I recently devoured the NYTimes article, “The Seeds of Survival,” that appeared in June 14th paper. In it Michael Tortorello examines the history of African-American farming and gardening, particularly the form it took during the transition period from slavery to emancipation. He focuses on independent farmers who acquired land after the war in what seems to be a deliberate choice to leave out the history sharecropping. This gives the article a somewhat celebratory tone and timeliness on the eve of Juneteenth, an official holiday in many states (Texas was first) remembering the day in 1865 which most slaves in the south learned of their emancipation– 2 years and 6 months after the proclamation was to take effect in January of 1863.
The article features Kathe Hambrick-Jackson, proprietor of the River Road African American Museum in Donaldsonville, LA. With my parents I once visited this museum in 2009. I am happy to see that Hambrick-Jackson has added what she calls her Freedom Gardens to the museum in efforts to teach children about gardening and the plants that slaves and freedpeople grew and subsisted on. Gardening plays an important role in my family history and I found many parallels to the trends discussed in the article in my parents’ own stories. For example, two sisters in their sixties from Colfax, LA recall going to their grandparents’ farm as children and how subsequent generations resisted farming and looked instead eagerly to city, suburban life– a life, argues one sister, with fewer reminders of slavery and sharecropping.
While Tortorello doesn’t always distinguish clearly between gardening and farming, I like his land/geography-centric approach to researching the post-bellum early emancipation period. The fact that his stories and interviews are from Louisiana only increases my interest.
In tandem, I would like to get a hold of this new book: Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction. In it, Jim Downs (a former student of the infamous Eric Foner) compiles extensive research on the physical health of recently freed people after the Civil War. Over a million (one-fourth of the population) freed slaves died immediately after emancipation. The causes appear numerous and complicated and include smallpox and limited access to health care. This high mortality rate was used as “evidence” by racists in the field of medicine that the African race was only fit for enslavement and thus doomed to extinction in emancipation. This is one of many desperate theories hoping that the black race would disappear, eliminating the white man’s burden all together.
I am pleased to read of these two pieces that look to further complicate and thereby eventually clarify the diverse lives and experiences of freedpeople in America. As our history lessons teach it, Reconstruction was a failure or didn’t happen, sharecropping was a good solution and… can we just skip to the Civil Rights Movement already?? Maybe people are more comfortable or able to grasp historical segregation because [in its ideal state for proponents] it separates people into two groups, two places. One here. One there. Simple. We can examine that, right?
In any case, people and their history are complicated. The archive often reveals this fact best. Yay for scholars digging around in places that for over fifty years have lived in a single textbook paragraph.
Filed under: Books
Here’s a link to the first post (mine) of the Faulkner summer reading group.
Here’s to summer beginning with gothic tropes.
Here’s to crawfish boils with the family.
Here’s tip: read and respond
Can’t wait to hear from everyone. More posts soon! New Orleans this week should be an inspiration!