IN THE UNITED STATES, African-Americans have most severely felt the effects of being pushed off the farm and out of work. Some people may think that such an anomaly is limited to advanced industrialized America, but there are good reasons to ask if the African-American experience, rather than being an aberration, might not instead prove a prototype for all people around the world whose economies are taken over by commerce and industry.
So let's go back to the beginning of the black experience in America and examine black involvement in farming. To do this, we first go back even further, to Africa in the late Middle Ages. At that time, though trade was gaining importance in Africa, people lived mainly by agriculture and herding cattle and sheep. Historian John Hope Franklin describes that after clearing the land,
Seeds or sprouts were planted in mounds or embankments that had been carefully prepared. Frequent weeding was necessary, especially in new ground, in order to prevent the young plants from being choked. Millet, wheat, rice, cassava, cotton, fruits and vegetables were commonly grown. Dotting the countryside were towers from which watchmen drove away birds and other grain-eating animals.
A Different Kind of Farming
When Africans were taken to America as slaves, their farming skills were still used, but with important differences. To begin with, the slaves were working on land that belonged to someone else.
Actually, to say they had been working on their own land in Africa is not exactly correct. Land ownership resembled the Vedic practice described by Srila Prabhupada, in which "land was given to people for cultivation not for ownership" they couldn't sell it.
Under the African system, when land was not used it reverted to the collective domain and could be re-allocated by a local government official called "the master of the ground." This arrangement provided stability for farming families and it discouraged the concentration of land ownership which strict private ownership fosters. Needless to say, black farmers were more inspired to care for the land under the traditional African system than under the exploitative and socially unstable plantation system found in the American South.
Then there was another difference: traditional African farmers worked first to provide food and fiber for their families and second to sell the surplus, but the American South was geared to growing cash crops such as cotton and tobacco. As I'll discuss in future issues, this focus on cash crops, combined with farming by machine, has spelled doom for African-American participation in agriculture and will eventually spell doom for everyone else.
Officially, slavery in the U.S. ended with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. As related by Franklin, former slaves looked forward to settling on the land and providing a peaceful life for their families. In America some blacks did get land because they received government bounties for their military service. Beyond that, Pennsylvania Representative Thaddeus Stevens introduced a bill granting "forty acres and fifty dollars" to each former slave family. But the bill was defeated by Congress, and for most of the 3.5 million former slaves "freedom" with no provision for subsistence was a mockery.
Often the only way blacks could make a living was to return to their former masters and take up sharecropping under harsh terms dictated by the boss man. One former Alabama sharecropper put it this way: "They were still slaves, but they were free slaves they could go anywhere they pleased. They were unfree slaves before the Civil War and free slaves after."
At least it was a living. But in the next century both sharecroppers and small farm owners were imperiled as farming was taken over by machines.
The Tractor Hits Hard
Although heavy machines began creeping into agriculture in the nineteenth century, most farming was still done by animal power. Farm workers men and sometimes women farmed their own land or helped farm someone else's with oxen, mules, or horses. But as the tractor moved onto the scene in the twentieth century, landless farm workers, both black and white, felt their jobs increasingly threatened. One perceptive sharecropper stated, "Here's what I think on it the tractor's as strong against us as the drought."
Nor were small land owners secure. Machines, land hogging, and laws slanted toward large factory farms ganged up against small farm owners. So from 1900 to 1987 the number of white-operated farms dropped from 5 million to 2 million a loss of 60 percent. And black farmers fared worse.
Between 1900 and 1987 the number of black-owned farms fell from 747,000 to about 23,000 a loss of 97 percent. And though during those years the percentage of Americans who were black remained almost the same (11.6 percent in 1900 and 12.3 percent in 1990) the portion of black-owned farms fell from 13 percent in 1900 to slightly more than 1 percent by 1990.
Off the Farm, into Misery
In 1990, attorney David Harris, Jr., director of the Land Loss Prevention Project, told a U.S. congressional sub-committee, "If the present rate of loss continues, there will be no minority farmers by the year 2000." Mr. Harris went on:
The socio-economic consequences of the loss of minority farmers are staggering. The qualities of self-reliance, independence, and a sense of efficacy and self-worth which have long been associated with landownership will be lost if the current trend continues. Land represents a source of food, income, shelter, self-employment and wealth….
Studies have shown that black landowners are more likely to be "pillars" of the black community and the general community, more self-reliant, better off nutritionally, more secure psychologically and more confident of the future than black nonlandowners.
What happened to minority farmers who were driven out of agriculture? To be sure, many were absorbed by the industrial cities of the North which black activist Elaine Brown has appropriately termed "industrial internment camps." They were miserable places. But for several decades some blacks were able to make good wages there as factory workers. Some but by no means most. While the number of black-operated farms dropped off, the number of black unemployed climbed steeply.
Unemployment Means War
Consistently, unemployment hit blacks harder than whites, and younger workers harder than older ones. And, nowadays, as employers struggle to keep prices competitive, labor unions can't protect factory workers from losing their jobs to cheap labor abroad. So unemployment keeps growing, and crime and other social miseries keep growing right along with it.
I have focused on the experience of African-Americans to study the problems associated with industrialization and the decline of small farms. But as indicated earlier, it may be time to stop regarding the black American experience as an aberration and begin to see it as a prototype for all people when their country faces industrialization. When we look at David Harris's statement about the benefits of farming for black Americans, we can substitute any other racial or ethnic group. His basic claims hold true. Mr. Harris is talking about more than the value of farming to African-American society he's talking about its value to human society.
Widespread work in farming is essential for peace and well being not only for black Americans but for people everywhere in the world. In the United States, racism has made African-Americans feel the crushing effects of industrialism most keenly. But soon everyone else will be suffering similar pain, as small farms around the world are wiped out and the resulting unemployment brings social instability.
What type of social instability? When leaders have no spiritual vision for a practical alternative, unemployment leads beyond crime, to civil strife and war. War can be convenient. It can shift hatred from an incompetent government to a foreign foe, and by fueling the fires of production, war can lift a country's economy out of recession. In the late 1970s, Srila Prabhupada analyzed the sinister connection between industrialized agriculture, unemployment, and war:
A machine means unemployment for the many. The tractor they're using means unemployment for bulls and plowmen. Then the bulls have to be killed. This is going on. If there are unemployed men, then kill them also. Send all the men to Vietnam to fight and kill them. As soon as there is overpopulation [of the unemployed]. they [the leaders in government] declare war so that people may be killed.
Recent experience supports Prabhupada's statement. Machines on American farms have taken more jobs away from blacks than from anyone else. And when people are out of work, where can they turn to earn a living? Many turn to the military. So black Americans have borne a disproportionate share of the casualties in recent conflicts. But we have to remember: any group can become cannon fodder after the tractor has plowed down their jobs. Therefore the question becomes, How can society provide not only blacks but also whites, Asians, Hispanics, and others with satisfying, meaningful work? As devotees of Krsna, our goal is to realize our eternal identity beyond such temporary bodily labels, but to create a peaceful atmosphere for spiritual progress we need the racial and ethnic harmony that begins by providing satisfying work for everyone. In my next column we will look at Krsna's varnasrama solution and see how a fully developed program of cow protection and small-scale farming can foster peace by giving people the right kind of work.
Hare Krsna Devi Dasi, an ISKCON devotee since 1978, spent several years on the Gita Nagari farm in Pennsylvania. She is co-editor of the newsletter Hare Krsna Rural Life.