How My Grandfather's Garden Taught Me to Survive While Black and Queer
“There is mean things happening in this land.”
Those are lyrics from John Handcox — a folk musician, tenant farmer, union organizer, and Black man who saw the ripening of one harvest after another of “mean things” within America’s Jim Crow landscape. Today, ill-intentioned hands perpetuate the seeding of “mean things,” praying that they take root, penetrate the surface of the earth, and blossom into legislation and attitudes that will continue to make American soil nourishing for some and barren for most. “There is mean things happening in this land.” And yet “most” of us — the undocumented, the disabled, the poor, the Muslim, and, like myself, the Black and queer — are still here, choosing to live, again and again. Or, at least, we are trying our best to.
The fact that America is hostile to bodies that look like mine and to bodies that love like mine is a fact that has worn grooves into my retinas: I see the headlines featuring the names of brutalized Black trans women; I see the dips in my father’s health caused by decades of enduring workplace microaggressions; I see the stats on the HIV/AIDS crisis rupturing Black, queer communities; and I see the images of lifeless Black bodies sprawling across my feeds. The uprooting of people of color and queer folks happens with enough consistency in America to be forecast in an almanac, requiring that we become survivalists. Constantly willing ourselves away from the edges of apocalypse, constantly striving to not be undone.
The difficult art of remaining whole in this country often requires adaptation. For me, becoming a part of digital mycelium — Facebook groups, group chats — is an attempt at adapting. Taking selfies and deeply affirming my shimmering Black, queer existence has become another. I take the time to to commune with myself in my bedroom, temporarily taking refuge from the blunt objects of racism, homophobia, transphobia, and femmephobia. Napping is a reliable salve against white supremacy’s weathering effects; dancing is a tonic I frequently consume to inhibit physical and psychic withering; tears heal.
While adaptation has helped me to carry the allostatic load that comes with inhabiting Blackness and queerness, the load is still heavy. Residing in a world nourished by the rupture of your body requires more than finding comfort in your violent disaggregation—surviving in such a world necessitates conjuring new possibilities of life. New horizons. Entirely new worlds to occupy. Of all places, I have found new worlds in my grandfather’s garden.
Nestled on a humble patch of earth in South Carolina is a garden that belongs to my maternal grandfather — my Granddaddy William. A towering statue of a man with the same impenetrable face as the cowboys who populate his beloved Westerns. During countless summertime visits throughout my childhood, I, dodging the tyrannical heat of the South, would sit on Granddaddy William’s back porch and watch him — in his signature outfit of shades, worn shirt, wide-brimmed hat, faded shorts, and calf-length socks—love up on his plot of land. Measuredly handling the soil and acting as a sort of doula to bring forth bright, full-bodied wonders. The okra. The tomatoes. The cucumbers. The squash. The greens. All waiting to be pickled, frozen, or eaten straight up from the ground with just the right amount of salt, pepper, and vinegar. Even today, my grandfather still tends to his garden, ever-working to perfect an agricultural wisdom that has been passed down for generations. His garden is my inheritance.
And also my teacher. My ally and co-conspirator.
We often forget that natural spaces have always functioned as gateways to survival for the most marginalized. Harriet Tubman was celestially literate, reading the stars to steal herself away to freedom. Today, Black millennials are turning to botanico-religious cosmologies to reclaim power in a society that deems them powerless; queer circles are learning to dismantle oppressive systems from decoding the alignment of planets. I, while witnessing my grandfather’s entanglement with the land over the years, have read between the lines of my grandfather’s gardening, revealing writings in the dirt delineating how to bloom while anchored in uncertain soils. Delineating how to entirely transform the soils themselves. From every tug of a weed, from every watering of the earth, and from every dropping of a seed, I have gleaned a language instructing me on how to flourish in America, especially while queer and Black.
Lesson one: from my grandfather’s garden, I have learned that moving beyond just survival requires leaning into faith. Faith in your continued existence. Faith in the fact that the life you have cultivated will continue to be, uninterrupted. Faith in the capacity of spaces of death to be transformed into expanses of life. Granddaddy William relies on faith every day that he gardens. With every seed that he plants in the South Carolinian soil—a soil haunted by the vestiges of slave ships, Black corpses, and Confederate busts—my grandfather has faith that every single seed, after secluded in darkness for a spell, will burst and struggle toward the light, eventually bearing fruit. A spillage of life. With every planting, my grandfather is certain that a land weaponized to bring about his wholesale annihilation will bring about his nourishment. Adopting my granddaddy’s gestures of faith, I, each morning, imbue myself with the certainty that my body will persist, will rise the next day.
Lesson two: from my grandfather’s garden, I have learned that moving beyond just survival requires troubling the status quo’s still waters. Within his refuge of vines, earthworms, and sky, Granddaddy William sheds ill-fitting, threadbare identities and becomes porous to other selves, including those that are insurrectionary in a world sustained by impermeable images of Black thugs, freeloaders, and brutes. Selves where he is vulnerable, whispering sweet nothings and encouraging words to his plants. Selves where he is tender, even when breaking open the earth. Selves where he engages in deep, fluid intimacy, forgetting where he ends and the ground begins. Grandaddy, in his garden, engages in acts of world-making and self-fashioning, becoming more embodied, more enfleshed, wrapping caricatures with blood and skin. My grandfather’s garden dares me to exceed the bounds of this world to envision my own Blackscapes and queerscapes where my existence is softly cradled. I have learned to trouble the still waters of America’s normative order of things, especially to avoid my own drowning.
And lesson three: from my grandfather’s garden, I have learned that moving beyond just survival requires engaging in “rootwork.” Not rootwork that is the practice of an Afro-Diasporic folk healing magic, but rootwork that is a resurrection of and reaching back for one’s roots, one’s past, for the purpose of remaining grounded and sustained. My grandfather recognizes the power of this imagining of rootwork every time he saves seeds from his garden. For him, every seed is an archive of agrarian genius that he can activate at any time to provide for himself and his loved ones. Each seed is a remembrance, a memory, a looking back, and a life-giving source that calls on past knowledge to usher in future prosperity. My grandfather’s seedkeeping has nudged me to engage in rootwork of my own, prompting me to constantly ask myself, What can I learn from those who have endured what I am living through now? What is there to learn from the resiliency of my ancestors? What epistemologies of thriving can I draw forth from the elders upon whose shoulders I stand?
Last summer, while visiting Granddaddy William, I asked him why he gardened. After what did he model his sociality with the land? I was in search of a grounding origin story. With us seated at his kitchen table, he unearthed the fact that his father, J. B. Singletary, was a farmer. To earn money, to make ends meet, to support his family, to survive the racial atmosphere of the early 20th century, my great-grandfather engaged in agricultural work, becoming the source of my grandfather’s agrarian know-how. In my family, the land has always been a tool for dodging death, for grappling with the fact that “we were never meant to survive.”
I will reiterate one more time: “There is mean things happening in this land.” And, yet, the land has been my salvation. While every day is a struggle to navigate a funhouse of horrors — a police officer’s bullet, poisoned water, the rearing of the ugly face of toxic masculinity on the street — my grandfather’s garden has served as a knowledge commons, offering lessons on how to not just survive, but flourish. Expand. Be full. Inaugurate better ways of life. As a Black, queer person under constant assault, my death is always a possibility, making the idea of returning to the earth something I generally fear. But returning to the earth, through learning the survivalist pedagogy of gardens, has become a crucial key to my sustained breathing.