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« The Age of Turbulence, by Alan Greenspan | Main | Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor, by John Bowe »


Black Farmers in America, by John Ficara and Juan Williams

By an everyday book reader
September 1, 2007

blackfarmers1.jpgThrough essays and photographs, the author reflects on an America that many hope and others assume is in the past.

Old, tangled roots tie black Americans to the nation's farmland. Black labor on Southern plantations formed the backbone of the nation's first economy, an agricultural economy. Slave labor provided the cheap cotton that set in motion the textile factories at the beginning of the industrial age and the rise of the American economy to the best in the world.

With the end of slavery, freed blacks began a struggle of biblical proportions to gain land and enjoy the same economic rewards as whites. At the heart of that gospel lay the failed promise of "Forty Acres and a Mule," which had its genesis in General William T. Sherman's Special Field Order Number 15, issued on January 16, 1865. The general's command allowed former slaves to begin farming on land abandoned by fleeing Confederate soldiers. In March of that year, the Congress authorized General Sherman to rent out the land and supply as many plow mules as possible to the new farmers.

Here are John Ficara's masterful images of a modern version of "twilight's last gleaming" -- what is left of America's heritage of strong black farmers. These photographs are taken with the care required to preserve a precious American heritage. American history is on view here. These are deeply felt memories. There is much sweetness in these pictures but also a trace of bitterness. Today, all that remains of the nation's black farmers is a few older folks working the same rich, dark southern soil as their forefathers.

Black Farmers in America
by John Francis Ficara and Juan WilliamsBook Picture

Softcover: 126 pages, 11.5" x 10.6" (coffee table format)
ISBN: 9780813123998, 0813123992
University Press of Kentucky
March 2006

Between 1920 and the present, black farmers as a proportion of American farmers declined from 14 percent to 1 percent. Nonetheless, in 1920 some 14 percent of all farmers in America were black, utilizing farming as a respectable means of making a living.

Images of emotional faces and determined eyes of the few black farmers that remain today evoke America's original sin -- slavery -- and its aftermath, sharecropping, liens, and peonage. Every image takes us back to the not-too-distant days of Jim Crow segregation.

Now, less than 1 percent of American farmers are black, many on to a tradition whose economic viability is lost to corporate monopoly and the ever-present racism of the U.S. government through recent practices of the FMHA, which resulted in a settlement of a legal suit by black farmers.

blackfarmers2.jpg"The black farmer, working hard for his own, became the living symbol of the strong, independent black man," Williams writes. "Farming also allowed black families to move into other businesses, from funeral homes to preaching to construction, and thus served as the bedrock of all black wealth in America."

Here is a golden twilight to treasure -- the story of black American farmers.

These photographs reflect a strength, pride, beauty, and endurance of a dying breed of African Americans.The artistry of Ficara's lens and his genius at portraiture are exceptional. With this book his contribution to photography as both an art form and a documentary medium is secure. But no less remarkable is his choice of subject matter: working the land is an archetypal image of humanity, the idealized pastoral life having captured the imagination of painters and poets for centuries. In the story of African American farming there is much bitterness and betrayal, but in these photographs that pastoral idealism is not entirely stripped away. We see evidence of America's on-going struggle with race; with the economic differences between white and black America. These images offer silent testimony to the sorrow and sense of loss at the heart of black America's cry for fairness.

blackfarmers3.jpgEach photograph articulates the paradox facing black farmers: what looks like slavery is, in fact, the most courageous form of economic self-determination, and what looks like "the simple life" is, in fact, a profoundly complex and risky economic undertaking.

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