Foraging, Farming, Hunting, and Storytelling: How Black Creators Are Growing Emancipated Spaces

published Jun 16, 2022
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.

When Alexis Nicole Nelson cooks for Juneteenth, she’ll use juneberries — the sweet, nutty fruit that resembles the more commonly recognized blueberry. She’ll use her juneberries to prepare a juneberry wine, which she expects will produce a beautiful shade of red, and make her annual fluffy, fruity Juneteenth juneberry pancakes. She’ll undoubtedly share her creations with her followers online, where Nelson is also known by a different name: Black Forager. The moniker is used across her social media platforms, where, on TikTok, the bubbly, brilliant, James Beard Award-winning forager has amassed 3.7 million followers who watch her pick edible plants like juneberries, pheasant back mushrooms, and magnolia flowers in her native Ohio.

“There is this beautiful sense of pride that I feel and that others have told me that they feel in playing the pivotal role in how you are nourishing yourself,” Nelson told Kitchn. “I think especially for the Black community, and especially for the urban Black community here in the Midwest, a lot of food agency has been taken out of our community’s hands. Being able to take a little bit of that back, it’s just really uplifting.” 

At first glance, Nelson’s radiant personality might solely symbolize joy and adoration for the outdoors. But, as Nelson knows, her presence represents a remarkable type of freedom that many Black Americans have long felt wasn’t theirs to enjoy. As Juneteenth approaches, a holiday that marks the emancipation of illegally enslaved Black folks in Texas, figures like Nelson are asking Black Americans to consider the idea of emancipation beyond slavery, and what freedom means in our day-to-day lives. Many Black folks have used their interests of land and food to create their own “emancipated spaces,” or spaces that allow Black Americans to be wholly free.

A Black Forager Creates Emancipated Spaces

“In American spaces, especially rural outdoor spaces, the imagery for who exists within those lands has been overwhelmingly white, and overwhelmingly conservative,” said Nelson. “As our nation becomes even more polarized, there’s an overwhelming group of people who have made it very clear that they do not want us here. It’s why Black faces in foraging matters, and why I think foraging is on its way to being an emancipated space.”

“As our nation becomes even more polarized, there’s an overwhelming group of people who have made it very clear that they do not want us here. It’s why Black faces in foraging matters, and why I think foraging is on its way to being an emancipated space.”

Alexis Nicole Nelson

Cultural critic Greg Tate originally described emancipated spaces as “maroon spaces,” a phrase based on the word “maroons” which derives from a word that means “fierce” or “unruly,” and was what Spanish colonizers in the Americas called formerly enslaved people who’d revolted against them, demanding their freedom.” That is, places that allowed for free communities, and free platforms for thought and expression. As noted by Harvard scholars, the Maroons in Jamaica lived in a mountainous region called the “Cockpit,” which was a fortress of sorts to protect their culture and livelihood from the Spanish. While he examined emancipated spaces through the lens of music, outdoors-people like Nelson show that emancipated spaces can be created across interests. 

Nelson has charmed her audience with her edible finds and kitchen concoctions — mushrooms into a fried chicken sandwich, using violets to make violet leaf soup, and using ramps to create a gorgeous green ramp pesto soup. Her interest in foraging and cooking can be traced to her parents, who were also outdoor and cooking enthusiasts, but it’s her current visual presence in foraging — a drastically white space — that makes Nelson such a leading figure in the movement to bring more African Americans into the freedom found in the foraging community. 

“I realized it was really important for me to make sure that no matter what context people were experiencing my content — even if it was just a beautiful plate of greens — that they knew it was coming from a Black person. It’s easy to see something foraged [and] it’s so easy to see, you know, those high contrast, Bon Appétit magazine-style photos and make an assumption about who’s on the other side of that lens, and I don’t think that assumption is my face for most people.”

Nelson’s ever-growing community of loyal followers — and her recent James Beard Award — may change that. She’s one of many Black Americans finding freedom in outdoor spaces through the intersection of land and food. Across the country, Black farmers, cooks, and outdoors-people are creating spaces emancipated from the confines of white supremacy and American racism, often by way of retrieving and redefining formerly corrupted connections with the land. 

