Queen Sugar  author Natalie Baszile on the new black farming revolution

Please note: This transcript has been automatically generated.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Hey y’all, it’s Brittany. So this past Tuesday marked the one year commemoration of George Floyd’s death, and I was really heartened to see some of the memorial events and the deeply personal remembrances honoring his life. Many have also been commenting on the progress that has been made in the past year. And there has absolutely been some critically important progress, especially in local grassroots arenas. But as I reflected on George Floyd this week, I also read up on some sobering numbers.

According to The New York Times, white people are actually less supportive of Black Lives Matter now than they were at the beginning of 2020. Yeah, that’s right. White support for the movement may have peaked after George Floyd’s death, but it has since declined to even lower levels than before he was killed. And the 50 billion dollars that American companies pledged to fight racial injustice, a recent study found that only 250 million has been spent or assigned to a specific program.

And sadly, I am not surprised. To paraphrase a Brooklyn-bred philosopher named Shawn Carter, people lie, numbers don’t. This kind of fleeting sympathy really is not new. In the 1960s, white support for the civil rights movement peaked after people like John Lewis were beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge and then sharply declined thereafter when protests went nationwide a few years later. White people’s views on Black freedom have always, and as far as I can tell, will always be shaky at best. And this isn’t an abstraction, it’s not just like about your racist uncle. This is about the everyday choices that maintain the status quo.

If you aren’t Black, when is the last time you spoke to that Black person you sent an emotional text to last summer? Do you still follow those Black social media accounts you found back then, or did you stop when our posts became about us just living instead of teaching you? Who do your children play with? Do you care about injustice beyond policing? Is your anti-racist book club still meeting? Did your team hire who they said they were going to hire? And did your company make that donation? Have you asked? If your answers to any of these questions gave you pause, don’t be surprised that I’m not surprised. Our freedom will always be more urgent than it is popular. That’s why we keep going despite the polling. So if you got off the horse, now’s as good a time as any to get back on because some of us don’t have the option to stop. 


On the show today, Natalie Baszile. I will be talking to the Queen Sugar author about her new book, We Are Each Other’s Harvest and how a new generation of Black farmers are getting back to the land. 

Natalie Baszile Young Black people and people of color in their 20s, in their 30s, who are really seeing agriculture and farming through the lens of activism. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham That’s coming up, but first, it’s your “UNtrending News.”     

So as you may have heard last week, 1619 Project creator and recent pod guest Nikole Hannah-Jones was denied tenure by UNC Chapel Hill’s board of trustees. So back in April, the University of North Carolina announced that Nikole had been appointed to the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism. But after pushback from conservatives, she was only offered a five year teaching contract instead of the usual tenure given to her white predecessors. And people are not happy about this. You know, I’m not. Last week, nearly 40 faculty members from UNC’s journalism school signed an online statement calling for the decision to be reversed. And now various artists, academics, journalists and activists, including myself, have also signed onto an open letter in support of Nikole. Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of the writers of the letter, also made clear that this latest incident is part of a bigger attack against her project. 

Ta-Nehisi Coates The 1619 Project has its detractors. It has its proponents. But when I see state legislatures, when I see United States senators, when I see the president of the United States directing critique at it via an executive order, when we see laws being passed to ban the 1619 Project and ban critical race theory and other ideas that are deemed detrimental, I think we have a problem of a very, very different scale. We’ve moved beyond the realm of critique into the realm of actual policy, and I think that’s a problem. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham The board wants to say this is about credentials. But Nikole has already won a National Magazine Award, a Polk Award, a Peabody, a MacArthur genius grant and even a Pulitzer Prize. They should be begging her to take their tenure. Credentials, please. It is racist, sexist, political gatekeeping. Some folks don’t want to hear the truth because they know it has the power to transform systems and they definitely don’t want to hear the truth when it comes from a Black woman. So I hope our homegirl Nikole gets the tenure she deserves. But no matter what, sis’, we will be cheering you on in September and we know that your students are so, so blessed to have you. 

