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Interview
Syd Carpenter & Leah Penniman
on Uplifting Truth through Making

On October 27, 2017, farmer and food sovereignty activist Leah Penniman and artist Syd Carpenter sat down for a conversation about the importance of land in American history, its role in African Americans’ lives historically and today, and the intersections between art and farming.


Syd Carpenter
What brings us together is one important element, and that is land. I can’t emphasize how much land—as an idea, as an experience, as content—has been important to my work on so many levels.

One of the most profoundly disorienting, disruptive, and devastating events in the experience of any person or group is to be forcibly removed from the land you call your home. Having roots in that place is your sense of belonging. Without that place, you are adrift, vulnerable and perpetually agitated, and at risk—a state all too familiar to America’s indigenous peoples, African Americans, newly arrived immigrants, and the undocumented. For this reason, land ownership becomes paramount in sustaining those essentials to well-being, allowing for deeper roots extending over generations, and assuring a firm cultural footprint that, in turn, contributes to the broader narrative of humankind. I see land as being viscerally a part of my ability to feel sustained, to feel as if I have a stake in the general narrative that we think of as culture.

Leah, watching what you do, the way you have broadened that attachment to the land to include issues around well-being and sustainability, access to good food, and community—your project, to me, is enormous. It has allowed me to react to it as an artist, because that’s what artists do. We react, respond, and provide tangible content that can be used over time to document what we, as a people, have done at any given time. I see you as an artist because of the creativity, the initiative, and the constant need to solve problems, which is what I do as an artist. But also seeing you as this black female farmer, to me, is so inspiring and amazing, and it’s people like you that give me the root to do my work.

Leah Penniman
You’re so generous to include me in your definition of “artist.” I don’t think of myself that way. But I do deeply resonate with the idea that we’re both motivated and inspired by our love of land and an understanding that land is the foundation of our culture, our belonging, and our sense of wholeness. I’m both devastated and motivated by the fact that we, as black people, have been robbed of almost all the land that we’ve held in stewardship in the history of this country.

From the turn of the century to 1910, our people had almost sixteen million acres of farmland and composed 15 percent of the farming population. Now we compose less than 1 percent, having lost fourteen million acres of land. And that wasn’t an accident; that wasn’t a choice. Our own federal government, the United States Department of Agriculture, systematically discriminated against black farmers. Farming is a highly subsidized industry, and when the cotton boll weevil epidemic came or when there was drought, black farmers didn’t get relief when white farmers did. Over time, that compounded and compounded. Black farmers owning their land was a threat to sharecropping and tenant farming. The Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups, oftentime who were part of the government themselves, would target black landowners with violence, burning crosses, and the “strange fruit” hanging from the tree. And that drove our people farther out. So, it’s not an accident.

You can look at the issues from an economic standpoint of who’s producing food and what that means for the economy and for black people’s abilities to sustain ourselves. And that’s important. But I also believe that when we were exiled from the red clays of Georgia to the paved streets of Chicago and Pittsburgh and Boston, there was a piece of our souls that got left behind. And there’s a little emptiness that we’re looking around and trying to fill and that we can’t quite name.

In my experience of farming in the past twenty years, when black folks come back to land and experience the tilling, the harvesting, the reaping, the sharing food, that unnameable emptiness, which has been empty for generations, is filled. And that’s what keeps me going; farming is not easy work. But to see a deeper healing, a reclamation of our ancestral right to belong to the land and have agency when it comes to food and land is profound. And for you to take the time and visit black farmers and listen to them all across the South and then turn their stories into beauty to share with the world is really profound.

Syd Carpenter
One of the insidious results of the Great Migration, and that not being an accident, is that black people were repulsed by this agricultural history, which is probably the greatest thing that we need to try to reverse. There was this idea that any association with agriculture and farming was a reminder of the indignities that were endured during slavery and the Jim Crow era. It was considered repulsive.

But we were on that land because of our expertise, not only because of our labor, which is often overlooked. We were there because of our skill, especially in terms of growing rice, indigo, and cotton in very difficult locations. Now we’re in this place where there is a rediscovery of that history. And you see folks manifesting it in the need to have urban farms. Reclaiming that thing that was repulsive and made you feel shame is becoming a source of feeling agency and pride and forward movement.