Though enslaved Africans carried centuries of outdoor knowledge — spanning land and water — that helped build and feed the American south, Black Americans in the 21st century have largely been erased from the image of America’s “great outdoors.” Centuries of American slavery, in which Black people were forced to work outdoors in brutal, insulting working conditions, followed by decades of racism in hiking, hunting, and other outdoors sports, has led to decreased Black representation on American land. A U.S. Forest Service survey completed in 2019 found that 95% of visitors to national forests were white, and just 6 percent of visitors to U.S. National Parks in 2018 were Black. This issue carries over to American farmlands, too. Less than 2 percent of American farmers identify as Black. Across the outdoors, Black people have been left out.

Cultivating Black Joy and Health Through Farming

Now, Black Americans across generations are working to change the narrative. Christa Barfield is a farmer and horticulturist. The Philly native owns FarmerJawn Agriculture, an organization located in the Elkins Park community in Philadelphia that seeks to help people reconnect to the origins of themselves by regenerative healing through food. 

Though Barfield didn’t grow up in gardens, she found the potential for freedom in the outdoors after a travel experience in Martinique exposed her to the benefits of farm-to-table eating and cooking. As a former healthcare worker, Barfield has constantly considered the health disparities within Black communities, and realized that agriculture was an opportunity to bring more options to urban communities like those in Philadelphia.

“It’s important to think about origins,” said Barfield of remembering the historical role of farming in Black communities. “FarmerJawn really does focus on the reintroduction of farming into the lifestyles of urban people, but also people at large,” Barfield said. “And then the reason why I say origins is, health comes from what you’re putting into your body; what you’re putting into your body is directly correlated to the health of your outdoor spaces, including your environmental space. If you yourself are happy, you’re typically happy because your environment is bringing you joy, and the food you eat is bringing you joy, and helping you feel better. And so physical health, social health, and environmental health all play a major role. And it’s all about the origins.”  

Credit: Justin Weathers
Christa Barfield

At FarmerJawn, Barfield considers how to show gratitude to the indigeous communities who owned the land first, and to create a safe space for the Black Americans and other Philly locals who frequent the land. She grows just about everything, including beets, lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber, and herbs. It’s all in service of creating an emancipated space for Black people, and decolonizing American land.

“There’s a whole bunch that goes into us reclaiming lands and reclaiming this skill and occupation and recognizing ourselves in this space, that’s necessary for us to really grasp true freedom,” said Barfield. “We’re grappling with all this trauma that we don’t even know that we have, we’re not even acknowledging the existence of the colonization of outdoor spaces. So we don’t even know that they need to be decolonized until we see ourselves in these spaces.”

Some of that decolonization, for Barfield, starts with Black women’s representation in outdoor and culinary spaces.

“I feel that Black women are the most unprotected species on this planet,” said Barfield. “We need to see ourselves doing things that look empowering, and that are empowering, and yield empowering results, such as growing food straight out of the ground, because that is what freedom and emancipation is in, in any and every space.” 

Finding Black Liberation Through Ethical Hunting

Further north in New York City, emancipated spaces get a little wild. Black hunter and outdoorsman Brandon Dale pays homage to his Louisiana and Mississippi roots by traversing through the northeast for wild game. A board member of Hunters of Color, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, and an ambassador for New York Hunters of Color, Dale is one of the foremost Black hunters leading the charge in creating a safer, more inclusive hunting space, breaking through the archetype of the white male hunter.

“When I did start hunting on public land, I showed up to places that sometimes people would be like, asking me, like, ‘What are you doing here?’ And this is a public land area that everyone has access to inherently as Americans, and of course, we still experienced this sort of discrimination.”

Dale, who is also a busy medical PhD student, spends time in places like the Adirondack Mountains, the Catskills, and the Delaware Water Gap, searching for small game like rabbits and squirrels, as well as waterfowl, turkey, and deer. Scott is aware of the tropes tied to hunting — aggressive, unconcerned about the environment, and full of greed while lacking remorse. Scott couldn’t be further from this outdated picture.

“I love to be able to shake up the notion of the idea that people who go into the woods are rednecks who don’t necessarily care about the land; but in actuality, these are some of the most dedicated conservationists.”

Dale’s love of hunting can be traced to his Southern upbringing, where generations of Black men in his family, including Dale’s father, loved the sport, and mentored him on how to be a safe and thoughtful hunter in his home state of Mississippi, where Dale still occasionally hunts. The demands of school forced him to take a break from hunting for a few years, but eventually, Dale could no longer suppress his love of the activity. 

