The Animals on the Farm
A long essay about the confusion racism causes
“You’re not Christian? So do you believe in God?”
I can’t remember the exact words now, but I remember the shock of such a bold inquiry, an invasive question into my private curiosities and spiritual quests. We just met each other. She is a farmer and a wife of a farmer. Tall, blonde with not so great teeth, and she made it clear that it was the poor leadership in Scotland that made her teeth bad. She and her husband’s farm is picturesque with rolling green hills and expansive blue skies with puffy white clouds somehow always perfectly situated behind the aged, but well kept red barn. It’s a scene from a children’s picture book about animals or God.
Earlier in the summer I relaxed my ‘no-white people’ policy after watching Eurovision, a fictional theatrical depiction of a real life European singing contest. It’s a strange thing to have a silly movie like that play a role in changing my decades-long policy on white people. My no-white people policy is notorious in my social and family circle. When I hosted pre-Covid house parties, invitations had an explicit “melanated friends only” statement attached. It was there for my own safety. I didn’t want to button up in my own house about Black things, Black sex, racism, political independence, corporate rape and the list goes on. I didn’t and still don’t want to explain myself to a white person, especially in my sacred and safe space. So, no-white people.
Eurovision, that silly movie, reminded me of how my European trips were mostly fraught with anxiety about whether or not some non-English speaking white person will come from behind and touch my Afro or if a white man might approach me, petitioning sex because I look exotic, wild, or here’s the latest, “African.” Sometimes I’d consider the money spent on airfare to these places would have been more useful in other parts of my life like paying off student loans or purchasing a fancy dinner in safe and familiar New York. There were so many white people around, always. Of course I should have expected it being that it was, in fact, Europe. But the discomfort manifested when the men would actually petition me, stare uncomfortably into my eyes or hurl insults in a language I didn’t speak but could somehow understand. I hoped to be mostly ignored by the white men, like in the U.S.
Occasionally, and it always shocked me, at home, a white man may drum up the courage to talk to me about his house boat, far away travels and his lofty apartment on the East side, attempting to dazzle me with his money, hoping I’d collapse in his arms desperate to be taken care of. A time at a local bar in Flatbush, of all places, an older white man sat at the counter, out of place. He masterfully laid on the counter his bank statements from an institution that appeared to be for rich people. He wasn’t on the phone, possibly talking to his accountant. He didn’t have a pen highlighting transactions. It was just a bank statement with the text facing our direction. The bank statement only sat on the counter while he was chumming it up with the bartender. Both me and my friend, also a Black woman, were annoyed of course, disgusted in fact.
Another time, when I worked as a cater waiter, my boss, a white Jewish man, called me to his office while it was empty to discuss something I can’t remember. While going through his paperwork, he started to share his fantasies. “You know Brittney, I’ve always wanted a Black girl.”
Europe, it wasn’t all bad, but I was closed to the idea of having fun there because my prejudices obstructed the possibilities. I don’t think I knew that at the time. But Eurovision showed me that I had possibly been missing out on some great parties, even some weirdos like me and maybe, some decent white people, maybe.
One of my former fellowship colleagues is a white German guy and he infrequently would reach out to hang, chat about current events, crack jokes and discuss the politics of Blackness. I think the Black stuff is where I diverged and my walls went way up. Recommendations to see certain plays about the Black experience was a mainstay in his conversation starters. I would politely entertain the chat, all the while privately I’d wonder about his intentions. I didn’t want to entertain a white person’s interest in the pains of Black folk. I didn’t want to be vulnerable with a white person about anything for that matter.
Eurovision, although its intentions I’m sure had nothing to do with my own issues about white people, called forward my prejudices, justified or not, and challenged me to look deeply at all that I may be missing out on because of my fears.
Up until that moment, on the couch at my mom’s house in LA watching this Netflix movie all by myself, I hadn’t really considered that I had been missing anything white people were offering, and perhaps that’s still the truth. I experience their offerings regularly — rude remarks, invasive questions, presumptuous banter, institutionalized racism, Karens, outrageous propositions, assault, fear mongering, unbridled hands, secrets. Interacting with white people on purpose just seemed unnecessary and dangerous. They’ve already made themselves integral to my existence. Around the same time of my revelation, an opportunity to intern and live on a farm was presented and it was on the white couple’s land in the middle of nowhere Virginia, about a half hour from my Black aunt with whom I had a new relationship.
For years I yearned for wide fields and open skies to learn the art of growing food. New York rent, however, and a family lineage sparse of financial inheritance required me to work a regular job and being completely remote wasn’t yet an option. Say what you want about the pandemic, there was a silver lining for me. COVID’s ravaging effect on the world made everyone stay in their homes and forced my employer to grant my ultimate wish — to stay away from the office.
