Charlottesville Through the Looking Glass of the Local Negro
Back in May, I was on the farm watering a group of pigs in a great big field of chickory. In one hand was a black plastic tube pouring water into a 100-gallon trough. In the other hand was my cellphone, which I was using to relieve the boredom of watching the muddy water rise around the pigs’ noses. I flipped through a newsfeed peppered with a half-dozen of the President’s daily outrages, eventually happening across an article titled something to the effect of “Charlottesville Confronts Racism.”
If you’re aware of the recent Nazi/KKK/Militia/Alt-Right Axis-of-Nostalgia rally that took place in Charlottesville a few days ago, then you may have missed the two earlier rallies that took place here in the Spring and mid-summer. Between the two, a few dozen Klansmen and a small band of people led by distinguished fist-magnet Richard Spencer descended on the city to whine about statue-oriented programming and “White genocide” in what is arguably the Whitest place in the western hemisphere.
The protest was responded to a day or so later by a counterprotest of the city’s liberal core. My Facebook feed quickly filled with profile picture overlays, status updates, memes, and other virtue signals of the “Love Trumps Hate” variety and, on the day I stood in that field, the press finally got ahold of it. I came across that ‘confronts racism’ headline and couldn’t stop laughing. And while I laughed, I one-hand-typed a post about institutional racism into my farm’s Facebook page that would, as of today, wind up getting shared over twelve thousand times.
I’m one of the lucky ones; the so-called exceptional negro. People of all political stripes wield my story like a cudgel — conservatives use it to argue that people of color can make it if they’re not preoccupied with blaming White people for their lot in life; liberals use it to assert progress on their social goals in spite of the right’s intransigent (and presumedly exclusive) refusal to address racism.
The truth, however, makes no one happy: 1.) Conservatives refuse to acknowledge racism, 2.) Liberals refuse to confront racism unless it carries a flag, 3.) As a result, what success I’ve had in life is owed mostly to an ability to make White people very, very comfortable.
Some of this ability is learned, and some of it is genetic. I’m light-skinned, green-eyed, tall, and lean. While unmistakably Black and profiled from time to time, I’m not subject to the near-constant primal fear and otherness assigned to my darker friends and family. This undeserved genetic gift gets my foot in the door with most White people — particularly those with some combination of wealth, power, and influence — where I’m able to advance to Round 2 and utilize the abilities I’ve learned over a lifetime.
That learning didn’t come from sheer gumption and bootstrapping as right-leaning folks might like to believe. Instead, it came from my parents nearly bankrupting themselves to send me to an incredibly expensive private school at age 11. My friends from elementary school went off to underfunded D.C. public middle and high schools with near-exclusively working class Black student and faculty bodies, while I went to a school that cultivated a diverse — but still overwhelmingly White — student body composed of the offspring of senators, attorneys, doctors, investment bankers, corporate executives, millionaire entrepreneurs, and very elegant criminals.
Steeped in that environment, spending time with wealthy White kids and their friends and families, I learned how to be comfortable with them. How not to be afraid of them. I learned their cultural values, their music, art, and speaking patterns. I learned how they spend and save money differently than we do, and the critical difference between wealth and income. How they vacation differently than we do. How they discipline and set expectations for their children differently than we do. How they eat, dress, shake hands, and discuss politics. I learned how averse they are to talking about their own money, and their discomfort with the concept of race, to say nothing of racism and privilege. And I learned how they’re willing to ask for practically anything, and how likely they are to receive it just for asking. This last one alone was worth the price of tuition.
I wasn’t just a Black kid with a few White friends; I was an insurgent who saw how the other half truly lived. They walked on the world; not just striving and hoping for things, but expecting and demanding (and usually getting) them. I saw people respectful of authority but not terrified of it. These were people availing themselves of generations of accumulated opportunity, education, and wealth that people like me never had a chance to accumulate. I was a terrible student academically, but I absorbed these cultural lessons like a sponge.
If it weren’t for Dad, I probably would have developed a weird fetishization of White society like O.J. Simpson did. Dad worked at home as a small-time real estate broker and made it his business to “deprogram” me when I came home from school. I read and watched heartbreaking accounts of slavery, genocide, and theft/abuse to buttress the Diet Manifest Destiny I was guzzling in the classroom. I read The Crucible at school then came home to read Guns, Germs, and Steel; watched Gettysburg at school, 500 Nations and Roots at home. I read A People’s History of the United States instead of Moby Dick; faking my way through quizzes and tests on the latter by paying close attention to the classroom discussions and speaking as little as possible.
When driving with Dad, he’d take deliberate detours through cut-n-shoot neighborhoods near ours to point out the lingering, chronic effects of colonialism, slavery, Jim Crow, and de facto segregation. It was also to illustrate the life waiting for me should I neglect to capitalize on the privileges I’d lucked into. My older brother took me to Porsche and Lexus dealerships and made me read The Seven Habits to inspire me to greatness; Dad made me read Wild Season and took me into the woods to impart the paramount importance of what lies beneath our feet.
