There is a term that has troubled me & I can’t let it go any longer. The word has entered mainstream lingo, is a topic of discussion on blogs of varied genre and has found its way to a recent NY Times article.
What image does the word conjure up for you? An urban garden and a bent for gaining self-sufficiency? A white hippie co-opting dreads, going all natural and eating sprouts? Laura Ingalls and The Little House on the Prairie?
Do you think of self-sufficiency? Growing your own food? Having chickens or goats? Canning? Co-ops?
Or maybe what comes to mind is manifest destiny. The displacement of indigenous peoples by force. Genocide.
Parts of the movement I can get behind: A movement toward great self-sufficiency and resistance. A movement of opting out of industrialized agriculture, big business and greedy corporations. Farmers markets. Eating seasonally. Kindness to our earth, animals and bodies. Sustainability. Cooking. Slowing down. Making. Preserving. Real food. These are attributes of a movement I support! Sign me up. I’m in!
The seed starting & saving, kombucha brewing, cooking from scratch, soon-to-be-beer & wine making, chickens, goats, canning, bees, knitting & crafting… it’s what I do. Ok, not the goats. I’m still holding out for the development of a nice backyard pygmy dairy cow. (Seriously! How fantastic would that be!?)
What’s in a title? A wander through the DIY or gardening section of any bookstore will show you that self-sufficiency is big. Going local is big. Organics are big. Edible gardening is big. The term homestead is tossed around in conjunction with these things a lot these days. A quick search turned up a handful of books with ‘homestead’ in the actual title. Titles such as: Deliberate Life: The Ultimate Homesteading Guide , The Urban Homestead, The Backyard Homestead and Homesteading: A Back to the Basics Guide. Don’t get me wrong. I have some of the books listed and they are fairly informative and useful, not to mention inspiring! I’m into the activities. Use of the word homestead… not so much. The word is capital-L-loaded. Loaded with history, loaded with power, loaded with privilege, LOADED!
When I hear ‘homestead’ I think manifest destiny & rugged individualism. A bit less resistance & self-sufficiency and more “Get out of our way – we own this place. You know, cuz it’s our God-given right. So move along. This is our land now. Mine, mine, mine!”
When I think ‘homestead,’ I think racism, colonization and genocide. Not sun-warmed tomatoes, string beans and kale. There is too much tainted history wrapped up in the term.
A Bit of History
The concept of manifest destiny was popularized around the 1840’s with the basic premise being that the white folks had the God-given right to expand their control from the Atlantic to Pacific Oceans (and later the Philipines, Guam, Puerto Rico and Hawai’i) obliterating cultures, peoples and traditions throughout the Americas & beyond. Sadly, this imperialist and colonialist ideology on the part of the US continues today. For current trends, see Arizona (here, here & here).
The Homestead Act of 1862 gave an applicant land rights to 160 acres outside of the original 13 colonies stolen/colonized land. While the Act technically allowed freed slaves access, very few attained land. Access to the capital necessary was not available. Slaves had just been freed around the same time and had little power to negotiate with the local white authorities that often enacted unjust means of social control.
“The greed of Americans for money and land was rejuvenated with the Homestead Act of 1862. In California and Texas there was blatant genocide of Indians by non-Indians during certain historic periods. In California, the decrease from about a quarter of a million to less than 20,000 is primarily due to the cruelties and wholesale massacres perpetrated by the miners and early settlers. Indian education began with forts erected by Jesuits, in which indigenous youths were incarcerated, indoctrinated with non-indigenous Christian values, and forced into manual labor. These children were forcibly removed from their parents by soldiers and many times never saw their families until later in their adulthood. This was after their value systems and knowledge had been supplanted with colonial thinking. One of the foundations of the U.S. imperialist strategy was to replace traditional leadership of the various indigenous nations with indoctrinated “graduates” of white “schools,” in order to expedite compliance with U.S. goals and expansion.” – Sharon Johnston
Homesteading also conjures up the idea of rugged individualism. A concept that came forth as part of so-called “Frontier Culture” and full of the crap notion that we all have equal opportunity and everyone just needs to pull themselves up by their bootstraps..
Howard Zinn has said:
“It is an irony that these rugged individuals so loved individualism that they ganged up together to enslave black people, steal land from Mexico, and carry out an ethnic cleansing of the continent. At other times they ganged up to abuse and mistreat, among others within their borders, Chinese people and Japanese people and Jews and Catholics, before ganging up to abuse peoples of Central and South America and so on around the world. A nation of individuals saying, “I am an individual. Don’t blame me for the collective crimes of this country.”
Emma Goldman also criticizes the concept:
“Rugged individualism’ has meant all the ‘individualism’ for the masters, while the people are regimented into a slave caste to serve a handful of self-seeking ’supermen.’… Their ‘rugged individualism’ is simply one of the many pretenses the ruling class makes to mask unbridled business and political extortion.”
I am not going to go further in to this, but the advancement of homesteaders to the plains, abandonment of indigenous farming methods and subsequent unsustainable farming practices also lead (in part) to the Dust Bowl.
Generally gentrification is when there is an influx of new homeowners (typically white, young professionals) move into previously “undesirable” areas (by way of a relatively inexpensive ‘buy-in’) while people of color are displaced (essentially forced from their homes). Gentrification parallels the Homestead Act in that whites gain land ownership at a ‘bargain’ price at the displacement of a disproportionate number of people of color who are often not in a position to buy. It is my observation (from both “real life” and in the “blogly way”) that the white urban homesteading frequently occurs in gentrified neighbourhoods.
The current “urban homestead movement” is a largely white dominant movement. White folks are the people using the term homestead (and getting book deals and/or media attention,) not people of color. When we white people take up a cause and then label it with a term that is offensive, painful, exclusive and ignorant of the historical implications – we have seriously fucked up. It is the way we re-enact racism and play out micro-aggressions.
(**I have even heard talk of “Heritage Skills” used in conjunction with the activities commonly attributed to urban homesteading. Umm… seriously? WTF?? Whose heritage?!)
Plus, the urban homestead movement and its appeal to white dominant culture through the collective nostalgia for the pioneer days, invisibilizes the urban farming and collective resistance of people of color. There are countless groups, organizations, families and individuals doing phenomenal work, none of whom invoke the word homestead. Will Allen (and Growing Power), 2 Brown Chicks Farm (check out their community based projects!), The People’s Grocery and Clean Greens Farm to name a few. Groups that are very active in food justice, edible gardening, sustainability, equality, outreach and community building.
These are the reasons that I am involved in urban farming/gardening, not to reproduce racism through my use of colonialist discourse. Resistance to terminology such as “homestead” is resisting racist structures (language, history, power, knowledge) which are deeply intertwined with the global capitalist agro-industrial complex.
Make sense? We can talk more! Now pass me my SCOBY I’ve got some fermenting to do!