I remember vividly; as if it had happened yesterday – the first time I had the pleasure of traveling to London. For those who are unaware of the reality of the UK; particularly London or Paris – there are a great many people of African ancestry there – a by-product of Great Britain’s colonization of the continent of Africa.
On this occasion; I was blessed to be there in light of our Happily Natural Day work at a festival dedicated to similar themes called Adornment. Well; as I exhibited there very proud I might add of my posters of Marcus Garvey; my table with a red black and green flag and my books for sale of African consciousness and the like, I was approached and joined in conversation by a patron who as the conversation would have it was from Madagascar. Another patron joining in the conversation was from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and another from the Ivory Coast. Well; when the question was asked of my where I was from I proudly proclaimed I was from the United States and that I was born in Virginia. Well one of the patrons asked me again – more inquisitive than disrespectful almost as if I did not understand the question…
No where are you from?
I fumbled in response- immediately embarrassed and feeling a sudden anxiety explained that because of slavery my ancestral homeland was unknown to me. That the records of such had been destroyed lost or not felt any of the littlest bit if import over the generations that my bloodline had sojourned in these shores. In that moment I felt a feeling wash over me that I hadn’t felt before. That though I prided myself in who I am and who I knew myself to be – a piece was missing a piece that I could not know intimately. I feel as though this must be understood when we as people of African ancestry explain what has happened as a result of slavery particularly in the North American version of white imperialism – we have had to construct an entirely new identity born out of a devastating cultural violence – a cultural genocide that no one could imagine or empathize with – not even our family across the ocean.
The patron would go on and ask if I had gotten a genetic ancestry test couldn’t that tell me where I was from. Somehow; even though I would get one years later – knowing by way of such methods does not connect one with the same glue that connects you if you know by way of your mother’s mothers mothers grandmother….
Reflections upon the transition of MarShawn McCarrell
It is very hard to be a leader. Especially a leader in the black community on a grassroots level. Speaking from a first person perspective; there are many nights that the work wears on you. You have to remember – this is not a job that you typically get paid for.
Being a grassroots activist OFF the Internet requires you to be willing to stick your hands in the sewage of human depravity; in an attempt to pull up the treasures of human virtue.
It is often a very LONELY road. Despite whatever notoriety one may think being in the paper, on tv, on the radio may give someone who is active – the truth is often those who give from a pure place – have very small circles unto which to call forth to recharge their batteries. Sometimes you don’t want to talk about the movement. You want to talk about nothing. You just want to be quiet with loved one. Someone who cares for you not for anything but for who you are. We have to be there for each other in that space.
I pray we all learn to be compassionate unto those who give of themselves so intimately. Who put their very essence of life on the line for you and yours without you knowing. It is beyond Facebook posts and likes. It is about calling. Visiting. Not taking those who do this work for granted.
For new activists; my prayer is that you commit to self care as much as you do community work. This work is a marathon not a sprint. Seek counsel with elders, find refuge with peers and most of all cherish and hold love and trust tight as if your life depends on it because it does.
MarShawn McCarrel was a prominent Black Lives Activist who committed suicide in front of Ohio’s Statehouse on February 8, 2016. Hours before he committed suicide, MarShawn posted on , “My demons won today. I’m sorry.” MarShawn was 23 years old. MarShawn originally hails from Hilltop, one of Columbus’ most dangerous neighborhoods.
The shooting of the Lincoln movie was huge for the city of Richmond. It continues to generate tourism dollars for the city and is attracting more movies to be shot here. Being that I worked downtown (off Broad Street) every day, I saw the set design at the state capital, the horse buggies, the actors, the production trailers, it was a monstrosity of an affair. Richmond loved it. Here was a chance to celebrate the historical aspects of the city under the guise of the Great Emancipator. However, if you watch the Steven Spielberg’s movie, “Lincoln,” you would think that black people were sitting waywardly, passively twiddling their thumbs, waiting for white folks to pass the 13th amendment for freedom. As it was a biopic and not a documentary, we can only be but so disgruntled at Spielberg’s interpretation of history. Unfortunately, the oversight of active black participation in their own liberation, in a movie about slavery that takes place in Richmond, VA proves a truly sad discourse. It perpetuates the idea of the white man’s burden; or that it is the responsibility of Europeans to “give” freedom to someone as if the synergy of our collaborative action catalyzed by the unrelenting desire for liberation by the black people was not the spark that ignited the flame.
The initial scene of the movie features two Union soldiers talking to Lincoln, one arguing for equitable pay and promotions and reciting part of the emancipation proclamation. Later in the film you meet Elizabeth Keckley and later William Slade, two African Americans who were close to the Lincoln family. Their speaking parts are extremely limited and it wasn’t as if Lincoln was an action film deprived of dialogue. So essentially, you have a talking film that is 3 hours long about black people where black people don’t get a chance to talk. The way in which Spielberg incorporated black people – as in not at all – in the movie Lincoln says volumes. The fact that there were so few critiques from people who watched it in Richmond saying much of anything about the lack of black activity in the film says so much more. It was as if the ongoing cognitive dissonance that resonates in Richmond when talking about the Civil War; you know the conversation that starts with it being more about state rights than the states right to enslave Africans, finally took hold of everyone in Richmond’s mind and caught their tongue. Or maybe we were too focused on a film about a fictional character named Django to care about the depiction of real life events in the movie Lincoln.
Anyway….I can let my last black history month post on the Cheats Movement blog for 2013 serve as a cinematic review. Also for the sake of brevity, I am not going to argue the reasons behind Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, nor why he pushes for the passage of the 13th Amendment. I can say that I agree with most scholars who concur that his main objective was the salvation of the Union – not to free enslaved Africans; and from his own pen quote a letter he wrote from August of 1862:
“If I could save the Union without freeing any slaves, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it,”
We know that the war couldn’t have been won without African’s fighting for their freedom against the confederacy in it. After Africans had fought so bravely for their freedom there were limited ways to re-enslave us except through
Black Codes (cough cough Prison Industrial Complex) whereas you could still have slaves if it were punishment for a crime. Yet that is another longer discussion. In fact, the only reason I am talking about the movie is because Richmond was the capital of the confederacy and this is essentially where the Civil War ended.
There is no talk in Lincoln of the African American XXV Corp of the Union Army, which on April 3rd, 1865 was the first command to enter Richmond signaling the end of the Civil War, though. There are no references to Frederick Douglas’s ongoing dialogue with Lincoln regarding the abolition of slavery. There is no reference to the highest commissioned black officer in the Civil War in the form of Martin Delany and his proposal for black resettlement in Liberia. There is no reference to the invitation of black militant abolitionist Henry Highland Garnett to speak to the Congress, making him the first African-American to do so and that it was under invitation by Lincoln to commemorate the signing of the 13th amendment. No mention of the major uprising of Africans such as Gabriel Prosser, Nat Turner, or John Brown – that would inspire abolitionist to fight for the end of slavery. No Garnett, no Douglas, no Delany – no prominent African American abolitionists of that time who were known to historically have talked to Lincoln were featured or referenced to at all. The movie did what a lot of movies (and people) do when they talk about racial justice – it focused on President Lincoln and others helping black folks; instead of actually mentioning the active conversations of Africans working together so we can all be free from the bondage of oppression – both oppressor and the oppressed.