But would I be safe? I had already gotten sick so I wasn’t worried about catching the virus again as much as I was hyper aware of my mostly liberal Blackness being situated in the rural South. I wondered if these white people were excited to have a Black woman working on their farm for some nefarious reason. Their neighbors, those with several confederate flags decorating the edges of their property line, were they a danger to me? Probably.
These questions were impossible to answer. But what I didn’t want to do was limit myself based on my (legitimate) fears. I figured that if my super liberal auntie from California can thrive there, so could I. So I took the opportunity and lived on these white people’s farm for two months. Plus, I figured I’d be gathering some juicy, racially charged material to publish on my blog one day.
And so, when the farmer lady asked who my god is, I flinched, then side-eyed her, on the inside, but pushed through the awkward moment to have this adventure. I shared with her that I was raised Christian, but decided that it wasn’t the path for me because God is omnipresent, as the Bible states, and exists within an unfathomable space, time and consciousness continuum. And so I couldn’t whittle down the creator of the universe to fit within any particular paradigm. She nodded as if what I said was bullshit and simply misguided millennial talk. Her expression suggested that it would be her duty to impart Christian God-wisdom and somehow draw me closer to Jesus.
It was still my first week on the farm and the couple invited me to their home church. I accepted. The couple is cute. They visibly love each other and Jesus and their community. They take pride in their liberal conservatism and distinguish their religious practices from others, expressing that the way they practice Christianity is different and true to the way Jesus would have meant it to be practiced. They welcome everyone into their lives and space. They claim to have a judgement-free zone because they understand what it means to not believe, in fact, they used to be atheists. Their home church is simple — they sing songs to acoustic instruments, invite all attendees to share about their week, support each other with comments and encouragement, maybe a scripture is read, then they close with a prayer circle.
During the community talk portion, I had introduced myself and told the story of how I ended up there on the farm, leaving out the white people prejudice part, of course. At the end of my monologue, one of the members said, “Wow, you speak so well, you tell stories really good, way better than any of us.” The comment was seconded and thirded around the room.
Pause. Was this offensive? Mistrust of white people will have a person questioning everything. Racism, while it is obvious in many instances, it is also covert, stealthy, unassuming. Smiles, nods, approving statements are all suspicious. But maybe I’m sensitive. Yet my paranoia is validated by people not only who experience the same terror, but also those with Ph.D.s. A study called “Perception of Subtle Racism: The Role of Group Status and Legitimizing Ideologies Studies,” written by Hsin-Ya Liao illustrates the point that racism isn’t just the lynch mob with tiki torches and red, white and blue banners. Oppressive power is also expressed subtly with poor customer service, an off comment, a weird question, or a slip of the tongue, calling you “the help” — that happened to me once while in Virginia.
“The major problem associated with contemporary racism, is that racism is usually perpetuated in normative and invisible forms and is generally outside of our conscious awareness. This type of racism, namely subtle racism, has posed a challenge to the perceivers because (a) it is often difficult to discern, and (b) the actions in question can be easily justified by causes other than racism.”
Maybe these church folk were truly just admiring my oratory skills, like when the world was so impressed with the way President Barack Obama delivered speeches. I let the thought go and refused to accept what I assume they meant was a compliment. As the excitement for my presence raged on, another church member turned to me and asked, “So what’s your belief in God?” This again! And this time in front of a captive audience.
Why the hell were these white people asking me about who I worship? Why was it their business? I grew up in church. No one ever asked me my belief or even publicly asked others, except when they came to the altar asking to be saved. “Do you believe in Jesus Christ to be your Lord and Savior?” It’s always more of a command than a question. But no one ever asked the way these people did, all out loud and judgy-like. The discomfort of this question didn’t go away.
In the prayer circle, my soul was prayed for, as if I wasn’t there. Members of the circle asked that Jesus show his face to me and make his presence known in my life. I wanted to break up the circle and say something rude and condescending like, “God, help these white people mind their own business and stop trying to rescue people when they can’t save themselves.” I didn’t. I just sat in the space, feeling violated.
We then moved to the dining room where we sat at a 12-person table, slurping on spaghetti that had been prepared the day before with halved noodles. At some point during the meal, someone asked me what happened that caused me to leave Christianity. I wanted to say that it was because I learned that Christianity is a watered down European version of African spirituality and that colonization taught us to worship white people. But, I didn’t.