I was alternately dipped into the dominant White culture by weekday and my own non-White cultures by evening and weekend, every single day, for the full decade of my coming-of-age years. The barriers separating those cultures became so easily navigated as to feel non-existent, but Dad’s lessons never let me lose sight of their presence. Racism — architected by prejudice and built of the insoluble precipitate of American history — chokes the arteries of a society loath to confront the choices that got us here and terrified of the surgery and lifestyle changes necessary to heal, leaving it with little recourse but to loudly protest our present condition with words, symbols, and feelings.
Those are the largely-impotent words, symbols, and feelings you heard all over the news and social media cycles RE: Charlottesville last weekend. And last July. And last May, when I stood chuckling in that field and became a minor celebrity for writing down — for a White audience — what just about every Black person in America had already been thinking for decades. I didn’t write anything special or original; I was just the first guy with the right audience, platform, and ethos… and an adequate disregard for the potentially life-ruining consequences of White discomfort… all at the same time.
What would I say to a Black woman thinking of coming to farm in a town like Charlottesville? Read closely, dear White reader, as you hear the type candid Black-on-Black conversation you will rarely be privy to.
The first thing you notice is your competition. They’re all White. Most of them are actively farming — or got their start farming — on land directly inherited or owned by their families, or rented from neighbors with ties to those families. Your competition is availing itself of opportunities that germinated nearly a half-century ago while our people were literally fleeing the rural South for their lives. You will be starting from scratch unless you’re incredibly lucky. They won’t, even if they’re “poor.”
Many of your competitors learned their trade in the family, or by apprenticing with farms that make their discomfort with non-White employees clear, if not explicit. The older farmers are part of one club that enjoys conservative-libertarian politics, Bluegrass, and Sunday school; the younger farmers are part of another club that enjoys yoga, artisan coffee houses, democratic socialism, and whipping out the guitar at house parties. Your Black ass belongs to neither. Your club is back in D.C., Baltimore, Richmond, and Norfolk, wondering aloud just why in the Hell a college-educated Negro is volunteering for the damn plantation.
You, the Black farmer, a member of neither club and a friendless cultural alien, will have to make these folks comfortable enough to work with you. Sooner or later you’re going to have to borrow equipment or trade labor or buy hay or whatever from/with other farmers — you can’t let on to those old timers that you strongly identify with BlackLivesMatter, or let it drop to those young guys that you, like most Black people, don’t trust Bernie Sanders… unless you want to deliver a 30 minute sermon on race to a congregation of people who, in the best case, would have to be prepped for weeks like garden soil in order to germinate new ideas about racism that won’t wither in the relentless heat of Black reality.
And if you think you can just keep your mouth shut and not bring it up, stop dreaming. Having had so few interactions with Black people, liberal and conservative White farmers alike will invariably say things or ask questions to probe your stance on various personal/political issues on race in the rhetorical equivalent of asking to touch your hair. You have to politely demure or deflect, or risk delivering that sermon and ending up alienated from your fellow farmers when all you wanted to do was load up your straw bales and get home before the next Klan rally starts.
The same rule applies to customers. You will get unsolicited probing questions at every market from both sides of the political aisle*, and a wrong** answer will cost you a customer or, worse, get you a bad Yelp or Facebook review***. These fraught interrogations, which you will be subjected to CONSTANTLY, are rarely imposed upon your White competitors. A few hundred times a year, as you staff your market stall and meet with chefs and grocery managers, you’ll have to choose between lying, being quiet, and losing business. Your White counterparts just have to smile and sell food.
*Everyone seems to agree, on an intellectual if not practical level, that they shouldn’t be eating crap food.
** i.e., honest
*** A couple dozen customers unsubscribed from my email list, and a couple of chefs stopped calling me back, after that Facebook post of mine caught fire.
I hope you’re still with me, because we haven’t covered the stuff that’s physically dangerous yet. Ready?
If you offer a buyers club or home delivery, you’ll find yourself in private developments fairly often, and you’re definitely going to be profiled by private security or have the cops called on you — especially if a customer isn’t home and asks you to leave their order in a box or cooler. And while you’re knocking on the doors of strangers in White upper-middle class subdivisions, it helps to convince yourself that this kind of thing can’t possibly happen to you… right? You could always, of course, not offer deliveries or simply require your customers be home to take delivery… but remember that thing I said about the choice between lying, being quiet, and losing business? We can now modify that to “lie or be quiet, and risk your life… or lose business.” White farmers don’t have to make any of these choices.