I garden an ornamental garden in Philadelphia. I looked around to see who else looks like me who’s doing this. That made me start to think about my own history, and I learned that my grandmother, Indiana Hudson, was a gardener.

She had a well-known victory garden in Pittsburgh in the 1940s, and it was productive. She had seven children, five of her own and two that she adopted, and she fed that family from that garden. My mother, her daughter, was also an amazing gardener. I grew up in a house that looked like a botanical garden. That took me on this path of trying to find other African American farmers and gardeners.

I found this wonderful book by Richard Westmacott, a professor of environmental design at the University of Georgia. It is an ethnographic study of about forty-seven African American farms and gardens in Alabama, South Carolina, and Georgia [African-American Gardens and Yards in the Rural South (1992)]. He made these beautiful maps, interviewed farmers, and documented just about everything. It was the first time that I discovered someone looking at this legacy in a way that valued it and saw it as important information in the narrative of American agriculture. And I made a series of works, from which Ellis and Anna Mae Thomas (2009–2010) in the Tang collection was one of the earliest. Then, I took a trip driving through South Carolina and Georgia and the Gullah Islands. That was restorative for me and helped reconnect me to my own history. There was this whole history that was beyond just the narrative around slavery.

Leah Penniman
I agree with you that the food system has been rooted in traumatizing people, from the exile of indigenous people to the enslavement of our folks. I’m so grateful for the way you uplift the fact that we have thousands of years of history of relationship to agriculture that’s not rooted in colonialism or trauma, where we were agricultural experts. Judith Carney and Richard Nicholas Rosomoff’s book In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World (2009) talks about how expert agriculturalists were targeted for kidnapping from the shores of West Africa. It wasn’t just a roundup of labor. Europeans didn’t know how to do subtropical agriculture, so they grabbed rice growers and herders and farmers who knew how to deal with the climate of the Southeast and the Caribbean and Brazil.

When black folks come to our farm, I do a word association. I say, “What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think ‘farm’?” Ninety-nine percent of the time, the answer is “slavery.” In our training program, the Black and Latinx Farmers Immersion, we do an activity called “silent hands on the land.” We weed or do some kind of rote task in silence for an hour and meditate through that motion. And one day, one person stood up and saw about twenty black and brown bent backs over the land and just started weeping. She said that the only images she’d ever been fed of our people bent over on the land were images of enslavement, of sharecropping, of penal farms. And to see folks by choice and in their joy connecting to the land was such a profound counternarrative that it brought her to tears.

When I look at your work, I think that it is absolutely stunning and beautiful. And it’s not about trauma; it’s about reclamation. What do you hope the response is to your work? Is it for the black community to move through our trauma and reconnect? Is it to uplift conversations about land in America in general?

Syd Carpenter
I would like my work to shed light on these ideas. Rather than making images of actual people, I’m making portraits of the places that are the sustaining root-based origins of that sense of identity, that sense of ownership, that sense of pride. Our educational system is content with a high level of ignorance in its students and in incomplete stories, especially around how our country has developed and who has contributed to that development. Many voices must be garnered to respond, whether it be through art or activism, to penetrate that blanket of ignorance within our educational system. Folks have been victimized by this intentional lack of disseminating the truth. Why wouldn’t there be well-being for all if all were informed? I see the work I’m doing as shedding some light on this obscure legacy.

Leah Penniman
It’s fascinating how you talk about your work shedding light on locations of obscurity because it seems counterintuitive that the food system would be obscure and that farming would be obscure. There’s probably nothing more universal about the human experience than our reliance on food and land. And yet it’s outside of the public conversation and certainly outside of art discourse.

In African tradition, our storytellers are called “griots,” the truth tellers, the history keepers. And as you speak, I’m thinking about you as a griot using art as your medium to tell the story and uplift the truth about our people and about justice and about society. And it’s a way that I also think about my work. I use voice and I use the land herself, with her consent, to tell the story of who we are.

