Land justice and the uncomfortable issue of race

Whether it’s growing your own food or enjoying the countryside, people of colour are asserting their right to the land in Britain. Amy Hall reports

October 10, 2019 · 10 min read
All photos by Daniel J Blyden

Daniel J Blyden was not an experienced food grower when he came across the idea of urban farms, his designer’s brain connecting it with the disused communal washyard at the back of his house.

He asked around the neighbours and learned more about how the yard had been used as a shared garden previously. Blyden got access to the space, and over a May bank holiday weekend transformed it into a flourishing urban garden with the help of a group of friends. Blyden posted a photo to Twitter and was taken aback by the strength of the positive reaction and the number of media outlets who then covered the story: ‘This kind of thing has been going on for a long time. People have been growing food on allotments and things and I was like, “Why have I got so much attention and I’m not even a growing expert?”’

The community spirit and the creative use of space were great ingredients for a story, but Blyden suspects something else was also likely to have piqued such interest: ‘Being a black, young person in a city, it’s not expected. It’s not the usual profile of a person to be doing this kind of thing, but it’s what people have been doing for centuries.’

Thirty-year-old Blyden’s urban garden came out of conversations with other young, black organisers in Birmingham about black spaces and assets. Speaking to academic Lisa Palmer confirmed to Blyden that he was one in a long line of black growers in Birmingham – ‘the allotment capital’ of the UK.

He thought about his elders: ‘My grandparents and uncles and people in my church networks, they would always share stuff that they had grown themselves. It was just always going on in the background. It’s how we’ve collectively managed to survive.’

Rich history

Birmingham is one example of a rich history of people of colour growing food in the UK that is often ignored. ‘The history of black people growing food in Birmingham stems from the same histories of migration to the city,’ explains Palmer, who worked on a research project looking into the history of allotment growing in Birmingham.

Palmer and her colleagues found that communities would often want to grow the foods they had been used to back home. Many came from more rural areas and lived lives more directly reliant on the land and sea. ‘Not all things could be grown but some could. People would be growing thyme, spring onions, red peas – for rice and peas – or they would grow callaloo. It was also about being part of a different community of allotment growers.’

Growing food on an allotment ‘doesn’t fit an obvious narrative around what it means to be black’ Palmer says. ‘Blackness in cities is often associated with being in an urban environment, but actually there are black people occupying these spaces in really complicated ways.

‘Often these are the same people whose families and friends may be caught up in other kinds of representations of Birmingham as a city – for example, the association of Birmingham being a capital of gun culture or some kind of criminal activity.’

Healing space

Ian Solomon-Kawall co-founded May Project Gardens in 2007, along with Randy Myers, a permaculture expert originally from Gambia. It was set up in memory of Solomon-Kawall’s mum, for whom he had been a carer, and runs out of the garden of his council house in Morden, south London. It reconnects people to nature through an arts and sustainability project and runs programmes like Hip-Hop Garden, events like Come We Grow and Open Days every weekend. They work with a range of people, including teenagers, refugees, mums – all with the aim of bringing communities together.

Access to the land is not all about toil. It’s also about who gets to enjoy it

‘I think was a real healing space for me, after my mum passed in 2005,’ says Solomon-Kawall. ‘It helped me to channel my grief.

‘Just touching the ground. Neuroendocrine and affective restoration from stress – the correct term. It’s a space where I’m not judged; there is a sense of equality there. If you give love and nurture the plants and the ground, it gives you that back. You treat it badly, you don’t get that back… it is about co‐operation in its true sense.’

For Solomon-Kawall, the politics of May Project Gardens has become more and more integral and hard to avoid. ‘I think it’s getting more political as we grow and get stronger. I’m quite a sensitive person. I find it difficult to talk about politics, race, class, land justice – that wasn’t my intention but what’s happened’.

He says that May Project Garden takes its politics ‘from the small p to the big P… it’s being in the garden with refugees and supporting them via the Hip-Hop Garden programme, from being a healing space to being in the GLA [Greater London Authority] and performing in front of the mayor, influencing his policy and speaking at the “national park city” launch.’

