In 2014, in what can only be described as some kind of mid-life crisis, I decided to turn our sprawling backyard in Northeast Ithaca into a small suburban farm. The disquiets and ponderings that activated this decision were these: an increasing awareness of the global environmental ramifications of industrial agriculture, the alienation we feel from the sources of our own food, the carbon miles embedded in each bite we take, the unfathomable suffering of the people who work to bring us our cheap food and the desire to have better control over the quality of the food I eat with my family. I was also interested in the slow carving up of productive farmland into small plots, and felt this “third space” of wasted land in the suburbs could be both scalable and transformative in the quest for a better, more immediate food system. At the deepest level, I wanted to understand the implications of my own manual labor and the labor of food production, the true costs of which have become largely a hidden externality in our lumbering, wasteful food production system. This was not some back to the land movement on my part, but rather a decision borne out of my moral discomfort with the food system in which I live, the social justice violence it entails, and how this system alienates us from our own hands and bodies and those of the people who do the manual labor of growing and harvesting and transporting crops.
I set about transforming my 2.75 acres based loosely on the principles of permaculture. I applied for and was granted a variance to get backyard chickens, and then, feeling this did not go far enough for the overall common good, I worked to get legislation passed that allowed up to six hens in backyards in both the City and Town of Ithaca. I refer to this period of work as “the Chicken Wars,” where I encountered staunch and often ill-informed and rude opponents in town. I had to teach local legislators basic nomenclature (male chickens are called roosters, chicken barns are referred to as coops) and facts about where eggs come from (no, you don’t need a rooster). I learned that many of the zoning laws passed to outlaw backyard poultry and dairy goats date from the late 1940s, when there was a White Flight from cities to newly created suburbia. These laws served as a northern form of suburban redlining in the post-war period to keep minorities out of these new spaces.
As I transformed my property, I may or may not have gotten a pair of dairy goats named Beatrice and Belinda. I started beekeeping, planted various kinds of food gardens, designed a pollinator garden, set up a large composting system, planted berries and nut trees and started mushroom inoculation and a food forest. I learned a great deal about manual labor, and developed systems of exchange with friends and Working on Organic Farms volunteers. As a group, we offered workshops on all aspects of what we were doing, and the work I was able to do, made possible of course by my professional salary as a Cornell professor, was amplified by the contributions of many people. All in all, I was living the dream.
Creating this homestead was physically demanding work, but I soon discovered the hardest part was the social labor I spent explaining to well-meaning friends and relatives, and not so well-intentioned skeptics that this effort was worthy and not merely artisanal at best or deluded at worst. Arguing for environmental issues and local food security seemed to me to be obvious. It was not. In my mind, I came to have a keen appreciation for the vastly different categories of physical and social labor. The former invigorated me. The latter drained me, and made me doubt my efforts.
In the summer of 2015, I began offering, free to the public, a non-Cornell affiliated hands-on class on suburban homesteading. When the subject was out of my area of expertise (beekeeping, for example, or poultry health), I brought in experts. My students tended to be from a variety of backgrounds. A six-week course would include high school students, elderly women, undergraduate and graduate students from area schools, and the occasional neighbor. My classes tended to be as diverse as Ithaca.
In 2017, I was teaching a summer class, and we were working in various locations on the property. I had given the assignment to go and look at the various insects living on the plants and in the soil. I asked people to spread out, since too many people drive some winged insects away during daylight. My phone rang in my pocket. It was a nearby neighbor, an elderly woman I do not know well, who had my number from a neighborhood listserv. She was calling to tell me there was a Black youth hanging around in my front garden, looking at plants. I explained to her that this was a student of mine. She wanted to know the class and why “these” students were in our neighborhood. She demanded to know what activities were bringing young people (meaning young Black people), unaccompanied, into our neighborhood. The conversation did not end at all well.
I did not share the call with the student, for she was starting to regard the time in our garden during the class with bees and chickens as a joy of discovery. I did not want to spoil that for her. But a few days later, she and our group had an experience which was instructional for me.
Part of the class involves going into the countryside and looking at old abandoned farms in Central New York. Many of these farms, small-scale and built as fairly self-sufficient family farms in the last century, were made to fail by decades of bad farming policies that increasingly valued large scale production over the family farm. Go big or get out, as they say. I do this for a number of reasons, but one is to focus our attention on the crisis in American farming, where rural farmers are disenfranchised and end up alienated or even exiled from the places where their families had lived for generations. I had permission from one elderly man to bring my students to walk around his abandoned, overgrown farm that was rapidly being taken over by knotweed and kudzu vines.