The lack of black voices in Lincoln speaks to an ongoing reality for people of African descent who live in poverty in the city of Richmond. We are stripped of our voice. The city of Richmond Virginia is 54% black and has a poverty rate of 25%. Just like in the film, there are conversations being had about us, decisions being made for us, on issues that affect us directly – however those who are in power rarely hear from us, nor take the time to invite us to the table to discuss what it is we want for ourselves. It was a strange example of art imitating life. I mean I honestly never saw Jamal, from Creighton Court, in Leadership Metro Richmond or Tanesha, from Ruffin Road, at any of the Capital Region Collaborative meetings. Yet their perspective is valid and needed if we are to make decisions for all of Richmond.
Paternalism is behavior by one group that seeks to keep another group’s autonomy limited for reasons the offending group considers the latter group’s best interest. Essentially the offending group attempts to constrain the latter group’s ability to act in their own best interest by making decisions for them, instead of allowing for self-determination. How paternalistic are we when we operate in an exclusionary, non-inclusive, manner when we are in rooms discussing the future of the city of Richmond and we can count on one hand how many people of African descent are there – and very few in that number live in poverty? In what ways are we re-affirming the silence of marginalized voices when we don’t invite stakeholders to the table when we start talks of demolishing housing projects? How effective can our efforts to alleviate poverty be, when we are not welcoming the poor to participate in the planning of the plan?
Richmond is now full swing in celebration of the sesquicentennial. Where are we as a city 150 years later? With 25% poverty, 54% blackness, and the major movie production, made in Richmond, basically put the black folks in it on mute – perhaps still in bondage – by the same ideologies that create such inequality and sparked the Civil War in the first place.
Duron Chavis started his career in community advocacy as first a volunteer then an employee of the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of VA. He worked as a museum coordinator developing programs and conducting guided tours for groups of all ages and backgrounds. In 2003 he founded the highly acclaimed Happily Natural Day festival as a grassroots effort to supplement the summer jazz concert that was held annually at the institution.
The festival is a weekend long experience held annually in both Richmond VA and Atlanta GA that focuses on cultural awareness, health, wellness and social change. Chavis has worked with Dr. Llaila Afrika, Dr. Phil Valentine, Hakim Bey, Dr. Neely Fuller, Queen Afua, Runoko Rashidi, Ashra Kwesi, Ashanti Alston, Dhoruba Bin-Wahad, Dead Prez, Popmaster Fabel and many more community activists, scholars and organizations from all over the country.
Presently Chavis is engaged in coordinating innovative and dynamic initiatives around the topics of urban agriculture and food security in a culturally relevant way. In 2009 Chavis launched the Richmond Noir Market, a Saturday farmer’s market targeting low income communities located in what the USDA has designated as food deserts in Richmond Virginia. 2012 marked the development of the McDonough Community Garden, an urban agriculture project that promotes sustainable food growing, horticultural therapy and environmental stewardship.
Chavis has received numerable accolades for his work. He served in 2011 as a Clean Air Ambassador on behalf of Earthjustice and the Hip Hop Caucus. He is an alumni of Leadership Metro Richmond’s class of 2011, received Style Weekly’s Top 40 under 40 award in 2010, was featured as Richmond Free Press’s Personality of the Week and most recently was nominated for the 2012 Golden Trowel Award by Tricycle Gardens for his work around urban agriculture and food access.
Who is Duron Chavis?
I am the son of a Alvin Tyler and Pamela Chavis. I was born in the Southside of Richmond Virginia. I am the father of Asaun, Zion and Kinyasa Chavis. I am an artist and an activist. I am the founder of Happily Natural Day. I start and manage urban gardens. I am a part of the movement to raise the social consciousness of African people globally.
What is your greatest passion?
My greatest passion is learning and then taking what I learned and doing something with it. So I guess being creative would fit in as greatest because it is the thread that runs through all the different things I do and have done. For the past 12 years I have coordinated a grassroots festival called Happily Natural Day and it really has been in this crucible of organizing that I have learned so much while having to apply. From visual design, marketing, web development, to social entrepreneurship, workshop facilitation, event planning and management, sponsorship acquisition to now urban agriculture, I never stop learning always trying to be more efficient as a worker for the people.
When did you realize your passion?
I’ve always been a reader. I think I fell in love with organizing specifically around these topics of natural living when I was in college. I was that guy. The guy with the argument about why we want to be Greek and not Kemetic who hosted the debate the day after you saw him do a poem on the racism in academia at the open mic.
I got tired of talking about consciousness though and felt it was important to create spaces that we can come together. After I got back from college I worked for the Black History Museum and did a lot of educating as a tour coordinator. From that space we did the first Happily Natural Day and it has been an evolution ever since.
How did the concept of Happily Natural Day come about?
Happily Natural Day was birthed during the 50 year anniversary of Brown vs. The Board of Ed. The Kenneth Clark Doll Study was a very important piece of evidence used to desegregate public schools. In the test the researchers found that black children had a higher affinity toward white dolls than black dolls and the implied conclusion was that due to segregated schools children of African ancestry were affected negatively in terms of self identity and self acceptance.
Black children reported black dolls as bad, ugly, mean etc. The same study had been done numerous times since Brown vs. Board only to find the same results applicable 50 years hence. Happily Natural Day was created to instill pride in people of African descent using hair as a reference point; pulling on the then burgeoning natural hair resurgence in the black community. Using hair as a catalyst for a much deeper conversation about health holistically as in mind body and spirit; Happily Natural Day as a concept has promoted loving yourself as a person of African descent not only outwardly in an aesthetic sense but fully in terms of community, economics, and identity period.
What top 3 elements, do you feel made HND 2014 a success?
The 3 elements that made HND 2014 a success were teamwork, partnerships and shared vision. In the planning of the festival this year we reached out to folks who shared common missions and made deliberate agreements to work together to bring the festival to fruition by working together. As a result of that, several partnerships were formed one with Black Girls Run for the 5k and another with the VABF (Virginia Association for Biological Farming) for the urban farm school.
The vision of both those organizations to ensure healthier communities through their respective work allowed Happily Natural Day to be a point of access upon which to pivot in creation of new satellite programming for the festival that allowed us to go deeper and wider with our promotion of health and wellness in the community.
What are some of the major challenges you have had in bringing Happily Natural Day to the public?
The major challenges have been finances. The festival was created specifically for the community. it wasn’t created with the vision of getting rich off of it. So as a result in the beginning it was being done all for the love. This was a good thing but along the way it created challenges; not insurmountable challenges, but challenges that forced me to understand the concept of sustainable social change.
The festival had to pay for itself. So that unique balance of growth and equilibrium had to be cultivated and sustained. With every year the festival grew in attendance and as a result that meant venues had to change which mean more expenses. This reality lead to a swift crash course in sponsorship development in order to offset the costs. Fortunately we have been able to develop meaningful and productive relationships with our partners allowing us to grow seamlessly into new venues to meet the expectations of our supporters, while not having to dilute the mission statement and meaning of the festival either.
Where do you see your efforts in 5 years? Goals?
Five years from now I see myself operating a successful urban farm enterprise while coordinating Happily Natural Day in several states. I see my oldest sons in high school. I look forward to employing people in the work that I do and they having the capacity to live comfortable in positions where they are helping the people while doing what they love. I got this thing for Tiny Houses so I really want to get into that and start building them on urban farms. I look forward to a happy marriage and staying true to this path and evolving with it as I have been.
I currently am developing a 1 acre farm in Richmond VA. I also have an indoor farm under development with Virgina State University. So out of those two projects I look forward to taking the models and honing them to the point of success. I am excited about the capacity of urban farming to solve the problem of food insecurity and poverty simultaneously. As we continue down this path I see so many opportunities in developing urban land for local food production and Happily Natural Day will serve as a marketing arm for those efforts where ever we find ourselves doing it.
