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Real Talk about Race and Urban Food at D-Town Farm in Detroit

Our bodies jolted up as the tires of our car jumped upon the curb. To our right a large green fence lay slightly ajar on its hinges, letting us peak into the wooded area beyond it. Standing in the opening of this fence was a smiling, freckle-faced man. He became animated with exuberance as he saw our professor, his missed friend and colleague, approach him. Her voice peaked with intensity as she ran up and hugged him. As we all came out and congregated before him, he opened his arms, spanning across the fence and exclaimed “Welcome to D-town farm!”
As we toured the facilities, it was clear how multi-functional the farm was. From mushrooms, beekeeping, compost, and vegetable production, they integrated full circle systems in their farm. The farm sported more than one large scale hoop house with tender greens growing inside.  The place was spectacular, but they reminded us that it took dedicated hard work to get to that point. As we came across a huge pile of fire hoses on the ground the crew started laughing. Malik, a mild but animated man with long dreads draped across his shoulders, reminisced; “the water would come from the fire hydrant across the street” He joked about having to stop traffic as they lugged the heavy hoses across the street. “We would fill up the rain barrels with the fire hose. Then, we would dip by hand from the rain barrels and water all of that,” he gestured over to the fields across from us.
African culture was spread throughout the farm. At the entrance stood a museum-style information panel describing traditional medicinal African herbs grown there. A series of symbols appeared throughout the farm. Some painted on tires strung to trees, and others colorfully and playfully painted on wooden pallets. We came across a large billboard style mural. Adhered to either side of the billboard were wooden planks painted by members of the community. They represented the future and the past.  Centered in the middle of the mural stood a purple bird with its head turned, looking back. On the corners lie several symbols that we had seen repeated across the farm. Malik explained that all of these symbols were Adinkra symbols that originated in West Africa. The bird, he explained, represented learning from the past. He went around the various symbols but ended on a flowering symbol at the left bottom hand corner, and said with pride “This one is Bese Saka”. It represents a sack of Kola nuts; something integral to West African society. All at once the Bese Saka represents affluence, prosperity, abundance and unity. He explained “this is the one that really represents D-Town farm”.
As we continued our tour we had our jokes. They entertained us with their stories of animal pests at the farm. Talking about their new deer fence, they joked about their past experiences with us. “These were like old ghetto deer” Malik started. “One night I was out here, it was almost dark. I’m standin’ right here,” he motioned his body up and down reenacting the situation and pointed across from him. “There was a deer standin’ right over there”. He joked, “usually deer, when a human comes they run”. We all laughed and nodded. He shifted his head and exclaimed “The deer just stood there lookin’ at me like what?” “Welcome to Detroit,” he joked. 
Perhaps the most impressive part of the trip was the sincerity and honesty while discussing race. D-Town farm started the Detroit Black Food Security Network, an African American lead movement to bring the Detroit food movement back into Black hands. “I’m not gonna dance around it” Malik started as he began his discussion on race.  He brought up white supremacy. “it’s really complex and it’s a sensitive topic,” he admitted. He brought up a plethora of American culture that is western European in nature; “even our way of looking at time, has been defined by western Europeans,” he said. He talked about white ideals of beauty, and the internalization of white supremacy. He explained something that seemed really near and tender to his heart. “Lots of black people and people of color have what we call internalized self-hatred”. He held up his hand and spoke “lots of us hate the skin that we inhabit” and pointed to his own dark skinned hand. “That’s a really tragic situation, when you don’t like the uniform the creator has given you to move through this earth on. When you despise it, and want to change it to look like somebody else.”
He explained that white supremacy wasn’t necessarily intentional. “People have golden intentions” he said. “It’s more to get people to acknowledge that [it exists], because once you acknowledge it you can begin to work against it”. He explained that in the name of color-blindness, many white folks in the food movement haven’t begun to acknowledge and “rid themselves of the vestiges of white supremacy”. He explains that when they don’t acknowledge it, they bring it with them unintentionally in their work, and he said, frankly, “it becomes more like the work of a missionary…coming to save the natives”
Within the framework of unintentional white supremacy he explained the role of D-town farm in the food movement. “Seeing white people running the food movement in our communities was not acceptable to us, and it’s still not acceptable to us. So that’s why in 2006 we formed the Detroit Black Food Security Network, so that Detroit’s majority African American population plays not only a role in the movement, but a leadership role in the movement.”
As we left the farm and waved our goodbyes and smiles, something Malik said kept ringing through my ears.
“We’re still healing—all of us”


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