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Growing up, growing hope, growing food: Michelle Obama’s garden

April 28, 2009

by Crystal M. Hayes

First Lady Michelle Obama, a class of fifth graders and Chef Sam Kass break ground for the White House Kitchen Garden on the South Lawn. – Photo: Todd Heisler, NY Times
First Lady Michelle Obama, a class of fifth graders and Chef Sam Kass break ground for the White House Kitchen Garden on the South Lawn. – Photo: Todd Heisler, NY Times
I used to visit and revisit it a dozen times a day, and stand in deep contemplation over my vegetable progeny with a love that nobody could share or conceive of who had never taken part in the process of creation. It was one of the most bewitching sights in the world to observe a hill of beans thrusting aside the soil, or a row of early peas just peeping forth sufficiently to trace a line of delicate green. – Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Mosses from an Old Manse”

When the news first hit that Michelle Obama was starting an organic vegetable garden, I became obsessed with reading everything about it. As a passionate locavore* and organic foodie, I can’t begin to describe the thrill I felt about her garden. As a Black woman, my first thought went to the ancestors who built the White House and most of the capital. I tried to imagine their pride and joy in watching one of their daughters as she reminded the world of their legacy in ways they could only dream about.

Don’t get me wrong; I am not “post-racial,” but I didn’t have any of the racial anxieties that numerous brilliant Black women bloggers and academics have written about in relation to the First Lady’s garden. Instead, I immediately wanted to know the veggies Michelle Obama was planting. I wanted to know who was helping her. I wanted to know if this was her first garden, or if she gardened in Chicago before.

I wanted to know what Michelle Obama’s favorite veggies were – if, like me, she loved collard greens and Brussels sprouts. I even wanted to know what books and resources she used to learn about gardening so that I could read them too. It’s no secret that the First Lady of the United States (FLOTUS) was really the Obama I wanted to vote for last November, but Barack is all right too.

When I saw the picture of Michelle in the garden with D.C. children on the front page of the New York Times, I even became emotional. At first, I had no idea why. Then it hit me: I spent my early childhood in a vegetable garden. The experience never left me even though I didn’t learn about it until last year, several decades later.

Most people who know me know that my father was a Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army member and that he’s been in prison since I was 2. Nothing can prepare a 2-year-old for the emotional and psychological trauma of losing a parent, especially one as loving and giving as my father. My dad was a doting parent then, and he’s a doting father and grandfather now. The story of my connection with vegetable gardening and my new home in Durham, North Carolina, affirms this.

Amid the chaos and confusion of his own violent arrest in the Bronx in 1972, my father took actions that showed he considered his children’s safety before his own. To keep my siblings and me physically safe (mental and emotional safety had to wait), my father sent me to Southern Pines, North Carolina. The location was supposed to be a temporary stop along a route that would eventually lead to Cuba, where I would reunite with my mother and other family members.

The plan didn’t pan out that way. I lived in Southern Pines for approximately four years, in the home of my father’s sister and “Momma,” the doting mother-in-law who I accompanied in the garden each day I was there.

I have no intellectual memory of any of this, but my body remembers. There are no pictures, there were no stories, nothing – until one year ago, when my father’s older brother died and I began to ask questions.

The answers hit me like a bombshell: Talking with surviving relatives, I realized that I’d moved 45 minutes away from the very homestead that nurtured me as a toddler after my father’s violent arrest and incarceration. I internalized the experience at the cellular level, so much so that, like a salmon to its birthing stream, I moved to the same rural Carolina land that once provided a glimpse of peace amidst an unraveling trauma.

And as I watched the television footage of the FLOTUS in her garden, raking leaves, surrounded by D.C. children, I considered the impact the experience would have on them. No one has discussed this, discussed the fact that these are children who most have written off. The picture of Michelle Obama creating a garden with them may be symbolic for all kinds of people, and for all kinds of reasons. For me, it was an invitation to unpack a history that was lost to me, but is no less significant today.

Again, I lived with my paternal aunt and her family in Southern Pines. She remembers me as a 2-year-old in a sundress and sunhat, up at the crack of dawn with Momma in the vegetable garden. Every day, my aunt recalls, I wanted to wear that same dress and hat, those same shoes and socks. If anyone tried to stop me, there was hell to pay. Apparently, I was as stubborn then as I am today.

As I watched the television footage of the FLOTUS in her garden, raking leaves, surrounded by D.C. children, I considered the impact the experience would have on them. No one has discussed this, discussed the fact that these are children who most have written off.

My aunt said that little 2-year-old wanted to be out in the garden all day long. So Momma had a gardening buddy the entire time I was there, and she loved the company. I never left her side.

The idea that I lived for several of my most formative years in the rural South with Black people who grew their own food – not having to rely on others to feed their children – blows my mind. At 2 years old, I was getting a powerful lesson in self-sufficiency and in life’s seemingly small daily joys, lessons few have access to anymore.

I’m convinced that what I learned then about how food grows gave me the strength to get here: a fulfilling adult life marked by the richness of motherhood, a large family of friends and an integrated career where, as Kahlil Gibran said, work is love made visible.

The idea that I lived for several of my most formative years in the rural South with Black people who grew their own food – not having to rely on others to feed their children – blows my mind.

When I was barely more than an infant, my entire family was ripped violently apart. I didn’t see my mother for I don’t know how long – some tell me it was years. Until now, I use to be haunted by questions of how that little toddler coped.

I now know that at age 2 I was being taught, through Momma’s vegetable garden, to have faith in something I couldn’t see right away. I was being taught that sometimes hope is all we have, and that that’s okay.