I love to travel and want to be able to have places where people can stay so the tiny home concept makes me tingle when I think we can set up a small farm in an urban area that can accommodate someone living there for a couple days while working on the farm or coordinating the festival. That seems like a tangible dream to me. Profitable urban farms around the country with festivals that celebrate living naturally? Who wouldn’t want that?
What was the spark that lit your flame and passion for urban gardening?
The conversation about urban gardening was part of the evolution of Happily Natural Day. Over the years our relationships with various aspects of the community have grown and one of those relationships has been with black farmers. Having black farmers at the festival as workshop facilitators and speakers opened us up for very candid conversations about nutrition and food security.
One year a farmer by the name of Azibo Turner of Vanguard Ranch remarked that it was amazing that we were doing so much to promote health and wellness in the black community; but posed the question of how could we talk about wellness but not talk about where food comes from. From there we held some panel discussions on that at the festival and from those conversations concluded that we needed to do pop up farmers markets in food deserts. The farmer we worked with during those pop up markets would talk with me about gardening and farming every Saturday from 1 to 6 for about two years and as soon as we had land available we started to garden and now we farm.
What do you see has been the most difficult part of getting people involved in urban gardening?
The most difficult part of getting folks involved in urban gardening has been getting people inspired to make a commitment to the project beyond just stopping by once of twice or coming to a workshop at the garden. The thing about urban gardening and urban farming is that it is a lifestyle change.
It requires a level of time investment that many people are not ready to make. This is why it is important to have urban gardens and farms that are close to where people live so that they can remove the excuse of it being too far away or off the beaten path. That for me was one of the things that made it accessible – having the garden a couple blocks from my house made it so whenever I came home I had to pass the garden. Community gardening helped to infuse bonds within the neighborhood that didn’t exist before and that helped keep people engaged. Developing relationships with your neighbors through gardening helped renew the sense of home for me.
Seeing the garden become a sacred space for people kept and keeps me engaged. Now that we deal with farming the incentive of being able to feed communities keeps me excited in addition to the capacity to generate wealth through food production. Not that we are looking to get rich while farming, but the fact that the farm provides a foundation for a sustainable system of programming all year round with a myriad of lessons for community engagement and increasing healthy food access gets me up in the morning excited. I think people being able to realize that they are a part of a movement that has tangible results attached to it is a great incentive to get people involved. Those who are serious about changing the community will see the impact in just one growing season.
How can we (the internet world) assist you on your mission(s)?
Find an organization and join it. Start a garden and grow food. Reach out and find a way to collaborate with those who share the same mission and goals as you. Find your thing and do it to the maximum. Do your work for the love of lifting up the people where ever you may find yourself. That helps me by raising the vibration in our community to where social change is the primary thing we are talking about. Be good to yourself but most importantly be good to others.
Love & Light.
L. NuNuu Sekou
This interview originally appeared: http://htfdconnect.com/duron-chavis-urban-renewer-exclusive-interview/2/
African history is so awe inspiring to me. Being an African born in Richmond , Virginia makes me particularly interested in the story of people of African descent from right here in my hometown. Interestingly enough, the city of Richmond is pretty well renown for some amazing personalities, many of whom few of us have ever heard anything about.
The time period immediately following the civil war, which W.E.B. Dubois called, “the Black Reconstruction,” was an era of black history that I was particularly drawn to. Spanning from 1865 to 1891, historians ascertain that over 2000 African Americans held political offices in the South. One such man by the name of John Mitchell Jr. was from Jackson Ward.
Mitchell was born a slave in Richmond, VA, on July 11, 1863, two years before the end of the Civil War. What you find in Mitchell that is so astounding is that he melded his life around service to uplift the black community. His approach was multidisciplinary and evolved over time. He started out as journalist speaking out against lynching. His journalistic activism kept the conversation in the public eye via the Richmond Planet, a black weekly paper to which he would later be appointed editor. He promoted the works of activists throughout the U.S. such as Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. Dubois, and Booker T. Washington, in addition to local leaders and the business community.
Mitchell used his pen and political influence as a weapon. His work to highlight the injustice of lynching was one thing, but Mitchell stepped out to combat injustice on even a broader scale. For example, the case of Simon Walker – a 15-year black boy accused of raping a 12-year-old white girl was brought to trial and the young man was found guilty and to be executed. Mitchell was able to keep the story alive in his paper and through advocacy on the boy’s behalf to the Governor at the time, Fitzhugh Lee (nephew of General Robert E. Lee), was able to eventually get the sentence commuted to 20 years in prison versus him being hanged. This was an amazing feat considering the ever-present threat that whites would simply snatch the boy up and lynch him anyway. Mitchell was able to corral the support of state officials to ensure Walker was delivered to prison unharmed.
What’s even more impressive is that Mitchell wasn’t afraid to represent and stand up as a man in defense of his community. When threatened with hanging himself after reporting on a lynching of an African American in Smithfield, VA, Mitchell loaded two pistols, boarded a train to Smithfield, arrived, and then walked from the station to the site of the hanging. In this day and time, where we have so many internet revolutionaries and rappers talking about gangsta this and gangsta that, with fabricated stories of killing their own – I have to say, John Mitchell Jr. was really really gangsta, in a positive way.
The beautiful thing about Mitchell’s act of resistance is that it paints an accurate picture of African Americans as courageous and self-determining, standing in self-defense of their families and community – not cowering in corners fearful of mob violence that was on the rise post-Reconstruction as whites attempted to reestablish white supremacy and Jim Crow throughout the south. We were not passive at all. We owned businesses, newspapers, participated in local and state government and stood together as a community against injustice.
Mitchell held down a spot on the city council for Jackson Ward, organized a successful black boycott of the segregated electric trolley streetcars, founded the Mechanics Savings Bank in Richmond, and eventually ran for Governor of the state of Virginia in 1921 even though he didn’t win.
Mitchell died in December of 1929 in his office at the Richmond Planet. From a journalist to activist, to a banker and politician he truly dedicated his life for the betterment of African people. Our leaders of today and aspiring leaders of tomorrow can learn a lot from his courage and tenacity.
John Mitchell Jr. 1863 – 1929. Born in Richmond, VA.
I am deeply concerned that as we attempt to move past race in America; we will do so without examining its role in creating inter-generational poverty or providing a remedy for the economic legacy of poverty and cultural disintegration left by Jim crow segregation and racist economic policies of the early 20th century.
A case study of the above can be found in Richmond’s East End. Prior to 1977, we did not have any black political representation in Richmond, now 30 years later after close to 300 years of wealthy property owning people of European descent running the city and governing African Americans, there are currently arguments circulating that this predominately black community should disregard race and class when choosing a candidate. Perhaps these arguments are made riding on the high of Obama being elected the first black president. I ask that we all take precaution because America is not a multi-racial utopia – yet. On the surface these arguments are definitely well founded and make perfect sense; however, when one looks beneath the surface we can see that race and class are pivotal issues that have to be on the forefront of any discussion of Richmond’s future and specifically the East End though they are often not.
The problem with examining race and class in Richmond is that its history is so traumatic and horrible; that few are courageous enough to deal with it honestly and open; and not only talk about it but develop remedies to problems that have woven themselves into the very fabric of Richmond Virginia’s social strata.
Too few in Richmond are aware of the federal government’s role in creating poverty in Richmond’s East End.
