of voices—not just her own. “The topic was so large,” she says. “I’m not a historian, so to write and analyze the historical data was not my practice. I’m a storyteller. My position allows me to see narratives. I can stand at a slight distance; I can be in the story and also slightly ahead of it.”
Baszile decided that transporting readers into the universe of Black farming in a way that would be dynamic and accessible would be through the same entrance portal she experienced. Following a process that would in no way have been possible during the pandemic, she traveled extensively across the United States to visit farms, archival collections, festivals, libraries, academic training centers and farming communities. She interviewed farmers, historians, scholars and more. “I sent in the final manuscript December 30, 2019, just before the world turned upside-down,” she says.
Because she believes people tend to dismiss a topic if they think they already know everything about it, an emphasis on historical facts and hard data was deepened and given urgency with first-person farmer narratives, strong visual elements and poetry that captures in a few lines what a novel or essay cannot. “I wanted historical elements from historians, farmers speaking for themselves, art in the form of short stories or photographs,” she says. “I wanted the reader to inhabit these lives, inhabit this world. Too often, in stories of Black people and Black history, people don’t see themselves as participants. Yes there’s history here, all the way back to Africa and people braiding seeds into their hair, but it’s relevant to our lives and it is the future.”
Epitomizing the approach is the book’s jacket image: two young, Black women farmers, tools balanced on one shoulder, sturdy boots on their feet, chins and gazes level. An iconic 1930s archival photo of a young Black man plowing an enormous field with a mule was considered, but not selected because it signaled “you already know this story,” instead of, “here is the future, here are two young, dynamic Black women on the forefront of this movement,” Baszile says. “The book had to be something that offers hope, and is educational, inspiring, uplifting, celebratory. It’s not all hardship and trauma.”
Remarkably, it’s an apt description. Despite ongoing prejudices and practices that result in only 5% of black farmers—or 45,500—remaining in the U.S.—down from 925,798 a century ago—and Black farmers owning a mere 2% of arable American farmland—just 4.7 million acres—the stories told in We Are Each Other’s Harvest sing songs of resilience, courage, determination, strength and high spirit.
There is Moretta Brown, working with Berkeley Basket CSA, whose early memory of working in the soil with her grandfather fueled her willingness “to do anything to learn” about self-sustainable farming. On the Nelson Sons Farm in Louisiana, third-generation farmer Willie Earl Nelson Sr. and his four sons describe historic racist practices that continue today
Unquestionably, Baszile and the essays written by historians establish that land ownership before and ever after Emancipation has not been equally distributed. “Since Black people first landed on American soil, there have been laws in place that have extended privileges to White people to establish wealth and stability. It has allowed them to prosper in ways Black people have been systematically denied. For example, you can go back to 1618 and the headright system. The founders granted to anybody from England who came over as an indentured servant, when they finished their indentured period, they were granted 50 acres of land. That was free. Move to the 1705 Virginia statute which required masters to give white indentured servants upon completing their term 50 acres of land, 30 shillings, 10 bushels of corn and a musket. Continue to track this and you have FDR’s WPA policy, the Federal Housing Administration, Veteran’s Bill, today’s USDA. White people have been given a leg up by the U.S. government. It all has to do with land ownership and what it provides: something to pass on to your children; sovereignty over growing your own food, extended landowner voting rights. The historic ramifications go a long way to explaining this huge disparity between Black people and White people in this country,” writes Baszile.
Asked if writing this book altered her outlook or affirmed her identity, Baszile speaks of respect for young farmers who, despite believing the self-made American Dream is a myth, see their work as a form of community activism. She zeroes in on older Black farmers’ dignity and says, “Writing this book reaffirmed my belief in the spirit of Black people. It makes me immensely proud to be part of this history. I personally draw strength from these farmers and what they’ve been able to do: making a way out of no way, time and again.” Ultimately, she hopes readers will recognize Black farmers working with their hands in the soil, stewarding the land and building resourceful, sustainable communities are of vital importance and arguably, pioneers of America’s best future and hope.