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Stories help us to see others, they also tell us who we are

Stories can change the way we look at the world

There is a little stir currently happening over in the world of sustainable agriculture. It is an interesting time – both refreshing and disheartening to see. The short version of the story is that a farmer named Chris Newman at Sylvanaqua Farms wrote this article about how sustainable farms are not really sustainable. He focused on the trials of farming as a business; the fees, licensing, regulation, and business sense needed on top of the hardships of farming sustainably. Basically, he summed up all the things in local farming that I found to be incredible obstacles when I wrote my thesis and he threw in a few more I had not considered. In fact, I really wish I would have found Chris’ article while I was in the throes of finalizing my thesis, but it was not on my radar and I did not find it until earlier this summer.

From there, another farmer, a big guy in the sustainable farming world named Joel Salatin, decided to take this as his entry point into the conversation of equity and justice in farming. I am not going to link his blog post here, but it is easy to find in an online search if you are interested. Chris’ original blog was not about the things that Joel targeted in his response, instead Joel responded to Chris’ blog by attacking Chris as a farmer. I think that maybe old Joel was feeling awkward and reactive and thought that writing that response was his way to join in a larger conversation about privilege and justice, but in the end he came off as colonial, patriarchal, and racist. And let me reiterate that he did not even address what Chris’ original article was about. Chris wrote a response to that blog post, answering Joel's assertions and pointing out what was happening, and Joel continued to spiral out. All I could think about when I read all this was the Brené Brown podcast on Shame and Accountability and how Joel kept doubling down. Despite the fact that I will probably never mention Joel again without thinking of this exchange, I do hope that he tries to understand what happened and one day sees himself, without shame but with accountability.

One of the things that I have found feeds into this inability to see oneself is a belief that you know the entire story about other people when you are really just repeating stereotypes. I was not surprised when I learned that anti-racist ideology focuses on learning multiple stories to help unlearn hierarchical thinking. One of the biggest ways that we can combat stereotypes and work on our own underlying bias is to learn stories about other people. There is great emphasis on the importance of storytelling in anthropology also. I have always been a curious and observant person, so listening to and learning stories about others is something that I enjoy. Before I took courses in anthropology, I looked to stories to find out more about a person. Through anthropology courses, I learned that stories also could help us to understand history and the cultures of groups of people.

I recently learned a story that completely changed the way I look at a part of history that we all learn about in grade school. Since about the fifth grade I have heard about the triangle trade or the Colombian Exchange in history class. I remember how it was somewhat glossed over in class, the teachers would mention how slavery was one part of this triangle that moved people, foods, and goods between Europe, Africa, and the United States. It was spoken about in a detached, analytical manner that was a frank telling of the past without any emphasis of the traumatic and strange process that was taking place. The people who were enslaved were not spoken of as people, and the idea of slavery was somewhat rushed in its explanation. Sometimes when I think back to these lessons, I wonder if the teachers themselves were just so uncomfortable discussing it that they did not know what to say.

When I learned about the Colombian Exchange in college, it was different, but still sort of the same. The books that I read spoke of the treatment of enslaved Africans in a way that they were spoken of as people, but people represented like a static character in theater – a people with one personality and perspective, with no detail about their history or emotion beyond the obvious terror of being kidnapped in such a drastic and awful manner. The Colombian Exchange that I learned about in academia was evaluated for how it created the first steps into capitalism through the manipulation of people on all sides of the triangle. Although it was a more critical telling of history, it was still just one note.

I found out about Leah Penniman and Soul Fire Farm when I was learning about the history of Black farmers and putting together a presentation for our Slow Food discussions on equity and food justice. I would like to think that I would have found out about Soul Fire Farm anyway, because of my interests in food justice, but I cannot be sure. Either way, this one minute and twenty second clip where Leah Penniman explains braiding seeds to begin her presentation at the Oxford Farm Conference completely changed how I think of the enslaved Africans who were kidnapped during the triangle trade.

(the clip ends at 4:25 but her entire presentation is pretty amazing)

In the clip, Leah Penniman calls upon and thanks her ancestor, Susie Boyd from the Dahomey region of Ghana, West Africa. Leah tells Susie's story to show us a different part of history that shows depth of character and honestly, a way of reacting to a situation that is creative, ingenious, and resilient. Her story has given me a newfound respect, reverence, and gratitude for the ancestors who had the resilience and forward-thought to care for their future generations and also through braiding those seeds, brought everyone so many foods that are now a large part of all of our diets.

I have been studying food and farming for over eight years now. For all I have learned, Leah’s story completely transformed my understanding of the past. Her story also creates a way to discuss the Colombian Exchange, slavery, and the history of African American people in a way that can both do justice to telling an honest history, and also can present people from the past in a way that shows resilience and humanity, which is a part of the story that I think is sorely lacking from our conversation. Through learning stories like this we can start to look at the past as more than just a flat story that we are forced to learn and begin to see the humanity in each other.

Learning my own story

Once I heard Leah Penniman’s story of braiding seeds, I added it to the list of things that I want to discuss when I talk about food history. I also started to wonder about my own ancestors. Although the curiosity started to build about my past, I really did not even know how to go about looking into my own family history without swabbing my cheek for an ancestry test, and the idea of my information being sold or reaching family that I may not want to reach always kept me from looking into that more.