They also don’t have to deal with not looking like they belong on a farm. Ten neighbors will pass by a White guy in dirty clothes walking around in a farm field without thinking twice about it. Those same ten could see your Black self in a Seersucker suit picking tomatoes with one hand and holding a julep cup in the other; three of them will regard, often subconsciously, your presence on their neighbor’s property as incongruent*, and one of those three — usually the one still freaked out by last night’s episode of Dateline — will go a step further and share their opinion with the authorities. If the cops do show up (and they will, sooner or later), just remember your training and remain calm even if the cop craps out on his own training and loses his fucking mind, because there are few consequences for the cop killing you, and you don’t want to die for being accused of stealing tomatoes like it’s goddamn 1830.
*A quick gander at Charlottesville’s various foodie/lifestyle publications is instructive of where Black people are expected to appear in the local food web. It’s best to go back before May 2017, when the Klan started showing up and they all started falling over themselves to include brown people in their imagery. Typically we’re found smiling near the loading dock. The main street restaurants, bars, vineyards, breweries, grocers, butcher shops, food distributors, and farms — the operational engines of what defines Charlottesville culturally — are all owned by White folks. Don’t expect in-depth profiles of Black folks or their businesses… unless, ironically, the topic is racism.**
**I’m not blaming the publications; they report what’s on Main Street Charlottesville — our absence from those publications is a reflection of our absence from Main Street, which has nothing to do with them (beyond their participation in the feedback loop). Recent events have highlighted our existence on the margins and are affording us more exposure in these outlets… let’s hope the trend persists beyond the current news cycle.
Did you notice above, that in that long list of challenges, obstacles, and physical threats, that there’s no mention of White supremacists?
Here’s a (mildly age-inappropriate) little device I use to illustrate racism with younger children:
Imagine there’s a really big house out in the country, and ten people live in the house together. They’ve lived there a long time; fifty years.
The core materials used to build the house — the metal in the plumbing, the concrete in the foundation, the wood in the frame — are making three of those people sick all the time. The sickness usually shows up as a mild headache, occasionally progresses to a migraine, and, while it probably won’t kill any of them, it’s always a lingering possibility. After all, there used to be 11 people in the house.
Of the seven that aren’t ill, one of them is the loud, smelly, obnoxious jerk who designed the house and chose the materials. Years ago, everyone got together and forced him to live in the basement. On most days you can faintly hear him rumbling around down there and it’s not that big a deal, but every ten years or so he escapes and runs through the house screaming about throwing out the three sick people so he can take their rooms and live the life he was meant for.
When this happens, the other six people in the house loudly and angrily condemn the guy, surround him, and chase him back into the basement. The three are still sick, but no one wants to replace the plumbing and foundation and rafters that are making the three sick — that would be expensive and time-consuming and no one really knows how to do it anyway — so they paint a mural on one of the walls instead. The three now have something pretty to look at while they remain quite ill and the other six go back to business as usual, until Joe Crazyguy escapes from the basement again.
Or, for slightly older kids:
Ever been left-handed and used dangerous power tools like chainsaws and weed whackers, only to have a mouthful of sawdust or a rock to the groin violently inform you that everything on those tools— from the safety mechanisms to the trigger placement to the ergonomic sweep of the handles — are designed for right-handed people? That’s what racism is like, except the chainsaw was designed by a guy who didn’t want left-handed people cutting firewood, trimming weeds, or sleeping with his daughter.
A handful* of pasty virgins screaming “blood and soil” isn’t racism; that’s just plain old hate. Racism is people of color waking up each morning and navigating a society built for someone else’s benefit at their expense. We’re left-handed lumberjacks trying to earn a living and get home safely everyday in a world where all the chainsaws are right-handed. Your right-handed buddies lament your situation; they curse the handist asshole who designed the chainsaw 100 years ago; they shun the lone handist nutjob that burns left-handed mittens with tiki torches in elaborate mitten-burning ceremonies; they stage counter-ceremonies where candles are lit and left mittens are lovingly stuffed into right mittens. But…
*The Unite the Right Rally, a nationally-hyped show of force that was supposed to draw supporters from all over the country… managed to produce just a few hundred people. Compare that with the estimated four-freaking-million people that participated in the January 2017 Women’s March in the United States alone. And then consider the fact that these two groups clearly have zero overlap.
We don’t need your mitten-stuffing ceremonies or your murals; those are designed to make you feel better, not us. We don’t need you to protect us from the handist nutjob or Joe Crazyguy; we can kick his ass just fine by ourselves if he steps over the line. What we need is left-handed chainsaws and a structural engineer. Give us that, and everything else falls into place. Give us something other than that… fine. But don’t expect us to smile at your pretty mural and stuffed mittens while we cough up blood and shit sawdust. We know you mean well, but it’s a bit much.
Chris Newman is a farmer in central Virginia. He’s tall and skinny and is growing a great and woolly beard for totally non-political reasons. If you like what you’ve just read, please consider a click on that there green heart thing. And if you really like what you just read, maybe you’ll become a patron (contribute as little as $1/month!) so he can spend even more time writing, building foodscapes, and democratizing Local food.
Visit the farm, Sylvanaqua Farms, on Instagram @sylvanaquafarms.