Showing up as his “whole self” for each and every hunt, Dale, whether he’s instructing a group of new hunters or hunting on his own, finds liberation in understanding how to ethically hunt and prepare food from his exploits. Avoiding waste at all costs, he is always searching for new ways to incorporate wild game into his weekly diet. 

Dale creates a hearty tagine, braising his venison slowly for the Moroccan dish, roasting it for three to four hours in a Dutch oven, and allowing the enticing scents of aromatics, cinnamon, and ginger to effortlessly combine with the pungent, smoky scent of seared meat. During the holiday season, his Louisiana roots come out when he makes andouille sausage for his girlfriend’s family in Vermont. He’s incorporated duck into his family’s gumbo recipe, and his pork fat and venison burgers have become the stuff of legends within his current community in Brooklyn, New York.

“I love to cook and love food, so if I go somewhere and I try a new dish, I will always think about how I can incorporate it with wild game, because that’s an important aspect of this experience, too.”

As Juneteenth approaches, Dale, like many others, is considering the idea of emancipation. Acknowledging the past and the painful history Black Americans have endured is essential, Scott says, but so is forward movement. 

“I think in a lot of ways, hunting and fishing allows me to sort of reclaim a piece of my own identity.”

Storytelling Nourishes Community Among Black People and the Natural World

Southern native Darel Scott understands the importance of reclaiming one’s identity through outdoor spaces. The Stanford graduate and founder of the digital publication Earth in Color grew up in the South with dreams of becoming a paleontologist or anthropologist. As she grew older, she increasingly felt like the outdoors, a space she enjoyed as a child, might not be a place for people like her.

“My story came from a place of not feeling included,” said Scott. Though Scott grew up with her parents in the outdoors, as she grew older, outdoor spaces were more white, and she began to feel tokenized and like an outsider, and at times, even felt like her community was being erased from the narrative of the American outdoors.

Despite Scott’s vivid memories of feeling the rich, soft soil and clay that covers the South, and running and fishing with her mom and dad, respectively, her educational experiences in environmental science presented a picture of outdoor spaces that were only accessible to white people. Outdoor experiences on American land with her family in her home states of South Carolina and Texas, however, encouraged Scott to create something beautiful for other Black people just like her.

Credit: Justin Weathers
Darel Scott

“The pandemic really forced us to think about, how do we still build community without convening people,” Scott said. “The scope is really about all the different ways that you can tell the story, and the expansive and diverse story of blackness and greenness.” 

Scott shares these considerations at Earth in Color, a digital storytelling community that celebrates blackness, green spaces, and the natural world. Sponsored by Grist, Earth in Color presents outdoor spaces as a place of freedom and liberation for Black people. The community spans topic, interest, and region, providing resources for interests ranging from climate change, to land rights, to healthy recipes, to connections to the water. 

Storytelling through online and print platforms allows Black outdoor enthusiasts, or Black Americans who want to get more involved with free, safe outdoor spaces, to connect with each other. Recipes, stories, and research curated from Black Americans around the country collectively create a space in which Black people’s formerly fraught relationship with American land is given a fresh, pure opportunity to grow.

“There are a range of experiences that connect us to the natural world; some are traumatic,” said Scott. “That is a part of Black history, unfortunately. The inherited land trauma that comes from slavery, colonization, us being ripped from homelands, all the environmental injustices that make it unsafe to be outside in your community. We get that, but there’s also all of these beautiful stories about Black innovation, about the ways that our ancestors relied on their connection to the land to live, and the beautiful relationships that we have with the land.”

“There are a range of experiences that connect us to the natural world; some are traumatic … but there’s also all of these beautiful stories about Black innovation, about the ways that our ancestors relied on their connection to the land to live, and the beautiful relationships that we have with the land.”

Darel Scott

At Earth in Color, one of the main ways Scott and her team get readers engaged is by providing resources to connect land and food. Scott, who spent part of her youth as a vegetarian, has used the Food System section of the website to highlight culturally relevant recipes that are plant-based and earth-friendly. It’s a way, Scott says, to counter narratives about how Black Americans eat, and to reclaim our place as the originators of farm-to-table eating.

“Through storytelling and food, we can really create this liberation, this joy, this optimism, this uplift, amidst all of that history,” says Scott. “When you cook our recipes, the goal is for it to be joyful, for it to literally spark your curiosity, for you to see the beautiful connections that Black folks have to the land, to the earth and how that can be experienced through food. For me, it’s really a call to action to bring people into that joyful, liberated, emancipated space.”