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  • Writer's pictureAnneliese Abbott

The Newest Narrative: Critical Race Theory and Agricultural History

Leah Penniman and her book Farming While Black
Leah Penniman was one of the first antiracists to tell a positive story about Black people and the land

There’s one more major narrative about agricultural history that I haven’t mentioned yet—not because it isn’t important, but because it’s been so politicized (and misunderstood) that I’ve been hesitant to bring it up. Back when I was at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, this was the only narrative that we were supposed to use when writing anything historically related. It became a polarized issue in the 2020 elections, with liberals wanting it to be the only historical narrative taught in public schools and conservatives wanting to ban it. Moderate voices were silenced or, like me, were afraid to say anything for fear of being canceled. I’m talking, of course, about critical race theory (CRT). And I’m hoping that enough time has passed since 2020 that it’s possible to simply look at CRT as a type of historical narrative without politicizing it.


To attempt to put a complex theory into a nutshell, CRT attributes all inequalities between racial groups, past or present, to systemic racism—ongoing societal discrimination that concentrates wealth, power, and land in the hands of White people while keeping BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) people oppressed and subjugated. CRT was first formulated in 1989, but as far as I’m aware no one used a CRT narrative to tell a positive history of organic farming until 2018. That year, two Black women published agricultural history narratives that drew heavily on CRT—Leah Penniman’s Farming While Black and Monica White’s Freedom Farmers. As Penniman summarizes the CRT narrative:


Racism is built into the DNA of the US food system. Beginning with the genocidal land theft from Indigenous people, continuing with the kidnapping of our ancestors from the shores of West Africa for forced agricultural labor, morphing into convict leasing, expanding to the migrant guestworker program, and maturing into its current state where farm management is among the whitest professions, farm labor is predominantly Brown and exploited, and people of color disproportionately live in food apartheid neighborhoods and suffer from diet-related illness, this system is built on stolen land and stolen labor, and needs a redesign.


Before Penniman wrote her book, the typical CRT narrative about Black people on the land was only negative, portraying all agricultural work as slavery and oppression. Even worse, some of the “food security” rhetoric of the late 2000s and 2010s implied that since organic food was often higher priced, it was a discriminatory food fad only for rich White people. Penniman felt torn—she loved the land and soil, but was also a passionate antiracist and worried that “a life on the land would be a betrayal of my people.” Finally, after many years of networking with other Black farmers, she was able to meld her two passions—organic farming and antiracism—to create a positive narrative about Black people on the land:


I learned that “organic farming” was an African-indigenous system developed over millennia and first revived in the United States by a Black farmer, George Washington Carver….Dr. Booker T. Whatley, another Tuskegee professor, was one of the inventors of community-supported agriculture (CSA), which he called a Clientele Membership Club….Further, I learned that community land trusts were first started in 1969 by Black farmers, with the New Communities movement leading the way in Georgia…When we as Black people are bombarded with messages that our only place of belonging on land is as slaves, performing dangerous and backbreaking menial labor, to learn of our true and noble history as farmers and ecological stewards is deeply healing.

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