I couldn’t stand the awkwardness much longer. So I mustered up the courage to ask the table why they were so forward about asking me who my god is. Why was that okay for them to do? The farmer lady said without hesitation, “Well, you never know if this is the only opportunity to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with someone.” She went on to describe that she believes those who aren’t believers are lost and risk the fire and brimstone hell has to offer if they don’t turn to Jesus and she doesn’t want to be held accountable for letting that happen if she can help it. Her response came off haughty.
I can’t remember what a young gentleman added, but I remember leaving the group with a smile on my face but a curse in my heart, thinking how intrusive and sanctimonious these people were. I cringed and thought it’s just like white people to be this way. For a moment I regretted going there, but assured myself this was all part of the adventure and it would all be worth it in the end.
My farm tasks started right away and at some point I began animal feeding duties with the husband. I would lift grain and other heavy items. He’d comment, “Wow, Brittney, you sure are strong.”
I know I’m strong. I got it from my mama. Being physically strong is one of my favorite attributes. I didn’t think much of his comment at the time. It was nice to be physical again because gyms were closed in New York and I wasn’t motivated to figure out what workouts to do in the park. Sooner rather than later, the farmer’s comment became a conversation starter, and an introduction of me to others in his community — “She sure is strong!” This persisted to the last day of my stay on the farm. There weren’t many days that were not marked by his comment. At times he even sounded braggadocios, “Oh have you met our intern, Brittney? You better watch out because she’s very strong, and probably stronger than me.”
My paranoia about the whites rolling out their racist agenda never subsided with this revolving comment — She sure is strong
I could visualize places just like this in the deep South where Black bodies were purchased and exchanged based on their apparent physical strength. I personally theorize that people in our society, when recounting the sore history of bondage for profit, only reference how Black men were measured for their physicality. Undeniably the women were not frail and weak. Carrying bushels of tobacco, cotton, rice and sugarcane, rearing children and livestock demanded that their bodies were strong too.
So imagine standing on that auction block, I’m sure “She sure is strong” was heard countless times as Black women were sold body and soul to the next plantation owner. I imagine it was a titillating characteristic to boast for an ambitious farmer, overseer and white supremacist.
Even today Black women are expected to be unaffected and un-pained. We are expected to be the strong mules of the past according to the medical profession. My thoughts tailspin when I consider the reality that Black women are under-treated by those who have taken an oath to practice the art of medicine. A contemporary example, Serena Williams, a multi-million dollar athlete and celebrity almost died giving birth to her daughter Olympia. Articles grazed the surface, pointing to the disparities of healthcare for Black women compared to other women. I’ve even interviewed Black women, some mothers, who have suffered similar neglect, complaining of pain but being ignored and nearly dying because of a doctor’s dismissal. At times I wonder if my demonstration of strength is lowering my chances of survival.
Each time the farmer commented on my strength to one of his white male counterparts, I was baffled. Maybe he was intimidated by me. Why did he say this so often and to people out loud? Was he setting me up to be a superhuman villain? Was he insuring himself that if something went terribly wrong his community could blame me for it? Was he telling me that he was afraid of me? Was he telling others he was afraid of me? Was he jealous? Was he turned on? Was he actually admiring my strength?
The farmers had a weekly date night with an elderly retired couple down the road. They had become emblems of parents to them, especially since their own mothers and fathers were gone. They’d watch “American Ninja Warrior,” chat about the local happenings, crack jokes and discuss farm things. They’d make their way over at about 8:00p.m. and the woman of the house always offered grapes or other snacks along with some dessert. She liked to make heaping ice cream sundaes with bananas, whipped cream and some syrup or honey from her beehive. I’m allergic to dairy. So she’d make a bowl of fruit for me and offer tea. A delightful southern hostess with endless topics to talk about all the time. I just couldn’t imagine so much happening in her small town life that she and her husband would always have an interesting story to tell. But they always did.
Her husband, a friendly southern man with an accent so thick sometimes I stared at him hoping he’d repeat himself or that my brain would use context clues to decipher the sounds I heard. He’s not a tall person and he walks slow. He’s close to 80 but gets around like he’s closer to 70. He speaks loud and tells stories of his wildly adventurous youth, when he’d fight men and wrestle animals. From his tales, he impressed upon me that he was a bit of trouble maker and pulled no stops on showing off. That got me to wondering about his interactions with Black people. I wondered how many times he’d said ‘nigger’ in his life. I assumed it was a lot.
My first time over the elder couple’s house, the farmer introduced me and mentioned to the old man that I was very strong. I cringed on the inside, not because I was embarrassed, but because it was happening again and this time with a man from the Old South. I could easily imagine him the kind of man that wouldn’t hesitate to call me a nigger in his youth or say it after I closed the door to leave. I was nervous about how this conversation would go and curious about how controlled this old man would be.
