“For a colonized people the most essential value, because the most concrete, is first and foremost the land: the land which will bring them bread and, above all, dignity.” – Franz Fanon
I am an organizer, a farmer, a mother and a wife. My small quarter-acre plot in East Oakland, California has been the site for gatherings, strategy sessions, agriculture classes, parties and ceremony. On this land I have rebuilt my connection to the earth. I have reclaimed my indigenous Black ancestry. I have learned about the cycles of the season, the cycles of the moon and the dance in which the sun and plants collectively engage. On this land I have learned the role that land must play in the liberation of Black people.
The United States was founded through the plunder and pillage of indigenous people and their lands and on the backs of Black bodies. The byproduct was an accumulation of “wealth” like the world had not seen.
Black people have been pushed off their land for centuries at the hands of white institutions and systems.
Most people have heard the expression “40 acres and a mule” referring to a U.S. promise of reparations for Black people after slavery was legally ended. On January 16, 1865, Union General William Sherman issued his Special Field Orders, No. 15, which was approved by then president Lincoln. This order confiscated the land from the coastline of Charleston, South Carolina, to the St. Johns River in Florida and made it Union property. The same order redistributed 400,000 acres of land to newly freed Black families in 40-acre allotments, possibly popularizing the idea of “40 acres and a mule.” Before the order could take effect, however, President Andrew Johnson rescinded it.
Even a cursory review of the strategies used right before and during the Civil War to solve the aftermath of slavery demonstrate that there has never been a magical solution for the repair or repayment of harm, terror and violence committed against Black people. The opposite goal – to regain power over Black people – has in fact been the constant reality of U.S. history. Like the original Emancipation Proclamation, which sought to weaken the southern opposition by taking away their land, those who sought to keep power away from Black people understood how to use land to keep control for themselves.
Today, 152 years later, land is still power. Land provides one of the main wealth accumulation tools, but above all, provides the opportunity for self-determination.
Often in organizing we ask ourselves, what are we fighting for? What is our vision for liberation? Is it a destination or a process, or is being free and connected to a liberatory mental state?
I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I believe that I have bumped up against a couple truths enough times to know they matter. For one, Black liberation cannot coexist with the current system of capitalism. At the same time, in order to live self-determining lives, Black people have to control our labor and we have to have access to land to create systems that are affirming and allow us to thrive. Having a physical place to build our movement and to reclaim cultural practices is essential in our fight for liberation.
Black land matters. And if it is not given to us, let us be ready to take it.
Here are a few ways I think we can immediately begin to engage in the reclamation of land. Across the country there is Black land ownership. However, Black land owners are on the decline, as Black people have been pushed off their land for centuries at the hands of white institutions and systems. But some remain. Large swaths of Black farmland that the owners struggle to maintain and steward are still holding on. We have the opportunity to support these Black land owners, to help steward their land and make it a site for our collective movement building. We also need to demand reparations, for both historical atrocities, as well as for present-day conditions.
Although we cannot think about land in this country without honoring the fight for sovereignty by indigenous peoples and their claims to this land, our fight is unique. As the labor that built this country we are also owed. I don’t believe there is enough money in the world to make amends fully for the constant oppression that Black people have endured and still endure. I do believe that land-based reparations are a start.
Through the Black Land and Liberation Initiative, a project that is dear to me, we have identified 3 ways that reparations can be distributed.
Institutional Reparations would draw down resources through public and or private institutional coffers for the redistribution of Black land.
Interpersonal Reparations would engage an individual or group directly to fund the acquisition of land for Black people with no strings attached.
Direct Action would engage grassroots communities in taking public or private land ourselves.
As folks move into strategy conversations and dream of Black futures, we must ask ourselves what role land will play. Black land matters. And if it is not given to us, let us be ready to take it.
“Revolution is based on land. Land is the basis of all independence. Land is the basis of freedom, justice and equality.” – Malcolm X
This post is part of the Black Futures Month blog series brought to you by The Huffington Post and the Black Lives Matter Network. Each day in February, look for a new post exploring cultural and political issues affecting the Black community and examining the impact it will have going forward. For more Black History Month content, check out Black Voices’ ‘We, Too, Are America’ coverage.