The ineffable Jim Embry, raconteur and food activist extraordinaire, motored through Santa Fe early this June as part of his Kentucky to Hawai’i “Joy and Justice Journey.” I convinced him to join me at my favorite local eatery, The Shed, for a margarita and chili-laden enchilada. The deal was simple, I pick up the tab in return for an hour of his thoughts. Three-hours later, there was no doubt I came out ahead.
Up until he retired a few years ago, Jim was the Director of Community Education for the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension where he worked with county agents on urban agriculture and community food projects across the state. He’s also part of an extended and diverse family farming enterprise. Wearing both hats—an African-American farmer and University educator—Jim has engaged with USDA over the on-going anti-discrimination Pickford case. He tells me, “Our family has a history of interaction with USDA over the last 10 years. The county people from USDA just hem and haw every time you ask for help. The good old boy network is alive and well in my county! But on the other hand, African-American farmers haven’t taken advantage of USDA loan programs. Much of that is due to generational trauma. I hear from farmers ‘my grandfather was messed over by USDA, and, hey, I’m not going there.’”
Mark: Every time I encounter someone who was a victim of racism, I’m always surprised that more people don’t turn violent. Instead, they find a way to navigate peacefully through the hostility of others and the pain of their own anger.
Jim: It’s amazing! That shit should be written up in psychology books for courses 101 to 501!
Mark: But before we wade into this more, you have an important decision to make: do you want green or red chili?
Mark: Whoa! You must be a native! So, when did your life of activism begin?
Jim: I’ve been active since I was ten-years old because my mother was the state president of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and we spent a lot of time on the picket lines. I became president of the north Kentucky youth chapter of the NAACP, and eventually statewide president.
Mark: Obviously, your mother influenced you, but why have you chosen civil rights work and food work as a lifetime pursuit?
Jim: My mother’s grandparents were enslaved. My mother and her parents had to give up their bus seats in the 1930s and 40s. My family’s culture was to protest these things; on the picket line, I was used to getting cussed out and spit on.
Mark: Navigating your way through such horrors without responding violently requires the skills of a saint. How did you do it?
Jim: One of my three great grandfathers who fought on the Union side in the Civil War died at a battle in Kentucky. He left behind his wife and seven children, all about two years apart. What was my great grandmother going to go? She was living in a county that had confederate sympathies. But she found her way through those challenges by holding her tongue and not allowing her demeanor to antagonize white people. All seven kids were inspired by their mother and they all eventually owned their own small farms.
Mark: Last summer, I drove from Santa Fe to Connecticut and back again making several stops along the way to gather up community food stories. You are doing the same thing, except that you’re going from Kentucky to California, and on to Hawai’i, then home again. I called my trip a “Voyage of Discover,” and you are calling yours “The Joy and Justice Journey.” In these divisive times, joy and justice aren’t two words I hear juxtaposed very often. Why joy and justice. and maybe more importantly—I’m 72 and you’re 73—what’s driving old guys like us to drive?
Jim: My short answer is I don’t know any better! A longer version is that the tour is simply a continuation of my family’s social justice/social change journey—this year’s manifestation. In reality, I’ve actually been traveling for a long, long time!
Mark: Yes, you are kind of an itinerant preacher…
Jim: We were reared in the Black Baptist Church which had many gatherings all over the state. They always had lots of food and prayer. Because my father worked on the railroad, we got free train passes that allowed us to travel and visit family.
With Slow Food, I got to go to Tierra Madre 2008 because of my role in co-founding the Lexington Food Coop in 1972 [the “Lex Food Coop” is a multi-faceted and beautiful grocery store that I had the pleasure of visiting several years ago] on principles that align well with Slow Food’s—work with food that is local, healthy, and organic. Slow Food is about food that is good, clean, and fair. Similar principles. But there’s another reason as well. When my Aunt Bessie wondered why I was going to Italy, she asked me, “what’s slow food?” I said, “Aunt Bessie, it’s what you’ve been doing your whole life.”
Mark: But how did the notion of joy become kissing cousins with justice?
Jim: Slow Food USA asked me to be the primary writer of their Equity, Inclusion, and Justice Manifesto. But there was a push back around some of the language. I wanted social justice to be woven into everything at Slow Food. We started a campaign to get the manifesto out to all the chapters. So rather than calling it something contentious like the “Dismantling Racism Manifesto” or the “Anti White Supremacy” campaign, we decided to call it the “Joy and Justice Campaign.”