The Associated Press is facing growing criticism for firing a young news reporter over pro-Palestinian activism she did when she was in college. 22-year-old Stanford grad Emily Wilder, who is Jewish, started her job at The AP just three weeks ago. But she soon was the target of a conservative smear campaign over old tweets that referenced her support of the Palestinian people and her opposition specifically to the Israeli government. The AP then fired Emily just 16 days into the job, saying that she had violated the company’s social media policy, which bans employees from voicing political opinions. Over 100 AP employees have now signed a letter expressing their disapproval of how The AP has treated Emily. And they are demanding more clarity about the company’s social media policy and a commitment from The AP to support staffers targeted by harassment campaigns. Emily herself is not staying silent on the issue. Good for you, girl. Here’s what she told Democracy Now

Emily Wilder Yes, I have opinions about the Israel-Palestine conflict and yes, I have a history of activism on that issue. Neither of those facts prevent me from being able to do fair, credible, fact-based reporting, especially when the beats are entirely unrelated to the Middle East. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Listen, these vague social media policies need to be updated to reflect that the concept of neutrality has always privileged the status quo. Rules around so-called objectivity have disproportionately harmed journalists of color, LGBTQ reporters, and marginalized writers. It’s time for news media to reckon with what perspectives it privileges and what actually constitutes bias. 

And finally, in some awesome news, the all-girl punk band, The Linda Lindas, have signed a record deal with Epitaph Records. Maybe you saw the video of their recent performance at the Los Angeles Public Library that went viral last week. Here is a taste of their song “Racist, Sexist Boy.” 

The Linda Lindas Racist, sexist boy. You are a racist, sexist boy.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Yes, and you know what I heard? Originally, the song was called “Idiotic Boys,” but when the girls learned about ableism, they changed the name. We stan ever evolving young people. The band is made up of four girls who range in age from 10 to 16 and describe themselves as, quote, “Half Asian, half Latinx, sisters, cousins and friends who play music together because it’s fun.” And since forming in 2018, they’ve received a ton of praise from established musicians like Kathleen Hanna, Rage Against the Machine, and Sonic Youth. So congratulations to The Linda Lindas. You earned a lot of new fans, myself included, and I cannot wait to rock out to your new record. 

Coming up, I’ll be talking to Natalie Baszile about the past, present, and future of Black farming right after this short break. 

And we are back. Natalie Baszile is best known as the author of Queen Sugar. The 2014 novel about a young Black woman who inherits a sugar cane farm was a big hit. Maybe you’ve seen the little TV series executive produced by Ava DuVernay and Oprah. Right? I am a massive fan. Well, Natalie is taking on the subject of Black farmers once again in a new book. But this time all of the stories are nonfiction. In We Are Each Other’s Harvest, Natalie traces the rich history of Black agricultural work from a century ago, where there were nearly one million Black farmers in the US to today, where there are only around 45,000 Black farmers left. But despite this decline, Natalie chronicles and celebrates a whole new generation of young farmers of color who are returning to the land and building upon the legacy of their ancestors. So what does farming tell us about our history, our country and our future? Let’s hear from the author of the wildly popular new book herself. Natalie, thank you so, so much for joining us. I’m so excited to have this conversation with you. 

Natalie Baszile Thank you, Brittany. I’ve been looking forward to this, too. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham So your novel, Queen Sugar, tells the story of a Black farming family in rural Louisiana. What made you want to further explore the lives of Black farmers in this new anthology? 

Natalie Baszile Well, you know, when I finished Queen Sugar, I really felt as though I had explored the lives of farmers through the lens of fiction. But I really wanted to let these Black farmers speak for themselves. You know, so often I feel as though we talk about Black farmers, but we don’t really talk to Black farmers. And I wanted to really use whatever platform I had built with the novel to kind of throw the doors wide open and let readers hear from these Black farmers in their own voices. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham I love that. And the book itself, it is so robust. I mean, we’ve got essays, interviews, artwork, poems, photographs. What kind of research did you do for it? 

