This story appears in the April 2021 issue of National Geographic magazine.
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.
But my father’s life in Louisiana hadn’t been easy or romantic. He held no nostalgia for the South. As much as he loved the feeling of his feet in the dirt, he hated what southern soil represented. He grew up during Jim Crow segregation, under the constant threat of violence, intimidation, and terror at the hands of white supremacists determined to impede Black people’s progress. He came of age during an era when being Black and owning land sparked resentment; when claiming a piece of ground as your own, to farm or set up a business, could get you killed.
THE DECEIT OF ‘40 ACRES AND A MULE’
On January 12, 1865, in Savannah, Georgia, Union secretary of war Edwin Stanton and Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman met with 20 Black ministers speaking for four million newly emancipated Black people. What will your people do to sustain themselves? the warriors asked the pastors.
Baptist minister Garrison Frazier answered. “The best way we can take care of ourselves is to have land,” he said. “We want to be placed on land until we are able to buy it and make it our own.”
Four days later, Sherman obliged. With Special Field Order 15, he directed that more than 400,000 acres of confiscated Confederate land be distributed to formerly enslaved people. Under the mandate, eventually named “40 Acres and a Mule,” nearly 40,000 Black Americans were settled within six months.
The land grant was short-lived. After President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, his successor, Andrew Johnson, moved to pacify white Confederate planters—by repealing Order 15 and returning their land. And yet, in the face of America’s broken promise, for decades after Emancipation, and despite the failure of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow segregation, Black people have toiled and sacrificed to realize their dream of owning land. —NB
In 1957 my dad left Louisiana for good, knowing that the brightest horizon of his future couldn’t unfold on the land of his birth. He was swept up in one of the waves of the Great Migration, the period from about 1916 to 1970 when six million African Americans left the rural South for better opportunities in the industrial Northeast, Midwest, and West. He moved to California, trading Louisiana’s rice fields and twisting bayous for Los Angeles’s sandy beaches and sprawling coastline. He worked as a probation officer, then found his way into sales. Eventually, he opened his own business—something that would never have happened back home. His business created the path to upward mobility for his family. For my dad, staying close to the land meant foreclosing opportunities. The only way to succeed was to uproot himself and abandon his native soil.
He never lived in Louisiana again, but my dad always said that Louisiana dirt shaped him profoundly; that no matter what he achieved, he defined himself—emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, and culturally—by the land from which he’d come. For better and for worse, Louisiana soil was in his blood.
My mother had a different relationship to dirt. She came from a long line of people who saw dirt as an opportunity. Born in Detroit, Michigan, she was raised understanding that landownership was the path to self-reliance and financial independence. Even in the South, unlike my father’s family, her people owned and worked the land. Her great-grandfather, Mac Hall, was born in 1845. After Emancipation, he left the plantation to settle in nearby Georgiana, Alabama. He became a merchant, beekeeper, and farmer, eventually acquiring more than 600 acres.
For Mac Hall and four million other newly emancipated Black people, landownership held the promise of self-determination. Being a male landowner meant having status in the community, paying taxes, and exercising the right to vote. Owning land promised the opportunity to build and accrue wealth that could be passed down through generations. In other words, owning dirt meant asserting one’s identity as an American citizen and exercising control over one’s fate.
My mother’s parents, Mamon and Willa, immigrated to Detroit in the early years of the Great Migration, expecting to own land again. By the mid-1930s they had purchased 11 vacant lots in Royal Oak Township, a majority-Black neighborhood outside of Detroit. Those lots were, in their own way, Mamon and Willa’s version of a family farm. On one lot they built two houses: one for themselves and their children, and one for their parents. After Mamon was killed by a drunk driver, Willa converted the garage into two apartments that she rented to newly arrived Black migrants from “down South.” She was not just a landowner but a landlord, providing shelter to other Black people looking to improve their lives.
Over the years, Willa sold a vacant lot whenever she needed money but always kept one for her vegetable garden. She fed herself and her five daughters, at least partially, from the cabbage, string beans, and collards she grew. Being able to provide food and shelter for her family from the dirt she owned meant that she never had to rely on anyone for her livelihood. Whether she planted petunias or grew food, her small garden plot was subversive. To Willa, dirt meant sovereignty, freedom, and independence.
Willa passed her belief in landownership down to my mother, who used some of her modest teacher’s salary to buy property around Los Angeles. Now, on balmy evenings and bright Saturday mornings, my mom and I gardened side by side. Dressed in her gardening gloves and brimmed hat, she reminded me that landownership was in my family’s DNA.
I was grateful for my parents’ stories and their southern roots. Working in the garden with them gave me a new perspective on their lives. They were people who understood that they couldn’t sustain themselves and move ahead while maintaining a traditional relationship with the land. They’d had to make different choices. And yet they were keenly aware of how their drive and determination were born of the soil.
Now it was my turn to grapple with the past and ask a new, equally complex set of questions. I was native Californian, born and raised in the suburbs surrounded by manicured lawns and concrete. I had to forge my own relationship with the soil and pass that on to my children. I came to see the garden as a chance for my girls to bond with their grandparents and commune with their ancestors. I understood that I was the first in my family for whom gardening played a totally different role. For me, digging in the dirt was a hobby, an indulgence. The garden was a place of leisure and pleasure, a source of powerful memory and recollection.
For Black people, dirt will never be just one thing. There will always be a tension between soil and tradition, soil and progress, soil and freedom. We garden to reconcile that tension. To make a statement of how far we’ve come and where we’re going. Gardening is our attempt to remember and forget, look ahead and reach back, hold tight and push forward.
Natalie Baszile drew this essay from her new book, We Are Each Other’s Harvest. She’s also author of the novel Queen Sugar, adapted for television by Ava DuVernay and Oprah Winfrey.