The Colour of the Soil
The Colour of the Soil

The Colour of the Soil

How the discovery of the lies in one part of America’s agrarian tradition led to the discovery of deep truths in another.

October 8 th 2020

In 2016, I wrote a piece on agrarianism for Comment, considering the changes wrought in the world of farming by the Industrial Revolution, and arguing for a system of farming that put health and sustainability before machine efficiency. I was asked by the magazine’s editor to consider how the book I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition—written by the self-named “Southern Agrarians” in the early twentieth century—fit into the agrarian canon. I bought a copy of the book and perused a couple of its essays briefly before adding some notes and quotes to my piece.

My argument therein was that the Southern Agrarians, arguing as they did against industrialism and for the agrarian nature of the South, were fighting for the sort of modest, self-sufficient farms that advocates like Wendell Berry have also argued for. I wrote that they were arguing against a “technological ‘revolution’ applied to farming.” I saw their work, at the time, as an argument for the yeoman farmer: “not arguing for a return to the antebellum plantation and slave labour . . . [but rather] defending a preservation of the smaller-scale, self-sufficient farms that characterized many Southern communities.”

In all truth, I forgot this piece existed until a few weeks ago. When I reread the piece, however, I immediately felt sick to my stomach. I knew my depiction of the Southern Agrarians was wrong, even though I had not revisited the book since I skimmed it four years ago. Call it suspicion, intuition, or the prompting of a pricked conscience: I began researching the Southern Agrarians—this time, delving into their background and their work and reading the entirety of I’ll Take My Stand word for word, not just briefly perusing a few pages from the book. I was filled with horror by what I discovered.

Of the twelve authors who penned the book, ten explicitly defended and upheld segregation during their lifetimes. Most also defended slavery in the Old South in some way, shape, or form. These authors included Donald Davidson, John Gould Fletcher, Lyle H. Lanier (outside of I’ll Take My Stand, Lanier published scientific racism, arguing for the biological supremacy of white people), Stark Young, Allen Tate, Andrew Nelson Lytle, Herman Clarence Nixon, Frank Lawrence Owsley, John Crowe Ransom, and Robert Penn Warren. I was unable to find outside quotes or writings by H.B. Kline or John Donald Wade confirming their positions on these issues, but their inclusion in this volume suggests they agreed with the rest of the Twelve Southerners. Robert Penn Warren, for his part, renounced his views on segregation later on in life. He also distanced himself from the rest of the Twelve Southerners, and suggested that Donald Davidson’s white supremacy “ignores the arguments from political justice or Christian charity.”

The most horrific instances of racism in the book are contained in the essay by Frank Lawrence Owsley, which bemoans the loss of slavery and decries the freedom of “half savage blacks.” His essay is unquotable in its atrocious racism and embittered defense of Southern slavery and antebellum tradition. I cannot believe I did not read it, did not see it, or allow its abuses to colour my perception of this book.

But almost every single essay contains a word here, a sentence there, underlying the larger picture of white supremacy that the volume espouses. What’s more, contrary to my suggestion that the volume was meant to defend “smaller-scale, self-sufficient farms,” several essays are explicitly written in defense of Southern slavery, and a system of agriculture based on that slavery. In his essay, Stark Young writes, “At the outset we must make it clear that in talking of Southern characteristics we are talking largely of a certain life in the old South, a life founded on land and the ownership of slaves. Of the other people living in the South of that epoch we know less. . . . It is true that our traditional Southern characteristics derive from the landed class.”

In “The Hind Tit,” Andrew Nelson Lytle writes together of the “victorious planter” and “the small yeoman farmer,” and argues that “when Confederate defeat destroyed the planter as a class, it upset the balance of the whole.” Lytle also uses the n-word in his essay at one point.

John Crowe Ransom has the audacity in his essay to suggest that “slavery was a feature monstrous enough in theory, but, more often than not, humane in practice.”

The book itself is dedicated to a Vanderbilt University professor named Walter L. Fleming, to whom “some [of the authors] owe doctrine and example, and all would offer this expression of perfect esteem.” Fleming was born on an Alabama plantation, and his father was a planter and slave owner who fought in the Confederate army as a cavalryman. The chapters I read from his history of Alabama are strewn throughout with white supremacy and defenses of slavery.