Natalie Baszile I spent about a year traveling around, you know, across the south, as far north as upstate New York on the East Coast, as far as Alaska on the West Coast. Because part of what I was trying to say in this book is, you know, we have this rich history, but Black farmers are everywhere. You know, they’re not just in the south. They are primarily in the south, but they’re in the Midwest. They’re in the West. They’re in the — the Northeast. And I wanted to really try to capture the diversity of this farming experience historically, but also in the present. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham I feel fortunate that we got these stories and that this conversation is being had, because as the book jacket states, America’s Black farmer population has dwindled significantly from one million to 45,000 in the last 100 years. So before I ask you about the decline, I really want you to take me back to a century ago. What — what kind of knowledge did Black farmers draw on? How did they operate? 

Natalie Baszile Well, I think what we actually have to do is go one step even farther back. And we have to acknowledge the fact that even as enslaved people, we had agricultural expertise right, from the African continent. This is part of the reason why these slave owners wanted to bring us to the new world in the first place. We knew how to grow things. We knew how to grow okra. We knew how to grow rice. And these were commodities and crops that were introduced to the new world. So that’s first. But then when you look at the history of Black people in agriculture, I think primarily about someone like George Washington Carver, for example, who we all know as the scientist and inventor who worked with the peanut. But George Washington Carver, he was an environmentalist. He was an inventor. He was an agricultural scientist. Booker T. Washington brought him to Tuskegee in 1896. And he spent the next 47 years at Tuskegee teaching young Black farmers in all of these practices that we have returned to today. So, for example, he promoted alternative crop growth so that when the soil was depleted from cotton farming, he was encouraging farmers to plant peas and beans, legumes and sweet potatoes as a way of regenerating the soil. He taught people about crop rotation, replacing nitrogen in the soil. All of these forms of regenerative agriculture, planting three crops in the same row. And so you hear all these forward thinking environmentalist farmers now, white farmers talking about sustainable agriculture, talking about regenerative practices. They’re really referring to practices that Black people and indigenous people were practicing as far back as the 1800s. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham So the practices are being taken. So is the land right? How did things decline from the time that you’re talking about? How were Black farmers run off their land? 

Natalie Baszile So by about 1920, as you said, there were just under a million Black farmers in this country. But at the same time, the USDA, which is a government agency that was founded and designed with the idea of helping farmers in terms of education, in terms of innovation, this government agency was really at the center of this movement to disenfranchise Black people, Black landowners and Black farmers. And what happened was the federal funds that were distributed to these rural communities all across the south. Those funds were meant to help farmers, Black farmers and white farmers. But because many of these rural communities were lorded over by these USDA agents who were white and who did not want to see Black people, Black farmers succeed, these local USDA agents treated these federal funds almost like their personal pocketbooks. Right? Their private funds. And they were the people who determined whose loans got approved. So when a Black farmer would go to his local USDA office to apply for a loan at the end of harvest season so that he would be ready for the next harvest season, in January, these local agents were tearing up their loan applications or at the very best, denying those loan applications. Okay, well, what did that mean? That meant that when the new planting season rolled around in January or February of the next year, if those Black farmers didn’t have their loans approved, they couldn’t get the money that they needed to buy their seeds. Right? And if you can’t buy the seeds on time, that means you can’t plant on time. And if you can’t plant on time, that means that you’re not going to have a robust harvest. And if you don’t have a robust harvest, that means that you won’t have the money to repay the loan if it was even granted to you. And in many cases, Black farmers’ loans were just flatly denied. Right? And so when you think about this system of discrimination that happened generation after generation after generation, Black farmers would start to fall farther and farther and farther behind. Then the USDA would come to these Black farmers and instead of helping them restructure their debt, they would come in and they would seize these Black farmers’ land. They would seize not just the farms, they would seize their houses, their vehicles, all of their personal assets that they had been forced to put up as collateral. Right? This is the primary reason why Black people in this country don’t own land today. We used to own 14 million acres of land. Now that has dwindled down to less than two percent, primarily because of these discriminatory practices that were strategically deployed by the US government, by the USDA. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham It was strategic. It was intentional. The devil was in all of those details. And despite that persistent discrimination, Black farmers have survived. To your point, it’s obviously to a much lesser extent than once existed. But your book really chronicles a new returning generation of Black farmers and farmers of color who were reclaiming that really powerful legacy. What more can you tell us about who they are and how they’re tapping into the wisdom of our ancestors? 