Political act

The US civil rights movement of the 1960s demonstrated how feeding your community can be a radical political act, particularly when it is not in the interests of profit-hungry corporations or white-supremacist states. Food growing can boost physical and mental health, bring people together and increase self-sufficiency while providing an alternative model of resource distribution. To self-organise against oppression, black people formed and pioneered community land trusts and a co-operative farming movement, the legacy of which is there today.

One of the most famous farming faces of this era was Fannie Lou Hamer, a black woman and former sharecropper, who created the Freedom Farm Cooperative in Mississippi in 1969. The farm’s aim was to empower poor black farmers and sharecroppers to reduce the control of white landowners over their food production. ‘The time has come now when we are going to have to get what we need ourselves,’ Hamer said at the time.

Out of the city

Access to the land is not all about toil. It’s also about who gets to enjoy it. While urban growing may be unexpected for people of colour, the way the ‘great British countryside’ has been constructed in our collective consciousness is firmly as a white space. ‘Urban’, in the context of culture, has become another way of saying ‘black’.

‘It’s almost as if there is some weird social contract that we’re just about tolerable if we stay in the city. But if we venture further then there is something disruptive or transgressive about that,’ says Beth Collier, founder of Wild in the City, an organisation that promotes connection to nature, particularly for people of colour.

Daniel J Blyden’s urban garden in progress

When I spoke to Solomon-Kawall about people of colour and access to the land, Collier was one of his key recommendations to speak to. Collier explains why she is so passionate about her work: ‘I grew up in the countryside, so I’ve always been immersed in the natural world, but what I haven’t had there necessarily is that sense of community with black people – I have had to find that separately in the city. For me it’s a real joy to bring together both nature and the black community and not having to feel like it’s one or the other.’

In a 2015/2016 survey, 60 per cent of white people said they had visited the natural environment at least once a week over the previous 12 months, compared with about 40 per cent of people from all other ethnic groups.

When the data was broken down in terms of socio-economic status, there remained a stark difference between white people and others at every level.

‘There’s all sorts of barriers to access – historical as well as contemporary,’ says Collier. ‘There’s a legacy of either overt racism or hostility, which means generationally there is a sense of apprehension of stepping into more remote areas, and that can get passed down through parents and grandparents. Alongside that comes a generational disconnect of relationships with nature.’

This generational disconnect with nature and land – whether part of the experience of people of colour or the perception of their role – has its roots in Britain’s colonial project, the slave trade and the resulting legacies of displacement, family separation and trauma.

White space

While there now seems to be some excitement about the idea of people of colour asserting their right to the land – particularly in more progressive circles – there is a danger that this will only go so far. As they have developed their work, both Collier and Solomon-Kawall have come up against a sector that doesn’t give the same respect to projects led by people of colour.

‘It’s great when we’re doing press interviews – anything that’s not a financial commitment. When we start dealing with money and finances then people are less committed – they love the concept and PR but they don’t want to invest in it,’ says Solomon-Kawall.

Being a black, young person in a city, it’s not expected. It’s not the usual profile of a person to be doing this kind of thing

‘There a huge amount of whether you want to describe it as hostility, unconscious bias or racism. Not just in the countryside, but in the environmental field. There’s a very condescending and controlling attitude that this is a white space,’ says Collier. ‘They might be gracious enough to share it with us but they’re the gatekeeper. It’s very difficult to operate as a black-led organisation because you’re always met in a very infantilised way, that you’re a child to their adult. People won’t always acknowledge you or see you as an equal operating as a skilled professional in the field.’

Calls to ‘take back the land’ need to go deeper than big landowners versus the rest of us. They need to consider some of the more uncomfortable histories, as well as the present-day realities of barriers to land access and redistribution. We need to construct a new, more representative identity for how we perceive the people who work, use and enjoy Britain’s land.

Amy Hall is a freelance journalist and co-editor of Red Pepper magazine. She is a member of Shoal Collective, which produces radical media for a world beyond capitalism.

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