Part I - Reckoning with the Narrative and the Land by Teju Adisa-Farrar
Stories are powerful. They have been part of human civilizations since time immemorial. They shed light on cultural values, and reveal what is important in our societies. In education in the United States, we often only hear one side of stories. In fact, some stories are untold intentionally because they make us feel uncomfortable and show the ugly sides of this country. The uncomfortable truth is that often the stories we don’t tell are the ones that have contributed directly to making this country what it is today. We must understand there is no single-story, and creating access to more than one story—more than one truth—can lead us towards justice. As bell hooks wrote in All About Love: New Visions, “The art of justice is truth-telling.” In this two-part series we reckon with the stories that are not commonly told, in order to expand our conceptions of U.S. history, Black injustices, and the textile industry. We begin with an ideology that supported this particular American story.
Res nullius is a Latin term derived from private Roman law. The definition follows: “whereby res (an object in the legal sense, anything that can be owned, even a slave, but not a subject in law such as a citizen nor land) is not yet the object of rights of any specific subject.” Thus, res nullius essentially means “ownerless property.” Upon arriving in the Americas, White European settlers used this belief of res nullius to justify claiming land from Native Americans. Res nullius still exists in American law today. Native Americans did not believe humans could own the land, instead humans were understood as part of the land. The European settlers believed that these Indigenous communities were not using the vast abundant land ‘productively,’ and since there were no legal documents connecting these tribes to their land, European settlers decided they could annex it.
Over time the European settler colonists, who arrived on indigenous land, decided what was considered a productive use of land. The colonists linked land productivity to how much could be extracted from the land rather than to stewardship and regeneration—as many Native communities had done for centuries. For the colonists, the value of the land became about the profit it could generate, rather than the beauty and gifts it offered. This ideology internalized by the European colonial settlers undergirded the development of plantation slavery.
The plantation economy required deforestation to create farmable land for mass cultivation. In addition to cutting down forests in the U.S. south, clearing swamp fields to convert them into rice fields and planting non-native species were common requisites to prepare land for plantation farming—particularly in the regions that now span Virginia to South Carolina. Often trees were cut down about a yard from the ground in order to keep new shoots from sprouting, making it nearly impossible for forests to regrow. Enslaved Black Africans were forced to do the early phases of clearing forests including cutting down trees. Similar to Native Americans, the enslaved Black Africans were familiar with clearing practices as they came mostly from the Western region of Africa, which had some of the most advanced agricultural practices and technologies.
West African and Native American clearing practices were not intended to transform the land into large-scale plantation farming as a means to produce as much crop as possible. Mass agricultural clearing initiated by European colonists contributed to and intensified temperature fluctuations. Without the cover of the forest to moderate temperatures, the land is more vulnerable even to usual weather patterns. Not to mention, deforestation contributes to shifting the environment towards more unusual weather. The removal of forests to create plantation slavery, along with large scale tobacco production that took a serious toll on the land before cotton cultivation boomed, contributed to the changing climate of the U.S. The human initiated processes causing present-day climate change started with the the mass extraction and large-scale agricultural practices used during the period of slavery and colonization.
The removal of so much forest and native trees displaced the already decreasing animal populations who were trying to get away from the growing population of colonists. As forests disappeared the habitats of several species were destroyed. Additionally, the aggressive nature of cotton farming on slave plantations led to intense soil erosion, which still affects large regions in the south today. Rather than focusing on agricultural practices that would regenerate the soil, the colonists were focused on mass cultivation to supply the growing British textile industry. For example, the Caribbean island of Haiti was one of the most prosperous colonies in the world during the 18th century—producing cotton, tobacco, indigo, coffee and sugar cane. On Haiti, plantation slavery required monoculture, which exhausted soil nutrients so rapidly that after the Black Haitians won their independence from France in 1804 most of their land was no longer arable. These environmentally violent processes initiated by European settlers during plantation slavery drastically changed the ecological landscape of the U.S. South more than any other environmental processes that took place during this time.
The period of slavery created a universal devaluation of agricultural labor in the United States, as a result of more than three hundred years of free Black labor. The economic development predicated on the enslavement of millions of Black Africans and the mass cultivation of cotton is the crux of modernity for this country. The racial and environmental ideologies developed during plantation slavery have contributed to racist and environmentally degenerating structures that currently exist in the U.S. By shedding light on all sides of the American story, we begin to understand the deep interconnectedness of Black oppression and environmental degradation.
During the period of settler colonialism and slavery, the land was legally redefined as an object—as property. Likewise, the enslaved Black people who worked the land were legally defined as objects, as property. The land and Black people were seen as abundant, and thus disposable. Although West Africans were chosen to be enslaved in no small part because of their agricultural knowledges, this narrative was completely erased from the story of American Slavery. Without the agricultural knowledge and skills the enslaved Black Africans possessed, mass agricultural cultivation in the Americas would not have been possible. In fact, many enslaved Black Africans were significantly more knowledgeable about the land and agricultural practices than their enslavers. Having come from tropical Africa where the variegated environment required agile and adaptable methods of subsistence, as well as cultural practices that commonly use wild plants, the Black Africans who were unfortunately taken to the New World were invaluable to the survival and thriving of settler colonies.
Before coming to the Americas, Africans were very familiar with cotton cultivation and textile manufacturing. West Africans had strong textile development traditions that were embedded in cultural practices. According to Tarikhu Farrar, “by the onset of the second millennium CE, centers of cotton textile production were developing in both East and West Africa. Weavers in both regions would ultimately master their craft.” West Africans created a comb-like tool for separating cotton from the seed and had various types of looms for weaving. They were renowned in dyeing, especially indigo dyeing, and had several alternative uses for cotton.
Part II shares about the myriad ways Black people interacted with crafting traditions and cotton during and beyond the confines of slave labor. More expanded perspectives that honor the resistance and resilience of Black people on sites of enslavement pay homage to our ancestors who lived and died for the America we know today. As we continue the struggle for recognition, representation, and dignity—hopefully we can understand that Black liberation is also environmental regeneration.
Edelson, S. Max. "Clearing Swamps, Harvesting Forests: Trees and the Making of a Plantation Landscape in the Colonial South Carolina Lowcountry." Agricultural History 81, no. 3 (2007).
A New Face on the Countryside: Indians, Colonists, and Slaves in South Atlantic Forests, 1500-1800 by Timothy Silver
Precolonial African Material Culture: Combatting Stereotypes of Technological Backwardness by Tarikhu Farrar