During the 1930’s, federal policies were enacted that established large concentrations of black poverty in the East End. Blatantly racist; these policies determined whether funds for refinancing of homes would be available to what areas of Richmond and how much. Black communities irrespective of income received poor ratings on the basis of racial demographics alone. Federal maps used to identify black neighborhoods from the time outline where poverty exists in Richmond to this day, with the majority of those neighborhoods being in Richmond’s predominately black East End.
How has the current gentrification of the East End been allowed to happen and when black people lose their homes in the East End due to the rising property values resulting from whites moving in snatching up these relatively cheap properties – they are cheap because of the federal policies that concentrated poverty there; what responsibility does the city have to remedy the disparities that it helped create? How many Americans are ready to deal with the historical legacy of intergenerational poverty & blight courtesy of complicit United States government, state, local and private agencies? How many Americans have said that black people should just let the past go while these transgressions go unattended to?
The recent controversy regarding the 7th District seat in Richmond VA left vacant by Delores McQuinn and potential appointee Cynthia Newbille has been construed by some to represent the workings of a black political machine that seeks to keep whites out of political power. The irony and blatant hypocrisy inherent in that argument is that Richmond has been a “true” democracy since 1977 when the first black mayor was elected. Democratically, Mrs. McQuinn was elected to office time and time again by the constituents of the East End, but now since Mrs. Newbille is black and has worked in, lived in and served the East End for 13 years and was tapped for appointment to the vacated seat by Mrs. McQuinn.
Certain interest groups now feel that it is time break perhaps the most important legacy of the East End; that of the last 30 years worth of black political representatives working to undo the malicious destructive legacies created by the Ole Boy network prior to 1977 of paternalistic, racist representation that created the poverty in the East End and kept African Americans dis-empowered. No one seems to want to talk about how 300 years of political powerlessness has affected the African American community. If Richmond is now a multi-racial utopia (which it is not ) it is on the backs of the Delores McQuinn’s, Henry Marsh’s, Sa’ad El-Amin’s, Chuck Robb’s and Doug Wilder’s who led the charge against an ambivalent if not openly resistant racist power structure that we stand.
Understandably the idea of a black person being the best to represent black people does have inherent flaws. It presumes that a black person has the interests of the masses of black people in mind just because he is black. It also presumes (optimistically) that they will be honest and honorable public servants (deep sigh). Often black representatives find themselves in a schizophrenic position having to balance the immediate needs of poor blacks who may be the majority in their districts and the wants and desires of privileged whites who may or may not be sensitive to the immediate needs of Richmond’s black and poor. Add in the generations of racist attitudes and you have the Molotov cocktail that has been Richmond’ post-civil rights “progress” sometimes pushing black people forward, often seeking to appease white people and not “rock the boat”.
One only would have to look no further than the recent campaign of Barack Obama and here the overtones of systemic white supremacy seep into the discussion when even well-meaning black folks said “We want to at least get him in office, then we will see what he does for black people” or “He is not the president of just black people in the United States – he is the president of THE United States”. Each statement alluding to some dissonance in the mental processes of this country that somehow still allows racism a pass, allows white privilege a pass, that somehow undoing the wrongs done against black people is inherently BAD for Americans, and allows systematic repression and intergenerational impoverishment a glaring bright yellow pass that we all can see yet, say nothing. Ironically; once Donald Trump was voted into office; we saw him appoint Steve Bannon (a civilian with no military leadership experience who has ties to white nationalist organizations; and that is the founder of Breitbart; a web haven of such) to the National Security Council; and issue a litany of executive orders that were egregiously xenophobic and discriminatory.
The schizophrenic nature of this country shows itself when we review the disparity in the criminal system, the health system, poverty i.e. in regards to who is and who isn’t poor…We all can read that data and see that blacks are unequivocally affected worse by the social diseases that affect this country. It is as if when the country gets a cold, black people get pneumonia. Just apply that analogy to the financial crisis with all it’s rising unemployment rates and no loans for homes and you have a very tepid situation on the horizon. But even with the facts in front of us, we are unable to mouth the unfortunate truth. American has not moved past race, it is sitting right in our house.
Race is the 500-pound gorilla in the room saying fuck yo couch.
My prayer is that this country will allow it’s inhabitants the respect, elbow room and empathy necessary needed for them to represent themselves on the basis of their understanding, commitment, qualification and sensitivity to the citizens of the communities in which they live, are a part of and come from. In the meantime, to really move past race – we need to honestly examine how race has played an integral role in keeping the majority of African American’s powerless, how that powerlessness has created a racial class caste system and what dynamics are at work to keep the poor impoverished while allowing the rich to get richer. How has race defined the reality of black people in this country? Now that that reality is warped and disfigured – how do we move past it by ignoring the conditions resultant from its creation? Lastly, who benefits from our not addressing the poverty created by race in this country?
While my idealistic side quotes that formidable campaign slogan “YES WE CAN”; when I walk into work in the morning and view the hundreds of black faces who are the recipients of American’s bad check with equality written illegibly in the memo line – I think to myself; faith is the substance of things hoped for; however faith without works is dead.
*** This article was written in 2009; it was updated today to reflect the madness of the Trump Administration
Richmond is a very complicated place. Despite how complex its history, the one thing that is indisputable is that Richmond was once the biggest enslaved African trading industry outside of New Orleans. One can’t begin to part lips to speak on Richmond as a historical city without taking a moment of silence over its role in the Maafa, or African Holocaust. Why Richmond though? What made Richmond such a pivotal place for the traffic of human beings? There is so much to talk about on this topic, for the sake of brevity and your attention span I am going to get straight to the point. Richmond made a name for itself as the market for enslaved Africans.
The earliest sales of kidnapped Africans took place at Manchester Docks in areas such as Rocketts Landing. During the 1700’s the importation of kidnapped Africans was seen as a lucrative business opportunity by British merchants. Once the country broke revolted against Britain in 1775 and gained independence in 1782; the question of whether importing kidnapped Africans from overseas was raised, not from the stance of whether it was morally destitute to keep African people in perpetual servitude – more so if it was financially savvy to keep importing them from overseas. In the North, they built ships to import kidnapped Africans. In Virginia, the argument was raised that if the importation stopped the financial value of the children of kidnapped Africans would rise. The Virginia General Assembly outlawed the importation of kidnapped Africans in 1778. The federal government outlawed the practice 30 years later in 1808.
Virginia saw a vision for African people in the late 1700s and that was as a commodity. The expansion into the lower South gave rise to states such Louisana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas. The tobacco that had made the original colonies successful was failing due to depleted soils from over-cultivation of the land. Planters decided to move south. They took the children of kidnapped Africans with them and the interstate slave trade exploded with these migrations due to the ban on importation. Historians theorize that the origin of the term being “sold down the river” has its origins in Virginia, for much of the work in the lower south cotton fields was so intensive. It is estimated that from 1830 to 1860 Virginia sold 300,000 of the progeny of kidnapped Africans into the lower south for perpetual bondage. Wealthy plantation owners took advantage of the ban on importation. Virginia was known as a slave trading state and Richmond was its capital.
By 1845, less than 40 years after the ban on importation of kidnapped Africans – the city of Richmond listed 9 agents associated with the slave trade. By 1860 it listed 18 negro traders, 18 agents, and 33 auctioneers all of whom were in the business of selling enslaved Africans. The Richmond Enquirer reported in 1857 that the receipts for slave auctions in the city totaled $3.5 million dollars. If we calculate for inflation that is the equivalent of $92,000,000 dollars today.