What’s more, the condemnations of industrialism in the book have nothing to do with changes to agricultural production. They are almost entirely aimed at the spread of factories and industrial production into the South, the authors’ fears of encroaching urbanism and Northern “values” or systems of economic production that threaten the agricultural nature of the South. Throughout, the cruel irony of the authors’ words is bewildering to behold: time and again, they repudiate the “exploitation” of the South by the North, along with the North’s efforts to “enslave” whites to factories or mindless labour that might hamper their leisure, their artistic endeavors, or their agrarian traditions. The mental gymnastics required to say such things alongside staunch defenses of slavery cannot be comprehended.

Sin and depravity infest every vocation, tempting each toward exploitation and abuse. Farming is no different.

As I discovered or read each of these things, I cannot express the deep revulsion I felt over my own delusional writings of four years ago. How did I not see this? Why did I not truly, deeply read the book? I have asked myself this question, over and over again, over the past several weeks. I am utterly ashamed of what I wrote, and ashamed at my lack of due diligence when originally approaching I’ll Take My Stand. I didn’t even know until a few days ago that the title of the book is taken from the song “(I Wish I Was In) Dixie’s Land,” an anthem of the Confederacy throughout the Civil War.

That I did not suspect the Southern Agrarians of racism or white supremacy, and thus did not read their work more carefully or approach it with greater suspicion, seems to have stemmed from a couple facts. First, I had heard conservatives I respected laud I’ll Take My Stand, noting how much the book shaped their own political thought. Reviews I read of the book (even many of the summaries I’ve found in recent weeks) focused on its condemnations of industrialism, its lauding of past heritages and traditions, and its advocacy for “subsistence farming.” Conservative authors have for decades, it seems, excused or belittled the white supremacy in this book. Trusting them as I did, I neglected to explore it further, or to question the summaries I read.

But additionally, I would say that when it comes to questions of racism and systemic injustice, I have been woefully, horribly ignorant for most of my life. I grew up in Idaho, a rural Western state that is over 90 percent white. I remember hearing people, growing up, argue that the Civil War was a battle over “states’ rights,” not slavery or white supremacy. I heard people say that the civil rights movement had “fixed” racism. The blindness and ignorance this caused, in my writing and in my personal life, have only become clearer to me with every year.

None of this excuses my shoddy journalism, or the ignorance of my viewpoint. There is no excuse. I must humbly ask the forgiveness of any readers of that original piece. I owe more to you. I ought to have done better. I am horrified by the lies I perpetuated by writing what I did about I’ll Take My Stand. Due to my own apathy and carelessness, I wrote grotesque falsehoods that perpetuated and applauded a work of white supremacy. This has caused a grief I cannot shake—that I am indeed unwilling to shake. That grief serves as a reminder to me of the truth many white Christians have chosen to ignore or excuse in recent days: that we live in a time of systemic racism that has perpetuated gross injustices of the past into the present day.

The last several years, for me, have been a process of education and re-education: understanding and seeing my country and its past through new eyes, growing my understanding of embedded injustices, systemic racism, and white supremacy. The more this vision expands, the more pained and heartbroken I am by all that must be relearned, retaught—and in this case, rewritten.

This effort of re-education has involved questioning much of the political and philosophical tradition I received growing up and in college. My first understandings of agrarianism were shaped by Thomas Jefferson and early Georgic writers. I saw agriculture in my own home state of Idaho through the perspective they offered.

But when I began to delve into the history of my state, that simple, nostalgic picture became complicated, broken. I learned of the unspeakable atrocities suffered by local Native Americans due to white settlers in the area where I grew up. Black men, women, and children who came to Idaho in search of economic opportunity faced constant intimidation and discrimination once they arrived. In 1863, Boise County passed a law that excluded black and Chinese locals from prospecting, and the territorial legislature introduced a bill in 1865 that aimed to prohibit black migration to the region.

Chinese immigrants to Idaho suffered rampant racism and violence when they travelled there searching for gold, and were subjected to a monthly tax—taxed for their very presence in the state. Although many Chinese immigrants once cultivated produce farms and restaurants to feed Idaho’s mining population and towns, in the face of racism and discrimination, many eventually chose to leave. Japanese immigrants, meanwhile, were subject to “alien land laws” that prevented them from owning their own land. (These laws were common throughout Western states at the time, including California, Oregon, Utah, Montana, Wyoming, and Texas.)