And it did get a little sticky with the old man commenting on my size implying something like I was a big girl, weighty and that it’d be reasonable that I’d be strong because of my size. They started to speak too low for me to hear or too low for me to care.
Before it got weirder, I excused myself to grab some tea to avoid the averting eyes of these white men glaring up at me as their chatter quickly dipped to a whisper. After that introduction of the elderly couple, I visited infrequently. We, the older couple and I, eventually developed a rapport and it became easier to be around them. But of course I kept my distance.
Everything is always fun and games until someone says something racist.
Midway in my internship, a few pigs in the field needed to be castrated. The farmer called upon the elder down the road to perform the procedure because after all, he’s done it hundreds of times. He was good and quick. He had a special scalpel for the job and I personally think he enjoyed doing it.
I watched the animal surgery, clutching a chick I adopted, fascinated. The farmer and his young helper tackled the first pig. It defecated and squealed some blood curdling squeal. I had never heard something so disturbing from an animal. The old man quickly sliced the animal near its anus. There wasn’t much blood. Out of the incision emerged a palm sized pinkish sac, fleshy and mutilated by his scalpel. With a swift hand, he scooped the sac and clasped his thumb to the middle of his index finger and gently but firmly pulled the connecting biological tubes from out of the cavity. The pigs testicles were now in his hand and while I stared in awe at the whole ordeal, holding the baby chicken, he tossed the first pig testicle over the fence, just inches from my big toe. Fluids flung and came so close I was sure something got on me.
Immediately disturbed by the action, inside I told myself to resist the urge to shout at the old man. Instead of twisting up my face and calling the man a bigot, I nervously chuckled and took a picture of the strange animal part, nestled in the rich green grass. All the while my mind vacillated between rage and curiosity. I also considered my safety, after all, the farmers in the area all have a saying they made me aware of, “Shoot, shovel and shut up.” I don’t imagine it’s a policy limited to animals.
The next pig was up for the same brutal ritual. This pig was stronger than the last one. It was probably the alpha of the group. The farmer had to engage a bit more muscle this time around.
The old man waddled over to do his job and he looked up for me and asked if I wanted to eat the testicles. In Virginia, they do in fact eat pig testicles — Rocky Mountain Oysters, a meal cowboys in the old West used to cook up while spending days and weeks in the prairies away from home and with not a whole lot to eat. Before reacting to this old man’s jokes and straightway getting offended, I thought about that. Then replied, “I’ll eat ’em if you do.” He laughed and then did the same thing he did before and threw them toward me over the fence. His wife was a few feet away from me this time and saw it happen. She turned her nose up and said something to perhaps explain away his disrespect, “Oh I don’t know why he does that,” in her charming, yet alarming southern drawl. I saw enough of the hardcore farm work for one day and left the group with my pet chick.
What was that? Was it racism? Was it a joke? Was it that he didn’t see me as a woman or a feminine enough that he could joke with me in that way? Was it because I was strong? Would he have done that to a white girl? I suspect he wouldn’t have. But this kind of thing is elusive, you can’t really know. You just recognize the odd behavior and you’re there, wondering why you feel violated. Racism is stealthy like that.
Yet there are times when you just know, like when I attended the town’s gardening club meeting with the farmer’s wife. We arrived separately, so when I approached the front door of the house where it was being held a woman greeted me and said,
“Oh, you must be the help.”
Damn! The help? When I worked as a cater-waiter at parties in big New Jersey mansions and expansive New York luxury apartments for the uber-wealthy I would joke with my counterparts that we were the help. My co-workers were white and Latinx and Black like me. We had a sense of camaraderie and were getting paid a decent wage. But, when it came out of this white woman’s mouth, at the door of this big house full of even more white people, a lump formed in my throat and rage filled my eyes. I managed, however, to correct her, “I’m the farmer’s intern.”
Being a field hand, in what was the Confederate South, with white people was often just weird. There were times the farmers made other disconcerting comments. There were conversations with the customers and vendors of the farm that were strange. There was always a level of unease about drifting too far off the property for fear of running into the “wrong white person.”
Yet, overall, the experience presented a perspective shift for me. Despite their apparent dismissal of systemic racism, saying things like, “There’s more white people in jail here than Black people” and “I was poor too” and the ignorance of their own fears and racial prejudices, the farmer and his wife were nice people, I guess. They taught me a lot about living with less fear of things like marriage and death.
