Ayanna Diarra pops on her designer sunshine yellow thrift-store rain boots and fetches her favorite second-hand rusty shovel to give a tour of the latest additions in her garden.
As she walks through well-parted veggies, she smells sprigs of lemongrass, rosemary and Thai basil, taking extra care of her urban garden.
She stops at each bushel to pay reverence as she describes different plants and their development with such detail that it is as if each seed in the ground is her child.
In truth, Diarra’s small urban farm that she built with her partner, Scotty Bryant, is a sacred space.
Dirt between her fingers is a daily ritual on warm days. Her garden is where she learns to co-exist with spiders, garden snakes, groundhogs, boll weevils and worm poop.
“After work, I get into this garden and pull weeds or patch a fence until it gets dark. I am sweaty and funky. My body aches, but I feel light. I love the feeling of being covered in mud or dirt. The soil takes away my stress.”
Soil in Her Blood
Like most African-American urbanites, Diarra traces her lineage to rural agrarian people who lived in the Southern United States and fed America for centuries via slavery and sharecropping. Today, the face of U.S. farming are Latinos, but blacks dominated the industry from the late 1600s until roughly about the 1950s.
From 1915 to 1975, blacks migrated to northern and western cities for better employment, housing and educational opportunities. Others fled the South to escape brutal, domestic terrorism perpetrated by whites.
When most blacks arrived to cities like New York, Chicago, Detroit, Newark and Philadelphia — they were met by more hostile whites who themselves were mostly poor European immigrants or the children and grandchildren of immigrants. Though some African-Americans moved back to the South, most stayed. The relocation is known as “the great migration,” because it shifted the social, political, and cultural climates of U.S. northern cities along with its demographics.
In many ways, the trade-off was a Pyrrhic victory. While African-Americans became enfranchised and established to some degree, many lost millions of acres of farmland and most forgot the skill of growing their own food. Diarra uses her piece of land to pay homage to her farming background and reconnect with a lifestyle that she says, she is most comfortable.
Pursuing a Ph.D. in social psychology at Howard University, Diarra holds an MPH from the University of Alabama, Birmingham specializing in international health. For years, she was an adjunct professor, but never liked teaching. She thought her career was research until she started her first garden in 2009.
Diarra describes urban farming as “ancestral.” For her, if urbanites grew at least one thing they ate, she thinks that they would better understand the symbiotic relationship between them and earth. In fact, farming taught her invaluable lessons about diversity.
Diarra grows over 100 herbs, vegetables, fruits and flowers in her urban patch. If you want to save space or do not have land to grow from the ground, her video suggests that you try a simple tip of container gardening.
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