I’m growing microgreens. Every couple of weeks they are sufficiently lush to be snipped and eaten. They sit on my nightstand, and there’s just enough light, coming from an adjacent window, to feed them. Outside that window, I can see a tree that is older than anyone I know. I photograph it frequently, watching it change with the seasons.
As much as I love plant life—trees and flowers—growing food is new for me. It comforts. It feels as though, in this uncertain time, I am connected to the ancestors, the way they’d often grow a little patch of something for sustenance. From the time when the Old South turned into the New South, which I suppose is now old again, most all Black folks spent a lifetime of scraping and scuffling. Land of one’s own was hard to come by. Despite how often the gospel of “get you some land” was preached, white supremacy wielded its power over the land. But even for the sharecropper, a little patch of something, a rectangle of dirt on which to grow greens, tomatoes, some cabbage, some berries, was protected and nurtured. Even when the dirt was hard and spent, black hands eked sprouts from it, tended them to fullness. And ate from the bounty.
By any measure of politics and civil order, Black people in the antebellum and Jim Crow South existed in a cruel relationship to land and the agricultural economy. Exploitation happened from birth to death, from the fields all the way to the commissary where people overpaid landowners for minimal goods. Black people gave birth in the cane, died in the cotton, bled into the corn. But out of little patches of something, carefully tended to because beyond survival is love, came reward. The earth gave moments of pleasure: Latching onto a juicy peach—your teeth moving from yellow to red flesh. Digging up a yam, dusting off its dirt, roasting it so long the caramelized sweetness explodes under your tongue. Running your hands across the collard leaves coming up from the ground rippled flowerlike. That green is as pretty as pink.
When the pandemic pushed people indoors, it seemed as though there was a quietly reached consensus that it was time to touch the earth anew. People posted images on their social media accounts of their seeds and sprouts and their little patches of something on balconies and in side yards. I joined this in my little corner as the world slowed down. As a nation we were already growing to understand the importance of sustainability and the existential threat of climate change. Community garden projects and recycling plans have proliferated over the past couple of decades. But during shelter in place it seems touching and tending to plants has become both more universal and more essential.
Soulful even. I watched my friends and family on screens as they delighted in collards, berries, tomatoes, and chives. Small joys as death rolled by. At first there was a rumor that Black people didn’t get COVID-19, as though by some miracle of our physical constitution. Then we were told it cast us all in the same boat, a virus couldn’t discriminate. Finally, we saw that though a virus doesn’t discriminate the persistent ways a society does had us falling fast. And it seemed we, Black people, all knew someone, or knew someone who knew someone, who died alone in a ward, or a home, or at home. Caresses of loved ones were verboten in the final moments. You had to stay safe from the virus.
This was the context in which the world shifted for the second time in the same season. Police officers killed Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and more, and more. So many in fact that even if I gave you the whole list I know I would be missing some precious lives that also deserve to be remembered. Being killed by police officers is the same old same old for Black people. Same rage, same sorrow, same politicians’ calls for quiet protest but never remedy. The protests grew like wildfire. People emerged from their homes, hungry to stand with each other, to beat back loneliness and fear, angry, resistant and insistent. From every quarter and dozens of states and nations, people have stepped outside to say:
The plants are growing too. Their slowly spreading leaves are synchronous with the shattering glass, the rubber bullets, the gouged-out eyes, the tanks and bullhorns. That synchronicity is not new. When the Klan mobs charged into Black homes, ripping out someone who was loved, dragging them in the dirt, dismembering his body bit by bit before stringing him up, the turnips kept growing. When the bombs shook Dynamite Hill in Birmingham, and the hoses knocked over skinny brown children, the pecans fell from branches. Plums hung heavy, purple and sweet as hot rage bubbled from the gut through the vocal passages.
In the Black Belt of the South of the sixties, where land still stretches as far as you can see, the place where croppers who were kicked off their land for trying to vote, and where young freedom movement organizers were beaten and jailed, folks ate together in the evening. Sheltered from the harrowing night dangers outside, they ate from somebody’s little patch of something. Simply feted and protected by hands accustomed to subsistence labors, they were cared for.
I’m remembering all that, looking at my little tray of microgreens, sleepless with fear about the devastation just around the corner, yet hopeful too because the dam holding back rage has broken. I want to hold hands with my friends who have been tear-gassed and pepper-sprayed, who I have seen stumbling yet still holding a banner aloft: BLACK LIVES MATTER. The grace of a shared meal seems so remote now. But those days will return sooner than we think. And if this moment of righteous rage turns into a movement that will be sustained, we will need to both fight and nourish each other. We will have to bolster and build more networks to share food and provide care and shelter, not as an alternative to protest but as an essential element of it. It is a lesson we learned over centuries. Freedom dreams are grown and nurtured out of the hardest, barely yielding soul. Our gardens must grow. That is a metaphor and a literal truth. When the bruised and battered seek refuge from the storm, may all of us who believe in freedom remain ready to feed and sustain them.
Imani Perry is the Hughes Rogers Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University and the author of six books, including the award-winning Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry and Breathe: A Letter to My Sons.