“Land is power.” Ruby McGee
Tonight I had the distinct pleasure of watching an amazing documentary, Dirt and Deeds in Mississippi. It tells another amazing “hidden figures” kind of story, some Black history that was rolled up in cotton wool and tucked way out of sight. In this case, the story of Black land-owning farmers and the role they played in the fight for rights — civil, voting, human — in Mississippi. It is an eye-opening, painful, powerful, important document of history. I could watch it on a loop for days.
Ruby McGee was the first Black person to be registered to vote in her county. Today, she owns and operates the family tree farm that gave her the freedom to take some of the chances she took as a young woman, that enabled her parents to run a Freedom School. She talks about what being a landowner gave her, says that it meant she didn’t have to work in white people’s kitchens. She talks about the idea of “knowledge is power” … and says no, “Land is power.”
And that resonated so deeply in my chest. I wanted to clap my hands and shout, “Yes!” It reminded me:
Got land to stand on,
then you can stand up,
stand up for your rights
as a woman, as a man.
“Achin’ for Acres” by Arrested Development was about exactly this, the power of owning where you live, owning the ground beneath your feet.
And it reminded me of my sadness, my personal heartache when family land has been lost, on my mother’s side, on my father’s. Those are pieces of ourselves we can never get back. I feel the empty spaces left by each even now, years later.
It reminded me of something I heard John Boyd Jr. say a while ago in an NPR profile piece: all of us are no more than two generations removed from somebody’s farm.
It reminded me of Constance Curry’s amazing book, Silver Rights, also about Mississipi.
This movie touched so many chords. And it spilled over into tonight’s chōka.
I have so much pride
seeing my ancestors fight
seeing them stand up
refusing to cave, to give.
This is what it means:
strength, power, faith, love, honor.
This is who we are,
fierce, unendingly stubborn
and sure. Sure of us,
sure of the fact we were right.
Sure that — live or die — we’d win.
My family isn’t from Mississippi — at least no one I’ve found yet — but Dirt and Deeds felt like home all the same.
A chōka is a Japanese form poem with a specific syllable count per line. The shortest form of chōka is: 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 7. The 5- and 7-syllable lines can repeat as many times as needed. The poem’s end is signaled by the extra 7-syllable line. The final five lines can be used to summarize the body of the poem.