Black Interests

Bearing Witness as a Concerned Ally, Part II by Dr. Waymon Hinson


In part I of a two-part series, done only because there were too many words for one post, here is a quote that explains where I am:

Bearing witness involves a lot of things from the person of the listener in relationship with the person(s) and woundedness: active listening, acknowledgements, recognitions, naming the wounds and the origins of the wounds, identifying strengths and resilience in the midst of pain and suffering, simply being there when there are no words, understanding that “it’s not about me,” and serving the person(s) with the wounds in overt and often understated ways.” 

It was about pain and suffering. It was their pain and their suffering. These were people who loved the land and farming,  who loved the smell of freshly turned dirt, who had their hopes dashed upon the rocky craigs of racism and all of its machinations: insults, lost applications or changed applications, words of “there’s money here but not for your kind,” supervised bank accounts year in and year out, no drought relief or disaster relief like the white friends, operating money coming in too late or not at all or half of what was expected, crops planted late in the season, and then crops not generating enough to pay the loan off when the harvest was made. A lien placed on the farm, wondering when foreclosure would happen, dreading the day and obsessing about it day in and day out while white farmers drive up and down the highway in their new trucks or with their newly bought machinery.

I heard stories of headaches, strokes, heart attacks, blindness, kidney failure, marital conflict, fights over finances and the land, blood sugar levels dangerously out of control, rage and powerlessness at the same time, creditors knocking on the door, trusted allies no longer offering credit, and people driving by, slowing down, to look over their land.

The Demonstration, the speeches, the conversation with the senators and staffer were Black-led and white ally supported. That was the way it was supposed to be.

Now, we were demonstrating in front of the White House, demanding that Biden fire Vilsack and replace him with someone who understood things, someone who would honor their pain and suffering, someone who would cancel their debts, those that had come because of discrimination at the county committee level, and offer them compensatory damages. They just wanted to farm.

We simply attempted to “be there,” to offer support, to identify with them insofar as is possible, one human to another, to recognize their pain, acknowledge their suffering, and to witness their strengths in the midst of the troubling times.

I often wondered how they survived such horrendous circumstances. Many times I asked. Spoken words about loving the land, loving God, being called by God to this work, believing in the goodness of America and its people, were some of the things I heard. And I observed in the relationships in the family, love and affection between marital partners, and respect and love and devotion by family members for each other.

And now, we were in DC. Front of the White House. Calling out the president and his appointed secretary.

I was not overtly conscious of these matters the days before, during, and after the Demonstration on March 1. Being with them the day prior was deeply meaningful for my wife and me. Some farmers and spouses, we had not seen since 2005 and some we had not seen since 2008, and some we had not seen nor talked to since interviewing them for the documentary.

This was a Black farmer led event. Racism at the county committee level and in the halls of USDA and in the seat of the secretary, that was their story. I was there to bear witness to their lived experiences. I was there to affirm the righteousness of their cause. I was there to march, shout, carry signs front and back, chant the words, “No Justice, No Peace,” or “No Check, No Vote!” and other things. I was one of a handful of white people there. All of us were there to support, listen, honor, and validate the truths they were saying. When they spoke of institutional racism and structural racism in their own words from their lived experiences of farming while Black in their county and their state in these United States of America, we were there to affirm and honor. It was their demonstration.

We simply were there to show support, that what they spoke about or described or chanted was indeed true. Our presence simply was an attempt to make the statement that we saw them and we heard them. We attempted to embrace both the pain and the joy of farming while Black. We entered the worlds of Black farmers. We were not Black. We were not farmers. We had actually been recipients of much because of the color of our skin, or at least, if we had things that were difficult, our skin color did not make them worse.

We were there to bear witness.

Personally, politically, and socially, we saw the webs of inner connectivity. Institutional racism, responsibility devolved down to the county level, employees acting out their racist attitudes with impunity upon farmers, and we were determined to use our voices to call out USDA for its malfeasance toward Black farmers. Such misdeeds are unacceptable. They are in fact criminal, though it is obvious in the stories that no one ever had to pay a price for their racist attitudes and behavior. Black farmers lose their land while USDA employees retire with full benefits.

We could not help but be moved by the things we heard, saw, and experienced in individual conversations and on things said and done before, during, and after the march. We would be less than human if we were not touched by pain and suffering.

I hope the same for Senator Warren. I hope that she heard their pain and suffering. I hope that her hearing moves her to act on their behalf in the halls of Congress and in the laws and policies that she promotes.

I just wanted to bear witness.

I hope she wants to do the same wherever she goes.

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