"To Stay Here, You're Going to Have to Fight Like Hell": Countering Dispossession & Erasure in Appalachian Agriculture

Authors: Jed DeBruin*, University of Kentucky
Topics: Cultural and Political Ecology
Keywords: Food justice, Appalachia, Black geographies, agrarian imaginary, parallel alternatives
Session Type: Paper
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This paper seeks to challenge discourses around Appalachia, whiteness, poverty, and subsistence farming. Instead, I will highlight the multiple identities of the region, the dispossession and erasure of farmers of color, the institutional racism that enabled these discourses to take root, and lay out opportunities to assert a different history of Appalachian agriculture. The dominant discourses around Appalachia have focused on a mythologized Scotch-Irish heritage and poverty. However, in recent years, scholars and activists have been challenging these dominant discourses (Eller, 2013; Catte, 2018; Spriggs and Paden, 2018; Harkins and McCarroll, 2019). At the same time, scholars have been challenging the “agrarian imaginary” of the “yeoman farmer,” writing how this imaginary “disguises the messiness of real agricultural practice and its inherent injustices (Minkoff-Zern, 2014: 89). Here in Appalachia, these dominant discourses have alluded to “whiteness, simplicity, cleanliness, and heritage” (DeBruin, 2019) that excludes “parallel alternatives” (Gibb & Wittman, 2013) in agriculture. Alternative food spaces have been dominated by whiteness (Slocum, 2007), and this whiteness is “reproduced through multiple material and imagined spatializations” (Vanderbeck, 2006: 643). These discourses of whiteness and poverty ignore the institutional racism of the USDA (Daniel, 2007), mechanization reducing demand for farm labor in the South (Reynolds, 2002), and legacies of insecure land tenure as former slaves gained land access following the Civil War (Higgs, 1977), as well as the dispossession of indigenous inhabitants. Despite these erasures, there have been stories of resilience, community, and empowerment in black farming communities (White, 2018; Penniman, 2018).

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