Digging. A sizable shovel delivering mounds of rich earth. Sun ablaze, mosquitoes swarming, fierce for their morning sanguine meal. Me. A skeptical bourgeoisie, whose peasant earth-bound tendencies have been carefully manicured, trimmed back to an effete intelligentsia by “proper” upbringing. Now digging, weeding with muddied nails, sweat beneath my headwrap and an incessant swatting which fails to keep the insects away.
This simple act, most essential, most human and even feminine, of farming strips the ego, but in a sacred and necessary way. While I was digging and refilling holes for transplants and their nutritious compost, I was reminded of the unfortunate circumstances of slavery, how many of Black America’s ancestors and their kin were bound by force to the land, their hands to the shovel or hoe, some, their backs irrevocably bent ground-wards. I could be wrong, but I wonder if black folks don’t feel some subconscious, residual antipathy towards farming,
I am so weak. What of their physical tenacity might I have inherited, that my back is easily ached, my knees–only 30 years of age–now creak? Despite the regal worthiness of this fundamental human activity, I nevertheless think how such labor cannot be the stuff of my destiny: My ego chimes in with, you, dear girl, look how far your families have brought you, with the privilege of never having had to dig to eat.
My great-grandmother, Edith, who I knew as a girl, lived on the land she cultivated with her hands. Perhaps just a kitchen garden and some chickens, not for the sole purpose of subsistence but rather out of ageless resourcefulness. My mother recounts sumertime meals of homegrown green beans and potatoes keeping the children satisfied during summer days when she and her siblings spent their time with Mama Edith in ‘the country”, in the town of Slydell just outside New Orleans, Louisiana. Mama Edith walked with her own innate privilege, mulatto that she was, however her roots were firm and she was clearly a queen in her domain.
Let me remember this way of being earth-bound and majestic, the simple act of digging as noble.
And I hope that other African Americans like myself see past the fraught history that lends itself to ambivalence about rural life, and that we reclaim the time when the lands we worked were ours, and the physical chores of sowing the land represented more power than pain.