Knowing that my rural research mirrors a hit TV show gives me goosebumps. “Queen Sugar” by award-winning filmmaker Ava DuVernay and Oprah is exactly what my nearly 20-year research in higher education has been about: sustaining black farming families and communities through land ownership.
Connecting to my first book on the subject, “Abandonment in Dixie: Underdevelopment in the Black Belt,” OWN’s contemporary drama takes place in Louisiana, one of the Black Belt states my research focuses heavily on. The Black Belt Region — a crescent-shaped geographic area that includes hundreds of counties from Texas to Virginia with large African-American populations — is known for its rich, black soil and history of enslaved Africans. “Queen Sugar” addresses the following challenges I also face when I’m working in the region with black farmers and communities of America’s underdeveloped rural South. The show:
SPARKS TALKS ABOUT YOUNG FOLKS, LAND OWNERSHIP
What the series shows: The estranged Bordelon siblings — Charley, Nova and Ralph Angel — struggle to balance their personal lives while restoring the farm of their now deceased father. Season 1, Episode 3, shows a profound scene as the adult siblings and their Aunt Vi, gather for a table discussion about the details of their father’s will. He leaves them with 800 acres, which is a lot of responsibility to carry on for first-time farmers. Hearing this news, the three of them try to come to grips with their current situations: Charley in the middle of a cheating scandal with her NBA husband and Nova fighting the justice system as a journalist. These challenges have the sisters considering selling while their brother, Ralph Angel, wants to keep it.
What my research confirms: After slavery, it’s been a constant battle for African-American farming families to secure and sustain land. By 1900, 75 percent of Southern black farmers were just sharecroppers or tenants. Economically dependent, generations of black residents didn’t know what generational wealth looked or felt like for the longest, which confirms Charley’s and Nova’s initial reaction to taking on this farming venture. However, Ralph Angel understands their family land is key to the siblings economic success in the South. A notion black farming families have to understand in order to maintain financial independence within the region.
CONFRONTS WHITE LAND OWNERS VS. POOR BLACK FARMERS
What the series shows: In one scene, Charley, Nova and Ralph Angel meet with wealthy farmer Mr. Landry, who offers them $850 per acre. Having done their research, Charley points out that this is less than half of its true value, and Ralph Angel adds that the land is highly fertile. Landry fires back that the Bordelons are over a month late planting. Landry also asserts he’s the only farmer in the parish who can produce a crop in such a short amount of time. He then gives the siblings only two days to make a decision.
What my research confirms: Unfortunately, many black farmers from then and now have been shortchanged by whites in positions of power and influence. And once black land is confiscated, it rarely gets back in the hands of the original black owners. Like private white land owners, state and federal laws and agencies have aided in the demise of many African-American farmers owning their fair share of land for centuries, including denying or decreasing loan amounts based on race.
SHEDS NEW LIGHT ON THE BLACK LANDOWNER SHORTAGE
WHAT THE SERIES SHOWS: Midway through Episode 3, the show focuses on a scene with black farmers having a potluck and sharing their agricultural challenges. Afterwards, Remy, an irrigation technician and close friend of the Bordelon’s late father, pleads with Charley not to sell land to Landry. He points out that the Bordelon kids are lucky to own their land, not having to lease like most black farmers in town. Here, you understand why land is a generational, wealth-building asset black farming families and communities shouldn’t take lightly.
WHAT MY RESEARCH CONFIRMS: Being landless means being hopeless in the Black Belt Region. Having land to farm independently is an opportunity for upward mobility for Southern black families and communities. The harsh reality is that rural blacks have had a difficult time acquiring and even protecting land because of factors such as limited constitutional coverage, low educational attainment, generational poverty and lack of opportunity. According to the 1999 Agricultural Economics and Land Ownership Survey, at the end of the 20th century, 68,000 African-American rural landowners owned 7.7 million acres of land. This means at the dawn of the 21st century blacks owned less than 1 percent of all privately owned rural land in the United States.
TOUCHES ON THE PRISON INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX
What the series shows: “Queen Sugar” often points out how black men are limited in their contributions to the land because of incarceration. Two characters, Too Sweet and Ralph Angel, are seen throughout the season dealing with the effects of prison life. Too Sweet is a young man currently in jail, and Nova is trying to fight for his freedom. Ralph Angel is tasked with helping to maintain his father’s land after recently getting out of jail himself. A powerful scene that speaks to inequality in the Black Belt Region is when Ralph Angel confronted the parole officer for a short paycheck. The parole officer says, “No, that’s about right. Freedom ain’t free, bro.” That moment is one Ralph Angel never forgot and also became an impetus for him to work harder on behalf of the family farmland. A place where he is really free and doesn’t have to answer to anyone.
What my research confirms: The Black Belt Region has a history of excluding its African-American residents from economic opportunities and using the criminal justice system to do so. Repeatedly, both state and national government used its supremacy to discriminate against blacks. The hatred was so thick after the Civil War that Southern states passed laws known as “black codes” to strip blacks of inclusion and free movement. These strict codes were to ensure continued cheap labor and place blacks in a near involuntary servitude status. A violation of these strict codes set African-Americans up to pay fines, and if not paid, imprisonment followed.
ADDRESSES STRATEGIES TO SUSTAIN BLACK FARMING LEGACIES
What the series shows: The questions of will and how the siblings take on their dad’s agricultural business became imperative after his death. The land has been sitting there for a few years. Because of their father’s groundwork and raising educated kids, the Bordelon siblings were fortunate enough to have a ready-made structure in place to keep the family business afloat; however, many farming families don’t know where to begin to get crops off the ground and turn farming into a lucrative venture.
What my research confirms: A solid education is one of the best ways of developing a sustainable, rural community of progressive black farmers and entrepreneurs — black business men and women who can compete in today’s global economy and effectively work the land. Other beneficial resources to ensure farming families and parishes are secure for generations is through farming cooperatives and credit unions, which have been key to African-American farm survival. The Federation of Southern Cooperatives is an example that has helped provide resources for black farming families to use the land more creatively. Credit unions and co-ops like the West Georgia Farmer’s Cooperative also open up doors to innovative and financial support.
Visit blackfarmersnetwork.com for more info about my off-camera work in the Black Belt Region.