Mainstream narratives about the U.S. tend to portray Black American history exclusively as a struggle against oppression and enslavement, presenting Black people as lacking any agency over their own lives. However, Black historians and cultural advocates are resisting the flattening and erasure of Black history through the preservation of Black agrarian culture, in which Black-owned land and agro-cultural farming practices are a source of freedom, pride, and belonging. For many, advocacy around Black agrarian culture reflects a desire to acknowledge the efforts of Black farmers and agrarian workers, the fruits of their labor, the lives they cultivated through the land, and the potential stolen by white terrorism and discriminatory legal mechanisms and practices within local and federal institutions such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
“[Preserving Black agrarian culture] continually speaks about honoring the ancestor,” said Torreah “Cookie” Washington, an award-winning master art quilter and curator.
One of the most visible reflections of Black agrarian culture can be seen through the works of Black fiber artists, who use natural materials like cotton, wool, and sweetgrass to craft quilts, weave sweetgrass baskets, make dolls, and more. These crafts are tied directly to the land and labor of Black farmers, both through the materials used and the stories they tell about the people who made them. Black agrarianism, with the help of fiber artistry, reveals the deep connections between Black America, land ownership, and the sustenance of Black culture and generational wealth.
Preserving Black agrarianism is also a way for cultural preservationists, historians, and artists to grapple with how the legacy of how Black land ownership and generational wealth has been and continues to be impacted by institutional discrimination, while strengthening Black agrarian culture’s chance at a viable future. Danielle Mason, a cultural preservationist, said that particularly among younger generations like hers, there’s a desire to understand and trace these roots and the effects of land ownership and theft on Black communities. Mason is 32 years old and considers herself a millennial with an “old spirit.”
“I think that there’s this void in our culture,” said Mason. “Through the art of preserving our culture and eco-cultural technology, we will be able to mend that loss.”
Surviving farm debt and land theft
Land ownership is a cornerstone of establishing and maintaining generational wealth, and in many ways, efforts to preserve Black agrarian culture are inextricably tied to how Black farmers were repeatedly failed and abused by federal programs and support systems that should have protected them. Black agrarianism started in the American South as early as the 1860s with a few isolated opportunities for formerly enslaved Black people to own land. For Black farmers, the Civil War created an arduous road to land ownership, especially for those wishing to operate independently—the Reconstruction Era birthed one of the most well known failed federal land redistribution initiatives, where formerly enslaved people were promised “40 acres and a mule” that never materialized.
Despite unfair policy legislation, institutionalized racism, and the mechanization of agriculture, Black farmers achieved increasing levels of autonomy through the creation of Black farming cooperatives and independent farms. However, Black land ownership started to sharply decline as about a million Black families were targeted for dispossession through anti-Black institutional practices in finance and property ownership, as well as being terrorized by violent racists, with many leaving their farms for big cities of the North.
Despite Black land ownership reaching a collective high point of roughly 14 million acres across the U.S. at the start of the 20th century, that number fell by 90% over the ensuing hundred years. In 1920, 14% of the overall agriculture industry were Black farmers. Today only 1.4% of farmers identify as Black or mixed race. In 2017, 30% of Black-owned farms made $1,000 or less in sales and government payments, compared to 23% of all farms. This loss is what inspires “land memory” in Black fiber artistry.
Moreover, land loss poses an ongoing threat to Black agrarian culture as institutional discrimination continues to negatively impact Black farmers’ attempts to hold onto their land. Washington points out that many families in South Carolina and throughout the Low Country—a geographic and cultural region on the South Carolina coast—live on land obtained by way of heirs’ property, land that’s been passed down to successive generations through inheritance. However, this is traditionally an unstable form of land ownership because in many cases, no deeds or wills are attached to these properties, leaving their owners vulnerable to manipulation and coercion.
Additionally, for decades many Black farmers have been locked out of accessing vital benefits, such as federally funded grants or loans, while the government regularly assisted white farmers in need. As a result, Black farmers have been saddled with massive debt and subjected to numerous unlawful foreclosures on their farmlands. A prime example is the 1999 Pigford v. Glickman class-action lawsuit filed against the USDA by a coalition of Black farmers who alleged the agency’s denial of disaster payments, operating loans, and land ownership loans to Black farmers between 1983 and 1997 was racial discrimination. Despite ruling in the coalition’s favor and being the largest civil rights lawsuit settlement in history to date—$1.06 billion in cash relief, tax payments, and debt relief, with a second settlement of $1.25 billion approved in 2010—31% of Black farmers were still denied debt relief as claimants. Furthermore, 5% of the $1 billion “fast-track payments” as of 2012 went strictly to debt cancellation. After limited payments, Black farmers still faced wearying debt and the threat of foreclosures, and many left the farming industry altogether.
Black farmers have even been left out of federal debt relief programs during the COVID-19 pandemic, despite promises of assistance by the federal government. Many are still waiting to access that debt relief and yet are still expected to make increasingly ballooning payments. Under financial strain, many Black farmers are forced to leave behind the hard-won land and its potential for sustenance that could have gone to their descendants. As a result, it’s difficult to track the full extent of the total financial damage that Black farmers have experienced throughout the years. Arguably, the creations of Black fiber artists function as records of that lost land and stolen potential, making the preservation of their art even more critical.
