“By Any Greens Necessary” looms large on an Illinois billboard. The sign, advertising a local farmer’s market, is sponsored by Trinity United Church in Christ. Trinity is an Afrocentric Christian church known for its unapologetic militancy in freedom struggles over many generations. Now it is one of a growing number of Black congregations and communities in the fight against food insecurity.
Food insecurity is the inability to access nutrient-rich foods and fresh produce. In the United States more than 38 million people, including 12 million children, are food insecure. Unsurprisingly, Black communities are disproportionately food insecure relative to white communities, a fact which leads activist Karen Washington to reframe food insecurity as food apartheid. Food insecure communities, in which a supermarket or grocery store is over 2 miles away, are defined by the US Department of Agriculture as food deserts. And residents of food deserts are often debilitated by diet-related chronic diseases including hypertension, coronary heart disease, and diabetes.
To explain the political economy of food insecurity, many development scholars turn to Harriet Friedmann’s theory of international food regimes. According to Friedmann, we are approaching the consolidation of the corporate-environmental regime. This regime, the third since 1870, has co-opted the environmental movement of the late 1980s and early 90s and is commodifying more and more natural resources. Alongside the fossil fuel industry, the regime may destroy the environment, small-scale farmers, and the world’s population beyond repair.
Food regimes are, in Friedmann’s terms, “a specific constellation of governments, corporations, collective organizations, and individuals” that, through global governing bodies, unregulated transnational trade, and the corporate takeover of domestic agriculture, aim to remove the “social and political barriers to the free flow of capital in food and agriculture.” For profit, the current regime has monopolized the industrial agrifoods complex – the world’s food-producing resources such as land, labor, water, air, and seeds.
In response to the deleterious effects of the corporate food regime, activists around the world are fighting for food sovereignty. As defined by the leading agrarian justice coalition, Via Campesina, food sovereignty is the right of each community to develop and maintain its own capacity to produce basic foods, respecting cultural crop diversity and agricultural techniques.
Decades after Via Campesina first defined what was mostly a movement of peasant farmers in the Global South, the term “food sovereignty” has been adopted by Black communities across the United States. It is no coincidence that sovereignty, understood as self-determination or the capacity of a community to choose its own destiny, is a touchstone for activists. Black revolutionaries have long believed that liberation is predicated on a community’s ability to produce its own food and securely steward land.
Indeed, for centuries, generations of Black radicals have known one thing to be true: liberation is from the ground up. Black participation in the food sovereignty movement echoes past liberation movements from antebellum marronage to “free the land” and “back to the land” movements of the 1960s and 70s – hence Trinity’s allusion to Malcolm X and the Black Power Movement. Malcolm X, in his Message to the Grassroots, unequivocally declared that “revolution is based on land.” For Black activists, sovereignty is what it means to be free – and food and land are liberty’s primary ingredients.
In analyzing the corporate food regime, sovereignty–when understood as the absolute power over life and death–is illuminating, if not alarming. As Amy Trauger explains in We Want Land to Live: Making Political Space for Food Sovereignty, the corporate food regime profits from exercising biopolitical power over the world’s poor and powerless. The regime’s biopolitics–the power to foster, define, or manage life according to the sovereign’s aims–is implemented through land seizures, restrictive zoning, and food system regulations that make it illegal for small-scale farmers to transport goods or plant unauthorized genetic material, such as heirloom seeds.
Moreover, the regime disappears indigenous agrarian knowledges (and people) to subject the land to unsustainable agricultural practices, such as monocultural farming. Monocultural farming, in contradistinction to sustainable agricultural practices like crop rotation and plant diversity, leads to soil erosion (read: the 1930s Dust Bowl) and ultimately contributes to global warming. It also demands that peasant and small-scale farmers sacrifice their land, and subjects agricultural workers to brutal working conditions and unlivable wages, thereby creating a class of citizens for whom self-sufficiency is always out of reach.
Left unchecked, the food regime will continue to divide the world’s population into the wealthy few who can afford organic, high-quality foods, and the poor who are conscripted to produce the nutritious foods they cannot afford or legally produce. The poles of the divide look like Serenbe, a luxury “agrihood” that offers sidewalks lined with edible vegetation, vis-a-vis plantations in South Georgia where trafficked workers were brutally forced to pull onions from the grounds with their bare hands.
In other words, the legitimate worry of food sovereignty advocates is that industrial farms and food deserts will devolve into Giorgio Agamben’s “camp,” a place where humans are reduced to bare life, or the minimal requirements of biological survival, to sustain state-corporate power. If not prefigurative camps, or sovereign states of exception, food deserts are what Katherine McKittrick might call demonic grounds of state-corporate power. Food deserts are bounded geographies in which the human right of self-sufficiency and access to life-sustaining food is suspended for market-driven profits. And given the state violence, surveillance, and the force of militarized police that consume so many Black communities, one might argue that the camp is closer than we care to admit.
Yet, as always, the oppressed resist. Even in the midst of prefigurative camps and neo-plantations, those who have been racialized as Black refuse the bare life that biopolitical sovereignty produces.
