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a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society

Section One Earth

LaDonna Azziza Redmond

Being Black and Green/Me, Marvin and the Ecology

Oh, make you wanna holler
The way they do my life
Make me wanna holler
This ain’t livin’, this ain’t livin’
No, no baby, this ain’t livin’
No, no, no, no

I bumped into the food system. Needing to feed a child that was sick made me reexamine how we all eat. Beyond how food is prepared, going deeper by asking how the food was produced, who brings it to us, and how are growers treated as workers. Not fully aware that the food system exists behind a veil, an illusion of consumer choice.
It was upsetting to realize that even though I worked everyday, paid taxes and had a decent education, I knew next to nothing about this thing called “ the food system”.
My access to food , healthy food, was limited by policies and practices that had nothing to do with my ability to make choice. Many of the food choices for me were made for me in corporate boardroom and laboratories seemingly based upon the ever ready response to consumer demand. Supposedly, we demand bad food and they bring it, by the truckload. It’s simple, supply and demand. Right?
I did not live in the vicinity of a grocery store. This may not seem like a huge issue to some but it was to me. I hadn’t realized before that I could not access the food that I wanted and needed until I was faced with the crisis of a sick child. Grocery store access is not just a matter of shopping convenience. It is evidence of a broken food system. Are Black communities demanding more fast food than anyone else in the country? I doubt it.
I quickly realized that it was easier to get a semi automatic weapon than a tomato in my west side neighborhood. A glance at the national headlines will confirm that this is truer today than ever before. There are more guns on the west side of Chicago than grocery stores. Maybe this is a case of comparing apples and oranges but apples and oranges are hard to come by on the west side.

Crime is increasing
Trigger happy policing
Panic is spreading
God knows where, where we’re heading

Growing food on vacant lots converted to urban farm sites was the beginning of a journey that I did not plan. I had a practical plan. I wanted to be a stay at home mom. Taking care of my husband and my two children.
Mothering my children pushed me into a level of activism that made growing and selling food in my community a deeply spiritual act. Touching the soil restored my spirit. The more food I grew, the more I understood that growing food was not the point. Growing food was a metaphor for growing community and growing community required healthy soil. The food was a bonus. The soil offers use so much more. I have to kneel and bow my head to plant in the soil, in this position I realize that I am doing holy work. Urban farming creates sacred ground.
A seemingly simple transaction, between, myself and the land, yet there was something about growing food and tending to land that I should be specific to me, and my culture. Growing food was an answer but not the answer. While I was satisfied with growing food, I wanted more. I wanted to see pictures, hear words that explained how I, a Black woman, with revolutionary tendencies can explain the politicizing aspects of urban land stewardship.

Mercy Mercy Me,
Things ain’t what they used to be
Where did all the blue skies go,
Poison is the wind that blows from
the north, south and east

Working on food access, I found that I was not alone. I was not a part of something that resembled a movement but rather it was splinted and fractured along various lines. Folks that worked on sustainable agriculture did not see eye to eye with hunger relief groups. The public health folks didn’t see eye to eye with the organic food folks. One more thing the movement was white, very white. Most times I was the only Black person and sometimes the only woman.
It was in the predominately white and male environment that someone asked – “Why was I interested in land?” My presence was evidence that I had not gotten the memo that said Black people should not care about the environment. Yet, the question was intriguing to me.
It wasn’t a personal question. It was a cultural question. Assuming that he knew something about my experience as a black person, it was assumed that I couldn’t possibly care about the land.

Hang ups, let downs
Bad breaks, set backs
Natural fact is
Honey, that I can’t pay my taxes

What he didn’t know is that I practice an earth-centered religion from Africa. The religion has names for the river, the ocean and the sea – Oshun, Yemonya and Olokun. We sing to the water to infuse it with healing properties. We sing to the leaves to unlock the healing secrets inside them. Thunder is the energy owned by Songo. The wind is owned Oya. My ancestors were on a first name bases with the air, earth, water and fire.
During a ceremony, spirit came forward and gave me the name Azziza. Azziza means near to God. It is also the name of an African fairy race that live in the forest and they know the magic inside the leaves creates medicine. My spirit is earth centered.
The land and the soil are my DNA but somehow my Black skin gave even a farmer a different impression. That he had more of a connection to the land in American than I did. Why didn’t he know that Black people were not always urban? Urban African Americans are one or two generations out of the South. Almost everyone in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York has cousins in Atlanta, Birmingham or Jackson.
This question sent me on a quest to discover and articulate the land ethic of Black people in the United States. I thought about the music and lyrics of Marvin Gaye.

