Feature Documentaries: Rhythms of the Land and Gaining Ground: The Fight for Black Land

Personal histories bring an intimate perspective to history.
James Baldwin once said, “To be a negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”
Memories can stir old pains while granting context for current struggles, even proving the reasons to unpack past wrongs and initiate projects toward their resolution.

Post-emancipation, many of the formerly enslaved would seek out new futures for themselves and their families by moving away from plantations to start their own communities or to begin new trades in the north.

Others decided to remain in the Southern United States of America. They would become sharecroppers and farmers. This movement would birth generations of farmers, many of whom would remain in the trade and make it the source of their liberation.

“Rhythms of the Land”

“Rhythms of the Land” collects the narratives of older members of the Black community, many of whom lived through the eras of sharecropping and Jim Crow.

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Dr. Gail Myers travelled to collect these stories in an effort to ensure Black farm workers were granted their place in history. She visits the homes of these workers to get first-hand accounts of their experiences servicing a system designed to exploit their labor.

Interviewees recall the motivations their families had to remain in the south and to tend plots and farms where their ancestors may have been enslaved.

Seeing an opportunity for future independence and ownership, many community members became sharecroppers to save money and to create stable living situations. For many, the idea of subsistence farming became a pathway to a better life. As stated in the film, access to land equaled freedom.

“Although taken in hate, we built our community on love.” – from Rhythms of the Land

Unfortunately, the path to land ownership would be blocked by exploitation of workers, a refusal by farm owners and land bosses to pay wages, and discriminatory loan practices that trapped workers and sharecroppers in a cycle of debt and poverty. Even those who built a sustainable living were still forced to defend their full rights as workers. They took their grievances to court, as in the case of Alvin Steppes suing the USDA and setting the example for other Black farmers. Not all farmers were paid in the settlements, but those farmers continued to search for alternative means of preserving their interest in the land.

Food, as a source of capital and community bonding, granted southern Black farmers with the opportunity to lay foundations for future generations.

“Gaining Ground: The Fight for Black Land”

“Gaining Ground: The Fight for Black Land” covers civil rights within the Black agricultural movement. The documentary, filmed by Harvey, features first-hand accounts of professional farmers as they combat land loss. Present day farmers explain the impact of Pigford V. Glickman, a landmark case in farmer’s rights, using their own family histories as testimony to the real-world effects of the case.

The documentary focuses on the adverse effects of heir property laws. Heir Property involves the administration and management of land left to multiple descendants. Heir property was originally used by Black farmers to ensure land remained in the family unit, safe from seizure by outsiders. Reality has proven the opposite.

Over time, the natural growth of families complicates questions of ownership and grants rights to sell to distant relatives far removed from the family business. The film makes the important point that a family’s ownership of their entire farm can be endangered by a single person selling to third parties. Many learn this post-sale as they try to reclaim their land.

Identity is also an important aspect of the film.

“Land is one thing the good Lord is not making more of.” – Philip Haynie III

For many of the famers featured in “Gaining Ground: The Fight for Black Land,” the ability to continue family tradition is a source of pride. They describe a sense of purpose in their ability to give back to their communities and to participate in a network that feeds people around the nation. Their struggles act as opportunities to form connections and found partnerships that will help the next generation continue their tradition of turning the land into a vehicle for wealth and sustenance.

Overall, the film communicates a sense of passion and shared community between Black farmers and their allies in the search for racial and food justice.

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