review by Jack Kittredge
Freedom Farmers is an interesting amalgamation. In her introduction, professor White introduces a theoretical framework she calls ‘collective agency and community resilience’ (CACR). Although it was a little hard for me to wade through the verbiage, I think collective agency refers to a group of people acting out of a belief in their mutual success, and community resilience means community-based forms of social organization that respond to natural and human-induced disasters.
White then uses this framework to look at African American practices connecting land, food, and freedom. Although focusing on the Southern Cooperative Movement of the late 1960s through 1974, she sees early slave gardens at the time of the Middle Passage as good examples of CACR: independent production grounds controlled by slaves representing a strategy of resistance to a corrupt system and an effort to create food security.
Once this framework is established she takes it and applies it to a number of historical efforts by blacks to build democratic institutions, usually connected to agriculture, which serve their community. In Part I Tuskegee is discussed, as are the work and views of Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, and W. E. B. Du Bois about how best blacks can elevate themselves. This detailed discussion of the success and growth of Tuskegee, the research and discoveries of Carver, and the strong belief of Du Bois in black cooperatives as vital to Negro progress was fascinating to me. Also included were some excellent photos of the very early days at Tuskegee.
In Part II, White examines four efforts that she identifies as CACR in Action: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Freedom Farm Cooperative in Mississippi, the North Bolivar County (Mississippi) Farm Cooperative, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, and the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. These are short sketches, focusing on the oppression these communities suffered and the ways collective action strengthened their ability to resist.
The book concludes with a short discussion of the importance of land and agriculture to black consciousness during the civil rights movement. The role of black farmers in providing the meeting spaces, the lodging, the food, the transportation and all the other support systems required for sustained community work was crucial. That urban organizing focuses on community gardens, Black Panther programs on feeding children, and Southern cooperatives on buying cropland is no accident.
I appreciated that White stresses the importance of the Southern civil rights movement, the one among all those blacks who resisted the Great Migration and who stayed on the land. Their struggles as farmers to invent cooperative ways to raise crops, buy necessities, sell products and build collective wealth can inform all of us.