“Grab this land! Take it, hold it…dig it, plow it, seed it, reap it, buy it, sell it, own it, build it, multiply it, and pass it on!” — Toni Morrison, from Song of Solomon
I have something to say about the racially problematic imagery put forth by Dodge in their Super Bowl commercial featuring a voiceover by Paul Harvey. It’s not about the numbers, either. It’s about the representation, or lack thereof, that black and brown people felt when watching it. The commercial itself presented a visually stunning display of American farmland but seemed, to many, like a real slap in the face to minorities who farm. I’m not talking about “migrant farmers”, either, as that negative connotation seems to rip the narrative away from Mexican farmers in this country. One of the best readings on the subject came from The Atlantic. In it, The Atlantic posited, in their article entitled The Whitewashing of the American Farmer: Dodge Ram Super Bowl Ad Edition, that the ad was “about as realistic as a Thomas Kincade picture”. They were right on the money with that statement.
If we’re going to truly dissect the commercial to frame what happens in the United States, then we have to bring up race and that is still so very uncomfortable for many people. That brings to mind that my conflicted feelings about Black History Month. Several years ago a young black 6th grade girl approached me and asked about the black history month activities at our school. She had transferred from a larger city and it was celebrated in such a way that leading up to the month of February was nearly as exciting. I gave her was is now to me a forgettable answer, but she pressed on to her classroom teacher and asked, “Can our question of the day be something from Black history?” The response from her (white) science teacher astounded me. “Just how am I supposed to know something from Black history?”
That solidified it for me. Much as I recognized that there was a need for Black History month I had fought against the compartmentalization of the achievements of Americans relegated to the shortest month of the year. In education in Illinois, for instance, it’s even shorter because of all the days off we have. This year we have 17 days of school this month. Since my own realization of this coupled with the knowledge of the inception of this celebratory endeavor suggested by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, I have come to respond to all who question me on that my belief that Black history is American history and that it ought to be taught year-round. I give no passes for educators who claim not to know Black history. Mostly because, they are educators.
It’s interesting, then, that such a great opportunity for us to learn more about Black history comes on the heels of an advertisement during the SuperBowl. There was quite a backlash against the ad right away which is always enough for me to consider it and get to the root of the issue. The real problem with the ad created by Dodge to sell trucks wasn’t just that so many black and brown farmers felt disenfranchised again, it’s really a problem that farming history has in creating policies and laws to keep them from owning farms in the first place. It’s the dislocation of families, the outright thievery of black-owned farms in America, and the re-writing of American history that brought us to 2012 when we still have to have the conversation about race with a fair amount of ignorance about our own history as a nation.
Maybe the question shouldn’t stop at wondering why the Dodge advertisement was such an affront to people of color. Maybe we should pay better attention to our history so that we understand when people are so offended.
1862 Morrill Act 1 of 10
Freedman’s Bureau 2 of 10
Decline of Black Owned Farmland 3 of 10In 1910, blacks owned more land than they previously had in the U.S. but almost immediately after there was a steady decline. Black farmers who left their farms to their descendants found that a share of it was often sold to a white person who then immediately put it up for sale thus forcing them to a financial loss and many migrations to cities to find new work. Photo Credit to Skunkworks Photographic via photopin cc
The Homestead Act 4 of 10
Black Bands Supported Black Farms 5 of 10
Farmers Look Like This, Too 6 of 10
Policies and Laws That Hurt the Black Farmer 7 of 10
Black Farm Ownership 8 of 10In 1890 Blacks owned over 120,000 farms. By 1978 they owned less than 7,000. So, Dodge demographics are right. But it was a reflection of a shameful past that demands to be considered as part of the argument.
The Role of the USDA 9 of 10
Black Farmers Lose Land 10 of 10Anthony Johnson is a great example of a slave who became a farmer. He came to the U.S. as an indentured servant in the Virginia colonies and then became a successful tobacco farmer. The colony seized his land in 1670 after determining that he was "a negro and by consequence, an alien", thus losing the land he worked and worked for for several years. Photo Credit to swisscan via photopin cc
For further information, be sure to check out the PBS film Homecoming: Sometimes I Am Haunted by Red Dirt and Clay as well as the text Only Six Million Acres: The Decline of Black Owned Land in the Rural South by Robert S. Browne. Browne founded the Emergency Land Fund that previously reported the decline of black land ownership from 6 million acres between the years 1915 and 1969.
Research sources for this article found at the Federation of Southern Cooperatives Land Assistance Fund and from the historical timeline from the PBS film Homecoming.
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