This Labor Day, we want to hold up all of the frontline workers who put themselves at risk to keep things running and take care of our communities, not only during this pandemic, but all the time. Industrial farmworkers and food processors are some of the most essential workers, keeping the nation fed. Yet many of them face exploitation and health hazards, and are especially at risk of COVID-19.
Farmworkers have been organizing for many years to fight for their rights, dignity, and health, whether through strikes or community organizing. The organizing of workers in Florida’s tomato fields led to the formation of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) in 1993. The CIW has been recognized internationally for its achievements in fighting human trafficking and gender-based violence at work, as well as its groundbreaking Fair Food Program, which monitors participating farms for socially responsible practices and partners with national buyers to pay workers more for their work. Other organizations working to lift up farmworkers include Farmworker Justice, Feeding the Frontline, the Food Chain Workers Alliance, and the National Center for Farmworker Health, and I encourage you to support their important work.
If you want to learn more about farmworker issues, these books are also excellent places to dive in:
We cannot be silent. The brutal murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and other African Americans in the past weeks have brought this country’s ongoing legacy of systemic inequality and white supremacy to the fore. In the wake of these killings and amidst the outcry of grief and rage around the country (indeed, around the world), we are keenly aware of our immense white privilege and the ways we benefit from unequal systems.
Systemic racism has long infiltrated all aspects of society, beyond racial profiling, overpolicing and mass incarceration, unequal healthcare access, and housing discrimination all the way to land dispossession and fresh food inequality. Black farmers have faced debilitating discrimination from banks when applying for loans, from the USDA at all levels, and from corporate farms and white farming communities that have driven them from their lands. Heirs property laws have further tied the hands of those farmers who were able to hold on to their land. The very people who toiled the fields while enslaved, amassing wealth for their white masters, were robbed of the ability to grow nourishment for their families.
In fact, George Floyd’s family experienced this land theft first hand. One of his ancestors, Hillary Thomas Stewart, was born a slave, but once free, he managed to acquire 500 acres of farmland in North Carolina. His white neighbors took advantage of Stewart’s race and illiteracy and took over his land, leaving him powerless to defend his property. That was in the 1800s, and since then the Floyd family has been subject to unequal treatment in both rural and metropolitan settings alike. We have to wonder, when will they, and other Black American families, find a place to call home?
We know that we have an enormous amount to learn and to do to make our society one in which everyone has the opportunity to thrive and grow. We stand in solidarity with protesters and others doing the vital work of antiracism. In addition to supporting organizations fighting for justice and equality in all arenas, and giving your business to Black Farmers in your community, we encourage you to explore and support these organizations working on behalf of Farmers of Color and for food access and sovereignty in marginalized communities:
I’d like to end with a poem by Ross Gay that the Xerces Society shared. It was inspired by the 2014 police killing of Eric Garner, another Black American like George Floyd, whose dying words were “I can’t breathe.”
A Small Needful Fact
Is that Eric Garner worked
for some time for the Parks and Rec.
Horticultural Department, which means,
perhaps, that with his very large hands,
perhaps, in all likelihood,
he put gently into the earth
some plants which, most likely,
some of them, in all likelihood,
continue to grow, continue
to do what such plants do, like house
and feed small and necessary creatures,
like being pleasant to touch and smell,
like converting sunlight
into food, like making it easier
for us to breathe.
[Copyright © 2015 by Ross Gay. Reprinted by the Xerces Society from Split This Rock’s The Quarry: A Social Justice Poetry Database.]
One of our favorite tomato varieties is the Paul Robeson. It is an exceptionally juicy beefsteak type variety with purple shoulders. I knew it was a Russian variety named after the African American actor, singer, and activist, but am embarrassed to say that I didn’t know much of anything about the man other than the fact that he had a delicious tomato named after him. We recently watched a PBS American Masters documentary about Robeson, and I am astounded that his name and life story aren’t better known.
Robeson was born in 1898. His father, a former slave, taught him early in life that he was just as capable and worthy as his white peers, and he took that message of equality to heart throughout his life. Robeson won a scholarship to Rutgers College, where he was the only black student. He gained a national reputation as a college football star and was valedictorian of his class. He graduated from Columbia Law School, but refused to accept a law career subject to racist barriers, and instead followed his passion for singing and acting.
Robeson’s incredible bass baritone voice is best known today from his performance of “Ol’ Man River” in the musical and film Show Boat, but his musical range was vast, crossing many styles and languages. Between concerts all over the world, Broadway performances, music recordings, and early films, Robeson became the most famous black man in the world. His performances of Othello in London and on Broadway were renowned (at this time, the role was typically played by a white actor in blackface) and he played to some of the first racially integrated audiences. While he struggled to land film roles that met his goal of uplifting the black experience, he continually used his platform to stand up for, and stand with, the downtrodden.
His activism ranged from black civil rights to anti-colonialism, labor rights to anti-fascism to the peace movement. He became enamored with the Soviet Union, where, when touring, he found himself treated as “a human being for the first time in my life,” he said. “I walk in full human dignity.” His unbridled affection for the USSR got him in trouble with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Intense anti-communist pressure from Senator McCarthy and others caused many civil rights leaders to denounce Robeson out of fear. Robeson stood firm on principle, refusing to play the game. During his testimony to the HUAC, Robeson was asked why he didn’t leave the US and move to Russia. His reply: “Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay here, and have a part of it just like you. And no Fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear?” His defiance did not help his case, and Robeson was entirely blacklisted in the US. His records and video footage were destroyed. His passport was even seized by the government so he could not tour abroad.
In 1958, a Supreme Court ruling restored Robeson’s passport and his career started a gradual recovery, but a mental and physical breakdown in 1961 forced him to retire from public life. He died in 1976 following a stroke.
Truly, Robeson had problematic blind spots when it came to his stalwart defense of Stalin’s Soviet Union. Yet his unflinching activism, dedication to his beliefs, brilliance, and sheer talent in arenas from music to sports to linguistics should make him an honored household name. With my new knowledge of Paul Robeson’s life and work, I now think of tending his legacy when tending his tomatoes.