Mayam Has a Glorious Anti-Capitalist Vision for the Future
Mayam is a traveling farmer who started growing food at the age of six on their grandmother’s homestead. Since that time, they’ve co-founded a QTPOC-centered community garden in Greensboro, North Carolina; spent two years farming in Pennsylvania; and are now on a desert adventure in New Mexico. Ultimately, they plan to return to the Southeast to teach others how to farm.
In this interview, Mayam talks passionately about the historic significance and sheer beauty of okra; their commitment to a more equitable and, ideally, anti-capitalist world; and how their ancestors, as well as future generations, inspire and impact their work with sun, soil, water, and the delicious food that those elements produce.
Could you introduce yourself and talk about how you came to farming as a practice?
Yeah. So I'm originally from North Carolina and I got into farming when I was working on my grandmother's homestead when I was a kid. During the summers there would be after school programs and things like that but I couldn't really go to them, so my parents were like, “We'll just send you to your grandmother’s and you'll work with your grandma.” From there I really learned the practice of agriculture and caring for the plants and caring for the soil, and all the different nuances that come with that. And ever since then I've just fallen in love with farming--I owe it all to my grandmother really.
So how old were you when you first started farming?
My earliest memories are so funny. So my grandma and grandpa owned a little two-and-a-half acre homestead and I feel like I've been going there for a really long time, maybe since the age of six. But one of my first memories was riding my grandpa's lawn mower at the age of ten and running it into a tree and not touching that lawn mower ever again. So I feel like I've been doing it since the age of ten and I'm twenty-five now.
That’s a long time. That’s a lot of skill building and knowledge.
Oh, absolutely. And the thing is there's always more to learn--every season, almost every day when you're out there in the fields, it's always something new, something to adjust to. So I'm thankful for that lesson that farming teaches us as well.
In a previous correspondence, you spoke about a community garden in Greensboro that was run by QTPOC. As part of this project you grew food for yourselves and your neighbors. Could you tell me about this project?
Yes! Just to give a little bit of background, there's not a lot of grocery stores in Greensboro as far as having fresh and affordable foods, especially in the predominantly black and brown neighborhoods. Greensboro's historically an industrial town, a lot of trains are run through there, and [in the past] they had a lot of mills that would process cotton and then tobacco a little bit further north, thirty minutes north. It was known for industry and textiles and things like that, but once the colleges moved in, it was more geared towards students. Because of that, you would have a lot of predominantly white schools that would have the co-ops and the grocery stores and all these nice fine eateries, but near the historically black university, North Carolina A & T, there was Arby's and McDonald's and a bunch of unhealthy fast food, liquor stores, things like that. For awhile, I lived on that side of town and was noticing, “Oh, I have to bike a mile and a half just to get good food.” Or if I were to take the bus, I'm only allowed two bags per person on the bus, which is not gonna get me a full refrigerator or anything like that. So I got sick and tired of that process, and some friends were also experiencing this as well and we just decided, “Hey, let's start a community garden. We know someone who has a little half acre property and we'll grow our own food for our neighbors and for ourselves because we're tired of the structural limits that Greensboro has put on us as far as getting food.” We planned, we strategized for about a month to a month-and-a-half, and we decided that we wanted to grow in a spot called the Sunflower Center in Greensboro, North Carolina.
It was predominantly queer and trans folks. There were about five of us, including myself, who would work the land and plant the seeds. We also were in partnership with a Quaker college that would start the seeds for us in their greenhouse. And from there it just blossomed into a center for people who, if they wanted to get cilantro they could come by and pick it and we would teach them how to pick it. There was also a community flea market where we would sell our transplants to help us generate our funds. But a lot of it was donation-based, so if you had the money you could buy the transplants, but if you didn't and you wanted to start a tomato plant in your backyard by all means take it. And from there we really got involved with the community and people would stop by and be like, “When are y'all going to plant cucumbers?” or “Are the tomatoes ready yet? When can I come by and work?” It was just really beautiful to have input from the community about what they wanted us to plant and also be like, “Can I take this?” “It's here, it's for you, it's for all of us, by all means you can have it.” So it was just a very, very beautiful and enriching experience.
That’s amazing. Does the project still exist?
The project still does exist. I'm not a part of it anymore, personally--I'm on my own little adventure learning the practices of farming on a little bit of a larger scale than half-an-acre, so I can ultimately bring it back to North Carolina and have a spot where folks can come and learn how to farm. But the project still does exist, it's called the Sunflower Center in Greensboro. There's an Instagram, so if people want to check it out and see what it's about, they can go through that avenue.
