Plain women, made by his aunt and grandmother, were the only thing Kofi Acree would eat as a child. Now he makes cereal for himself in all sorts of ways – with shrimp and ketchup, with cheese and eggs.
Foods like grains, made from corn, provide a link to the plants enslaved people of African descent used to survive and thrive, Acree says.
“The fact that I’m carrying on something that my ancestors did is something really wonderful. It’s a joy,” says Acree, director of the John Henrik Clarke Africana Library and curator of the Africana Collections at Cornell University Library.
Corn is among 21 plants featured in “Seeds of Survival and Celebration: Plants and the Black Experience” at Cornell Botanical Garden’s Nevin Welcome Center. The exhibit includes an outdoor plant exhibit, an audio tour, and an indoor exhibit, all depicting plants that are significant to the black experience in America dating back to the transatlantic slave trade. Acree served on the advisory committee that helped shape the exhibit; he also curated a companion guide to the library.
“We look at the transatlantic slave trade – or ‘Maafa,’ the Swahili term for ‘The Great Calamity’ – as something terrible,” says Acree. “But what the exhibit is really showing, in a sense, is how we survived.”
Food plants and cash crops
The exhibit focuses on food plants native to West Africa, such as black-eyed peas, okra and millet, which were used as food on slave ships and incorporated into American cuisine. It also highlights the cash crops, such as sugar cane, cotton, and tobacco, that fueled the transatlantic slave trade.
The purpose of the exhibit is not only to highlight plants that are significant to the black experience, but also to provide a space of diversity and inclusion, says Sarah Fiorello, the gardens’ interpretive coordinator. “These are truly amazing stories, and enslaved Africans and their descendants are often not given credit for them in our country,” she says.
The seeds of the slave ships’ leftover food—such as watermelon and sorghum—went into the gardens African slaves planted around their dwellings. Their agricultural ingenuity and resilience enabled them and their descendants to survive—and preserve some of their dietary preferences and cultural identities under the trauma of kidnapping and enslavement, Acree says.
“What they did was amazing. They had to work these gardens after work, after work—for free, by the way,” says Acree. “And so that meant late at night, early in the morning, before they went to the fields.”
Collards were among the few enslaved leafy vegetables grown in their gardens, enabling them to continue a West African tradition of including leafy greens in soups and stews.
Collards hold a special place in the memories of Jakara Zellner ’23, co-leader of the Garden Ambassador team, who served on the advisory committee and narrated the audio tour.
Her mother cooked fresh greens from scratch for Sunday dinners and feasts. Zellner prepared the greens for her mother to cook, repeatedly washing the tough leaves before her mother picked them, creating a delicious “juice.”
“My mom also grew up near Mobile, Alabama, where her mother and grandmother farmed, and we often came home from their visit with jars full of greens they grew and prepared for us,” says Zellner, who is majoring in sociology and minoring in health equity. “Every time I cook or eat greens now, I’m reminded of these family memories.”
Okra, a member of the marshmallow family, has been used in African cuisine for millennia; enslaved cooks introduced it into American foods. Culinary historian Michael Twitty believes that chiles were first brought to Baltimore, Maryland by Haitians in the late 1800s and soon after appeared in area gardens, kitchens and produce markets, grown almost exclusively by farmers. black. Large heart-shaped taro leaves are cooked into a spicy side dish known as callaloo that honors the Caribbean’s African ancestral heritage.
“It’s an interesting culinary journey, to start thinking more deeply about how these came to be,” says Fiorello, “and how much the enslaved Africans and their descendants contributed to the creation of these cuisines.”
The exhibit also includes cash crops that enslaved people were forced to grow. West African rice farmers were particularly targeted for enslavement because of their expertise in rice cultivation. Between the 1740s and 1770s, indigo was an important cash crop grown on southern plantations, where enslaved people planted, cultivated, harvested, and processed it to dye clothing worn by upper-class Europeans.
During the 1700s, the number of enslaved people in the Chesapeake Bay area and North Carolina increased from 10,000 to 1 million due to increased European demand for tobacco, which led to a higher demand for labor.
Cornell Botanic Garden began work on the exhibit in fall 2021 in collaboration with Valerie Aymer, associate professor of practice, landscape architecture, in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning (AAP), and students enrolled in her Individual Study class in Landscape Architecture. . The eight students conducted research on important plants, with the help of Acree’s library resources, and developed design concepts for the planting exhibit. From these initial concepts, garden horticulturists Melissa Cox and Emily Detrick determined which plants could be grown; Fiorello and educator Pam Shade conducted more in-depth research into the history of plants. The advisory committee provided input for students through fall 2021 and for Gardens staff through spring 2022.
The advisory committee included Acree, Aymer, Fiorello, Zellner and Greg Page, professor emeritus of art, AAP; and Catherine Thrasher-Carroll, director of the mental health promotion program, Cornell Health.
The collaboration between students, staff and the advisory committee formed the theme of the exhibit, which shows how historically, these plants were important for survival.
The exhibit specifically aims to uncover narratives about the many ways African descendants have contributed to American foodways and agricultural practices, Zellner says.
“I hope visitors who interact with these plants will leave the gardens recognizing and acknowledging some of the innovative agricultural creations and techniques developed by Black Americans,” she says, “and how that history relates to current cultural cuisines and injustice within our system. food.”
The garden installation is open from dawn to dusk; the exhibit at the Nevin Welcome Center is open from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.