Where are all the Black People? (Ag Edition)

This past week has been tremendously hard. Everything feels difficult. My mother asked me to stir one of the pots on the stove and it was difficult. I had to thread a needle and it was difficult. I had to get up. I had to eat. It’s been difficult. I’m lucky to have family that supports me but at the same time I’m ashamed that I put them through all of these things–especially my mother. I know sometimes she just can’t take it, but then she does. I don’t know if I’ll ever understand that.

jerhard jan nauta on flickrI feel like writing about something else that got me thinking today. I’m an agriculture student, and I’m taking an online class called Intro to Agricultural Communication, Extension, and Leadership (ACEL). We’ve learned much about the history of agriculture in America, not actual practices in farming but more legislation, organizations and groups, and of course, people. The people that set the foundations for America to look the way it does today. We were founded on agriculture. In a literal sense, no country can survive without agricultural systems, but America in particular would be broken without agriculture. It runs so deep and close to our hearts. There are so many interesting people who have worked over years to keep this message alive.

But as I’ve been going through all this information, I keep wondering–where are all the African-Americans? We learn that the majority of slaves worked on plantations, but otherwise they become invisible to the rest of the historical timeline. How much did the white farmer do? Even after the Civil War, the sharecropping system kept much of the labor black, excluding those farmers who bravely went westward.

The beginning calls for a US Department of Agriculture came in large part from agricultural clubs or societies across America. There is no doubt that some of these groups had more prominent roles than others. The Grangers and Pennsylvania’s are just two examples. They often set up fairs to exhibit new practices. I also learned that the cotton gin and the McCormick reaper were introduced around this time. On reflection, I wondered if technology was pushed back from advancing as quickly because free labor was already so available.

I read some of the bylaws under which the USDA was created and found it obvious that the support they wanted to give to farmers across America only included the white males. We spent a lot of time in our class talking about the Morrill Act and land grant colleges but didn’t explicitly mention that there was a second Morrill Act for black colleges later on–why did they need to pass another act?

It wasn’t until we got to George Washington Carver that I saw a black face. I was annoyed by what little time was spent on him–this is not a fault on the design of my class, but rather on what information had been deemed relevant in the field now. I’m not saying I was annoyed because he was the first black person that came up, but Carver’s role in ACEL history was huge and deserves more recognition regardless of race. His approaches were innovative and slightly rebellious; his research was empirical and but at the same time mystical. He was the first “real” extension outreach worker, establishing programs to bring his knowledge outside the lab/classroom and into a farmer’s home. I will (hopefully) be looking for a biography next time I go to the library.

From there our timeline goes on–more people are named, more buildings are dedicated, more farmers are profiting. Yet, I learned in a rural sociology class last semester that the current population of African-American farmers is about as small as the period at the end of this sentence. So, what happened? It wasn’t as if they never existed. They must have lacked proper support or tools to keep their farms going. Did the extension workers just not go to black farms? Are there really no other African-American agriculturalists that did anything significant enough to inspire people to stay, or is the white farmer stereotype irreversible?

I can’t get over the idea that our early fields were plowed with hands that were black. Have we vastly underestimated and brushed off how much they contributed, or am I just thinking too much? Reader, I’m not sure how well I have communicated my feelings within these words, and I know that I know so little on this subject. For that reason, I plan to come back and write some more after some research.

Until then, I continue to think about my own position in this country and why I, as a South Asian, even picked this field. Here’s to better days and deeper thoughts that can distract myself from myself during this moment in my life.

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