The sale of enslaved Africans was big business. There were large traders, small traders, agents, brokers, jail houses and auctioneers not to mention specialty retail merchants that sold the chains and shackles. You remember the movie Django right? Remember in the opening scene where you saw the shackles on the feet of Django and the rest of the coffle? A coffle was group of slaves that were manacled together and walked to auction for sale while attached to a wagon. Somebody specialized in selling shackles. Somebody specialized in selling clothing for enslaved Africans because when sold at auction they would get a much better price. You had people who sold enslaved African women as sex slaves, domestic servants, concubines, and prostitutes. Businessmen specialized in being bounty hunters or paddy rollers to capture runaway enslaved Africans. There were insurance salesmen who would ensure an enslaved African as someone’s property or as part of their estate. There were ships that were contracted to transport slaves down the river and along the coast lines. Railroads companies were used to do the same. There were ad agencies that advertised the auctions. The physique, specialty, skill, mental ability or training and temperament all played a role in determining price and there were businesses that catalogued and assessed what characteristics an enslaved African had in order to determine how much he or she would be sold for. The purchase and sale of enslaved Africans was interwoven into the very fabric of the city.
Auctions took place in the streets, taverns and hotels of Shockoe Bottom. The most infamous jail was Lumpkins jail – located at 15th street between Franklin and Broad Street. Countless enslaved Africans passed through the jailhouses as they awaited sale. The African Burial Ground on the opposite side is where Africans who died in the jail from diseases, or were too rebellious and were hanged. Free blacks were also buried in the African Burial Ground. Gabriel, an enslaved African who led a rebellion in Richmond, Virginia with a plan and strategy to kidnap the governor and hold him hostage was also hung and it is said he is buried in the African Burial Ground as well. It is only recently within the last 3 years that the African Burial Ground has been recognized by the city officially and there have been no archeological studies on the site to determine the size and scope of this mass grave.
Each time I walk in Shockoe Bottom, when I walk past the farmers market on 17th Street – when my feet hit those cobble stones, I think to myself these are the same cobblestones my ancestors feet walked on in shackles to be sold to the highest bidder. I walk past restaurants and clubs and think to myself – these places of entertainment and food were once boudoirs and auction houses. I visited a similar farmers market in London England that had the same exact cobblestones and design as Shockoe Bottom. The offices used to hold businesses that made their profit on the backs of my ancestors, for I am the progeny of enslaved Africans – living in Richmond Virginia. Slavery was an international business that localized itself in the states particularly Richmond ,VA to maximize its profit margin. Each time I pick up a magazine that promotes Richmond as a historic city – I crack a half smile – understanding that the whole story is hardly ever told. When I hear about plans to rebrand the city – that gloss over one of the most important aspects of the cities past – I say a silent prayer that one day we will realize we can’t run from this history; it lives with us to this day. When I think about the systemic poverty in the city, the disparity between those who have and those who have not – I remember that the roots of that disparity were created right here in Richmond, Virginia.
I was invited to speak at Emmanuel Episocal Church on hunger in the city of Richmond as a part of their Sunday Forum in Lent in March of 2013: Serving our Neighbor in Need series; the following are the remarks from that talk”
“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food.” the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) (U.N. 1948), Article 25
The human body relies on a around 2000 calories a day to function. Without that the body and mind start to slow down to compensate for the lack of fuel. If it were that simple, all we would have to do is make sure we got the right amount of calories and go. But the body is much more complicated and requires more than just calories in order to sustain life. We need nutrients. Nutrients are classified by carbohydrates, fats, minerals, protein, vitamins, and water. Poor health and even death can result from the lack of required nutrients to the body. We get our nutrition from our diet or the food that we eat.
The first places we tend to think of when we think hunger are of people starving in developing countries. First images that pop up are usually exemplified by areas hit by drought or famine, natural disaster such as earthquake, hurricane or tsunami – where food won’t grow due to barren soils or lack or sufficient rainfall or the infrastructure of the city or country has been so damaged that food resources have run out or are drastically low. In either case the lack of food is the common denominator. The results from these types of incidents are tragic; more often than not resulting in starvation and malnutrition.
Globally the cause of hunger is poverty. One thing that differentiates American poverty from poverty in developing countries is that our country has very robust entitlement programs. The reality is that life for many Americans would be very similar to the realities faced by developing countries starving if it were not for SNAP, WIC and the Free Lunch Program. The accessibility of these entitlement programs do not preclude individuals from undernourishment and diet related illness though. Food insecurity or the lack of access to healthy foods is a issue that affects families in Jackson Ward Richmond Virginia and in Bangladesh, India. One may live in a city without any grocery stores and only convenience stores that sell processed foods or fast food restaurants while the other lives in a rural area that is plagued by drought or famine. The end result is the same; poor nutrition, malnutrition and lack of real food. The only difference is the proportions of the population having difficulty finding fresh and affordable health food.
What are the side effects of lack of healthy affordable food? The Virginia Dept of Health identified Richmond VA as having one of the highest diabetes mortality rates in the state and was highlighted as 2nd highest obesity rate in 2012. Poor nutrition leads to diet related illnesses such as high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, cancer, heart disease but as stated earlier not only does poor nutrition affect the body – it also affects the mind. Poor nutrition can also result in depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and OCD. Poor nutrition also affects ones ability to think – slowing down the cognition and mental agility and ability to learn. The combination of diet related physical illness and mental disorders are a powerful combination when considering who is hungry in Richmond Virginia and where they live at in our city,
Studies show that eating more fruits and vegetables lowers the risk of chronic lifestyle diseases. The Center for disease control advocates the support and promotion of community gardens as a strategy to increase fruit and vegetable production. Evaluations of gardening programs show that participants report higher consumption of vegetables than non-gardeners.
Who is Hungry in Richmond Virginia
The City of Richmond currently has an official poverty rate of 25.3% that is nearly twice the national average and nearly two-and-a-half times the statewide poverty rate. 60% of Richmond’s poor is African American, 8% is Latino, 23% is white. 30% are children, 58% are female and 7% are senior citizens.
The great majority of Richmond’s poor live in the East End or Southside. Richmond has the largest concentration of public housing south of NYC. Half of the cities population lives in US Census tracts with poverty rates that exceed 35%. North of the James River, all census tracts with a poverty population of at least 35% are located east of the Boulevard; south of the James, all such tracts are located south and east of the Midlothian Turnpike. The Council districts with the most poor residents living in highly concentrated poverty areas are the 6th (Gateway; roughly 10,000 persons), the 8th (Southside; about 4,000 persons) and the 7 (East End/Church Hill: roughly 4,000 persons)
16,000 students received free or reduced lunch in RVA in 2010. Richmond currently does not have a mandate for whole foods in public schools, and school kitchens do not cook food they reheat it. As a result the quality is not optimal.
The USDA designated 12 food deserts in the city of Richmond majority of which are located in Southside and the East End. Neighborhoods that are considered (or parts of which are considered) food deserts in Richmond VA:
East End: Highland Park, Gilpin, Whitcomb, Eastview, Fairfield, Upper Shockoe Valley, Mosby, Brauers, Creighton, Woodville and Fulton.
