Say what you want about Juan Williams, the essay that he writes as a foreword to John Francis Ficara’s book Black Farmers in America elegantly captures the saga of those black men and women historically pushed to the edge of the pastoral ideal. Between January and May of 1865, farming the land would provide freed black people an opportunity to live independently through their own ability to make the land yield crops that could supply nourishment or coin. With the assassination of Lincoln, Sherman’s January promise of “40 acres” of former Confederate land to freed people was returned after May to white southerners in an effort to placate their defeat. Many black farmers were exploited as sharecroppers who leased land from white land owners who were then responsible for paying farmers through a share of the profits from the crops. Even for those black farmers who were able to work their own land and yield a profit, success was a dangerous affair. Hostile white famers were poised to take away land from black farmers and force them to work as sharecroppers. Black farmers could also be killed.

I find it astonishing that in 1920 “more than half of all black people in America lived on farms, mostly in the South” (Williams xii). There are very few reminders in popular American culture of black people’s relationship to land. For example, if you saw Davis Guggenheim’s 2006 Academy Award winning film An Inconvenient Truth about global warming, you could get the impression that black people’s only relationship to the environment is as victims. It was as if Marvin Gaye never sang “Mercy, Mercy Me,” that brilliant meditation on the environment. The song does not appear in the film.

John Ficara’s photographs document the omission of black folk from our nation’s pastoral ideal, their environmental presence, and the many injustices they have endured. I have recommended the book before on this blog but I did not provide you with a link to a wonderful video that features photographs from the book. You can find that video by following this link:

Of course, I am thinking about farmers because U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman approved a $1.25 billion dollar settlement on October 28 with black farmers who have been discriminated against by the United States Department of Agriculture. After I read about the settlement, I returned to my book and once again savored Ficara’s photographs. There are two amazing photographs of Jerry Singleton with his horse “Tat.”

Jerry Singleton and Tat. Photograph by John Ficara in Black Farmers in America

According to the notes, Mr. Singleton is 81 years old and continues to plow with his horse Tat. Singleton, of Lee County, Alabama uses an old tractor for more substantial

Jerry Singleton with Tat puttin' in work. Photograph by John Ficara in Black Farmers in America

work. These photographs crystalize the beauty of making do with what you have. I don’t mean to minimize the fact that having access to government loans would have made it possible for Singleton to acquire newer equipment; he most certainly would have upgraded. What I find inspiring is that lacking access to these loans did not stop him from farming as it was certainly supposed to do. Thus, “making do” represents an aspect of resistance that I had not considered. By seeing the value in using what you have, you may not waste as much time dwelling in mourning for what you lack–and you most certainly won’t spend a dime.

Another one of the black farmers featured in Ficara’s book makes a remark that Ficara’s photographs certainly confirm about these folk. Roy Rolle tells Ficara, “I am not an extravagant person, I drive twenty-year old equipment, have an old car, and do not need new things.” Though I have read these words, American popular culture makes it hard to believe that a person like Rolle exists. But of course we do exist. Those of us who do not downright long for shiny things; who value what we have; who, indeed, have another model by which to live. We exist.