Chef LaQuanda Dobson best captured the feeling at ecoWURD’s recent Philly Farm Social in Southwest Philadelphia at Bartram’s Gardens as she swayed and seasoned over samples of freshly cooked fine food: “This dish is a celebration of the year of the return. Grits represent the water we traveled on. Okra is the boat. Red – well, red is us. Parsley…I don’t care where you’re at, if you’re eating black food, there’s some parsley on it.”
“These foods represent our story. You want to see the page of our story? It’s on that plate in a real way.”
At ecoWURD’sPhilly Farm Social, community members from across the city came together to celebrate, to nourish, and return to roots that are uniquely theirs – on a farm that is uniquely and proudly Black. Residents, WURD family members and hosts, along with Sankofa Farm growers and powerful ancestral drum players created the perfect combination of blue-sky weather along a small slice of idyllic Schuykill River coast. The affair was live broadcast on WURD, and the space of thick green trees hidden off Lindbergh Blvd. in Southwest Philly provided the right amount of breeze and shade for everyone to enjoy.
Chris Bolden-Newsome, a Sankofa Farm co-founder and Chef Dobson’s mentor, explains. “We are a farm that is located in an urban space, but we very rarely refer to ourselves as an urban farm or as urban agriculture because for us – it’s just agriculture,” Bolden-Newsome mused during a live, outdoor panel discussion moderated by WURD’s Charles Ellison. “It’s just loving the earth. Because as African people of a diaspora brought here to do agricultural work….we have this unique and conflicted relationship with the land that we need to work out.”
Mending that relationship requires an approach that breaks food away from the traditional and toxic grasp of an economy rooted in racism. Once that’s achieved, we then return it to the roots and soil of the black people that built the foundations of American cuisine in the first place. And to do this, one must return to the elders that passed this knowledge on and the ancestors that created the methods and the magic to transform gifts from the ground into food on a plate.
Chef Laquanda holds church in the kitchen and teaches the audience in attendance how to take pause. She shows them how she blesses every meal with sage and loving intention. She teaches them, before the okra even hits the pan, that her food is a gateway to returning home. She reminds them that through the meal she is preparing, she is also taking us with her on a journey to her roots. We are walking with her and her mentors: through her aunt Valerie’s kitchen, which leads to plantations in the south, which transports them to fields in Africa. As she puts a char on the first boat of okra, Chef Dobson explains how audience members will be digesting history and bringing the ancestors, in a very real way, into their very own cells.
And that journey isn’t easy for everyone to take.
Bolden-Newsome explains how land has become “the scene of the crime for African Americans.”
“And to get our healing, we have to return back to the scene of that crime. It’s not gonna be easy.”
At Sankofa Farms, a number of youth programs have been hosted. Bolden-Newsome describes troubling moments when the youth come in: the first thing they do is a form of “triage,” immediately cracking jokes about slavery and humming mock spirituals. “It’s very clear that our wound is still open,” Bolden-Newsome soberly explains. “When they think of agriculture, they think of slavery.” He then goes on to describe how Sankofa Farms works to change that by transforming the association between plantation and slavery to one of Earth and sovereignty.
Tonya Hopkins, a.k.a. “The Food Griot” and host of The Philadelphia Citizen’s Foodizen podcast, shares with the audience that in order to cross that bridge, the Black community must take control of the historical narratives that connect them with the roots of their food.
She describes how it was the Black cooks in White households that held the kitchens down just a few generations ago. And how before then it was the slaves working in plantation kitchens that used African methods combined with Indigenous, African, and European products that laid the foundations for what we know as American cuisine today.
And then Hopkins returns the audience home.
She describes how White people literally had no idea what to do with or how to value gifts from the earth. This truth had very real and specific consequences. “Along with the displaced people came the crops,” Hopkins explains. “And real foundational crops of American agriculture that not only needed the labor and the toil, but also the brilliance and the ingenuity and the technology of the people to work these crops.
Adds Hopkins: “They knew that Angolan rice would grow well in the Carolinas and that the people who had been doing this for thousands of years were the people that had to come with that crop to work the difficult intricacies of it.”
It was ingenuity and brilliance that connected black folks to the earth. It was that ingenuity and brilliance that was enslaved with the Africans that carried it. And it is the liberation, reclamation, and return of that knowledge to Black people and Black communities that drives the work towards food sovereignty.
Bolden-Newsome emphasized that “the way we get started is not the way we end up holding out.” He described how in the early days of Sankofa Farm, he and his founding partner had to go through some difficult, but important growing pains that would transform their purpose and the products they were selling. He then explains that he and his partner had made some missteps because they “listened to almost everyone except our communities.”
That is not how they held out. Now deeply interconnected with the Black Philadelphia community and the extended diaspora, the Farm has become in many ways a living history book where people from the community come to not only read and learn, but to write new pages.
Tonya expounds on that point. “A lot of us were taught American history through battles and wars…but that’s not the only way to learn history,” she says. “What were they eating? What were they doing?”
The skolas at the Philly Farm Social continually repeat the theme that by using food to understand and ingest our histories, we can better understand the relationship between where we are, where we come from, and where we want to be.
“The food around me was a bodega in a Chinese store,” Dobson adds with excitement. “So I think if Philly is gonna be put on a map for urban agriculture, I think we need to want it. We aren’t just out here trying to tell some people ‘here are some greens. Grow it.’ That’s not gonna work for me and that’s not gonna work for my team. I think everyone needs to be on a path to food sovereignty.”
And sovereignty is about taking care of ourselves and each other.
Still, Bolden-Newsome warns us that over nearly 90% of our seed stock – the seeds used to grow all of the crops produced in America – is owned by someone else. More specifically, most of it is owned by China. And so the fight for food sovereignty also reminds us that the Black community has far too little control over the knowledge, resources, and energy needed to sustain our own lives in a very real way. And so to survive, the Black community must return to its roots in agricultural brilliance – in Black brilliance – to become food sovereign.
“The economy ebbs and flows, but we’ve got to survive. We got to take care of ourselves,” Bolden-Newsome contends. “We just want to put that knowledge back in people’s hands. Because you can’t take that away from folks.”