North of the River: Randolph, Maymont
South of the River: Swansboro, Blackwell, Oak Grove, Reedy Creek, Swansboro West, Belt Center, Broad Rock, McGuire, Cofer, Midlothian, Broad Rock Sports Complex, South Garden, Woodhaven, Southwood, McGuire Manor, Windsor, Davee Gardens, Jeff Davis, Hickory Hill, Cherry Gardens, Cullenwood, Deerbourne, Walmsley, Brookhaven Farms, Fawnbrook, Belmont Woods, Brookbury, Piney Knolls
SNAP reports for Jan 2013 indicate 54,000 families on SNAP benefits alone. $7.6 million was spent in SNAP benefits within the city limits of Richmond Virginia by itself not including Chesterfield or Henrico. The amount monthly for a household of 1 maximum is 200 and a household of two is 367 maximum. The average that can be spent per day on SNAP is 6.70 per person per day in order to make it through the entire month. The program stands for Supplemental Nutritional Assistance program. However for many individuals it is the primary nutritional assistance program as it is the only means by which they eat everyday.
The combination of SNAP and living in a food desert is tremendous. In Carytown there are 4 major grocery stores within walking distance of each other, Martins, Elwood Thompsons, Fresh Market and Food Lion. However on Chamberlayne Avenue the closest is over a mile away and in Henrico County. Stores in food deserts are not known for the diversity of their meals, primarily featuring processed foods, high sugar, corn syrup and fructose content. processed foods tend to have an inferior nutritional profile compared to whole, fresh foods, regarding content of both sugar and high GI starches, potassium/sodium, vitamins, fiber, and of intact, unoxidized (essential) fatty acids. In addition, processed foods often contain potentially harmful substances such as oxidized fats and trans fatty acids. So as a result one may be able to purchase food that is edible and may feel full but you have not met the nutritional requirements to maintain optimal health. If you aren’t meeting your needs nutritionally you are malnourished or undernourished and if this reality is maintained longitudinally you fall victim to diet related illness both physically and mentally.
What is Being Done to Address Hunger in the City
There are a number of agencies that operate under the VA FOOD BANK – they have a hotline to connect individuals to food. However even the food bank deals with shortages of fresh healthy unprocessed foods. They link with local farmers to get fresh veggies from them as well.
Local farmers markets such as the Richmond Noir Market accept SNAP benefits. The SOJ Farmers Market is currently developing SNAP acceptance capability and you can use SNAP benefits at 17th Street Farmers Market. The Noir Market is located in the East End, SOJ on Southside and 17th Street is in Shockoe Bottom. The Farm to Family Bus also accepts SNAP benefits.
Urban and Peri Urban agriculture efforts are currently being developed to address lack of fresh fruits and vegetables in food deserts. Community groups such as NRC and Tricycle Gardens are working to institute fresh veggies at corner stores in food deserts to address food insecurity. Shalom Farms brings veggies boxes to communities such as hillside court. McDonough Community Garden, Swansboro Community Gardens and Tricycle Gardens offer garden plots and donate produce to food banks and shelters.
The VA cooperative Extension is working on implementing garden boxes in Mosby Court. They are also offering nutrition education classes in the East End.
RPS just received a USDA grant to plan for fresh local foods to be included in school lunches. The grant was a planning grant.
There are proposals to have DSS develop an urban farm to re-introduce clients to veggies and fruits that will also include culinary arts classes.
City of Richmond allowed for vacant lots to be converted to community gardens to increase food security. There are 5 gardens up and running as of today.
As said earlier the conversation of who is hungry is really on of who is poor. You have to address both issues but the latter being the most important. You can’t get rid of hunger without getting rid of poverty – less one is more concerned with simply making poverty comfortable. Charity is unsustainable. Low income communities have to be cultivated into resilient self sufficient communities and there must be re-education around nutrition and healthy eating practices because communities have gone so long without access and have been reliant on processed foods that many of the culinary art skills have been loss or have regressed. Urban and peri- agriculture is a solution; increased access to farmers markets is another, Entrepreneurial urban agriculture has the capacity to empower thousands within the city by addressing food insecurity and providing economic empowerment opportunity through cultivation of a sustainable local food system.
What More Can Be Done?
A sustainable local food system exists when the growing, harvesting, processing, packaging, transporting, marketing, consumption and disposal of food and food-related items takes place within a relatively short distance (within the city, county, region or state) and the practices that are involved produce food that is healthy for consumption, avoids negative environmental impact, provides living wage to workers and most of all enhances the community as a whole. Our solution to the problem of food insecurity for low income communities is to create employee owned urban farms and farmers markets in areas designated as food deserts, partner these new entities with institutions that traditionally support communities that suffer from chronic economic distress and offer employment opportunities and educational assistance to cultivate self sufficiency and community empowerment. The city of Richmond Food Policy Task Force reports that there are thousands of derelict buildings and empty lots throughout the city and has made many of them accessible via the Richmond Grows Gardens program that allows for a nominal fee the usage of vacant lots for urban agriculture purposes. Veritably; a great deal of these properties are found within the 12 census tracts designated by the USDA as food deserts. Developing urban gardens and farmers markets will not only have economic benefits, they will also add beauty to the urban landscape and create safer & healthier communities for the city.
Some of my fondest memories are of working for the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia as a tour guide. From elementary school aged children to senior citizens, it was my responsibility to interpret the history of African American’s in Richmond Virginia to diverse audiences – literally every day. The permanent installation on the history of Jackson Ward served as, perhaps, the most inspirational tours I ever gave though it wouldn’t be until almost 10 years later that I would find out the more intimate reasons for the demise of the, “Harlem of the South.”
Jackson Ward was created around 1870 and was originally home to free Africans, German, Irish and Italian immigrants. During Reconstruction free African Americans overwhelmingly moved into the area and by 1920 Jackson Ward was the center of black business for the city of Richmond. Due to American apartheid, in the form of segregation laws and exclusionary local attitudes by people of European descent, Jackson Ward developed independently both politically and economically from the rest of Richmond. In 1940, an estimated 5,000 African Americans lived in Jackson Ward. From retail businesses, insurance companies, lawyers, doctors, churches, newspapers, banks, fraternal orders, beauty shops and entertainment facilities Jackson Ward existed as a city within a city. The success of Jackson Ward was built on the principle of interdependence which is essential for strong resilient communities and the backbone for success for any group in our society.
Renown nationwide for its social scene, Jackson Ward was a famous stopping point for musical greats such as Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong. Artists would stay at the Hotel Eggleston or the Harris Hotel on 2nd Street and later perform at the Hippodrome Theatre. At least 5 black banks would find home in Jackson Ward, including the St. Luke Penny’s Saving bank founded by Maggie Lena Walker the first black woman to start a bank. The culmination of the five would take shape in the form of Consolidated Bank and trust as a result of the economic turmoil resultant from the Great Depression. Black owned insurance company Southern Aide Life Insurance would find it’s home at 3rd and Clay street. Waller’s Jewelry, the Richmond Planet, Chalmer’s Beauty School, fraternal orders such as the Knights of Pythagoras, churches like Sixth Mount Zion and Ebenezer Baptist Church all would find their roots deeply planted in Jackson Ward and this was before 1950 less than 100 years after the end of the Civil War.
Imagine the economic power of having dollars turn over so many times in your community. Say for instance, you were a promoter of shows that featured Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong. Chances are you had a bank account with a black owned bank, life insurance with a black owned insurance company; you booked your acts at a black owned theatre and had them stay in a black owned hotel. They would then eat at a black owned restaurant, you would have gotten your clothes tailor made from a black tailor, your watch fixed by a black jeweler all the while holding membership in a black fraternal order and on Sunday you gave tithe and offering at a black church afterwards you could stop and pick up a copy of a black owned newspaper in the form of the Richmond Planet. Talk about black power! With 25% of the city’s population being overwhelmingly black, a resurgence of this type of economic self-sufficiency is certainly a way to re-emerge the city of Richmond from it’s current state.
