In Search of Fannie Lou Hamer’s Garden
“She is involved in work her soul must have. Ordering the universe in the image of her personal conception of Beauty.” —Alice Walker, “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens”
Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977) is a disabled civil rights activist who advocated for, amongst many other things, food justice and food sovereignty amongst Black folks. A powerful orator who didn’t mince words when it came to the conditions the poor and disenfranchised faced, Hamer was devoted to helping create a better country—and she understood to do that one must empower the poor to advocate and care for themselves.
Hamer had been picking cotton since the age of six, and she was accustomed to receiving unfair and insufficient compensation for her labor. In 1969, she founded the Freedom Farm Cooperative. Using a $10,000 grant, Hamer purchased 40 acres of land in Mississippi. Farmers who could afford to pay $1 a month to join became official members, but Hamer, who wasn’t one to turn away folks in need, helped thousands through the co-op. The project provided not only farmland but also affordable housing and other assistance. Co-op farmers grew both cash crops, which covered expenses, and produce which was distributed to those who worked the land. In addition to farming vegetables, the Freedom Farm Cooperative ran a “pig bank”. Each pig, fully grown, provided up to 150 pounds of meat, and potentially a lifetime supply of protein if continuously bred.
Fannie Lou Hamer is not formerly known as an artist, but that distinction, like just about everything else in America, is coded. Who traditionally had the access, resources, and privilege to create what is defined as art? Who does the defining, and upon what is the definition based? What is art if it is not as Alice Walker describes her own mother, beaming among her flowers—organizing the world according to one’s own conception of Beauty?
Furthermore, I can imagine little else Fannie Lou Hamer might find beautiful if not her community being well-fed and well-paid for their work. The Freedom Farm Cooperative is as much a work of art as any other, not to mention a powerful revolutionary force. In a world where, currently, the compounding effects of racism, poverty, and environmental injustice are overlooked because the media surrounding urban garden and climate change movements are largely dominated by white faces, I suggest we all just take a moment to appreciate Fannie Lou Hamer and her creation.
In “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens (you can read the entire piece by clicking here),” Alice Walker reminds Black women:
“Our mothers and grandmothers have…handed on the creative spark, the seed of the flower they themselves never hoped to see.”
Because of one injustice or another, our maternal forebears did not always have the opportunity to write, paint, or sculpt. Yet, for that creative inclination to have manifested within us it had to have existed before us. Walker finds this “spark” in quilts and gardens. I find it in gumbo pots, repainted Christmas figurines, and in, yes, gardens as well.
Just as Walker identifies the garden as the place where her mother was most visibly recognizable as Creator, I too see this in my mother’s garden, my grandmother’s garden, and friends’ gardens. But I don’t mean to romanticize the concept—my mother’s garden is quite spurious, more dead leaves than actual produce; my grandmother’s garden consists of three trees stubbornly dropping figs, lemons, and pecans with no effort on her part; my friends’ gardens are unruly as Southern weather. Might a garden be a horoscope, a mirror? Beyond that, a garden is nourishment, physical engagement, environmental mindfulness. It is also work, also creation, also art. God has many faces.
“When you've got 400 quarts of greens and gumbo soup canned for the winter, nobody can push you around or tell you what to say or do.” — Fannie Lou Hamer
Fannie Lou Hamer was highly involved in the fight for African-American’s voting rights, but she understood that political action is rooted in food sovereignty—the right of people to dictate what they eat, as well as how it is produced and distributed. Eating is a necessary act of resistance, as one can not survive without eating. Sharecroppers often starved because their wages were not enough to feed an entire family. Not having land of their own, the farmers were subject to exploitation to the second-highest degree (the highest, of course, being the slavery that preceded this era). Exhausted, starved, and misinformed about what few rights they did have, an endless cycle was bound to continue. But Fannie Lou Hamer put a stop to that cycle by recognizing the power of the co-operative.
Though the Freedom Farm Cooperative is not around today, it laid the foundation for a radical reimagining of Black folks’ food sovereignty and food security in this nation. The fact that Fannie Lou Hamer died at the young age of 59 due to complications of breast cancer and hypertension punctuates the need for Black people to control their own food sources to mitigate health issues and lessen the effects of environmental racism (and maybe even racism in general). Hamer’s early death is most obviously a result of the physical and systemic violence she faced, including being relegated to lifelong poverty. But briefly, she saw to creating a better world, better land, for all of us. Will you see to it, too?