Even in the food movement of folks who purport to care deeply about sustainability, the co-opted word, and about agriculture, there’s been a complete erasure of the contributions of black and brown people to that discourse and to that knowledge. Who invented community-supported agriculture? It came out of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama; it was Dr. Booker T. Whatley. Who was the first person to write a book about organic farming? It was Dr. George Washington Carver out of Tuskegee. The Sherrods, a black family in Georgia, together with fifty other families, amassed six thousand acres and created the first Community Land Trust. Fannie Lou Hamer put forward the Cooperative Movement. She wasn’t just a political figure, she was an agricultural genius.

I am so grateful to you for uplifting the truth that our people have contributed to this knowledge in really positive ways. It’s not only a narrative of oppression and lack, it’s also one of genius and creativity and contribution. What is the process of creating these works like?

Syd Carpenter
I started out in my art practice drawing because I went to art schools as a child where painting and drawing in a European style were prevalent. I was one of a few African Americans in my college, Tyler School of Art, and there wasn’t the sense of having a story to tell around art. It was art for art’s sake. It wasn’t political. I wasn’t aware of the Black Arts Movement taking place at that time. I was making things and getting credit for making them look nice. There was a kind of emptiness around making. My practice changed when I started to have conversations with other artists and people in other fields. At Swarthmore College, where I’ve been teaching for twenty-five years, I have access to anthropologists, writers, mathematicians, and biologists. I hear dialogue about what is essential and important in all those disciplines. It really ignited something in me as a maker.

Is there an artist presence on your farm, or a residency where someone could just be and react to your farm and be part of those conversations? Do artists come on their own because they know about you and want to make art there?

Leah Penniman
Certainly many artists compose our community of folks who come to the farm for the Black and Latinx Farmers Immersion or other programs. We have a rule that anyone who comes to the farm needs to touch the land, preferably before they eat or take anything, because there’s a giving. One artist, there on a retreat, was so inspired by the experience of hands on the land that she stayed up one night and painted a mural inside of our barn of a black woman with seeds braided in her hair. The reason for this image is a story that I tell visitors that gives me hope and strength.

My grandma’s grandma’s grandma, Susie Boyd, was kidnapped from the Cape Coast region of West Africa. Before she and other women boarded transatlantic slave ships, they had the audacity and courage to take the seeds of okra, millet, rice, and sorghum that they’d saved over generations and braid it into their plaits and into their children’s hair. Nobody knew where they were going or if they would survive. There were rumors that white people were cannibals and were rounding up folks as food, which is true, metaphorically speaking. But they believed against odds in a future on soil, and they didn’t give up on their descendants.

When I think about what we face in these times, I know that I can’t give up on my descendants if my ancestors had that faith in me and in the seeds. Now we have this beautiful mural. It’s probably a growing edge for us in thinking about deepening the conversation between the farming-activist community and the arts community.

Syd Carpenter
There is a need for the word to get out. What are the ways that the word can get out? It’s through art making and interdisciplinary conversations between a farmer and a poet and a musician and an engineer. All of that, to me, is another form of art making. At a certain point, truth has to emerge. Those varied and imaginative possibilities that come from these intersections of knowledge that include artists, to me, that’s the hope. That’s my hope.

Syd Carpenter and Leah Penniman stand and smile for the camera with Syd's sculpture mounted on the wall behind them on the left side of the photo
About Syd Carpenter and Leah Penniman

Artist Syd Carpenter creates sculpture focusing on the history of African Americans’ relationship to the land. Her work has been included in solo and group exhibitions across the country and is in numerous public and private collections in the United States and abroad. She is a recipient of fellowships and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and the Leeway Foundation. Carpenter received her BFA and MFA from the Tyler School of Art at Temple University and is a professor of studio art at Swarthmore College.

Leah Penniman is codirector and program manager of Soul Fire Farm, which she cofounded in 2011 with the mission to reclaim the inherent right of black and brown people to belong to the earth and have agency in the food system. She has over twenty years of experience as a soil steward and food sovereign, having worked at The Food Project, Farm School, Many Hands Organic Farm, Youth Grow, and with farmers internationally in Ghana, Haiti, and Mexico.

Cite this page

Originally published in Accelerate: Access & Inclusion at The Tang Teaching Museum 2 (2018). “Uplifting Truth through Making.” Interview by Syd Carpenter and Leah Penniman. Tang Teaching Museum collections website. (https://tang.skidmore.edu/collection/)

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