threads DONATE

“Gardening and Sankofa”: An Essay

By Gary Williams

Oftentimes during Black History Month, we tend to think of large looming figures in history. This year, I have been really reflecting on people closer to home, specifically history within my own family.

The reason I have gotten into gardening is because of my grandmother, Marian Young. My grandmother came at gardening from a very practical means: the best way to eat is to grow it yourself. Thus my grandmother had a backyard garden and also had plots in 3 different community gardens. Every bit of baby food I ever ate was from fruits and vegetables she grew. Our basement was filled with jars containing preserves, pickled, fermented food. We could not go hungry even if we tried.

Since I bought my house in Northeast Baltimore, I continue the tradition. For the last 4 years, I have been growing a variety of plants from strawberries to bee balm flowers. My children love the garden. They pick the cherry tomatoes right off the vine. My son Julian thinks it is so cool our zucchini goes right into our zucchini pineapple bread. Charlotte thinks it’s magical watching the bees play among the flowers and pollinate the garden. My friends get excited when they come over and know that there is a good chance they are going to eat something I grew.

Gardening is the manifestation of sankofa, of reaching back and bringing my family’s gardening tradition into the present. To be honest, it is more than just a family tradition. Black people have been deeply connected to this land our entire history. We brought foodstuffs like okra, black-eyed peas, yams, watermelon, collard greens, and sesame seeds to the US from Africa. What we grew and still grow has become the foundation of American cuisine. We turned the poorest land into the richest and most delicious food.

Each time my hands are in the dirt I feel connected to my grandmother. When I share my knowledge with friends, I know Marian is proud of me. Marian smiles when I laugh because my garden box is overwhelmed with strawberries. Gardening isn’t just a hobby, it is a tradition. A tradition of several generations of people making their own food and taking care of their families. A tradition that is an expression of love for self, family, land, and love of Blackness itself. And it is one I happily engage with.

Gary Williams is a ’10 alum and current director of our Baltimore site. Follow Gary’s gardening adventures on Instagram.

This piece is part of Public Allies’ campaign to highlight voices of Black members, Alumni, staff, and partners throughout Black History Month.