What are you up to now, on your adventure?
I have been farming in Pennsylvania for two years. It's kind of the agricultural hub of the East Coast, so I've really been learning the practices of farming more intensely and adjusting to what it’s like in the Northeast where it gets colder earlier. And, currently, I was on a road trip with some friends and we had a little bit of car issues in Albuquerque, New Mexico. So I'm stuck-slash-not-really-stuck because I am loving it here in Albuquerque. I'm working at a restaurant-slash-farm, just doing some restaurant work but I'm interested in plugging into the farm, if I decide to stay here, to learn what's it like to grow food in the desert. I've been hearing from the locals that it’s a completely different experience with hardly any rain and harsh winds and wind erosion and things like that. So if I do stick around in Albuquerque, I would definitely love to farm a little bit somewhere outside of Albuquerque or just in New Mexico so I can really gain the skill of what it’s like the farm in desert and then add that to my skill of farming on the East Coast and kind of combine it, mass it together, and make it a nice little sandwich I can share with others.
I do not have a green thumb--I killed my mint plant--but I do hear--because I love to go to the farmer's markets here [in Tucson] and I have friends who work on everything from commercial farms to community gardens--that it’s a different game than farming in a more temperate area. So I'm excited for you and what you will learn if you decide to stick around New Mexico.
Right? I've been asking a lot of the locals about what it’s like to farm here and they’re like, “Water is crucial. It's vital.” It only rains maybe one or two months out of the year, so really being intentional about your water usage is something that they really stress here. On the East Coast we get rain all the time--I remember last season, the month of August we got thirteen inches of rain and that was a lot. So I feel like here, if there's not much rain, then you really, really have to be mindful of the water that you use and I feel like that would definitely just help me in regards to being intentional about sustainability and those practices, and also being more appreciative of the resources that are around me and the fact that if it's not coming from the sky, what can we use? And to just really, really honor those systems [of desert farming] as well.
How does farming connect to your politics?
So there's this quote that I love. I call it an old Negro Spiritual quote or a black food activist quote, but it goes like this: “If I'm eatin’, we're eatin’.” For me, I feel like that really, really informs my politics when it comes to food activism and farming. So if I'm eating healthy, then you're eating healthy. If I have something in abundance then you're going to have because I'm not going to hoard it all for myself, I'm not going to compost it if I can--if I have extra of it, by all means take it. Because we all have a right to fresh, clean and affordable food--as well as water, too, that's just something that we are inherited with, with this planet, and what that means is we shouldn't waste it, we shouldn’t poison it, but if we have it, let's share it. That quote, “If I'm eatin’, we’re eatin’,” has severely informed my politics when it comes to farming. And it's kind of helped, even when I'm not farming, if I have extra sweet potatoes or something that I got from the store, and some friends wanna eat, then I'll cook a big meal for all of us.
So that sort of inherent sharing, the opposite of hoarding something.
Absolutely, yes, yes. And I love to cook, personally--I love to cook for other people, that’s a love language of mine. Of course, I love to grow food, so they both kind of go hand-in-hand and that's informed my work with the garden, that's informed my work farming, and that's also just informed my lifestyle in regards to sharing food with other people or whatever I have--if I have something that I can share with people, I'll definitely try to do it.
You mentioned to me previously that you farm to honor your ancestors as well as those who will come in the future. How does this manifest for you? Why have you chosen farming as the medium through which to remember and celebrate those who came before and will come after you?
That's a good question. Historically black people were taken from Africa and brought to the Americas for forced labor, slavery and things like that. There's a lot of pain in talking about that and also recognizing that. There's stories about enslaved African femmes and women who would braid seeds of okra or rice or sorghum into their daughter's hair or their own hair to preserve the cultural legacy that they had from their own country, from their mother country. We see these plants and these seeds here today--specific wild rices and sorghum and okra. So I really want to honor those who've come before me by growing these things, and also just honor the practices of farming knowing that here in the United States, there's a lot of pain with black people when it comes to touching soil. I'm really into Leah Penniman and she said something like, “A lot of black folks don't like to get dirty and it's not because we want to be clean--we want to be fresh and clean and look good, but there's also pain in having soil on you and what that brings up and things like that.” So I definitely want to honor those who've come before me who have put a lot of sweat and blood into the land when they didn't want to do that in the first place over here--I'm pretty sure they'd rather not have been enslaved and brought over. I want to do it in a way that honors their legacies and puts a different perspective into farming and agriculture with black folks.