It was a bright blue and crisp summer day when we all set out. We parked the car at the edge of a field, and as we got out, a number of farm trucks sped past and slowed down to look at us. We fanned out into the field. The young Black woman in our group stepped a few feet into the field, and then turned and got back in the backseat of my truck. I came and asked her why she was not joining us.
“Sorry,” she said wryly. “ I grew up with some family rules. You don’t go walking around rural areas where you don’t belong. It is a way to get arrested or shot.”
I explained to her that she was with me, that I had permission, and that in fact this was safe. She insisted she was not getting out of the truck. I did not push the matter. I know rural New York to be racist and xenophobic, where one is as likely to see a Confederate flag as an American one. I sat with her so she would not be alone and feel even more vulnerable, but as we wound our way back to Ithaca, I could see the marked difference in her demeanor. She seemed exhausted by the experience of encountering an invisible blood-red line around America’s rural areas. I wondered to myself if perhaps she was disappointed in me for failing to see this in advance. Farm trucks slowing down to look at us was all it took. Back home, the tight-knit class had a lengthy discussion about the dangers of learning while Black, farming while Black, being in nature while Black. This woman told us about her experiences in school, being at the top of her class in a mostly white school, but never once having any teacher suggest she go to college, about being followed by security guards every time she went to Walmart, how her heart raced when she saw a police car. She had been forced into a sharing moment with her classmates to explain why she had reacted the way she did. I felt she was doing too much intense and painful emotional labor on behalf of her classmates of varying ages. Teaching someone else about your inner lived experience is hard work, heavy lifting, made all the more so when it’s not voluntary and invisible to some but nonetheless systemic and second nature for you, going to the core of your being. The class learned a lot that day, but at the expense of someone else’s emotional labor. In fact, her perception of exclusion was accurate. Right now, there is only one Black farmer in all of Tompkins County.
This young woman has since transformed her own home in Central New York into a suburban homestead, complete with chickens and vegetable gardens. She has had the generosity of spirit to help me learn how different that experience is for her. My pollinator garden in my front yard brought questions and interests and opportunities to educate people. For her, a vegetable garden replacing lawn was the final straw in her White neighborhood when the neighbors finally communicated that this Black woman had gone too far. She still tells me about the mansplaining and overt racism she gets when she goes to agricultural stores to get supplies. She recently said to me with a laugh, “Some days, I just don’t have the emotional energy to go buy seeds.” Indeed, emotional labor can drain the very marrow out of your bones.
The food justice movement has been framed in large part by discussions of the ways racial disenfranchisement prohibits food sovereignty and access, and yet it regards the movement to buy local and grow local. As a necessary step in solving problems of food access. There is much excellent work being done on the ways race creates electrified invisible lines prohibiting access to more sustainable living. As we confront and seek to eradicate the incredible violence that has finally come to the forefront of White consciousness (and we pray it is not a fleeting awareness once real change begins), we need to be cognizant of the other forms of violence inflicted upon Black Americans and other people of color: Lines of exclusion in the local foods movements and sustainability training. I suspect that my exhaustion from the social labor of explaining my project likely pales in comparison to the emotional labor of one student.
As an educator, I never assume the most important or effective teacher in the class is me. I know well that our students are always teaching one another and us, and often the deepest learning experience happens when students resist ideas, or me, and define themselves within and also against paradigms in the class. I also know that the costs of having to teach classmates and professors about the inner experience of racism is a heavy emotional labor that should not be expected of our students, however well-intentioned, illuminating or inadvertent. Why should our students trust us and their classmates with these painful wounds? What have we done to earn their trust? Are we capable of even handling these delicate and raw experiences as they come to light? Do we use these revelations for healing or merely for our own edification? We like to think we are up to the task but I am not at all sure we are. In this critical moment, where we are using days of national reflection as educators to examine our own work (such as June 10th, the day of this writing), we need to learn to listen and create spaces for students to tell their stories, to wait and keep that space open and to design our courses more critically and inclusively. Most importantly, we need to be worthy of the trust those who share their stories place in us as educators. But, let us resist the urge to force more emotional labor on our Black students who are already reeling from invisible red lines, state sanctioned violence, dead Black bodies and the anxiety of not knowing if this time they can trust their newly woke White allies to stick around.
Jane-Marie Law is a Professor of Japanese Religions in Cornell University’s College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].