I was being taught that when people work together, everybody survives. I was learning to be flexible, and I was shown that asking for help is critical. I was being taught that if I was willing to work hard and have patience, I would be blessed beyond my expectations.

I now know that at age 2 I was being taught, through Momma’s vegetable garden, to have faith in something I couldn’t see right away. I was being taught that sometimes hope is all we have, and that that’s okay.

And finally, I was being shown that, as Alice Walker has said, “Everything we love can be saved.” At 2, I was being taught I could grow something. I was learning at that tender age that health, beauty, joy and love were possible even in the midst of unbelievable pain and devastation. For a 2-year-old little girl who watched her father almost be killed in a brutal police raid, I know Momma’s North Carolina vegetable garden helped save my life in ways I have yet to discover.

None of my adult habits made sense to me until events like my life in Southern Pines were unearthed. As a kid, after my lost toddler years in North Carolina, I remember feeling different from other children my age, who were more interested in sleeping-in on weekends.

Meanwhile, I was always up at the crack of dawn, methodically planning my day. I figured that if I got up early enough and finished my chores, I would have more time to do whatever I wanted. This habit was surely fruit from buried memories of daybreak in the garden.

Similarly, I never understood, until now, why I never met a vegetable I didn’t like or why I usually preferred vegetables over candy. Most important, Momma’s garden helps explain why I always had a vision. If you grow your own food, you know you must have a vision and faith that what you plant will eventually grow.

Although my aunt told me about this lost part of my childhood, she doesn’t have pictures of me in that sundress or sunhat. So I ripped Michelle’s picture out of the New York Times and put it near my computer because it helps me tap into an experience that still sustains me.

Despite the fact that intense loss, pain, and confusion has taken permanent root in my bones, it has never been able to permanently rob my empowerment. I work hard to live in my blessings, not my problems, but when things feel tough, when realities like the fact that my father is still locked up after 37 years pound at the doors of my heart and head, I try to remember that, at 2 years old, people taught me how to dig into my soul, have faith in the unknown and grow whatever I want.

In these precarious times Michelle Obama’s garden also teaches us to sow a vision that feeds faith, love and community instead of fear, despair and loss.

Help to free my father, political prisoner Robert Seth Hayes

Robert Seth Hayes holds his granddaughter Myaisha, Crystal’s daughter, in this 1992 photo when she was 9 months old. She’s now 17.
Robert Seth Hayes holds his granddaughter Myaisha, Crystal’s daughter, in this 1992 photo when she was 9 months old. She’s now 17.
At a hearing this past winter, my father was once again denied parole. He has now served 12 years above his 25-year sentence for a total of 37 years. This is unacceptable. For this reason, we are making an urgent request for financial support in an effort to prepare for his next parole hearing. Your contribution is tax deductible. Please write “Robert Seth Hayes” on the memo line of your check or money order and send it to IFCO/ NYCJERICHO, P.O. Box 1272, New York, NY 10013. They will collect the funds and send them to Cheryl Kates, his new parole attorney. If you need more information, call Paulette at NYC JERICHO, (718) 853-0893 or (646) 271-4677.

When things feel tough, when realities like the fact that my father is still locked up after 37 years pound at the doors of my heart and head, I try to remember that, at 2 years old, people taught me how to dig into my soul, have faith in the unknown and grow whatever I want.

You can also drop Seth a note at the following address: Robert Seth Hayes, 74-A-2280, Wende CF, Wende Rd., P.O. Box 1187, Alden, NY 14004-1187. And check out his website, www.sethhayes.org.

Please join “Free Robert Seth Hayes” on Facebook. Here you can find out more details about his parole process, his health and how to help.

Crystal M. Hayes is the mother of a 17-year-old daughter, Myaisha. Crystal received her BA from Mount Holyoke College in African and African American studies and politics and a master’s degree in clinical social work from the Smith College School for Social Work. She lives in North Carolina and is currently writing a book about race and motherhood. Her research and writing interests include gender, Black life and culture, and social policy. Crystal is a dynamic public speaker who addresses wide audiences from youth groups to colleges, churches and other organizations. She can be reached at crystalmhc@hotmail.com.

* Locavore was the New Oxford American Dictionary’s 2007 Word of the Year. The editors explain: “The ‘locavore’ movement encourages consumers to buy from farmers’ markets or even to grow or pick their own food, arguing that fresh, local products are more nutritious and taste better. Locavores also shun supermarket offerings as an environmentally friendly measure, since shipping food over long distances often requires more fuel for transportation.”

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3 thoughts on “Growing up, growing hope, growing food: Michelle Obama’s garden

  1. Ann Garrison

    Would that the people of D.R. Congo were able to keep their families together, plant some seeds, and watch them grow. Instead of being ripped apart, separated from the land and its wealth by the relentless U.S./Anglophone war for Congo’s unparalleled natural resources.

    Reply
  2. Chon Woon Hong

    As the First Lady of a nation like USA, Mrs. Obama could have been more cautious in doing things like this. In fact, the term “organic farming” has been and is being oversold. Oranic farming is not the solution for food problem of the world. Is USDA illegalizing conventional farming? No, and it will not. Major production of food will rely on conventional farming in most of the wealthy countires. In theory and practice, organic farming cannot replace the conventional farming, since the latter is reqires more labor while the productivity is much lower than the former.
    Mrs. Obama may misguide many commoners as if all the vegetables should be produced by organic faming, which is impractial.

    Reply

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