Sankofa Gardening Homes
I dedicate this month’s article to Dr. Charles Mitchell, M.D., and his wife, Vernil Mitchell, who shared their yard garden with me years ago and inspired me to grow mine. Thank you for keeping our heritage and culture alive!
“The Africans who were brought to the U.S. as slaves had left one agrarian society in Africa, to be forcibly introduced to another totally different system in the New American colonies.” – John McLaughlin
The above quote is taken from A Guide to Planting an African American/African Focused Yard in Miami-Dade County: An Overview of Landscape Design and Plants Grown in Traditional African American Yards, from the Miami-Dade Extension Office. The quote reflects the fact that Africans brought to America during slavery came from well-established agrarian societies.
Coming from the tropical West Coast of Africa, many of the people from countries such as Ghana, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Cameroon, Senegal, Yoruba, Mandingo and Fulani were master gardeners. While they had large farms where a variety of fruits and vegetables were grown, they also grew gardens around their homes where food was readily accessible.
As a result of slavery in America, millions of Africans were brought to the Americas. Many were brought to the East Coast of America where they found a landmass very familiar to that of the West Coast of Africa. Familiar with the southeastern land and climate, many Africans worked to grow plants they brought from Africa, such as black-eyed peas, gumbo (okra), watermelon, squash and goobers (peanuts). They also began to grow greens (collard, turnips and mustards), and yams (sweet potatoes). These fruits and vegetables soon came to be a part of the stable diet of Africans in the American South, known as “soul food.”
The yards of many enslaved Africans became the focus of their gardens, in that they could not own land. Their yards became an extension of their cabins, expressions of their lives and places of socialization and bartering (the exchange of one good for another).
Richard Noble Westmacott, in his book African-American Gardens and Yards in the Rural South, stated the following:
“Our yards and gardens are places where we perform all sorts of mundane tasks. Moreover, they are likely to reflect our aesthetic preference and our philosophy of life. In this book, I have endeavored to describe traditional patterns and practices in the gardens and yards of African American families and to examine the ways in which the traditions are evolving. I have explored the thoughts and the impulses behind each design focusing on the concepts of the garden as a place serving specific functional needs and also expressing values, aesthetic preferences and spiritual belief. The functions of the garden for food production, household chores, welcome, leisure and entertainment are analyzed.”
I encourage you to get his book and explore further his study of African American gardens and yards, particularly in light of the recent growth of urban gardening and the green movement, and how African Americans can learn from their ancestors this age-old tradition of growing food in their yards.
In the March 14 edition of The Dallas Examiner, the Sankofa Garden Homes featured Al and Lela Herron and their grandchildren, fourth-grader Brooklyn and first-grader Braxton Bruff, students at Harry Stone Elementary School, visiting my Sankofa Garden Home. In that article, I reflected on how excited Brooklyn and Braxton were when they entered my garden and began picking collard greens, much to their grandparents’ surprise. They were so excited with picking collard greens that they asked their grandparents if they could have a garden.
Six months later, I was extremely excited to know that Brooklyn and Braxton’s wish had come true. Their grandparents have turned a portion of their yard into a “Sankofa Garden Home.”
Upon a recent visit, I found the Herrons had done a wonderful job in creating above-ground garden beds as I recommended.
The garden was well-planned and utilized a variety of materials that were around their home. The scarecrow was a work of art, while the strategically placed chairs and tables gave the garden a warm and welcoming feeling. The landscaping design provided space for their summer garden of beans, tomatoes, squash and peppers, while beds along the wall were prepared for their fall collard, mustard and turnip greens.
When asked how she felt about their garden, Lela replied, “I am really excited about how well the vegetables are growing and how Brooklyn and Braxton are learning about how food grows. They are learning about how to grow food and where food actually comes from. I hope they learn to eat more vegetables and what vegetables can do for their body.”
When I asked Al what he thought, he replied, “My wife and I grew up in Mississippi on farms with plenty of field peas. I was excited when my wife wanted to plant a garden and the excitement the grandchildren showed in helping with the garden. It’s rewarding to produce your own food in the city.”
It is clear that Al and Lela are excited about their garden and are drawing upon memories from their ancestors gardening skills. It was moving to see African American grandparents who grew up in the South passing on important gardening skills to their grandchildren who will pass them on to their children.
When I asked Brooklyn how she felt about the garden, she replied, “I like it. It’s like a human being. It grows like a baby to an adult and passes on and it regenerates. I learn a lot of things about how humans grow and how plants grow.”
When I asked Braxton, he replied, “I liked it when my grandparents created the garden. I like to watch it grow from the bedroom window. I would like to have a garden one day.”
When I asked their mother, Latosha Herron-Bruff, her reply was, “I love that my children have the opportunity to spend quality time with their grandparents learning how to grow and care for a garden. They are excited to see the fruits of their labor. These are moments they will remember forever.”
Latosha is right, because I have never forgotten the garden in my grandparents’ yard.
Create a garden in your yard and let me know about it. Eat well, live well!
Until next month, happy Sankofa Home Gardening!
Clarence Glover, known as Professor Freedom, is a historian and president of Sankofa Education Services. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.