Natalie Baszile Well, and, you know Brittany, this is the thing that I’m so inspired by, because you’re right, even though the number of Black farmers in this country has declined, there are now about 45,000 left. There is this new generation of young Black people and people of color in their 20s, in their 30s, who are really seeing agriculture and farming through the lens of activism. And they are returning to the land with this determination. They are bringing all of their knowledge and their wisdom and all of their education with them. Right? Because one of the things I want to say is, you know, a lot of times there is this assumption that farming does not require any expertise, that it doesn’t require any knowledge, that it’s not a sophisticated endeavor. But that’s not actually true because farming is about science, right? It’s about technology. It is about innovation. And this is what you see when you see this new generation of Black and brown people who are returning to the land. They are returning with an idea about how to help their communities. They are bringing all of their innovation as young people do, whether it’s using social media, whether it is using technology, whether it is referring back to the past and planting with these indigenous practices that have been part of our legacy all this time. I think about people like Leah Penniman and Naima Penniman, who are the young women who were on the cover of the book. They’re up at Soul Fire Farm, doing amazing work, bringing people back to the land, training new Black farmers. Since they opened their doors in 2010, they have had 10,000 people come through their different programs. I think about Gabrielle Carter, who last summer during the pandemic started the Tall Grass Food Box in Durham, North Carolina. Right? That CSA program that she started. And finally, you know, I want to give an example of someone who is out here in San Francisco. Her — she’s a young Black woman. Her name is Julia Collins. And Julia has started a startup called Planet Forward that is developing like organic snacks. But she is sourcing her ingredients from farmers who grow sustainable crops. So when you look at this constellation of young people who are innovative, who are forward thinking, but who are drawing on this rich legacy, it just gives me hope. It gives me hope, you know, for the future. And because Black people — we’re seeing this differently. Right? We’re shifting the narrative about what it means to be involved in agriculture. And it’s a celebratory, inspiring, you know, experience. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham It is celebratory and inspiring. And we know that it is not just happening against a backdrop of past discrimination, but it’s still happening in a current reality of discrimination. So — so what challenges do Black farmers continue to face today? To what extent are they still being discriminated against? 

Natalie Baszile Well, I think certainly these local USDA, these local FSA officers in these small rural communities are still trying to discriminate against Black farmers. But I will say that for the first time from the top down, from the presidential administration down, it feels as though there’s finally not just a recognition, but determination to actually change this system and the Biden administration has with their funding. Right? The five billion dollars that they have set aside to address this history of discrimination, part of those funds will go to education, low interest loans. There is talk of doing a program where one hundred and sixty acres per farmer will be allocated to some of these young Black farmers and farmers. There’s talk of debt relief finally. So really, for the first time in over a century, it looks as though a lot of these discriminatory practices that are still being deployed will finally be addressed. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Like you said, Black farmers are finally going to be able to take advantage of those billions of dollars in federal grants and forgivable loans from the Biden administration. You know, repeatedly, though, how Black people’s labor, much of it enslaved and our knowledge of agriculture, really built this country like it is part and parcel to the America that people know today. Yet we never had the same privileges that white people have had to establish wealth and stability. Black people have always been systematically denied our land ownership. What more needs to be done beyond this funding to properly address these disparities? 

