We’re a year into the global Covid-19 crisis and I must admit that I have acquired quite a list of hobbies during this time of isolation. It began with an obsession with fitness that soon morphed into a disordered eating crisis as disclosed in my essay “Covid, Control and My Mental Health.” That, of course, soon fizzled and I began teaching myself to make delicious summer cocktails while also “grilling out” every Sunday evening. As the weather cooled and summer returned to the hell from whence it came, I began to teach myself to play guitar. I practiced Dolly Parton and church tunes nightly. I also began making delicious fall inspired baked goods such as peach cobbler and sweet potato pie. Most of those hobbies have come and gone yet, one hobby has remained… consistent and steady, gardening.
In all actuality, gardening is not necessarily a new pandemic hobby for me. I’ve always loved gardening. Some of my earliest and sweetest memories took place in my dear grandfather’s garden, hidden in the jewel that is Western Pennsylvania. My sister and I were city girls, born and raised in North Philadelphia. Yet, my mother and father ensured that we were familiar with our country roots by orchestrating an annual summer trek to my mother’s hometown, Connellsville, PA. Every year, my parents would wear us out all day, perhaps with a visit to the playground or with a day strolling through one of Philadelphia’s many museums. When we returned, they would coax us into remaining awake until it was time to leave, usually around midnight. They would then load us into the car and we would awake six hours later surrounded by beautiful Pennsylvania mountains. We had arrived at our grandparents home, filled with a huge family inside ready to love on us. My parents were clever and mastered avoiding the annoyance of traveling with young questioning children (“Are we there yet?”). Our Summer 1997 journey included a tender trip to my grandfather’s garden. When we got there, we looked at what felt like a giant field full of various veggies and herbs. There were cucumbers, peppers, zucchinis and even rutabaga, a vegetable that at the time, I had never heard of before. My mother helped him till the ground as he watched and glowed with pride.
Five years later, when my family moved to Delaware, my mother took great pleasure in designing our front garden and included my sister and I in her decision making. She allowed us to choose a flower to be included in her layout. I can no longer remember which flower my older sister selected but I remember the flower that I chose. It was a cleome, peculiar and quirky yet cute… like me. I loved caring for that cleome flower throughout the summer and I longed for the beauty that the next summer would bring. When I became an adult and rented my own apartments, I always grew herbs on my window sills or deck. Caring for plants felt like an ancestral and familial gift that I wanted to keep alive. So, when I purchased my home in 2019, which included a quite sizable city backyard, I had big dreams for a garden.
Then the pandemic hit. The newness that the pandemic brought to my already established gardening hobby, however, was a virtual community of Black women who also chose to honor our ancestral gardening gift. I began connecting with Black women gardeners by following accounts on Instagram and joining groups on Facebook. In these spaces, Black women offered tips, ideas and invaluable insight. Throughout the pandemic, these communities have served as cyber embodiments of black joy for me. Black women joked with one another and complimented each other’s plants in ways that only Black women can. And one sister even provided weekly garden twerks for all of us every Friday without fail. As a deeply spiritual woman, these spaces felt almost holy to me. I recently heard Imani Perry note that the scripture “where two or more are gathered” applies to more than just the church. Rather, it is a general call to respect the “essential spiritual requirement of community.” So, of course these communities of Black women gardeners were holy.
And this holy ground centered around gardening, plants and the earth. I wondered, what is it about plants that so appealed to Black women? Why did we feel so connected to plants and the earth? As I took on the practice of meditation enveloped in the peace that my yard and my plants bring, a truth was revealed. The Black woman and the earth are inherently connected. In fact, the earth, rich, textured and life-bringing honors the Black woman’s form by taking on her attributes. The earth, the dirt, quickly adapts and takes on different forms, as needed, to nourish its particular community’s needs. Sometimes she is a rich, deep brown with a tint that reflects my own. Sometimes she is moist, ready to gather anyone who gets out of line together with a reddish hue, as is the clay dirt in some parts of the South. Sometimes she is dry and dusty having brought forth many generations of delicious goodness to sustain the world… she is tired from this labor and turns back to dust. And yet, no matter the form she takes on, the earth is a reflection of her, the Black woman.
Those of us caring for plants have uncovered the depth of our connection to the earth. We have unveiled an intrinsic truth that we too, can be rooted in the earth, in the toiled soil and grow. And yet, in order to secure our survival, we have been raised with an awareness of another more sinister truth. That truth was once noted by Malcolm X, he remarked that “The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.” We are neglected, discarded and living in a world that completely disregards our very humanity. Early on, Black women learn how to navigate living within the many intersections of systemic oppressions. We know that we are three to four times more likely than our white counterparts to die during childbirth. We know that we are paid less than our white counterparts but are often expected to labor more. As girls, we are disproportionately suspended and expelled from schools when compared to our white contemporaries.
And yet, just like the soil, Black women find ways to persist and thrive. Our plants, rooted in the soil, function as living embodiments of our ability to persist and thrive. The plant, to the Black woman, when nurtured and cared for, lives out the full liberation we so desire yet are so often denied. And this denial is unable to stop and contain us. The earth, just like the Black woman, cannot be contained. It persists, it lives, it seeks freedom, demands it and even takes it. She returns like a perennial to take up space. She breaks through barriers and cracks in the ground to taste the sweetness of the sun. She is a vine that spreads her legacy. The earth and the Black woman thrive! The earth takes reverence of the Black woman by taking on her form and we return that reverence. The Black woman honors the earth and the earth honors her, Black woman.