Weaving the threads of Black agrarianism
This enormous task of preserving Black agrarian culture primarily lies on the shoulders of Black women, who for decades have used quilts, sweetgrass weaving, swing coats, and more to keep this history alive while sustaining the fiber economies of the South. The longing for what could have been for Black land ownership and possibilities like generational wealth as well as the hope for reclaiming a sustainable and vibrant future is woven into their work. For a cultural preservationist like Mason, breaking colonial-influenced narratives about Black agrarian culture by showcasing the work of fiber artists through exhibits like “Griots of Indigo, Cotton, and Clay” is a powerful way to connect people with that history and emphasize how fiber artistry is both a matrilineal tradition and an act of resistance.
“[The exhibit] is an evolution of [the work of] Zora Neale Hurston because it is the continuity of African culture and the stories of the Low Country,” Mason said. “[The featured artists] have the opportunity to have sovereignty of their own hands, time, labor, and financial gain.”
For instance, the exhibit features sweetgrass basket weaving and waku pottery found in the work of the artist Georgette Sanders, whose work pays homage to regional weaving styles and techniques that came with enslaved Africans over 400 years ago. Other pieces like Lili Singleton’s “Pick a Bale of Cotton” reminisce on the artist’s own experience picking cotton and watching others do so on her father’s farm. And Arianne King Comer’s indigo quilt depicts the 600-year-old tree that lives on the McLeod Plantation, a Gullah Geechee heritage site in Charleston, South Carolina, that gathered its wealth through the cultivation of sea island cotton by enslaved Africans.
The fiber artistry of these women implicitly wrestles with the enormous disservice done to Black farmers and the multitude of ways it’s affected Black communities. If more Black farmers had been able to keep their land, would health outcomes for Black children have been better? How much more would Black agrarian culture have been known and appreciated? When the labor of enslaved Africans in cultivating and harvesting many of these materials created a basis for white wealth, what is owed to their descendants, who’ve had their own land and its potential wealth stolen through government neglect, white terrorism, and their neighbors’ greed?
Mason points out that it’s also important to understand that fiber artistry wasn’t necessarily born out of a need to speak to these issues—it was rooted in very practical terms. For example, when Black women began quilting, very simple designs were meant to keep babies warm and insulate walls. However, the need for Black Americans to speak their stories and preserve their history in alternative ways, particularly in the face of enslavement and constant surveillance, quickly became apparent. The creation of fiber arts like “story quilts” were quiet but significant acts of reclaiming autonomy and identity, allowing enslaved Black women to create safer spaces where they could socialize, share information, and maintain a sense of community.
“[Fiber artistry is] really a way of being able to communicate something that really can’t be contained through language,” Mason said.
Preserving material culture to protect expressive culture
Uplifting fiber artists whose work preserves the stories of Black farmers and their collective history is an integral part of the advocacy of Acres of Ancestry Initiative/Black Agrarian Fund, a cooperative ecosystem striving for justice in Black land loss, the advancement of environmental stewardship, and education of Black ecocultural traditions. In addition to the collective’s permanent collection—which includes “Griots of Indigo, Cotton, and Clay”—Acres of Ancestry also hosts a multimedia project called The Return of the Bees, which is inspired by the stories and memories of those involved in the Freedom Quilting Bee, a driving force in helping Black women during a time of little economic opportunity and access. The Freedom Quilting Bee started in 1966 when 60 Black women gathered in Gee’s Bend, Alabama, to resist white capitalist dominance of their bodies and work. They built a successful alternative economy out of their quilting, which became the largest community-owned business in the Alabama Black Belt Region.
Another initiative working to preserve agrarian culture is Nest, a nonprofit aiming to support responsible growth and creative engagement within artisan and maker economies. It recently partnered with Etsy to increase market access for Gullah basket weavers and Souls Grown Deep, a community partnership that celebrates the craftsmanship of the Gee’s Bend quilters. However, Mason notes how Black fiber artists have regularly been targeted for exploitation and have struggled to obtain fair compensation and recognition for their work. For example, the Gee’s Bend quilters gained prominence after catching the attention of international art collector Bill Arnett, but some quilters allege Arnett refused to pay the quilters the true value of their work. Commodification and appropriation are just as much of a threat to Black agrarian culture as land theft.
“Recognizing the value of our culture and wisdom remains an uphill battle,” Mason said.
For Black people, preserving their own material culture is synonymous with protecting the continuities of Black expressive culture. This is just as true for textiles and fiber arts as it is for other Black traditions and arts such as jazz music, hip hop, Black poetry, and more. Textiles like cotton and fibers are products of the earth, and using them to create art, generational wealth, and a sustainable way of life directly connects Black communities to the land. Although barriers like institutional neglect and discrimination threaten to sever those connections, preserving Black agrarian culture provides artists and farmers with ways to reconnect to patterns of life when living off the land, responsible farming systems, traditional fiber crafts, and a future of self-determination and autonomy. Black agrarianism advocates and practitioners are building a way forward into Black futurism and resilient sustainability by safeguarding the past.
“We’re no longer waiting for validation, accreditation, or looking for anyone’s approach of who we are and when we can pursue our dreams,” Mason said.