Roots and Traditions is a recent article published in the 2017 FTG Times a Farms to Grow, Inc Newsletter.
On a recent Alaska Airline flight, as I often do, I read the in-flight magazine. While reading the December Beyond Magazine, much to my enjoyment and surprise, I came across two incredible articles that reminded me of some of the stories I’ve heard from African American farmers, fishermen and women. The first article by Eric Lucas -- Life on the Water -- is about surfers in Hawaii and Polynesian water navigators. The second article by Clifford Nae’ole -- Man of the Sea, Man of the Land-- is about his two Hawaiian grandfathers. I was struck by the similarities of both of these articles to African American farmers and fishing people I’ve known or interviewed on my journey. I’ve always known that my father’s people were fishing men and women from the South Carolina Low Country. Gullah Geechees, my uncles, aunts, and grandmother Mape would be on the creek or river’s edge almost daily. Over the last 18 years, I’ve learned much from African American farmers throughout the United States about their land stewardship values.
Nae’oles two “grampa’s” Grampa Makai and Grampa Mauka shared the same reverence for land and water as African American farmers and traditional fishing people who see themselves as stewards of the water and land. Grampa Makai’s daily routine of going to the waters of Kahului Bay “was spirituality that he practiced religiously” (Nae’ole 2016,128). Both grampas like the many Black farmers I’ve interviewed say that the water and land are gifts of Mother Nature. Both of these groups practice traditional ways because they understand the relationship between people and the natural world and their role in protecting this “gift.” They pass along their skills to the next generation based on their understanding of their role. N ae’ole’s grampas, “believed in a tomorrow because they cared for each day”(Ibid, 129). This understanding also brings about a humbleness of spirit.
African American farmers and fisherwomen have the same humbleness and reverence for earth and water. They possess a high frequency for nature. They can sense things not seen with the eyes, like the scent of soil or the scent of water to determine the health of the water and soil. In Lucas’ article he describes that Polynesian navigation relies not only on directional compasses but the flight of birds, airborne scents, wind direction and speed. “Legend has it that water practitioners depended heavily on smells and senses and that at least one notable classical navigator was sightless“(Lucas 2016, 120).
Lucas’ article notes that these traditional navigation skills had been lost in Hawaii for centuries but since the 1970’s there has seen a revival of the knowledge. As the traditional Polynesian navigation skills in Hawaii were almost lost, so are the Gullah Geechee traditional communities today who rely on daily fishing for income and survival, are on the verge of losing their land and traditions. Like many Black owned communities, the Gullah Geechee people are losing their land and access to the waterways because of encroachment from developers, taxes, and lien sales.
These Gullah Geechee farming and fishing people are descendants of many nameless, but for a few, African people who were on those first slave ships. African people who were forced to construct the Southern agricultural infrastructure out of massive swamplands and entanglements of Live Oaks, Palmetto, and Pine trees that packed the coast lines along with thick forests throughout the slave states. After the enslavement period, the descendants of those first African builders and engineers, created their own communities where they planted, fished, hunted and maintained some degree of traditional African land based practices --a reverence for water, land, and all living things. Still today African American farmers receive their direction on when to plant by watching the signs of the moon. My Gullah Geechee uncle Buster had a boat and preferred fishing late at night with the moon. Like the Polynesian navigators on the seas, African American fishing people rely on smells and other senses also to navigate their world on water. African American farmers also share the opinion of one of the young Hawaiian navigators in Lucas’ article who is bringing back the Polynesian skill. “It’s our responsibility to help keep this knowledge alive,” said Haunani Kane, a woman who helped sail a canoe from Hawaii to Tahiti in 2014, 2200 miles in 17 days using traditional Polynesian navigation knowledge (Lucas 2016, 126).
Nae’ole remembers something his mother said, “I believe if you always keep track of where you came from, you’re never lost”(Nae’ole 2016, 129). This work of remembering and keeping the traditions of our African American farmers is so crucial. Their knowledge is rooted in generations of observation and being on land and water like the Polynesian navigators, from years of observation of stars and wind direction. This observation of nature shapes a people who care not only for their natural world as the source of survival but attends to nature as stewards. Their belief in passing knowledge along as it was passed to them connects them to the past and future generations. This generational connection amplifies their nature frequency or sensitivity to nature in ways that without growing up on the water or growing up on the land is hard to understand. Nae’ole’s grampas’ spiritual connection was undeniable but for those never experiencing that connection words will have to suffice. For farmers with land in their veins and fisherwomen and men with the salt water in their veins like my aunts, uncles, and grandmother, this relationship to nature for them is as natural as the connection between body and soul.
Lucas, Eric. “Life on the Water. Alaska Airline Beyond Magazine, Dec. 2016, Vol 40, No 12.pp-117-127.
Nae’ole, Clifford. “Man of the Sea, Man of the Land.” Alaska Airline Beyond Magazine, Dec. 2016, Vol 40, No 12.pp-128-129.