Food Sovereignty, and Starvation in America
HANNIBAL: THE FIGHT FOR FOOD SOVEREIGNTY IN THE SOUTH
“Down where we are, food is used as a political weapon. But if you have a pig in your backyard, if you have some vegetables in your garden, you can feed yourself and your family, and nobody can push you around.”
— Fannie Lou Hamer
As the Black race in America approaches its darkest hour, film makers, Omowale Afrika and Frank Edwards join forces to tell one of the most untold stories in Black American history, the fight for food sovereignty in the South. The struggle for African Americans to adequately feed themselves, has persisted in this country since emancipation, and is perhaps one of the most enduring legacies of the period of enslavement. It is commonly known that “slaves were regularly starved so that masters could exercise control over their “property”; but for Black residents in the South, coercion through starvation continued long after enslavement.
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Immediately following emancipation, the responsibility of freedom was thrust upon the southern Freedmen, who, for the first time in many of their lives, were now responsible for providing their own food and shelter. With little to no prospects for employment, and no access to land, the threat of starvation was imminent. Southern planters, on their part, relished in the misfortune of their newly “freed” neighbors. The thought of their former “slaves,” gaining their freedom, only to starve to death, was more than welcomed, and expressed gaily in songs such as the following:
WHO WILL CARE for niggers now?
A PARODY on: Who will care for Mother now?
During Gen. Grant’s Southern campaign, an extinguished American citizen wid de African scent, who had been forciby relieved from his masters corn-crib and bacon-stack, on which he was wholly dependent for support was benevolently permitted to starve to death, with thousands of others, by the Abolitionists; and, just before this desirable consummation, he was heard to give utterance to the following soliloquy, which was taken down, in short hand, by the Chaplain of the Regiment.
The use of food as a political weapon, is a practice that continued well into the 20th century. Fannie Lou Hamer, one of the most notable food sovereignty warriors, and founder of the Freedom Farms co-op, openly testified about the literal starvation tactics employed by Mississippi to uphold the system of Jim Crow.
By denying (or rewarding, such as the case of the informant who snitched on Frederick Douglass and was rewarded a hot serving of butter biscuits for his loyalty.) African Americans this most basic of human rights, the US Government has only compounded the debt owed to the sons and daughters of Americas Freedmen — for whom they’ve yet to repair for the harms inflicted and losses suffered in this country.
As the cry for reparations has once again gained traction among African Americans, there is one man that sits at the nexus of each of these critical fights: reparations; land/independence; and food sovereignty. Baba Hannibal Tirus Afrik, as a singular figure, was the driving force behind each of these movements for nearly five decades. His investment of time, treasure, and political ingenuity literally kept these movements alive. After the gains of the broader civil rights movement, and the dismantling of the Black Liberation Movement, nearly all the notable civil rights leaders abandoned the movement for freedom in exchange for a seat at the Democratic Party table.
At a great deal of personal and professional costs, Baba Hannibal chose to continue the fight for land, reparations, and food sovereignty — arguing that it would be impossible for Black Americans to survive in this country without them. True to his word, Baba Hannibal never gave in, and stood tall on behalf of our people, until he could physically stand no more. In the last days of his life, Baba Hannibal consented to undergo amputation surgery, just below both knees. Having developed blood clots in his feet and legs, doctors advised Baba Hannibal to discontinue his work, out of concern for his health. Refusing to stop, Baba Hannibal continued to work, quite literally, sacrificing life and limbs in the fight for his people.
After recovering from surgery, Baba Hannibal sent out a widely circulated letter to the remaining fighters in the Black freedom movement [excerpt below]:
“Now more than ever, I need all those who have worked with me to push forward with the kazi (work) and mission that we have struggled to bring to fruition to step up the kazi (work). Right Now! I need all of us to internalize the conceptual context of “Pamoja Tutashinde” (Together We Will Win).”
On October 9, 2010, Baba Hannibal would give his final public talk, post-surgery. Within a year of this final public gathering, he passed away. Hannibal Afrik was one of the most respected, consistent, and disciplined freedom fighters Black America has ever had, and the fact that very few people in this present generation even know of him, means that he has purposely been erased from our history.
After his passing, the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan credited Baba Hannibal with helping him to find his purpose. “When some wanted to take my life, it was Baba Hannibal and others who stood with me,” the Minister said, recalling the late 1970s and early 1980s as he sought to rebuild the Nation of Islam.
“Baba Hannibal worked with anyone who was about the business of progress for Black people,” the Minister said, offering one of many lessons to be gleaned from the life of this great scholar, educator, institution builder and freedom fighter. (Source: Final Call)
If we are to secure for our children, what the previous generations were not able to secure for us, we must draw from the wisdom of our most accomplished generals — which is infinitely more difficult, when we don’t know who they are. The name Hannibal Tirus Afrik, should be among the first names mentioned in Black America, by anyone who calls themselves a serious reparationist, freedom fighter, or food sovereignist.
It was Baba Hannibal who stressed to us the importance of moving beyond cries for food access, to the more appropriate struggle for food sovereignty, which are two very different realities. In theory, the expansion of the welfare state, and the network of corner stores throughout Black neighborhoods has already solved the food access problem for Black America — but with food access alone, we have no control over the quality, quantity, or even the definition of the “food” we consume. If seedless fruit, lab “meat,” or genetically modified “organics” are the only options on the shelves, we either eat what we have access to, or don’t eat at all.
Food sovereignty, on the other hand, means we have complete control over the food systems we depend on, because as Dr. Khalid Muhammad reminds us, “your enemy is not going to fight you, and feed you.” Land is the pre-requisite for food sovereignty, and African-Americans have lost nearly 15,000,000 acres over the past century, making the fight for land, food sovereignty, and reparations, inextricably linked. The three cannot be separated, which is why “free the land,” became the clarion call for the Black freedom movement in America.
Black Americans today are faced with a convergence of crisis, as food industry analysts are sounding the alarm that America’s food system, is going in the same direction of her banking system in 2008: Collapse. If Black America is to survive this perfect storm of economic recession, massive unemployment, evictions, and food shortages, the work started by Baba Hannibal will need to be finished — but the question is, are we as a community up to the task?