Introduction to Shining a Light in Dark Places: Raising Up the Work of Southern Women of Color in the Food System
As a Black girl growing up as a farmworker in rural North Carolina, the realities of our food system were obvious early on.
My first realization that the food system was broken was not in the segregated lines of free “welfare baby” lunchers and full-price lunch students in middle school, nor was it in the grocery store line where we shamefully offered our welfare checks in exchange for Body Buddies cereal and “government cheese.” It was in the tobacco and cucumber fields, just outside of Mount Olive, where my 11-year-old twin sister, my younger cousins, my aunts, and myself spent our summers working for Mr. Julius; his grandson, who was much younger than all of us, was our overseer, towering over us on his tractor. We worked for money to buy school clothes, mostly from the Maxway or Roses. We started around 5 AM so we could beat the heat of North Carolina’s scorching summers. We were paid $2-3 per hour by the Julius family; cashed our paychecks at their store and purchased our Pepsis, peanuts, and nabs there too. We were putting their money right back into their pockets. At some point, when receiving the change in my 6th grade hands, I recall thinking, “something about this ain’t right.” I, like so many other rural, Southern, farmworker children, knew where our food comes from.
We also knew that something wasn’t right.
Real life Southern stories, such my own, illustrate the legacy of work of women of color in the food system as a means of transforming the lives of young children. My mother’s remembrances of growing up are often food-centric, describing the work of many collective hands on often borrowed land. These practices of resilience still exist in today’s Southern food story. Examples of this legacy appear in the work of the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative (SRBWI) which connects small farmers of color to distribution channels like school systems and other institutions. It can also be seen in the work of Community Voices, a curriculum started at North Carolina A&T State University by Dr. Shirley Pope, who is now at Alcorn State University, and others. The curriculum walks communities through a collective process of identifying key issues and formulating ground-up solutions. Additionally, there is the work in Goldsboro, North Carolina, headed by Cheryl Alston and other elder Black women, to start a “barter CSA’ (community supported agriculture) in which a community of families plant row crops and exchange among themselves in order to create a diverse offering of healthy, affordable, and locally grown foods.
These small initiatives, led by women of color, are innovative examples of collective, community-based efforts that are steeped in Southern traditions, but are often invisible because of lack of resources and scale. Dating back to slavery, cooperative economics among African Americans, working together and sharing resources, was necessary for basic survival, meeting both practical and spiritual needs and often facilitated by women. Equitable distribution – making sure everyone received equal sustenance for their work and their needs – represented a value in poor Black communities that was rarely reciprocated in the larger culture. From the post-reconstruction efforts of the late 1800’s to organized labor to the civil rights and Jim Crow era of the 1960’s, cooperative economics became a political necessity, as much as a spiritual and practical one. Being poor in the South often meant being further removed from the political and economic fabric of this country, making the decision-making voice provided by cooperatives even more critical to the empowerment of a disenfranchised people. The collective voice that cooperatives provided helped give women and political leaders of color like Fannie Lou Hamer and others a solid economic platform, as well as economic viability and a national stage.
Shining a Light in Dark Places describes the realities of current and past food systems from the perspectives of Southern women of color. Interviewees include former Congresswoman Eva Clayton, who brings a needed perspective based on her global anti-hunger work and passion for rural communities; Tavia Benjamin and Hermelinda Cortes, who both offer millennial insight on the intersectionality of issues that lead to economic and health disparity; finally, Daa’iyah Salaam and Greta Gladney offer a grassroots perspective that provides a direct link between what is happening on the ground and the policies that are needed to impact change.