Talk to me
So you can see
What’s going on

I thought I was a part of food movement. I wanted to belong to a large, mass movement. I think it’s because I was born in the 60’s and I missed the marches and protests of the civil rights movement. I had hoped that the food movement would quench my desire to be a part of a mass movement for justice. When I did not see black faces like mine in leadership of the movement, I was distressed. Dominated by white males of privilege, I heard the story of privilege. I did not hear my story in the narrative of the food movement.
Surprisingly, the political landscape has not changed much since 1970 when Marvin Gaye released three songs that gave lyrical voice to issues that impacted a generation concerned about war, pollution, and poverty. The songs, What’s Going On, Inner City Blues and Mercy Mercy Me, define the connection that I have with the environment.

Mercy Mercy me,
Things aint what they used to be
Oil wasted on the oceans and upon our seas
Fish full of mercury

I search literature looking for the narrative the represented the story of African Americans. I found the essays of Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson and Michael Pollen. While each are brilliant writers in there own way, I read their work and felt discounted, somewhat discouraged by their printed words. While each writer has a distinct voice and has contributed to the national awareness that criticizes the dominant cultural food and agricultural movement, those voices did not speak for me or to me. They ignored me.
The perspective taken on the land and agriculture disturbed me. The narrative of perfect rural American farmland was familiar but out of my cultural reach. So much of my ancestors’ rural experience was tarnished by racism and violence. I wonder about these perspectives. It was as if these narratives are crafted to leave me, my ancestors, my culture, my experience out. I recognize this literary distance. It is one that proclaims the truth yet obscures reality.

I just want to ask a question
Who really cares?
To save a world in despair
Who really cares?
There’ll come a time, when the world won’t be singin’
Flowers won’t grow, bells won’t be ringin’

How can anyone tell the story of land or agriculture in the United States and not tell the story of Native Americans and broken treaties? How can a story about land and agriculture in the United States leave out the economic institution of slavery? The unwillingness to incorporate the narratives of people of color, the exploitation that they have endured and continue to face, is the inconvenient truth of the food and agriculture movement. The dominant food movement skips narratives of genocide, racism and exploitation that formed the United States of America by starting the story of agriculture in the 1930’s. How convenient.

Mercy Mercy me,
Things aint what they used to be
Radiation underground and in the sky
Animals and birds that live nearby are dying

The industrialization of agriculture in the 1930’s is a point at which agriculture went further into soil degradation and environmental contamination. However, the land, air and water were already poisoned with the blood, sweat and tears of those that died for their freedom on land that belonged to them…first.
The perspective of the dominant food movement culture, generally rubs me the wrong way but this omission is different. It is the cultural tone deafness that angers me and makes me want to revolt against the movement that I am working to support.
The romanticism of agriculture perpetuates a dangerous mythology and pathology. The myth of the small family farms suggests agriculture was easy, land was free and the farm was light by the sun. The reality is that life was hard, the land belonged to Native Americans and the work was fueled by those who were captured and enslaved. Today we still have a food system that is based on enslavement and oppression.
Ignoring and erasing the experiences of my ancestors, Africans stolen from their country and enslaved, is the story that is omitted from the narrative of the food and agriculture movement. A movement that cannot tell the truth is not a movement at all, it’s a clique.
If the narrative of the food movement is correct the story would be that America was built on fair labor, enslaved Africans are immigrants, Indians were paid for their land and everyone has always had the right to vote.

Oh, make me wanna holler
And throw up both my hands
Yea, it makes me wanna holler
And throw up both my hands

Looking for inspiration to till the soil, I turn to Marvin Gaye. When I am in love, I listen to Marvin. When I am sad, I put on some Marvin. When I plant seeds – I listen to Marvin. A dear friend once told me that seeds have a song. If my seeds have a song, they are singing a little Marvin.

Mother, mother
There’s too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There’s far too many of you dying
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today

Putting seeds in soil have become a way that I have learned to love my self more than I would have ever imagined. Only in hindsight do I realize how much I love my self, my people and our collective story. I love us enough to not just grow food but to grow soil. I love us enough to create organization that addresses and offers fixes to the shortcomings of racism and exclusion of our stories. I love the earth enough to ask the question that Marvin posed.

I just want to ask a question
Who really cares?
To save a world in despair
Who really cares?

I care. I care enough to tell the story of land from the perspective of my people. I won’t wait for the food movement to tell the story – I will tell it myself. I will tell the story to the seeds. With Marvin playing softly in the background.

Father, father, everybody thinks we’re wrong
Oh, but who are they to judge us
Simply because our hair is long
Oh, you know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some understanding here today

LaDonna Azziza Redmond is a long-time community activist who successfully worked to get Chicago Public Schools to evaluate junk food, launched urban agriculture projects, started a community grocery store and worked on federal farm policies to expand access to healthy food in low-income communities. In 2009, Redmond was one of 25 citizen and business leaders named a Responsibility Pioneer by Time Magazine.
Currently, LaDonna has launched the Campaign for Food Justice Now. CFJN’s mission is to end all forms of injustice and exploitation in the food system. CFJN seeks a comprehensive approach that includes the social, historical, cultural, envirnmental and spirtual elements of a solution to food justice. Learn more and support CFJN at





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