Sunday, March 18, 2012

Three Tough Questions, Part I: Race

There's an awful moment in any writing project when you realize that you haven't thought through your own big questions as thoroughly as you might have, leaving your argument-in-progress suddenly hanging in mid-air with its feet kicking.  I'm in that moment now as I try to use my Spring Break to finish writing a piece about public history and the local food movement.

I want this piece to show how and why local food activism represents a richly compatible and exciting partner field for public history in a time of shrinking funding and heightened concern about the kinds of social and environmental questions that have long motivated new and experienced public historians.  All good so far, but the hole I just fell into was this:  I realized that the local food movement, at least in its most high-profile dimensions, too often reproduces almost exactly the same demographics and dynamics that characterize public history itself--it's the same white, liberal, professional world all over again, with people of color and/or working class people tending to appear as interesting but usually marginal Others with experiences and practices that public historians love to collect and represent but generally do not share.  So while I do genuinely believe that allying public history with local food efforts is an exciting opportunity to make our work more useable within a set of urgent questions, I also have to wonder what would keep the same old demographics (which have bedeviled liberal social movements from settlement houses to feminism to Occupy Wall Street) from reproducing themselves yet again.

One simple answer to this is that public historians should make themselves aware of the many vibrant local food projects that directly engage issues of race and diversity.  Many of these have emerged within the movement toward urban agriculture, particularly in "shrinking cities" like Detroit--for example, the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, which runs the D-Town Farm and focuses on issues of food security (sociologist Monica White has written about them).  Earthworks Urban Farm, another Detroit project, connects the dots between racism and multiple forms of injustice and insecurity;  see their page on Food Justice issues for a good articulation of these connections.  Growing Food and Justice for All also has a good page on Race and the Food System.  New-York-based BUGS (Black Urban Gardeners) has convened a wide-ranging annual conference in the past couple of years that centers around issues of race and equity (here's the 2011 schedule);  this group particularly caught my eye because it's supported in part by the Open Space Institute, which has been instrumental in preserving the farmland around Martin Van Buren National Historic Site, which I've been studying recently.  Another New-York-area work in progress is the Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn, which preserves and interprets a mid-19th century African American neighborhood and incorporates a farmer's market and farming/gardening activities into its programming.

So there's lots of great stuff going on.   And there's much here for public historians to contribute to in terms of tracing the histories of migration and labor (as the exemplary Bracero Archive project does), the politics of land tenure, changing urban and rural demographies, and so on.  Still, the stubborn reproduction of whiteness and middle class tastes and values in so many areas of cultural and knowledge production does give me pause (or maybe the pause is just from avoiding getting back to work on my article!).

La Finca/Land of Providence farmland in Holyoke, Mass.
A case in point that seems to show the still-existing disconnect between food projects focusing on social justice and those focusing on history and preservation is the land farmed by Nuestras Raices in Holyoke, Mass.  Nuestras Raices has been doing great work in community organizing and local food production with mostly Puerto Rican urban farmers for twenty years now, cultivating land formerly owned by the social-service-oriented Sisters of Providence Catholic nuns.  When the Sisters donated 25 acres of fertile Connecticut River bottomland to the Trustees of Reservations in 2009, Nuestras Raices continued to farm it, a fact that is noted on the Trustees' web page for the property.  On Nuestra Raices' website, though, the farm is simply La Finca, and there's no mention of the Trustees or the history of the site. 

The relationship is a recent one and I'm assuming there may be more going on socially than is turning up on these two web pages.  But at a glance, my sense is that the focus on the politics of food and migration isn't yet being integrated with the production of knowledge about the various histories connected with this site and the people associated with it over time.  That's where there's work for public historians to do--and I hope we find ways to do it that don't just put these cultural and occupational "Others" on display, but create working partnerships around the production of both food and knowledge.  Given that people on both sides of the equation are usually strapped for time and money, how can we foster this additional layer of engagement and push beyond our existing networks of social service and farming, on the one hand, and preservation and research, on the other?

This isn't the only quandary I'm in at the moment--stay tuned for more of the tough questions in the next couple of posts.  In the meantime, if you want to look more deeply into issues of race and food justice, geographer Rachel Slocum has written well on the topic, and here's another good roundup of posts, ideas, and articles relating to white privilege and the local food movement.

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