What I have observed through ethnographic study is that Black resistance to food insecurity has been motivated by an allegiance to another sovereignty, like an ontologically Black or ethnically African Jesus, or the telos of popular sovereignty. For example, in Baltimore, Maryland–where one out of three residents face food insecurity–the Black Church Food Security Network is organizing Black churches, rural farmers, and urban growers into a locally controlled, farm-to-table distribution system. Inspired by the Black Jesus of Rev. Albert Cleage’s Black Christian Nationalism and the legacy of faith-based activists like Fannie Lou Hamer and Rev. Vernon Johns, the Network is facilitating Black liberation through the collective stewardship of life-sustaining resources. Legitimized by a sovereign that supersedes state-corporate power, they are tilling church grounds and planting gardens in resistance to biopolitical control.
Another example is The National Black Food and Justice Alliance. The motivations of this collective are diverse. Some are driven by Christian and/or African spiritualities, others by anarchic sensibilities, and some by collective economics. What they have in common is a practice of refusal. According to critical theorist Tina Campt, a practice of refusal represents a rejection of subjecthood predicated on “death, fungibility, precarity, and disposability.”
However, despite what one might assume, refusal does not end in despair or hopelessness. Instead, in its negation of subjecthood, Campt argues, refusal is generative. Refusal creates the space in which a Black fugitivity is born. The activist as fugitive, then, is one who abandons the exclusion that produces their precarity and diminished subjecthood and sets out to create new worlds in which their self-determination and moral agency are unencumbered by state-corporate control.
What I see, building upon the work of historian Robin D.G. Kelley, is that the new worlds planted by Black food sovereignty activists like the Network and the NBFJA are promised lands of the radical imagination – a place/space in which Black life is restored to the land in ways that promote Black liberation and flourishing.
In her study of Freedom Farmers, sociologist Monica White calls these promised lands “everyday utopias” or “spaces of prefigurative politics” that are radically alternative political systems. In constructing everyday utopias where everyone has adequate access to nutrient-rich food, activists are challenging the death-wielding power of the corporate food regime – not with an appeal to libertarian individualism or electoral politics, but with the collective self-determination that comes from the earth’s bounty. What hopefully develops from these sites of prefigurative politics, White suggests, are autonomous and economically independent communities.
The movement for food sovereignty is more than a public health initiative calling for reform or more charitable distributions. And unlike the previous “green revolution” of the late 1980s and early 90s that was eventually co-opted by the (neo)liberalism of the corporate-environmental food regime, the food sovereignty movement rejects the premise that solutions to environmental degradation and world hunger depend on efficiently commodifying natural resources. Instead, food sovereignty represents a refusal of a globally commodified food system in favor of systems and institutions that support self-sufficient communities. And given the immense harm that a commodified food system has inflicted upon Black communities in the US, people in the Global South, and the environment, the fight for food sovereignty is not just about food. The fight is a contest between sovereign wills. The movement for food sovereignty is a fight for life itself – a fight activists intend to win by any greens necessary.
Trauger, Amy. We Want Land to Live: Making Political Space for Food Sovereignty. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2017.
In turning to Michel Foucault, Giorgio Agamben, and other theorists of sovereignty, Trauger explains the biopolitics of the global food regime as a sovereign power that mobilizes the commodification of agriculture to claim territory and subject small-scale and peasant farmers to bare life for profit. What Trauger also makes clear is that the global food system’s biopolitics is highly contested and by no means absolute – although it attempts to present its power and control as natural and infallible. Her analysis is accompanied by ethnographic case studies of resistance in the Global North – from a community garden in Lisbon, Portugal to a permaculture garden in Athens, Georgia. What connects these geographically diverse movements are alternative social imaginaries and utopian hopes for a new commons premised on deep relationality, collective land rights, friendship, and love.
Kelley, Robin D. G. Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination. Boston: Beacon Press, 2002.
Kelly’s Freedom Dreams suggests that the enduring telos of Black radicalism in the United States has been a particular freedom dream – the dream of a “New Land.” The New Land symbolizes an enduring quest for material and temporal territories free of antiblack racism and the deprivation such racism produces. (The Black food sovereignty movement, I argue, carries forth this freedom dream.) As evidence, Kelley offers a genealogy of Black radicalism over generations – a moving survey of fugitive practices from marronage to the surrealist jazz of Sun Ra. He also includes in-depth case studies of Black nationalists, communists, and radical feminists – from MOVE, the Republic of New Afrika, and the Combahee River Collective. In bringing the marginalized voices of these activists to the forefront, Kelley’s Freedom Dreams begins to fill the lacuna of radical voices, voices most marginalized from Black political histories.
Cleage, Albert B. Black Christian Nationalism: New Directions for the Black Church. New York: WMorrow, 1972.
Cleage’s Black Christian Nationalism is a political theology that diagnoses the problem of modernity as a contest between the sovereignty of white supremacy and the Black Messiah. Thus, antiblack racism is the primary issue of concern for Black Christians, and the gospel of the Black Messiah demands that the Black churches prioritize the struggle for Black liberation and self-determination. To this end, Cleage’s text offers a blueprint for community development that instructs churches to institute afro-centric educational and collective economic programs within their congregations, in partnership with the broader Black community. These programs can successfully be carried out, Cleage suggests, by utilizing de facto segregation as a community asset (as opposed to investing more resources into integration). What’s more, Cleage understood the importance of land for the sake of community sovereignty, and the legacy of his text, and his activism, birthed Beulah Land farms, a 2000-acre farm in South Carolina stewarded by the denomination Cleage established – the Pan African Orthodox Church.