In his book Haunted by Waters: A Journey Through Race and Place in the American West, Robert T. Hayashi writes that Thomas Jefferson’s “exclusionary view of who could constitute the body politic further defined the borders of Western expansion” as the United States grew. The migrants who travelled to the West and sought to establish themselves as yeoman farmers “were forced to lease land from others, and under these conditions they began the work of transforming [Idaho] into the garden others had long imagined.” To Jefferson, land ownership was a right that helped promote a virtuous citizenry—but racist and white supremacist notes in his writings, such as in his essay “Notes on the State of Virginia,” suggest that he only ever wanted that right to be available to a specific subset of Americans.

America’s agricultural (and much of its agrarian) history is thus irrevocably tied to institutionalized racism. This includes, of course, the removal of indigenous Americans from their land by the US government, from our earliest history through to the end of the nineteenth century. But after the outlawing of slavery, black Americans and other people of colour continued to experience widespread discrimination and exploitation at the hands of the US government and its citizens.

In her book The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson painstakingly chronicles the debt slavery and racism experienced by black sharecroppers, which prompted many to leave the South as part of the Great Migration. Jonathan Coppess reports in his book The Fault Lines of Farm Policy the ways in which New Deal Farm Bill policies, under the guise of fighting overproduction, “helped white landlords consolidate cotton farms at the expense of black tenants and sharecroppers.” In 2018, Vann R. Newkirk II documented for The Atlantic the decades of black land theft—“created and maintained by federal policy”—that pushed black farmers and landowners off their property, unjustly dispossessing them of millions of acres.

“In their love for and knowledge of the land, their dedication to hard work, their self-reliance, their aspiration to independent freehold ownership, and their willingness to stand up to oppression to defend that aspiration . . . [black farmers] exemplified the yeoman ideal,” editors Edwin C. Hagenstein, Sara M. Gregg, and Brian Donohue write in American Georgics. “Something vital was lost when this African American agrarian culture fled the rural South, but it was something that had never been granted the freedom to flourish.”

Throughout history, minority farmers (as well as many women farmers) have routinely been denied farm loans that are offered regularly to white, male farmers. In our own time, as Stephanie Anderson documents in her book One Size Fits None, farm labourers—the majority of which are people of colour—are subject to unjust working conditions, astonishingly low wages, and an almost complete lack of benefits or protections.

The philosophical legacy of agrarianism is itself mixed: at points, it casts a vision for a better, more equitable approach to land ownership. At other times, its authors (like the Southern Agrarians) retain the strains of white supremacy and racism that so plague our history. Both Thomas Jefferson’s contemporaries and his ideological heirs—writers such as John Taylor of Caroline, President Andrew Jackson, George Fitzhugh, Edmund Ruffin, and L.L. Polk—tended toward a view of agrarianism that supported and applauded white farmers, while ignoring (or engaging in outright bias and discrimination toward) people of colour.

There are also hopeful agrarian writers worth pointing out, however: George Perkins Marsh and George Washington Julian were both staunch Christians in the nineteenth century who coupled their agrarianism with a determined opposition to slavery and, after the Civil War, advocacy for the rights of black Americans. Elizabeth Palmer Peabody was a nineteenth-century conservationist who also fought for the rights of the Paiute Indians. In our own time, Land Institute founder Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry have both staunchly opposed racism in the United States in their writings.

Jefferson and his followers—including the Southern agrarians—often suggested that there was some inherent virtue in the farmer, or in the practice of agriculture. In the introduction to their book, the Twelve Southerners write that “the theory of agrarianism is that the culture of the soil is the best and most sensitive of vocations.” But sin and depravity infest every vocation, tempting each toward exploitation and abuse. Farming is no different. Machine technology and attitudes of industrialism were not to blame for misuse of farmland or the abuse of farm workers, as I seemed to suggest in my 2016 essay. People were. New machine creations, such as the tractor, could only empower farmers to more efficiently execute their vision for farm ownership and production. And in many instances, that vision was one focused on conquest, personal profit, and exploitation.