Natalie Baszile Well, you know, I think what you’re really talking about there are reparations, right? That is really the next step. I think part — they’re not calling it reparations, obviously. But I think that when the Biden administration talks about a program that will give land — one hundred and sixty acres to young Black farmers who want to farm, that’s the kind of thing that we need to do. I know that with Leah Penniman at Soul Fire, part of their whole effort is to get land into the hands of Black people, young Black farmers. And so if you go to their site, they actually have what they call a reparations map where let’s say you’re a white person and you have land in your family and you know that that land is not being used. You can go to their site and donate that land, and they will then make sure that that land ends up in the hands of Black farmers. I think about another program that Konda Mason and her team are working on. Konda founded something called Potlikker Capital, which is a comprehensive program that includes funding that really is an alternative for Black and brown farmers so that they don’t have to even bother with the USDA. This is what we’re going to need to move forward, because access to capital is the biggest barrier for young farmers. Land is expensive. It’s hard to get and unless you have that in your family you have to rely on the USDA or other loan programs out there. As Black people if we can think creatively right? If we can bring all of our experience in other industries to this space. There’s a real possibility for change. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham You said this returning generation gives you so much hope. What are your hopes for the future of Black farming? Do you think we’ll see more people of color getting back to the land? 

Natalie Baszile I do. I do. And here’s why. You know, one of the things that I’m trying to say in this book is that as Black people, we need to expand our definition of what success looks like. I understand all of the reasons why over the generations the narrative has been get as far away from the land as you can, get as far away from putting your hands in the soil as you can. This is part of what the Great Migration was about, right? Part of it was about the violence and terror and people being run off of the land. But part of that was about people seeking other opportunities in the industrial North or Midwest or West. I understand why this has been part of our history. But as Fannie Lou Hamer said, when you leave the land, you leave everything. And this is what I think these young people are seeing. You know, we all recognize how vulnerable we are with access to food. I think the pandemic laid that bare. And so these young people are turning to agriculture as a way of addressing food injustice, but also food sovereignty. Right? This is a way for them to help their communities. And we have to free them of the stigma that somehow having your hands in the soil does not mean that you’re successful. Because if you look at a lot of these young farmers now, they are using all of their skills that they have learned in college to go back to the land combined with these traditional growing practices. And it’s really the farmers, many people say, who are going to help save this planet. So if for no other reason to encourage Black people to re-explore and reconnect with the land, it’s to save the planet in the grand scheme of things, right? So it’s a rich constellation of forces. And I just think as people, we’re really at an inflection point. And I think that Black people, young Black people need to be part of this process. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Natalie, I could listen to you all day. You not only gave us a lot of information, you just gave us a lot of hope and inspiration for the future and I think expanded my own thinking about what that future can look like and how I can take part in it. So I thank you for having this conversation and I thank you for making sure these stories are being told. 

Natalie Baszile Thank you, Brittany. It’s been just a joy to talk to you. I appreciate the invitation. And I’m so glad that you see and appreciate what I was trying to do with this celebratory book. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham It is indeed a celebration. Thanks again. Natalie Baszile is the author of the new anthology, We Are Each Other’s Harvest. We’ll be listing links to all of the organizations Natalie mentioned in our show notes. When you leave the land, you leave everything. I don’t know what Fannie Lou Hamer ever said that wasn’t church because that was scripture. My conversation with Natalie has really got me thinking about the future and how much moving forward will mean returning to the things that have always fed us. And I agree with Natalie, we need to challenge the stigma that having your hands in the soil means you’re not successful. It is actually incredible what these young Black farmers are doing, the creativity and innovation they’re bringing to the job. When we say every place is a stage for revolution, we mean every place. Whether you’re working on a farm or in an office, do whatever it is that you’re doing in the most revolutionary way possible. That’s how we cultivate a new world and bonus, how we save the planet. 

That’s it for today, but never, ever for tomorrow. 


UNDISTRACTED is a production of The Meteor and Pineapple Street Studios. 

Our lead producer is Rachel Matlow. 

Our associate producer is Taylor Hosking. 

Thanks also to Treasure Brooks, Grace Chen, Hannis Brown and the chorus of cicadas in my ear right now.

Our executive producers at The Meteor are Cindi Leive and myself, and our executive producers at Pineapple are Jenna Weiss-Berman and Max Linsky. 

You can follow me @MsPackyetti on all social media and our team @TheMeteor. 

Subscribe to UNDISTRACTED and rate and review us y’all on Spotify, Apple Podcast or wherever you check out your favorite podcasts. 

Thank you for listening. Thank you for being. Thank you for doing. 

I’m Brittany Packnett Cunningham. Let’s go get free y’all.