Black Farmers in America

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In Greene County, Alabama, a deserted farmhouse sits in the middle of a field so overgrown with weeds that the house is completely engulfed; snaking vines and stalks cover the doors and windows and invade the chimney, choking off any possibility of human habitation. Hidden by a curtain of greenery, the house stands as a silent testament to the loss that black American farmers and their families have endured during the twentieth century. What keeps these families from their dreams and way of life, however, is not the encroachment of natural forces but the demise of a culture that supports independent farmers. In 1920, black Americans made up 14 percent of all farmers in the nation, and they owned and worked 15 million acres of land. Today, battling the onslaught of globalization, changing technology, an aging workforce, racist lending policies, and even the U.S. Department of Agriculture, black farmers account for less than 1 percent of the nation’s farmers and cultivate fewer than 3 million acres of land. Experts predict that within the next ten years, black-owned family farms will all but cease to exist. Inside these statistics is a staggering story of human loss that led photographer John Francis Ficara on a four-year journey across America to document and preserve the struggles of black farmers. The result of this journey is Black Farmers in America, a collection of 110 photographs skillfully reproduced in duotone that captures poignant images of hardship, survival, and a people’s bond to the soil at the end of the twentieth century. From depictions of a hand-painted “For Sale” billboard in a farmer’s field, to a farmer preparing for the early morning chore of milking, to a lone figure pausing to survey his land, these photos preserve a heritage and way of life that may soon disappear as these last-generation farmers harvest their final crops. In his essay, Juan Williams provides a historical context for the photographs. From the myth of “forty acres and a mule” to the multi-million-dollar USDA settlement in 1999, Williams explores America’s ongoing struggle with racism and its economic consequences for black farmers. The hardships and joys of daily life on the farm echo deeply in these images. They convey a dignity of work and culture, and they document the experiences of black farmers for future generations.

Description

From Booklist

Through essays and photographs, the author reflects on an America that many hope and others assume is in the past. America’s economic foundation, rooted in global textile and consumer products, centered on southern agriculture and black slave labor. Following emancipation, farming promised a respite for former slaves, an opportunity for independence. But the failed promise of 40 acres and a mule led, instead, to sharecropping and continued racial degradation. Between 1920 and the present, black farmers as a proportion of American farmers declined from 14 percent to 1 percent. Nonetheless, in 1920 some 14 percent of all farmers in America were black, utilizing farming as a respectable means of making a living. Now, less than 1 percent of American farmers are black, many on to a tradition whose economic viability is lost to corporate monopoly and the ever-present racism of the U.S. government through recent practices of the FMHA, which resulted in a settlement of a legal suit by black farmers. Yet the photographs reflect a strength, pride, beauty, and endurance of a dying breed of African Americans. Vernon Ford
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Review

“Awarded AIGA 50 Books/50 Covers, for Outstanding Book Design.”―

“Just as John Ficara captures poignant images of Black farmers, Juan Williams . . . complements these stunning images with enlightened, descriptive, and thoughtful narrative.”―(Lexington, KY) Key Newsjournal

“Elegaic. . . . Makes it clear that something is being lost, that some tether to our agrarian roots will soon be severed.”―Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“A powerful collection of images documenting the struggles of black farmers.”―Birmingham News

“This book is not a nostalgic look at days gone by; it is a portrait of prideful black Americans whose hearts brim with determination, hope, strength, and a promise they aim to fulfill”―Black Issues Book Review

“The photographs reflect a strength, pride, beauty, and endurance of a dying breed of African Americans.”―Booklist

“Images of emotional faces and determined eyes of the black farmers who remain today evoke America’s original sin”―Juan Williams, from the book

“Ficara’s photos show people fighting for, and all too often losing, what they know and love.”―Los Angeles Times

“His photos show people fighting for, and all too often losing, what they know and love.”―Los Angles Times

“The story of the black American farmer is told with tenderness and raw truth.”―Multicultural Review

“Ficara’s extraordinary photography captures what could easily be the last breath of a dying culture. . . . A magnificent celebration of resilient spirit in the face of astonishing odds.”―New York Resident

“A carefully crafted and meticulously researched book. . . . Without question this volume adds much to our understanding of African American life in the United States from the enslavement period to today.”―Northern Kentucky Heritage

“Traces the long evolution of American apiculture and focuses upon the key personalities who shaped and promoted the industry. . . . A clearly written, well researched, and sharply focused work.”―Ohio Valley History

“Ficara’s approach . . . is honestand frank. He puts a face to those he sees as being under attack by the forces of history. His efforts, like the steadfast work of his subjects, hopefully are not doomed.”―Photo-Eye

“Ficara’s photographs, well over 100, are solemn, restrained, dour. He has a story to tell, and he does it graphically.”―RALPH

“Sometimes haunting, sometimes joyous.”―Richmond Times-Dispatch

“Gorgeous.”―Washington Post

“This eloquent book paints a picture of what is happening today to small, independent, black farmers . . . . I hope this is a documentary for black farmers of future generations, and not one about the fading of a way of life. Armchair Interviews says: Highly recommended.”―Armchair Interviews

“”Rich and groundbreaking. . . . Ficara’s images bear witness to the devastating impact of agribusiness on all small farmers, the intractability of racism in the USDA, and the aging of the farm population.””―Agricultural History

In Greene County, Alabama, a deserted farmhouse sits in the middle of a field so overgrown with weeds that the house is completely engulfed; snaking vines and stalks cover the doors and windows and invade the chimney, choking off any possibility of human habitation. Hidden by a curtain of greenery, the house stands as a silent testament to the loss that black American farmers and their families have endured during the twentieth century. What keeps these families from their dreams and way of life, however, is not the encroachment of natural forces but the demise of a culture that supports independent farmers. In 1920, black Americans made up 14 percent of all farmers in the nation, and they owned and worked 15 million acres of land. Today, battling the onslaught of globalization, changing technology, an aging workforce, racist lending policies, and even the U.S. Department of Agriculture, black farmers account for less than 1 percent of the nation’s farmers and cultivate fewer than 3 million acres of land. Experts predict that within the next ten years, black-owned family farms will all but cease to exist. Inside these statistics is a staggering story of human loss that led photographer John Francis Ficara on a four-year journey across America to document and preserve the struggles of black farmers. The result of this journey is Black Farmers in America, a collection of 110 photographs skillfully reproduced in duotone that captures poignant images of hardship, survival, and a people’s bond to the soil at the end of the twentieth century. From depictions of a hand-painted “For Sale” billboard in a farmer’s field, to a farmer preparing for the early morning chore of milking, to a lone figure pausing to survey his land, these photos preserve a heritage and way of life that may soon disappear as these last-generation farmers harvest their final crops. In his essay, Juan Williams provides a historical context for the photographs. From the myth of “forty acres and a mule” to the multi-million-dollar USDA settlement in 1999, Williams explores America’s ongoing struggle with racism and its economic consequences for black farmers. The hardships and joys of daily life on the farm echo deeply in these images. They convey a dignity of work and culture, and they document the experiences of black farmers for future generations.

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