Makes you wonder what happened right? Well a common misnomer is that the collapse of historically black neighborhoods and Black Wall Streets was a byproduct of integration with the inference that it was African American’s overwhelming desire to support businesses other than their own. The truth is that the opportunity to participate freely in mainstream America without concern of a white’s only sign may have had an effect on the Harlem of the South but the demise of Jackson Ward was a much more complicated, uncomfortably more insidious and unfortunately deliberate act.
Bill “Bojangles” Robinson’s statue in Jackson Ward
In response to the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt enacted the New Deal in the 1930’s which instituted a myriad of economic programs with intentions of boosting the American economy. Sounds good right? Well it was if your ethnic persuasion was fit for the salvation. As it related to housing, the Homeowners Loan Corporation (HOLC) was designed to refinance homes to prevent foreclosure. Field workers for the HOLC went through communities rating neighborhoods to determine if eligibility for refinancing. African American neighborhoods were given the lowest rating regardless of how much the median income for their respective communities with white communities even if on the decline receiving higher grades. This affected how much, if any, assistance was given to communities like Jackson Ward during one of the most economically trying times this country has yet to face.
Similar to the HOLC, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) that was charged with guaranteeing low interest loans with small down payments and long-term payback periods. This program discriminated as well and refused to give loans to African Americans even if they had good credit. The FHA used the racist ratings determined by the HOLC to deny African Americans neighborhoods both loans and mortgages. If property ownership especially homeownership is the foundation of wealth, then African American neighborhoods had successfully been locked out of the giving circle while others got assistance without any semblance of similar obstacle.
To add insult to injury, the development of public housing targeted African American neighborhoods despite the original purpose of them being for people of all ethnicities. The suburbs didn’t get any public housing developments at all in Richmond. Centralizing public housing in and around traditionally African American neighborhoods in the city of Richmond, in the case of Jackson Ward – Gilpin Court, which meant the centralization of poverty close to and inside of black neighborhoods. That wouldn’t have been so bad had there not been the final deathblow administered by way of the initiation of the Interstate Highway program that would be built directly through the middle of Jackson Ward – despite the community being against the idea. State and city legislators created the Richmond Metropolitan Authority and built the highway anyway despite multiple public community vote downs. Seven thousand African Americans or 10% of Jackson Wards population would be displaced by this act of economic violence.
The interesting thing about the highway, the new deal programs, and the development of public housing in and or around traditionally African American neighborhood was that Jackson Ward in Richmond was not the exception to the rule. This was no anomaly. In fact when one does the research you find that every major metropolitan city across America followed the same blueprint that would crush the economic fortitude of major black epicenters that had been forced to develop out of necessity due to segregation. It was as if a memo was passed down from some secret meeting that read “this is how you stop black people from gaining political and economic power in your city.”
During this time of urban renewal; of course the civil rights movement was in swing working to provide access for African American’s into mainstream America. Inherently this is the way that it should be. Irrespective of such overwhelming economic terrorism, lawyers and activists in Jackson Ward would go on to spearhead numerous landmark efforts during the civil rights movement – with notables such as Oliver Hill locating their offices in Jackson Ward. Hill served on the legal defense team for the NAACP and championed cases such as the Brown vs. Board of Education. He would later become the first black person to serve on city council since Reconstruction in 1948. Henry Marsh III had offices in Jackson Ward, and his work on Bradley vs. Richmond School Board instituted school bussing programs to racially integrate the school system. He would later become the city’s first black mayor in 1966. The Richmond Crusade for Voters had its offices in Jackson Ward and fought for voting rights for people of African descent to be able to participate fully in the political system. The Richmond NAACP offices were in Jackson Ward and their work organizing sit-ins broke led to the first sit in at Woolworths. Efforts from leaders from right here in Richmond VA by way of Jackson Ward helped shape the civil rights movement immeasurably. Funding for these efforts came by way of businesses like Virginia Mutual Benefit Life Insurance Company and citizens living right in Jackson Ward.
Oliver Hill and (a daper) Henry Marsh III. Civil Rights legends made power moves in Jackson Ward.
It is a hard argument to hypothesize what Jackson Ward would have been had its neighborhood been given high ratings and its residents had access to the same loans, refinancing options and mortgages that their white counterparts had been given, had a highway not been built through the middle of the neighborhood and public housing not been placed there virtually at the same time. Of course the convergence of so many economic wrecking balls aimed directly at a specific demographic would leave any community reeling. Once one takes into account the cumulative impacts of these events taking place simultaneously over two decades and the subsequent divestment from Richmond, Virginia in mass in the forms of massive resistance and white flight in response to integration, and later the influx of crack cocaine into public housing developments in the late seventies and eighties – one starts getting a full scope of what communities like Jackson Ward were up against to survive.
The economic violence done unto Jackson Ward was like a poisonous dart. it didn’t kill instantly – and great works were done in spite of; however it was an orchestrated attempt none the less. One thing is for certain, you can kill the messenger but you can’t kill the message. The lessons of interdependence learned from Jackson Ward are timeless and even more relevant today than ever before.
Current revitalization efforts of Jackson Ward are under way, however due to influences from the market and stifling poverty, intensive gentrification has inspired a major influx from the individuals with much higher financial means that the neighborhood’s historical inhabitants. What used to be for blacks only is slowly becoming too expensive a place for the city’ black residents to live. The black owned businesses that were once a mainstay of Jackson Ward are being replaced by white owned businesses or businesses that cater to “mixed audiences”. Croaker Spot – one of the oldest black owned restaurants in the city, owned by descendants of Neverett Eggleston – founder of The Eggleston Hotel – moved to newly developed areas of the city in Manchester. Consolidated Bank and Trust – once the oldest black owned bank in the country was sold to a white company in recent years. The Hippodrome theatre once feature legendary black acts who wouldn’t have been able to get major headlines in white venues. Ironically now, often feature non-black acts and are done by non-black promoters. Funny story, the venue had a show by a local band, from Richmond, called, “Black Girls,” which was paradoxically an all white male college-rock band. No one seemed to notice the irony tho…
5,000 friends. 100 thousand followers. Shares. Likes. Comments. DMs. We live in an age of posts and status updates where many of us share our lives, our intimate moments with people we know, people we admire, people we are acquainted with and may have never even met and it is evolving the definition of friendship.
The quality of our community is determined by the quality of our interpersonal interactions. Indigenous people hold bonds deep as a result of our common heritage and history. Now more than ever though, in the wake of so much turmoil and simultaneous opportunity; we are in need of deeper bonds and stronger relationships to weather the stresses that demonic assaults our collective consciousness and to take advantage of the abundance that exists for us to actualize a new world.
Recently; I watched a documentary on Nina Simone and though there were many amazing reflections on her life, what struck the deepest chord was her experience as a social activist during the civil rights movement. Her infamous song Mississipi Goddamn, galvanized the movement. Deeper than her musical contribution, I marveled at the fact that she shared deep friendships and bonds with people like James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz. That beyond the icons we have learned to interpret these individuals as, that they were all friends. They shared time at each other’s homes. They watched one another children. They shared one another’s struggles. In our finest hour of black genius, these monuments of our legacy of resistance were more to one another than bookmarks to one another. They bore witness to tragedy, death, pain, love, joy, birth – the full gambit of human experience. Their community of artists, activists, musicians and the like built a movement that we today find inspiration from. I ponder what if any legacy would exist had they not formed these intimate bonds and relationships, where we would be in 2015 without them knowing one another?
