We Grow More Than Collards

Memories of the past…BUT we grow more than collards…

Something has been on my mind for quite a while. I tried to gently approach the topic in professional circles, I asked my associates who are comfortable discussing race and I searched the Internet on my own. Yet I am puzzled. When you look at garden or nature magazines, look at tv features on gardening and observe when garden centers feature programs on landscaping, something is absent.

Want to start an urban farm or need vegetable advice…other than a millennial, who do you see? I have noticed more often than not, the African American in horticulture has been planted in the back forty with the vegetables…if at all.

Don’t get me wrong, I am a former Founding Farmer of an Organic Farm in Virginia — BUT — I grow more than collards. This conversation has been in my head for quite some time and as I am coming of age, I feel comfortable enough to finally have my say.

I visited Sotterly Plantation in Hollywood, Maryland. As I wandered down to the edge of the water, a chill came over me. I imagined the scene many years ago. After horrific travel in the belly of a boat in unimaginable conditions, when daylight came it brought a sense of uncertainty. What was this place, who were these people, this language and where was home? How it must have felt to not know what to do except survive. It quickly became evident that if you did not do what you were told, the whip would swiftly reinforce this. We know this story. Some of us heard this at the knee of our ancestors, through family history shared in conversation or the safe version in school. Tears gently made their way down my cheeks as I stood by the water’s edge…imagining a different time. I could have been in the belly of that boat and not imagining from the shoreline. It was a moment I will never forget.

Fast forward a few generations, as this was not that long ago. In slavery, we did what we were brought here to do and we survived. The ability to read, write and attend college was and still is a serious goal in the African American community. Doctors, scientists, lawyers, and even authors have become our role models. These professionals in their own way, allow us to consider the possibilities. We see them, hear about them and recognize that this does make a difference. Yet, more often than not, when society thinks about the African American in horticulture we are generally considered experts in Urban Gardening or Farming.

Society — I have a problem with this.

George Washington Carver is just one of the African Americans who played a role in horticulture or discovery through horticulture. Believe it or not, there are many lesser-known figures who contributed to horticulture. What I find sad is these lesser-known voices have been swept off the front porch over time. They have not been heralded, praised or brought to the forefront in the world of horticulture.

Please do not think I am negating the efforts of well known African Americans in Urban Farming. I have huge respect for the ability to increase awareness of the benefits of gardening in our communities. Gardening has been proven to reduce crime, create conversations on growing for our health and is used as a tool to teach better eating habits. We get excited when we eat what we have grown just like the rest of the world. However, African Americans really do grow more than collards.

Imagine knowing how to pull together a bodacious container garden mixed with annuals, perennials and perhaps some edibles? Think of knowing when to fertilize and plant grass seed? As you nest over the winter, imagine flipping through a seed catalog or viewing a show on TV and seeing an African American sharing their knowledge of gardening? Imagine listening to a podcast that speaks to how we look at horticulture? Long overdue, wouldn’t you say?

A few weeks ago I asked the question “Where are the African American voices in horticulture that are not farmers or urban gardeners? A few looked at the post, a few retweeted it, however, no one really answered it. Where are the voices that look like me? Where are the advertisements that show people of color in garden centers, or taking care of their own yards? There are a substantial number of African Americans who invest in quality landscaping, design, tools, want to know the next season’s trends and more. We want to hear from someone who looks like us. The younger generation needs to know that gardening for beauty is not an uncommon act for our community.

Before speaking at Magnolia Plantation in Charleston, South Carolina this Spring, I called my Cousin Naomi. I wanted to know what flowers were common in the yards of my ancestors. Cousin Naomi did not know that proper names of the flowers, however, she did say that an abundance of color and variety of flowers were grown amidst the delicious tomatoes and other veggies. I know that my South Carolina ancestors sharecropped, loved Hydrangeas, Hollyhocks, and Irises. When we visited in the summer, there was always a vase of cut flowers in the house in Laurens, S.C. The things we remember from our youth will stay etched in our minds longer than we think.

Some of the younger African American youth will say, “Gardening is like working on a plantation. We aren’t slaves anymore!” Yes — I have personally heard this and it hurt. If we highlighted how we positively contributed to horticulture and continue to do so, this attitude would change. If retailers would consider using our presence and our voices to showcase their products in advertising a change in perception would occur.

I still grow a few vegetables, even collards, but I write, speak, travel and share my thoughts on horticulture. I know I am not the only one who grows more than collards.