As the editors of American Georgics note, “The claim of general moral superiority for farm life was fatally undermined in the early days of the Republic by the expansion of slavery, and in the twentieth century remained compromised by sharecropping, lack of protection for migrant farm workers, the economic and physical stress imposed by the pace of industrial farming, and the isolation caused by declining rural communities.” Yet agrarianism’s language of moral superiority has served to mask the problems US agriculture has perpetuated for centuries: problems that are, in our own lifetime, mounting to a crisis point.

Thankfully, there is hope to be found. Today’s sustainable agricultural movement represents a movement away from the exploitation of farm workers, animals, soil, plant, and water, toward permaculture, silvopasture, more humane treatment of farm animals, cover cropping, composting, local food sovereignty, increased rights for farm and agribusiness workers, and more. Many of these new practices and efforts have been deeply informed by the work of people of colour: Sir Albert Howard’s early theories of organic farming were founded on his observations of traditional Indian farming practices. The cultivation of “African dark earth” is a form of composting and soil improvement that has been practiced in Ghana and Liberia for seven hundred years. Polyculture farming is a practice deeply rooted in the practices of indigenous Americans and Africans, as Leah Penniman documents in her book Farming While Black. Tuskegee Institute professor Booker T. Whatley was one of the first thinkers to formulate and advocate for the system we now know of as community-supported agriculture (CSA). George Washington Carver was one of the first agricultural scientists in the United States to encourage cover cropping, compost manuring, nutrient-rich mulching, and diversified horticulture.

“Carver believed that ‘unkindness to anything means an injustice done to that thing,’ a conviction that extended to both people and soil,” Penniman writes in Farming While Black. “His belief in the moral imperative to care for soil was expressed in the Bible verses he invoked while teaching farmers, such as Proverbs 13:23: ‘Much food is in the tillage [fallow ground] of the poor; but that is destroyed for want of judgment.’”

I am still learning. Everything written here is but a beginning, an ongoing exploration into a past that often looks stranger and more broken with every day.

Civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer founded the Freedom Farm Cooperative (FFC) in 1969, and built her cooperative on the importance of land access—but unlike Jefferson’s agrarian vision, the FFC was created so that cooperative ownership would foster “many opportunities for group development of economic enterprises which develop the total community, rather than create monopolies that monopolize the resources of a community.” Hamer’s FFC opposed the “individualistic notion of economic development, freedom, or progress,” championing instead the view that stewardship of the land can and should “take a village,” fostering strong communities rather than lonely nuclear families.

From the time of the Southern Agrarians until the present day, Jim Crow laws, the atrocities of the sharecropping system, the theft of black land, and perpetuation of urban food deserts (which Penniman and activist Karen Washington have called “food apartheid”) have all sought to divorce black Americans from their rightful land ownership and legacy. Despite this adversity, advocates like Whatley, Carver, Hamer, and many others (several of whom are profiled in Penniman’s book and in the book Freedom Farmers) advanced a vision for agriculture that sought to bring health back to depleted soil, foster cooperative and communal involvement in the farm, champion local food sovereignty and food justice, foster ecological, cultural, and ethnic diversity, and truly respect the limits and needs of the land. D-Town Farm in Detroit, Michigan, the Black Dirt Farm Collective in Maryland, Foot Print Farms in Mississippi, Rocky Acres Community Farm and Soul Fire Farm in New York, and countless other farms led by people of colour in the United States are continuing this legacy and work.

How much healthier and more humane, communal and resilient, would our agricultural landscape be today if we had not ignored these voices for so long? I often wonder this, with grief over what we have lost in the years we have spent excusing and ignoring, allowing rampant injustice to go unquestioned and uncontested.

I am still learning. Everything written here is but a beginning, an ongoing exploration into a past that often looks stranger and more broken with every day. But in the remorse and lament, in the necessary work of humbling myself and my feeble efforts at writing to better voices and healthier traditions, I am grateful for the opportunity for renewal and redemption. I am thankful to Comment for allowing me to write this, a far different piece on agriculture than I could have written four years ago. In all that has changed over the past several years, I have been reminded time and time again that in the greatness of our sin—as a people, as a culture, and as individuals—we have a great Saviour. And I pray he will continue to lead me—lead us—forward, opening blind eyes and helping each one to see.

Gracy Olmstead
Gracy Olmstead

Gracy Olmstead is a writer whose work has appeared in The American Conservative, New York Times, The Washington Post, and elsewhere. She was a 2015 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow and is currently writing a book about the Idaho farming community where she grew up.


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