In the age of social media, I think it is ever so apparent that we recognize that our very human existence is evolving and while our social lives may reside online, that we recognize that our intimacy unto one another requires more than an Instagram post together. It requires us to love. To hear each other’s cries of pain. To be listening ears. To learn to be there for one another. To call. To check each other on one another’s bullshit. To congratulate. To empathize. To send a text message. To visit. To recognize the value we have to others and to tell each other that we see each other and value our contributions, however small. To forgive.
How do we begin to cultivate these deeper bonds? For starters, realize that we are real people with real dreams and aspirations. That we are not brands and images solely focused on self-promotion. We are spiritual beings have human experiences. That beyond our profile breathes a human being with flesh blood, experience, and contemplation that by our very nature yearns to connect with others of like mind and purpose. That real friendship is work, not just confined to good times and joy but also sharing in spaces of consolation, compassion, and empathy. That just as much as we may find ourselves questing for success, we must take the time to be there for the ones we value and adore and that – is true success in the deepest essence of the word.
Today community and friendship is by choice. Friends are deeper than profile pics and tags of photos and status updates. We need one another more than ever.
The benefits of urban agriculture are often touted as solely related to the health benefits of locally grown food and the access provided to what is commonly touted as food deserts. There is a tendency to separate human activity into pods; while not recognizing the holistic nature of human existence. The popularity of urban agriculture has swiftly consumed many major metropolitan areas giving many a gentrified urban center the luxury of locally grown arugula or fresh specialty tomatoes. However, not enough attention is given to the ability of urban agriculture to benefit the distressed communities in our society socially and economically. Arguably the oldest of human professions, the act of growing food is not exclusive to the desires of middle-class America only. Globally, irrespective of class, race, religion, political ideology or gender – the great equalizer is food. Why? Simply put? Everyone has to eat. It is within this context that I would like to discuss several other socio-economic benefits that are often under-remarked upon in the public discourse.
Food security refers to the availability of food and one’s access to it. Major urban centers are by far reliant upon industrial agriculture for their population’s food supply. As a result, a great deal of food consumed by people in the city is shipped from far away, out of state and even out of the country for public consumption. The availability of food and one’s access to it are primarily determined by the market whereas if you are poor; the supermarkets are far away and if you are middle class they are easier to access. According to the USDA, a food desert is any area in the industrialized world where healthy, affordable food is difficult to obtain. Food deserts are prevalent in rural as well as urban areas and are most prevalent in low-socioeconomic minority communities. (See slide 1 for a map of Richmond Virginia’s food deserts.) Despite an overwhelming high public discourse regarding food deserts resultant from Michelle Obama’s campaign against them; the question of what food (GMO vs. Organic) will be made available to low-income communities found in food deserts has not reached the same level of intensity. Participants in urban agriculture projects have the power to define what food is available to them by growing it themselves how they want to grow it.
The relative unavailability of fresh organic fruits and vegetables to large segments of any society poses significant threats to the overall wellness of any given society. Heavily relegated to conversations regarding obesity and overall health and wellness – the prevalence of food deserts aren’t often used to examine how within a problem; we can find the solution. The blight of food deserts presents a unique opportunity for communities to generate solutions for the most intrinsic of needs from within itself. Through the use of urban farming communities can not only grow their own food – they can also create opportunities to sell the food that they grow and products created from that which is grown on the land – to other community members, restaurants, and retailers. This concept is often termed an entrepreneurial garden, but call it what you want; the social ramifications of self-sufficient sustainable agriculture on community building are overwhelming.
Poverty in the City of Richmond is a serious issue. The percent of the population living in poverty in the city sat at 27% as of 2014. Close to half of the Richmond Metropolitan Region (Chesterfield, Henrico, Richmond, Hanover, Goochland, and Powhatan) live in Richmond. 19% of the households in the city of Richmond are without a car. These factors on begin to scratch the surface on what can only be described as systemic poverty. The subsequent social pathologies associated with poverty are innumerable; suffice it to say that poverty begets poverty. Through the usage of urban agriculture projects, the Richmond community can effectively hit numerous issues simultaneously. Poverty debilitates the culture of a society. As my elder puts it there is no culture without agriculture, and It is my argument that a pivotal axis around which urban revitalization must revolve in the future of the city is that of urban agriculture.
Many major cities and developing nation have successfully utilized urban agriculture to sustain and/or enhance their food security.
- In Haiti, SIFEUSA indicates helping the village of LaGonave with the development of urban faming enterprise of more than 200 gardens not only increasing the availability of food but also enhancing economic development via sell of surplus food at local markets to the tune of over $14,000 in produce sales and consumption of over 4000 pounds of produce grown locally.
- In Havana, Cuba due food shortages resultant from US trade embargos and the fall of the Soviet Union – the bulk of food production takes place inland with a heavy emphasis on urban agriculture. Endorsed heavily by the state, currently 30% of Havana’s available land cultivates food with over 30,000 farmers growing food on over 8000 farms and gardens. In 1997, urban farms and gardens in Havana provided 30,000 tons of vegetables, tubers and fruit, 3,650 tons of meat, 7.5 million eggs, and 3.6 tons of medicinal plant materials
- In Harare, Zimbabwe – primarily women spearheaded urban agriculture (60%) over 25% of Harare’s available land. Households with agricultural practice have healthier children and are economically better off than their counterparts.
- On the island of Negros, Phillipines malnutrition among urban and rural children was reduced from 40 % to 25% in two years with the implementation of biointensive gardens.
- Kona Kai Farms in Berkeley, California generated $238,000 from one-half acre in 1988 through sale of organic specialty greens.
- Tanzania’s 1988 census found that urban agriculture was the second largest employer in the district of Dar es Salaam, population about 2 million (the first was petty trading and labor). One in five adults of working age in Dar es Salaam is a farmer.
Urban agriculture projects can culminate in a wide variety of entrepreneurial ventures from farmers markets for the sale of produce grown in the market by growers and other products, job training for development of services (I.e. landscaping, agricultural services, business management and administration) produce for sale to local retailers, the community or local restaurants, to development of non-profit and social entrepreneurship ventures targeted to addressing the needs of widespread urban agriculture to address issues of food security throughout the metropolitan region, state and country. Locally grown produce also reduces overhead for transportation to local retailers and restaurants not to mention carbon emissions for consumers traveling back and forth to supermarkets to access fresh fruits and vegetables for their families. Special emphasis can be placed on workforce development for ex-felons to prevent recidivism.
Urban Agriculture has the capacity to increase property values of surrounding building and homes. Communities grow closer via working in the gardens and associated farmers markets that may accompany them. Green spaces increase feelings of safety and build ties within the community. Urban farms provide excellent learning environments for children and young adults allowing for intergenerational and cross-cultural dialogue.
Urban farms provide a focal locus for community activity be it festivals or informal meetings, fostering greater social interaction from communities where neighbors may have limited interaction otherwise. The development and maintenance of the site when underdone with input and collaboration from the community it is located can build long-lasting nurturing relationships for all parties involved.
In closing, it is essential to note that urban agriculture is not the cure-all for social ills related to poverty however it can play a major role in addressing the effects holistically. By addressing the health ramifications of food insecurity and food deserts while employing an empowerment model revolving around entrepreneurship and sustainable food systems – urban farming can catapult the city of Richmond onto the fast track for being a tier 1 city.