I just bit into a tomato that made me want to call all my friends and tell them that we will survive. It tasted of the mellow sweetness of late summer and a slight tang of fall. If a seed, dark earth, cool water, and warm sunlight could add up to this juicy globe, then hope must not be gone. Not completely, anyway.
The tomato’s flesh was an odd orange with the tell-tale bumps that disqualified it from the grocery store. It was a heritage variety. Is that heritage untainted, free from hate? Should I pledge allegiance to this tomato, make a bronze casting and a marble base and put it up in the town square? What does this tomato offer?
I was raised on homegrown tomatoes. I grew up white and middle class in a sprawling suburb. To this day, my father regards his backyard garden as his most radical act. Dad worked as a high school chemistry teacher and worried about climate change in the ‘80s, back when we talked about global warming in the future conditional tense. When I was in high school and doing my own research about humanity’s coming doom, I discovered that Dad co-authored a scientific paper on the subject. He never mentioned it. What he did talk about was his garden.
Dad gardened with the workaholic determination he applied to all things. His focus annoyed my mother, who wished he would choose her over his seedlings. My sister and I dismissed his garden as another of his many embarrassing qualities. We were an ungrateful lot, until the tomatoes arrived. In the late afternoon, my father would carry into the kitchen the day’s crop, cradling them in his hands. As he placed the tomatoes into a bowl, my mother would break into song: “Only two things that money can’t buy / That’s true love and homegrown tomatoes.”
We ate them raw straight off the vine, those tiny cherry tomatoes. We popped them into our mouths and let the juice squirt between our teeth. That was our communion. My father’s gardening was an act of faith, not just in sacred mysteries of decomposition and photosynthesis, but in God. Dad gardened because of the Quaker faith in which he raised me. He asserted that one of the most important things one could do to stop environmental degradation was grow one’s own food. Like a good Quaker, he set out to practice what he refused to preach, electing to, as Quakers say, let his life speak. He told me that fostering social change was like tending a garden. Plant love and that’s what you’ll harvest. So, I ate my peas and prayed for world peace.
My parents were radical, in their own way. For decades, they refused to voluntarily pay the portion of their federal taxes that went to war, preferring to, as my mother said, “make them come and get it.” For the first 18 years of my life, I shared their faith, not only in God, but in nonviolent social change.
Now it has been 16 years since I left my hometown behind. I gave my heart to the dense, diverse city of Chicago where both the questions and answers are different. In 2012, Chicago Police officer Dante Servin murdered Rekia Boyd, a young Black woman who was in the park playing music with her friends. Rekia’s brother says that her favorite color was yellow and that she was kind. To Servin, Rekia was a criminal and a threat. Former State’s attorney Anita Alverez deliberately mischarged Servin so he wouldn’t be found guilty. I call her “former” because a group of Black women led a grassroots campaign to vote out Alverez and won. I joined in their effort, participating as they filmed the police, shut down intersections, and circulated petitions at bus stops. Endeavors like these require a willingness to be unpopular, to yell, to refuse to do what you are told. As Chicago cops shot Black person after Black person and Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed school after school to pour dollar after dollar into the police department, I learned to embrace disobedience.
When I was arrested, quite unexpectedly, at a Black Lives Matters protest, the officer who finger-printed me asked if I was a professional protester. I said I was a teacher. My fellow arrestees were students at my school. The officer relaxed. I wasn’t a troublemaker; I was an educator. It wasn’t my job that let me be perceived as a good person; it was my skin color. Sitting in that cold, grimy holding cell, I rejected a childhood lesson. I no longer wanted to use my morality, perceived or genuine, as the basis for political protest. For a person of my complexion, being able to present oneself as an exemplar of moral virtue while breaking an unjust law isn’t an accomplishment; it’s white privilege.
My parents taught me to ask for help from cops, while other parents taught their kids how to avoid being shot by them. They taught me to refuse to fight in wars, but we never talked about the violence of the prison system. Now I am trying to teach my parents how to support a movement led by Black people. I suspect this scene is playing out quietly in living rooms across our country. Is this what they call generational change?
I have learned to distrust my reflex to be nice, but I am carrying my heritage of tomatoes with me. While the pundits and the pedants debate taking down confederate statues, casting it as a tricky dichotomy between heritage and hate, I’m wrestling with a much harder question. I’m discerning which parts of my heritage were shaped by structural white supremacy. Lately, to answer that question, I am thinking about something my grandpa told me.
Grandpa wasn’t an anti-racist, but he knew about growing food. After World War II, he used the G.I. Bill to buy a beautiful house with a big backyard. He planted a plot where he grew everything Grandma could ever want to cook. I didn’t know it when I was stealing cookies from Grandma’s cookie jar, but that house was a part of one of the biggest acts of structural white supremacy in our nation’s recent past. Of the first 67,000 mortgages insured by the G.I. Bill, fewer than 100 were offered to people of color. The house that made Grandma and Grandpa middle class is worth a lot of money now. When I was still young, Grandpa took me by the hand and showed me where his rhubarb was flourishing.
“We eat the stalks, not the leaves,” he said, explaining that those big green leaves were poisonous. I was surprised that part of something could be good, full of vitamins and tasty enough to sit beside strawberries nestled underneath Grandma’s handmade pie crusts, while another part can kill. I have no better metaphor for being raised white in America.
These days, I am trying to weed the garden I inherited from my family. I’m not plowing it under, because there is no way to escape my heritage. Instead, I’m taking the red rhubarb stalks and the ripe tomatoes and I’m holding on to them. I am putting other lessons my family taught me into the compost. I’m letting them rot. I’m ready to take bland, grocery store tomatoes and throw them at confederate statues. But my homegrown heritage tomatoes, bumpy and sweet? I’m going to eat them slowly.
J.M. Ellison a writer, scholar, and activist. Their work has been published in the Baltimore Review, Story Club Magazine, Lunch Ticket and many other places. They believe that storytelling is integral to healing, transformation, resistance, and survival. Their work is available at http://jmellison.net.
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