On August 20, 1619, a ship carrying about 20 enslaved Africans arrived in Point Comfort, a coastal port in the British colony of Virginia.
If you have somehow missed the rollout of the New York Times 1619 project, I hope you will find time to get a printed copy, listen to the podcasts, or find another way to catch up. This project – groundbreaking, truth-telling, and comprehensive – is a tremendously collaborative endeavor, created and led by brilliant journalist Nikole-Hannah Jones that offers a wide base of knowledge about America’s entanglement with enslavement, and how our systems have been designed to continue to subjugate people, using the construct of race. The other great point made across the essays, the photos, the podcasts, and more is how deeply felt the patriotism is among black Americans who continue to patiently reach out to their compatriots to try to explain what must be fixed.
At 43, I am part of the first generation of black Americans in the history of the United States to be born into a society in which black people had full rights of citizenship. Black people suffered under slavery for 250 years; we have been legally “free” for just 50. Yet in that briefest of spans, despite continuing to face rampant discrimination, and despite there never having been a genuine effort to redress the wrongs of slavery and the century of racial apartheid that followed, black Americans have made astounding progress, not only for ourselves but also for all Americans.
(This statement’s profundity made me slowly draw in my breath:)
What if America understood, finally, in this 400th year, that we have never been the problem but the solution?
The reason this is featured on my public market blog is that our work is really about equity and requires an investigation of the systems that underpin food, farming, and sovereignty. If the sum of what we accomplish are lovely little pilots and projects that don’t interfere with the dominant system, then we are doomed to irrelevance. But I do have the belief that our work will have results that ultimately change what is broken in food and agriculture by focusing on local control and civic inclusion made real and long lasting by having a reckoning with the past to build the new. One reason I have that belief is the ongoing work and the leadership of black justice organizers willing to address the systemic issues in our work. Examples abound: including Cooperation Jackson, to Detroit Black Community Food Security Network’s decades of work, to Karen Washington’s refusal of the term food deserts:
What I would rather say instead of “food desert” is “food apartheid,” because “food apartheid” looks at the whole food system, along with race, geography, faith, and economics. You say “food apartheid” and you get to the root cause of some of the problems around the food system. It brings in hunger and poverty. It brings us to the more important question: What are some of the social inequalities that you see, and what are you doing to erase some of the injustices?
Or Dr. Raja’s concise assessment of the problem:
Who actually owns the means of production? Who owns the business? Who controls the wages in grocery stores? We can describe the physical absence of retail stores in the best possible way, but that’s still a partial analysis of the structural problem that we face. My concern is not just that the term [food desert] doesn’t fully capture what is in the food retail environment, but that it doesn’t tackle the question of agency at all.
What is vital about the 1619 Project is that even as its writers and artists educate on the unrelenting degradations visited upon generations of people of color, that same group is also firm in its belief that solutions are possible. That this rising tide of systemic analysis and activism can lift every boat, especially if white allies do not allow those others who are deeply invested in white supremacy to submerge it this time too.