Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Juneteenth, #blackjoy, and Sowing Freedom Forward

I love a garden.  A green space of my own is one of my top-ten life goals. I come from a country that still retains a predominant percentage of its pristine rainforests, and can boast a long line of relatives that were (and are) stewards of the land. It is one of my greatest joys and marvels that they chose to retain this heritage in spite of generational trauma resounding from prior forced servitude on those very same lands, in North and South America. In this vein, I understand some of the legacies of slavery in the United States.

Imagine the value of urban green spaces for folks that have evolved beyond the legacy of slavery and sharecropping; migrating from predominantly rural agricultural communities to larger metropolises; sacrificing fresh air, affordable and generous living quarters. Urban green spaces, farms and gardens are a vital and intrinsic part of the mental, physical, and, dare I say, spiritual fortitude of the people that provide and/or seek them out. There is also an often overlooked economic affect as well. This becomes an interesting hurdle when one considers city zoning rules that designate what spaces can be used in what ways in every community. An endeavor to reclaim an abandoned lot previously collecting garbage thoughtlessly chucked by passersby and unscrupulous businesses can become a battle for real estate suddenly deemed valuable. Modern civilization often manifests itself in an unfortunate divorce from the free simplicity of enjoying land, air, food and water. How did we come to this?

It is no coincidence that gardeners often have other social justice projects under their belts. Black Joy in action.

"Black Joy" is a radical concept these days. Social media attests to this, and the apparent retaliation and rhetoric surrounding it proves that it is potent in its application and documentation. I have documented in this blog my initial forays into establishing a green sanctuary of my own, as a way to reconnect with the sacred, magical earth, as well as to channel creativity: from working the soil to photographing and cataloging its mysteries, to sharing its tasty and therapeutic rewards. It is an ever-unfolding practice, much like meditation that may involve complicated handstands, or simpler breathing techniques.

A much-needed break to re-hydrate and enjoy fruit and vegetable salads.

Some things are not meant to be rushed, but gently and mindfully coaxed towards their highest potential. And whatever bug bites or dusty jeans I've acquired in this process, I've always left that green space happier, more fulfilled, and restored for whatever came next once my feet touched concrete.

Touching the soil is as important as handling the delicate shoots being transplanted. 

The height of irony came after the first Juneteenth, which began in Texas in 1865, with the mass exodus from the resistant Confederate states. They carried within them a powerful knowledge of the land, even though they were enslaved to it. That paired with the newfound courage and will to organize brought forth the most earnest efforts to thrive in pre-Civil Rights Era United States. The real victory here in those early post-Civil War struggles that rolled into the next decade of the Reconstruction Era was a revolutionary concept of individual autonomy and dignity for Blackfolk, intrinsically tied to their occupation and thriving on and from the land they stood upon.

The backlash against progression was swift and vicious in the South, and followed in a more insidiously institutionalized way as folks migrated North to urban centers, looking for jobs, homes, and peace of mind. City rules and political circumvention put many of them in public housing, in neighborhoods zoned away from parks, farms, and quality groceries (apparently). The influx of fast food advertising, convenience, liquor, and pawn stores in certain 'hoods instead of others helped to put a negative spin on the intrinsic value of the bodies inhabiting these areas. The joie de vivre was stripped and devalued, in place of fast, cheap, and a limited food spectrum (white, yellow, and brown- gee, what foods are these colors?). In a way, the rush to forget the (punishing) agrarian roots of the South allowed for a grand departure from its more wholesome culinary legacies, and an itchy wool to cover the collective's eyes.

When a space gets reclaimed from its dirty dumping ground identity, an angel gets its wings...or a neighbor gets her zucchinis.

The Blk Projek is a nonprofit organization started by Bronx resident Tanya Fields in 2009 as an act of resistance to food injustice in her South Bronx neighborhood. When she started her organization with Mommy and Me outreach to provide healthy food choices for the mothers and children of the neighborhood, the feedback shone light on the need for more education and economic development. Food deserts in urban neighborhoods has since become a new front in the attack on economic and mental poverty, as the adage "feed the brain" has dramatic implications for those that are literally starved of nourishment. The Libertad Urban Farm is a natural extension of this effort, as justice and freedom fighting comes in many forms, both radical and seemingly mundane. She encourages better choices by making them more visible, with a healthy sprinkling of the aforementioned "Joy". What people may not recognize is the vital task of normalizing a health-food trend that naysayers of the food desert concept scoff at, while they attribute troubling community health statistics to bad cultural choices in the face of an abundance of access to green groceries. Once again, representation is everything. on every level of society.

Libertad Urban Farm, at 972 Simpson Street in The Bronx.

Ms. Fields negotiated her way through city ordinances and public misconceptions with grassroots elbow grease to create and maintain a safe and healthy space, snatching this parcel back from the development list. I was honored to be invited to share some of the load to rebuild and reorganize Libertad Urban Farm on Simpson Street near Southern Boulevard in the Bronx on June 9th. It was a sunny day, and the large mound of soil greeted me at the entrance, daring anyone to approach it with a meaningful shovel. All around us, apartment buildings played sentinel to our toil, with the occasional curious onlooker from a balcony or fortified window grating. Some people walking by on the sidewalk stopped to chat with our carpenter in Spanish, or Tanya, herself, if they recognized her. They see what she is doing, and for the most part, it seems to bring visible joy and relief to their faces.

Ms. Fields herself came and went while I worked in the garden, as she was busy working on some grant applications with a pressing deadline, but she was very much involved with the entire process. The property was vandalized recently, by those who littered and stole supplies, setting back previous gains. The re-education and re-prioritizing of a community continues. A shed was bought, and funds from the NYC Parks Department supplied much needed tools, organic manure and wood to construct raised beds. This will not be a one-off effort to beautify and prepare, but an ongoing labor of love during the fertile season to bring nutrient-dense edibles to the community, as well as a space to recharge the spirit of a proud people.

I can't wait to go back and show you the "after" picture of this raised bed- cucumbers and squash runners everywhere!

Read up on some of Ms. Fields' earlier efforts with Libertad here.
Find out about upcoming events here.


  1. Love this. I recently started a garden in my backyard and my whole life has changed for the better. Keep up the great work.

  2. Thanks for reading, @K-Sea Plus! I know what you mean about the positive change. It is such a privilege to have access to our own or a community green space, more than we know, so I hope that my post resounds with you and others!

  3. Love the light u shed on Juneteenth and the organic garden is amazing being able to feed our own is always good....loving this post x