And then for the future, this is a very, very important skill. I feel like with this skill, you can take it anywhere. You can put something in the soil, you can try to let it grow and you'll learn a lot of lessons from that. So I also want to have a space where people can learn--specifically children can learn how to farm and how to grow food for themselves, for their families and just really enjoy that whole process of putting something in the ground and harvesting it and clearing out and taking care of the earth.
Thank you for going into the historical struggles, as well as the your investment in coming generations, a little bit.
What dreams and visions do you have for the future?
I envision a world without capitalism, because it's super harmful, it's extractive, it's deadly. I envision a world where we acknowledge one another--we acknowledge our gifts, our talents, our truths and care for one another on a very, very basic level. Going back to, “If I'm eatin’, we're eatin’”--just something like that, you know, where our basic needs are met for. Not by some outside source or system that requires a payment or, if you don't have that payment, then you're struggling, but just a world where we actually care for one another and we actually acknowledge each other's humanity. I envision a world where we trade our stories, our gifts and our resources--so, if money's involved, it's not something that's life or death; if there’s no money involved, even better, that would be even more ideal. And ultimately, I envision a world without extraction, a world where we're not extracting our energy from one another, we're not extracting energy from this earth, we're not poisoning any of our water. It's just a world where we give and we care, and we just love one another and love this planet.
That's a big and amazing vision. I'm excited to see how you work toward that--it seems like you already are, but, yeah!
What's your favorite thing to grow and why?
That's a good one because there's so many things that I really do enjoy growing, but I think my favorite thing to grow is okra. I remember growing it with my grandmother and being a child, ten-years-old--a little noodle, basically!--and the okra was like five-and-a-half feet tall, taller than me, and it was just shooting up towards the sky, reaching towards the heavens. And these delicious pods that are a little bit mucusy, but that's that texture that can add a lot to soups or is really good fried. And then it’s just culturally significant to my people, black people, knowing that it came from Africa and that it's here. Just the amount of ancestral power and weight that okra holds. Growing that to share with other people and also to enjoy myself--and it has such beautiful flowers, the whole plant’s magnificent. It gets really tall, the flowers are super bright and the pods are like little fingernails and you can do a lot with it: you can eat it, you can dry them and shake them like maracas with the seeds inside. So it's a really cool plant to grow.
Is there anything else you want to share?
Yeah, there’s one last thing I would like to add. It's a quote that I've heard recently and it’s stuck with me. It’s from the White Earth Land Recovery Project, which is an indigenous activism organization that's all about land management and care and resources and protecting the earth and, of course, not extracting from it. The author is unknown, but the quote that really stuck to me is, “Don't take from the earth what you can't put back into it.” I think that is something I would love to leave with the readers--whatever that we do there is always going to be some sort of a ripple effect that comes from it. So if we're extracting, extracting, extracting, there's nothing that's going to be given back to the earth, and ultimately in the long run, there's nothing that's going to be given back to us. So yeah, don't take from the earth what you can't put back into it. Also I would say that with people, too: don't take from people what you can't give back to them. Just honor the reciprocal process that we're living in, and this beautiful world and all the resources that it has to give us, and all the beautiful plants that teach us lessons and give us food and provide a lot of beauty in this world.
Recipe: Southern-Style Grits with Chili
One cup yellow corn grits
One and a half cup water
Two teaspoons apple cider vinegar
Two tablespoons butter
Four cloves garlic
Half an onion
One green pepper
Half to one avocado chopped
Half a cup green or red chili
One to two potatoes chopped and cubed
Vegetable or olive oil for cooking
(Soak yellow corn grits from anywhere between 1-2 hours. If you don’t have time to soak them put grits in a small pot add apple cider vinegar and let simmer on a VERY low heat. This will speed up the breakdown of the non-digestive elements of the grain.)
Preheat oven to 375 degrees
Slice potatoes into cubes and add oil in baking pan or cast iron. Salt potatoes and let bake until crispy on both sides
Mix and mash avocado and chili in a small bowl
Chop fresh green pepper and set aside
Add butter to grits
Once potatoes start to get crispy add garlic and onion; let onions and garlic cook with potatoes until translucent
Let food cool down
Add green chili/avocado mix to grits and stir; add green peppers
Add potatoes and garlic/onion from pan (optional: add cheese)
P.S. The more butter you add the tastier and creamier the grits will be.