More-Than-Human Heritage: Political Ecologies of the Paul Robeson Tomato

Authors: Mark Rhodes*, Michigan Technological University
Topics: Cultural Geography, Cultural Ecology, Food Systems
Keywords: Memory, Heritage, More-than-human, Paul Robeson, Black Geographies
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/9/2021
Start / End Time: 1:30 PM / 2:45 PM
Room: Virtual 43
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

Paul Robeson’s global heritage poorly reflects the extent to which the famous Black activist, actor, athlete, singer, and scholar impacted international culture and politics. Robeson’s memorials primarily reside within college campuses, theatrical and musical productions, works of public art, and Robeson’s own work. While there has been some interest in the scattered memorials, commemorations, and works of Robeson, no one has yet explored one of the most wide-spread and historically loaded aspects of his commemoration: the Paul Robeson Tomato. This heirloom tomato, developed by a Soviet botanist, has, as one seed website states, “a cult following.” Reading through various gardening and seed websites, you quickly understand that the tomato has a special place among heirlooms. At the same time, you quickly realize that a game of telephone has seemingly been played with the commemorative narrative of Robeson himself. Compounding these memory practices is the tomato itself. Designed outside of the corporate food commodity chains due to its tendency to split and deform makes it in many ways, just like Robeson himself, anti-capitalist. This leads me to ask a number of questions, particularly how we might understand this tomato within the broader memory and memorialization of Paul Robeson? How does this human-environment interaction of more-than-human memory impact Robeson’s legacy? And how can we conceptualize and employ more-than-food living memory beyond both capitalist economic systems and human centricity. This project explores these notions of living memory, more-than-human, and memorialization in the context of the histories which envelop Paul Robeson and his tomato.

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