Our Afro-Diasporic Garden

Post by Ryan Dostal, based on research by students in UW-Madison Religious Studies course “Food, Meaning, Religion”.

What is an Afro-Diasporic Garden?

As people of African descent found themselves in new places, they resisted the hardship of slavery, often by keeping gardens. Despite numerous challenges placed on African gardeners, they built on their already substantial horticultural skills, often aided by insights from Indigenous communities, and learned how to cultivate a host of crops that they were not familiar with in Africa.  Consider our collards, originally from Europe, tomatoes and peppers, originally from central America, and finger millet, originally from Africa. What unites these crops, and Afro-diasporic gardens is their importance to the diverse peoples of Africa, those who stayed and those who were forced to leave as part of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. 

Collards
Beautiful collards thriving in the garden. “This food connects us to the globe. It connects us to Africa. It connects us to slavery, to freedom, to sharecropping, to migration, to triumph, to survival. It’s a powerful symbol of our history, our social identity, and the cultural politics we negotiated our lives by.” – Michael Twitty

But, what about Callaloo, Sweet Potato, Peanuts, and… ?

This is a common question, and we happily answer, ‘Check back next year!’ There are so many Afro-Diasporic crops we could not include as it would be impossible to showcase them all. We let our collaborator Yusuf Bin-Rella and other community members help us narrow down our list and decide which crops to focus on this year. Over the next few years, you can expect other crops to make an appearance! Speaking of our collaborators, learn more about what Yusuf is up to as part of his non-profit, Trade Roots, here

 

Why grow Afro-Diasporic crops in your kitchen garden?

They’re delicious! But, if you need more reasons…

Afro-diasporic crops are an important part of thinking more completely about our food history. Southern food is the American cuisine, and a large portion of the growing techniques, culinary qualities, and cultural associations for these foods arise in Africa. Eaters and gardeners can connect with this cuisine’s early pioneers like James Hemmings, who trained as a French chef in Paris, and the many unnamed African American gardeners, chefs, and eaters who developed and stewarded countless different varieties of collards (link), rice, cowpeas, and countless others under the long shadow of slavery.

Another reason is to highlight ongoing contributions made by African Americans, helping us shift the way we think about foods and encouraging us to see meaning in our gardens and on our plates. It is an exciting time to learn about and work with Afro-diasporic foods. Jessica B. Harri’s scholarship published as the book High on the Hog was recently made into a Netflix series. Small businesses, such as Truelove Seeds, have been promoting seed saving of culturally important crops. African American farms like Soul Fire Farm are working to teach future generations of farmers the many skills needed to work with seeds and to improve land that may otherwise be left uncared for.

Together, the work of African American gardeners, chefs, and eaters may inspire other efforts to revive treasured seeds, almost lost techniques of cookery, and flavors important to this nation’s original inhabitants and its many diverse immigrants.

Hill Country Red Okra growing on the plant
Hill Country Red Okra

Okra

While the exact origins of okra remain unclear, okra is a noteworthy example of how historical and culinary knowledge is transferred, sometimes unknowingly, through language. The English word okra comes from the Igbo word okuru, hailing from Nigeria. It is also known as fevi to the Fon, nkruman to the Akan, and gombo in several West African languages. This word may sound familiar for okra, gombo, gave one of its names to the thick and hearty stew Gumbo.

 

What all are you growing in the Afro-Diasporic Garden this year?

Keep scrolling for pictures of our crops.

Red and green fish peppers on a pepper plant with varigated leaves
Fish Peppers

 

finger millet
Finger Millet. The birds love this one so much, we’re not sure we’ll have a chance to harvest any of it.

 

Celosia plants with pink flowers and variegated green-red leaves
‘Feathery Plume’ Celosia

 

‘Paul Robeson’ Tomatoes. The squirrels haven’t gotten to these yet…

 

Cow Peas ‘Rouge de Burkina Faso’ 

 

Eggplant with flowers but no fruit
Garden Striped Eggs (eggplant) with no fruit yet