Remarks by Nancy Cantor, Chancellor, Rutgers University - Newark

Beans, Greens, Tomatoes: Food, Accessibility and Justice in the Black Diaspora

            Thank you so much, Jack, and a shout out to the work that you and Alex Chang have done, collaborating with partners across our region and here in Newark to bring attention to the pressing environmental issues and the uplifting community legacy of food culture and land sovereignty.  I want also to send special thanks to Lacey Hunter for her creativity and organization in framing this year’s MTW discussion of Food, Accessibility and Justice in the Black Diaspora, and welcome our remarkable speakers – each a signature force in the food justice and Black food culture landscape, one that stretches from the community gardens of frontline cities like Newark, Trenton, and Camden to the spiritual reclaiming of Ramapough Lenape land and the recapture of Southern farming and farmers cooperatives, and the long history that weaves Black food culture into everyday life, as Jessica Harris trenchantly documents, defying, as Psyche Williams-Forson reminds us, the persistent marketing effort to narrow and devalue Black foodways.  Indeed, today will be a forceful reminder of what Ashante Reese and Hanna Garth, in their edited volume, Black Food Matters, call out, and that is the urgent need for “Weaving together the contexts of vibrant Black food cultures and the need to incorporate racial justice into the food justice movement.” 

That is a reminder that seems ever so right in our dear home city of Newark, NJ, where all of our collective work for equitable growth and racial justice occurs on grounds scarred over centuries, tracing back to the violent grab of Indigenous land and the long, battering arm of Black Northern slavery and its persistent legacy in red-lining, predatory lending, environmental pollution, mass incarceration, school segregation, public unsafety and public ill-health, and more, so much more.  Yet, as we will hear today in the context of Black food culture, and as we see in every ward across this city, there is and has always been a strength of voice and a persistence of Black Newark culture, painted on the walls, played in the halls, cooked in the kitchens, reminding us all that the Black Diaspora never gave in or gave up. And just as our neighbors from the Turtle Clan of the Ramapough Lunaape Nation forever embrace the interconnections between land and health, spirituality, and sustainability, so too have Black and Brown Newarkers. This is demonstrated every day, on the grounds of this scarred but triumphant history, by the expansive galvanizing of community across our city, by, as only one of many examples, our partners here today from the Greater Newark Conservancy, the Urban Agriculture Cooperative, and Newark Science and Sustainability, Inc, as they lead the way, walking the winding path from food apartheid to food sovereignty. 

Speaking of leading the way: we have elected leaders who are doing just that on our behalf on precisely these kinds of issues, with Mayor Baraka’s Nourishing Newark Community Grants Program announced last year that is providing millions of dollars to community based organizations to combat hunger and food insecurity that the pandemic intensified in our city, and Senator Booker as lead sponsor of  the Justice for Black Farmers Act that addresses longstanding federal discrimination that caused Black farmers to lose millions of acres of farmland and robbed them and their families of the inter-generational wealth that land represented.

Our discussions today will persistently remind us that food – culture, sovereignty, accessibility, sustainability – is a matter of collective action, an “emancipatory discourse”, as the scholar Bobby Smith frames it. It is also a matter of personal significance that in many ways, some subtle and some obvious, define our own individual stories and identities, framed against the background of a globalized food system.  We certainly see that local-global resonance and intertwining here in our global city of Newark, shaped over those centuries by migration and immigration, and forever instantiating what our treasured spirit-leader Clement A. Price intoned – that is, all roads lead to Newark.  There is of course a paradox to recognize in this interplay of local culture, personal identity, and global food production – or to say it another way, as our Rutgers-Newark history professor Habtamu Tegegne teaches in his course on Food Cultures and Globalization, the very system of global food production that could be seen as homogenizing or appropriating food cultures, actually also connects us “to so many parts of the world in our everyday lives through the food that we consume.”  In other words, food culture can be inclusive and fully distinctive at the same time.  It can preserve and empower specific cultural/historical/group identities and yet share them at the same time.

