Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Political History of Soil (and the soiled history of geography)

I just spent two days at Tuskegee University at a conference of a wonderful organization called The Black Belt Community Foundation. I am privileged to be working with them on their fundraising efforts. They are just four years old, committed to raising money in order to support nonprofit and community economic development in 12 counties in central Alabama. (At this exact moment I am in Montgomery, which is not in the Black Belt, but I am just hanging out here waiting for a plane.)

Coming down here to work with them has put me in touch with a field of study I only learned about a few years ago called “cultural geography.” This field has existed for some time, and my lack of awareness of it speaks to my need to get out more! I believe this field has a great deal to contribute to the commons. Here is an example of what we can learn by examining something from a cultural geography viewpoint.

Pose a question such as “why are these counties called ‘the black belt’?

The answer, supplied in this case by Allen Tullos of Emory University in an essay you can read online in the Southern Spaces journal, says, “Half of Alabama's enslaved population was concentrated within ten Black Belt counties where the exploitation of their labor made this one of the richest regions in the antebellum United States.

Tullos goes on to quote Booker T. Washington, who wrote in 1901:
I have often been asked to define the term 'Black Belt.' So far as I can learn, the term was first used to designate a part of the country which was distinguished by the colour of the soil. The part of the country possessing this thick, dark, and naturally rich soil was, of course, the part of the South where the slaves were most profitable, and consequently they were taken there in the largest numbers. Later, and especially since the war, the term seems to be used wholly in a political sense - that is, to designate the counties where the black people outnumber the white.
Christian Neal McNeil (a blogger from Portland, ME) notes that as we look at our recent presidential election, more than one hundred years later, the "black belt" still contains a high concentration of African Americans, who, as a demographic group, voted overwhelmingly in favor of Barack Obama. Below is a county by county map from the New York Times website showing the political results of this geographical and historical set of circumstances. Primarily red states with bands of blue counties.

McNeil says, “To review so far: the blue counties can be explained by the black population, whose ancestors were brought there because of white supremacy, and black soil. But how did the soil get there, and why is it in this unusual crescent-shaped band? In an essay on the area's ecology, Joe MacGown, Richard Brown, and JoVonn Hill of the Mississippi Entomological Museum write that "the entire region is underlain by Selma Chalk formed from Upper Cretaceous marine deposits. Depending on the exact consistency of the parent material, the chalk weathers into a variety of soil types which supports a mosaic of habitats ranging from prairie to forest." Here's their map of this geological formation:

To read a complete essay on this whole thing as well as to be referred to other sources, go to Christian Neal McNeil’s bog, “The Vigorous North” (and check out why he calls it that—not why you would think!)

What does this have to do with the commons? Soil, particularly topsoil, is a part of the commons. We all need that which grows in soil, and one of the more interesting movements in many cities around the world is the movement for community gardens. Take a piece of land (often a vacant lot), bring all the neighbors out, plant and harvest food, flowers, fruit, etc. Many of these community gardens are in very poor neighborhoods in cities and the garden gives a small measure of food security, and a greater measure of making a neighborhood a community. Some of the biggest fights historically and currently are over who owns, and who should own, what is under the soil. Think coal, oil, water, diamonds, gold.

History, I think everyone would agree, is part of the commons, and the history of geography contributes our discussion about who should own what. In the case of the Black Belt counties, we are reminded of a time in America when owning property also included owning people. And although slavery is illegal, we have yet to fully discuss the nature of ownership. What can be owned? By whom? There is often a stark contrast between what we agree we can own and our basic values. Racism, poverty and environmental degradation can all be linked to questions about ownership and stewardship, the fundamental questions of the commons.

1 comment:

kg said...

A bit off topic but glad to hear about your work with the organization ... I met two of the lead people at the Alliance conference two years ago. They have a terrifically well-established network of community liaisons and presented on the network in a rural capacity builders' session hosted by SODI. The method proves "the commons" (at least in my opinion) exemplifying the strength in personal connection and community organizing in that viral marketing sort of way--in the way that they have intuitively done it and remained committed to the effort. They've got it down. Would love to hear more about the work.