Landscapes of Resistance: Crops of the African Diaspora

Few saved seeds come with a richer history than those being cultivated by American farmers reclaiming their roots through ancestral African crops

The speckled 'Brown Butter' bean, originally from South America, is now a traditional delicacy in the American South.
Photo by Owen Taylor

If you walk through the African Diaspora Garden of Sankofa Community Farm at Bartram’s Garden in southwest Philadelphia, you’ll pass towering black-eyed peas, climbing gourds, flowering sesame, ‘Speckled Brown’ butter beans, turnip greens, and more. Sankofa is a Twi word from the Akan people of Ghana that means “go back and get it.” It’s often associated with a phrase that translates to: “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.” The Akan symbolize sankofa with a bird holding an egg in its mouth, looking backward while its feet face forward.

For Chris Bolden-Newsome, co-director of Sankofa Community Farm, turning to the past and seeking out, planting, and saving ancestral seeds from the African motherland and American South is a way to embody and practice this life-giving principle with his community. He explains, “I am a farmer and I am a descendant of farmers [...] so for me, it is absolutely crucial to grow African American and African diasporic crops as a way to keep my people together. When we grow these foods and share these seeds, we ensure that important parts of our culture continue to live on.” Because of this effort, the young workers at Sankofa Community Farm can name their ancestral crops. They pray over these crops, they sometimes hold the seeds in their mouths before planting them, sing freedom songs over the earth while sowing, and they tell and retell the inspiring stories of the origins of crops and those who once sowed them.

Resilient Roots

In The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South, food historian Michael W. Twitty reminds us that black gardens have always been “landscapes of resistance.” He told me that every time enslaved Africans “planted something that reflected the flavors, tastes, preferences, or medicinal practices of the continent, what they were doing was asserting in some small way that they wouldn’t fall prey to the cultural genocide that walked alongside the physical traumas of slavery.” Having visited the slave castles of West Africa, he realized that every act of physical and cultural survival that happened for Africans after those suffocating dungeons, and their deadly trans-Atlantic Middle Passage toward uncertainty and permanent bondage, was a “complete miracle.” And yet they grew their gardens, carrying forward African crops as well as adopting new crops to provide the tastes of home.

Nykisha Madison of Urban Tree Connection tends to ‘Burgundy’ okra plants.
Photo by Owen Taylor

Sweet potatoes replaced African yams; collards, turnips, and sweet potato leaves replaced a huge diversity of African greens; peppers and tomatoes served to enliven the flavor of bland and meager rations. This wasn’t new and wouldn’t end: For thousands of years before the slave trade, West and Central Africans were growing African and Eurasian crops in diverse polycultures, and those who survived the crossing to the Americas would continue to keep elements of their foodways after emancipation, the terror of the Jim Crow era, the mass exodus from the South, and into the present.



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