And this brings me to how much food cultures and food access and food sharing shape us, and to my own food story, as Lacey asked each of us to bring here today.  My personal food story begins in childhood with detachment, disidentification, and even resentment and moves in adulthood to the awe of seeing the role of food practice and food culture for my son as liberating empowerment for both worldly engagement and self-fulfillment.

So, first, detachment and resentment – as a child and teenager, food and food culture was far away from a personally expansive, empowering experience, even though, paradoxically, as a New York City kid, I tasted the world at local, non-fancy, eclectic eat-spots with my family on the upper west side of Manhattan, before it was gentrified.  But the signature food experience occurred, repeatedly, for years at my grandmother’s and aunt’s apartments in Brooklyn, as my cousin and I cringed at yet another Saturday with gefilte fish and matzah ball soup, and endless dishes for she and I to hand wash, over and over again in the crowded cramped kitchen, while the men watched wrestling or some stupid sport on the living-room TV… you get the point, not exactly awe inspiring, nor did it connect me positively to my food culture heritage.

But life changes, even as my distaste for gefilte fish will never change.  Fast forward, though those early years felt like centuries, to my beloved son Archie, whom we lost to this world in 2021, but whose worldly engagement through language, culture, and most inspiringly, food, will never cease to remind me of how different each of our experiences can be.  Archie’s experience on the autism spectrum often left him feeling not fully a part of the social world, even as he literally gobbled up that world, self-teaching himself languages from Arabic to Mandarin, Urdu, Hindi, Spanish, and on and on, poring over the histories, and most significantly here, mastering the foodways, sourcing authentic spices and products, and cluttering the kitchen with his version of endless courses– this time with dishes I gladly (well, sort of, gladly) washed.  For Archie, food was an avenue to global belonging, to expansive knowledge-making, to a connectedness to others, not appropriation of others’ culture, but outward-directed respect, even as it allowed him to feel inwardly fuller – his was an experience of uplift found in global food emersion, when the local didn’t feel fully his own. 

Global food culture allowed Archie to build some life locally, which brings me back to how essential food, food making, food sharing can be in building an equitable, just, and inclusive community – a future that emancipates, as it did a bit for Archie, and as I see it doing at our campus food pantry, where its fabulous director, Hend El-Buri works with our students to destigmatize food insecurity by empowering food literacy, food sustainability, and most importantly diverse food cultures, connecting back to our community producers at the Urban Agriculture Cooperative and our own food creators at JBJ Soul Kitchen, and making sure not to add to food waste and environmental degradation, as our fearless climate action leader, Kevin Lyons reminds us.  And speaking of climate change, once again, as we will hear today, food, accessibility, and justice are all intertwined, as we see so clearly in the Humanities Action Lab’s Climates of Inequality, stories from the frontlines of the Ironbound in Newark.  Food apartheid is not foreign to Newark, as “more than 2,000 citizens in Newark do not live within one mile of fresh food and vegetables,” to quote our dedicated Earth and Environmental Science colleagues, Ashaki Rouff and Omanjana Goswami, who have collaborated with community gardeners in the South, East, and West Wards of Newark to remediate environmental toxins and enable healthy food production.  Yes, reparative justice can prevail, because as they go on to say, the collective local gardening in Newark can create a virtuous cycle, as local gardens like SWAG farms or Garden of Hope or Garden of Worker Bees, to name only a few, lower costs of fresh produce at markets, creating a local supply chain with less pollution, eroding the hold of food apartheid, while enriching the hold of Black and Brown food culture locally.  A virtuous cycle indeed, built from the ground up, based in collaboratives reminiscent of Fannie Lou Hamer’s Freedom Farms Cooperative, and taking us, as the Marion Thompson Wright Lecture Series always does, and as esteemed historian Edda Fields-Black and renowned film director Lolis Eric Elie will do today, down the road of history to the hopes of community going forward.  And, as all of our esteemed speakers today have demonstrated, food culture is deeply part of community emancipation and simultaneously a central ingredient to self-determination, as it always has been in Black history, and as it was for my son, Archie.