Before my husband and I moved to San Francisco, we lived in Southern California, in a glistening beach town along the coast a few miles south of Los Angeles International Airport. The yard of our ranch-style house opened onto a half-acre-wide easement overgrown with fennel, sage scrub, and wild mustards. It was city-owned land, permanently set aside as open space, and soon after moving in, I “borrowed” some for a vegetable garden. I cleared the land by hand, ordered a truckload of topsoil, then built 14 10-by-12-foot raised beds in which I planted heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, green beans, beets, and leafy greens. My parents lived three blocks away. In the evenings after work, and often on Saturday mornings, they came over to help me tend the garden.
In my family, dirt had never been simple. Like so many African-American families, we had a long and complicated relationship with land and soil. For us, having the garden was never just about planting seeds and watching them grow. The garden served as a connection to a painful past, invited us to celebrate our progress, and gestured toward the future. Our garden honored our forefathers’ triumphs and memorialized their struggles. It was about memory and legacy—our family’s and this nation’s. The garden told a story about what it meant to be Black in America.
By day, my dad was an entrepreneur and a business owner. But when he came over, he’d kick off his Johnston & Murphy wing tips, roll up his pant legs, and walk barefoot between the garden rows. He was born and raised in rural south Louisiana and declared that of all the things he loved in the world, he loved to feel his feet in the dirt most of all. He said the sensation of warm earth underfoot reminded him of his boyhood—an adolescence spent hunting and fishing, picking cotton and planting rice.