It was Morgan and Vanessa at Girl Trek that helped me to ask the right questions after that. I came to think about these things more by listening to their Black History Bootcamp. At Girl Trek they have this ‘daughters of’ practice that they do that works sort of like calling ancestors or saying a prayer. As Morgan one day explained, the daughters of say their maternal ancestral path – like I am Kelly, daughter of Liz, daughter of Florence, daughter of --- before beginning something like a meeting or a presentation, in order to call on the power of their ancestors as well as begin with reverence for those who have brought them there.

I thought about it and realized that all I had was Kelly, Liz, and Florence. I had no clue what my grandmother’s mother’s name was, just that she was from the Velez side of the family. Little did I know how much this maternal ancestry question would help me to learn.

I texted my mom and asked her what she knew and she told me that Florence’s mother was named María Teresa, but she could not remember the name of María Teresa’s mother. When she was a kid, they just called her grandmother Agüe. When I asked what Agüe means, my mother said they used it as a term like Gram, which is what my kids call my mother. I was not sure if the trail would stop at this point or not, but I liked the question and so I decided I would ask my aunt Mayra. I labeled Mayra as the family historian years ago, when she made videos of all our family members to commemorate our huge family.

Mayra had made the videos about my grandfather's line (Abuela Carmen Sanchez is my grandfather's mother), and not my grandmother's line (Abuela María Teresa is my grandmother's mother), but there is good reason for me looking to her. Something that makes our families (particularly Mayra’s and her siblings and my mom’s and her siblings) unique is our double relation. My aunt Mayra’s mother and my mom’s mother are sisters, and Mayra’s father and my mom’s father are brothers, so we are doubly related. Mayra’s daughter, Michelle, is my double cousin. Michelle has the same great grandparents as I do.

Back to the story - When I asked Mayra the question about our mother's mothers, she told me a little more about Agüe and said she was a seamstress. María Teresa, Agüe's daughter, was also a seamstress and many members of our family have an attraction to creating things in that crafting way. I began to think about how I am drawn to making things and how difficult it can be to explain why or how this is a part of who I am. Is it possible that we can inherit such a thing as an interest in crafting? Is it because I watched my grandmother paint ceramics and sew beautiful garments that I have this attraction to making things? Can it be a part of my nature to be an artisan? These were all thoughts that began to unfold in my mind as I learned more about my family’s history.

Mayra could not recall Agüe’s name right then either, so she put me in touch with my cousin, Michelle. Michelle and I do not talk much or often, but there is a certain family bond between many of us cousins where we can pick up like no time has passed and we rather enjoy finding reasons to touch base. Michelle is on an ancestry site and has found out a lot about our family’s history, she has even helped to find family members we did not know that we had. I have such respect for the way she and Mayra have preserved our history, I did not know much about any of this before messaging them.

Michelle told me that Agüe’s name was Ramona Salgado. It is said that she was from Africa, but Michelle said that may have meant that Ramona was descended from some enslaved people who were brought to the island before her. Michelle said that Ramona never married María Teresa’s father. He was from a wealthier family. Michelle did not have much information about her beyond that, but she did tell me a little bit about other family members.

Before publishing this blog, I messaged Michelle again and she told me one more tidbit... she had gone back and looked at María Teresa’s birth certificate, which had been filled out by Ramona Salgado. Although it did not list her father on the certificate, it did list Ramona's mother's first name - Teresa.

After messaging Michelle, I sent my mom a text and told her what I had found out. Michelle’s details were enough to remind my mother of the story of what happened. María Teresa told my mother the story of her father when my mother was a child. Ramona was originally a house servant for the wealthy family whose son got her pregnant. When she became pregnant, Ramona left her job and moved to an apartment above a bookstore, where she began working as a seamstress to support herself and her daughter. María Teresa assisted Ramona and saw this as a good way to be self-sufficient and soon became a seamstress herself.

When my mom told me that story, it made an incredible difference to my understanding of our history and also in understanding myself. It was easy to be somewhat detached in hearing that the wealthy son never married Ramona when Michelle wrote it. It was different to hear that Ramona worked for the family and basically had to stop working there because she was pregnant. Although I will never know the state of any of those relationships when all this happened, I know the crush of being a single parent and the need for a way to be self-sufficient. The story of the past helped me to see my ancestors and myself as more resilient and creative than I ever knew.

The difference knowing this story makes to my sense of self and my direction in life is quite astounding. Not only do I think of Ramona often and feel my connection to her strongly now, but I also have a different sense of purpose. I do not think that I will ever struggle to explain my artisan tendencies as much as I have or look at my path in life in quite the same light. I still have a lot to learn about my own ancestors and the past. I would like to learn more stories about ancestors like Ramona, so we can remember and thank the people who have brought us to where we are today. It is incredible to me how learning about our past can help to guide us to or affirm us in our future.

This is my grandmother Florence's yarn. I have had it since I was about 13 or 14 years old. When my grandmother passed away there were a few odd things that no one else wanted that I begged my mom to have. I have this yarn and I have a basket of embroidery thread. I have been carrying this yarn around with me for 26 or 27 years now. During that same time, I have acquired and gotten rid of about 5 houses worth of material objects - couches, beds, clothes, technology of all kinds - but through it all I have always held on to this yarn and the embroidery thread. I never knew why it mattered, but I always knew I wanted to keep it.

After I learned about Ramona and María Teresa I found a hat pattern that I really wanted to try to make. It's in a crochet book I have had for a while. I've looked at this hat a handful of times before with no real interest in making it. I ordered some orange yarn recently and it was a lot thinner than I expected. I decided to look through my it girl crochet book one more time for inspiration and I saw this pattern again. I thought it would be perfect paired with my grandmother's yarn. And I was right. It's my new favorite hat and it fits me perfectly.

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