Their dedication to Jesus and their understanding of the Bible fueled their kindness and openness to the community. Their beautiful farm was a respite for so many, including myself. Travelers, neighbors, people seeking organic food stopped by daily to not only get what they wanted, but to be filled with something else less tangible that they didn’t know they needed. Sometimes people would come to the farm and walk the land, feeling lighter than when they came. Sometimes they’d come to help pick weeds or harvest tomatoes because it gave them joy to get some dirt under their nails. Sometimes they’d just come to the back porch and sway on the bench swing, basking in the sun, while the cat, dog or friendly chicken swept near their feet for a tender touch.
The farmer and his wife had a pre-COVID history of visiting the local prison to minister to inmates. They had developed relationships with some of these men and women, giving out their cell phone numbers and inviting them to stay on the farm for a few days, free of charge. They would dedicate one night a week to visit former inmates in a recovery group where people cried, laughed and spoke about the challenges they had been facing with their faith or their addiction to drugs. The farmer was also a recovering alcoholic.
I went to this meeting twice during my eight weeks with them. The first time I had to introduce myself and share with this wide-eyed group of white strangers, why me, this Black woman from New York via Los Angeles was there in the middle of rural Virginia. They were gracious and welcoming. I told them essentially that this whole thing was an experiment to see if I could make it as a farmer in the future. I also unabashedly shared with them that I had fears about being in the South as a Black woman and that everything I felt or learned about Virginia would have kept me out of the state otherwise. White people are dangerous.
The leader of the group, an older man with a big smile and gentle disposition, invited me to sit next to him. I had met him before at the first home church session I attended. He had heard my story and the whole spiel twice now. He bragged to the group how well I told stories and how riveted he was listening to me speak. It was slightly flattering and maybe a bit patronizing. But it could have been my own insecurities. How do you know when white people are being sincere?
I certainly felt out of place in this group. Here I was, a thirty-something-year-old unmarried, liberal Black woman from the city, with a decent paying job, no children, no mortgage and a half-full passport in a room with farmers, people with varied middle- to low-incomes, and struggling addicts. My host farmer once said that everyone is addicted to something. It seemed like a profound statement at the time.
Was I addicted to running away from my problems? Maybe that was part of the reason I was on the farm. Was I addicted to food? I love to eat. Was I addicted to my fears? I did adopt a baby chicken. It was my emotional support animal. Was I addicted to my ideas about white people? Or just maybe being cautious had kept me safe all these years?
Recalling my high school years in suburban Los Angeles County, where Six Flags is situated, a group of white supremacists thrived in the area. They typically sat under a tree on the outskirts of the school grounds and mostly kept to themselves. But after school, they’d often get in their oversized trucks and ride past the bus stop where I and other Black and Mexican kids were waiting for public transportation and yell out the windows, “NIGGERS!” If they rode by slow enough we could see their Confederate flags fastened to the inner roof of their monster vehicles.
Once there was even a threat of a race war on campus between the Black kids and the whites. My mom picked me, and a few of my friends, up early from school that day. Race wars were common in the area. Rumors of bloodbaths, straight out of the movies, were rampant across the desert valley where I lived. So I played no games with the whites on my high school campus.
Outside of the drive-bys at the bus stop the closest I got to this racist group is when I enrolled in Auto Shop II my junior year. I liked the idea of acquiring an arsenal of practical skills so that I could help myself when there was no man around, like most of my childhood. My peers were only men — white and Latinx. On the first day of class, the instructor mentioned the days we wouldn’t meet and MLK Day was one of them. The “proud boys” immediately erupted into disruptive banter about the holiday. I already felt uncomfortable being there but this made me feel unsafe. The instructor did not address their behavior. I didn’t return to that class. That was high school.
Now here I was, adult me, immersing myself into this Southern white world, a place notorious for its racism. Living on their land, sleeping in their home, socializing with them, discussing God and country, with not another known Black person for 30 miles. What was I getting out of this experience, beyond a reminder of why I had so carefully crafted my life to interact with them as little as possible? Maybe I wanted to change my perspective and give white people a chance. But this experience didn’t do that. It reinforced my survival instincts.
On my last visit to the recovery group, a woman asked if my perspective changed about the South. I blurted out “no” and laughed. I wasn’t joking! Although, I did learn that despite their toxic whiteness I could live alongside them, I’m confident that they will still continue to act within their ignorance and insensitivity without fail. It would be foolish to think otherwise. Yet I can accept them with it and that was probably the most liberating aspect of this experience. Once I released my expectation that they should act differently I could navigate better; without anxiety; without fearing the next offhand comment; and ultimately with strength. This is just how they are.