Mark. That’s fascinating. I came into the food movement in my teens. I was in college and raising money for famine relief in Africa. I saw food as the gateway to social change. I started a coop; started a breakfast program. Yes, it was social justice work, but too often we were forced to sacrifice food’s “deliciousness” and pleasurable qualities simply to make cheap calories available to hungry people. We worked hard to put pleasure on the plate, joy in the jabber, but too often joy goes missing in action leaving some ponderous force scowling in your face.
Jim: Slow Food contracted with a women’s coop in Kenya to make posters and bracelets to give us merchandise that promoted joy. We sold some of these items through Slow Food chapters to generate money to send more people of color to Tierra Madre.
But personally, I have to enjoy what I’m doing. If I’m doing social justice work creatively, purposely, effectively, I can’t be pissed off. I have friends who are caught up in the negativity, and they often drop out or burn out. You and I are still sitting here holding ground. I guess I learned from my early experience on the picket lines that you can be abused but still come home and be rejuvenated by the common experience of those you were with. And then we’d have a big meal!
We have to overcome the bad experiences—my sister died because of Jim Crow. The hospital had a “colored” waiting room and a white waiting room. She had pneumonia and the hospital made her wait too long. My mother lived that trauma, but there was still a higher calling; we have to keep moving forward and not give in to bitterness.
Mark: You can’t be constantly angry and also effective. If you let that moment of violence and rage seize your life, you’ll lose sight of the big picture.
Jim: I’m interested in the longer sweep of human existence. We humans have been around for about two million years. As a species, we are among the newest. We’re still evolving; it’s Mandela’s “Long March to Freedom,” for instance. I always remember that plants and seeds came way before us. I think of myself as stardust condensed into human form, like the particles swirling about in space cohering into heavenly bodies over billions of years.
Mark: We don’t honor our history or respect the process of adaptation. I think of the few seconds on the universe’s clock that we humans have occupied terra firma. It’s truly humbling. But to then look at the incremental progress that has been made to reduce injustice—even when we can sometimes acknowledge great progress—well, it sure tests your resolve.
Jim: Stolen land and stolen labor is the story of food and agriculture. This was the foundational injustice. That Slow Food will acknowledge and adopt this principle soon is a pivotal point for transformation to justice, and clearly a big moment of progress.
The exploitation of the environment mirrors the exploitation of people. The rise of the state was accompanied by the rise of the patriarchy which led to the oppression of women–the Divine, as it has been conceived in most mythology and religion, used to be both male and female, then it became entirely male which brought about assault on nature, including women. The disregard of mother earth became a disregard for women. The good news is that as a species, we are maturing because of this realization, and we get to feel alive because we feel a sense of joy.
Mark: If we didn’t feel alive, if we don’t find joy, we’d be teetering toward mass depression and suicide.
Jim: I loved reading Nietzsche, Lao-tse, Plato, Mumford, and Huxley. They give me a sense of different people’s view of humanity and the contradictions. At the very least, I learned that that we’re the not first people to suffer. Some of those black kings and queens enslaved black people to build the pyramids. They were sons of bitches!
Mark: Intellectually, you have a big project, especially when it comes to helping someone feel that they are not the first person to ever be a victim of another person’s exploitation and greed.
Jim: Marx’s analysis of capitalism is that the person who spends their life assembling widgets day after day is only given a diminished view of their history and humanity. A person with a larger sense of themselves won’t work for the man. Helping people get to that point is my ultimate objective.
Mark: My first encounter with you was maybe 20 years ago in Lexington, Kentucky at a local food summit. There were 150 people in the room, 99% of whom were white, and you were leading the discussion. I thought that was interesting. Everybody was totally engaged because of your aura and facilitation skills. Though you seem continuously buoyed by faith, I’ve always been curious about the larger source of that aura.
Jim: Again, I had three great grandfathers who fought in the civil war, and they were fighting for their own freedom as well as that of their wives and children. My family has always been engaged, even when they were enslaved, even when they were property. My mother was confronted with sexual attacks. How did my family know to build schools and churches after Emancipation? They knew they only had one direction to go, and that was up
Mark: Yet, in your professional life, you must have had your share of dark moments and push back?
Jim: Some of my family called me and told me to be careful about this journey. One of my cousins said they would pray for me. If you’re an activist, you’re a marked person. I’ve been stopped by the police; I’ve had police point guns at me; I’ve had the FBI come to my house. As an African-American, that happens all the time.
Mark: Your response, as well as that of other members of the Black community, almost seems Christ-like at times—everyday you’re crucified; you could stay in a tomb of hostility, resentment, and anger, or, like Christ, you roll back that stone and get on with the work.
Jim. Somedays on a farm, a flood comes along and wipes out your field; or the coyotes take out your chickens; you can’t give up or dwell on the past. You need to heal or you’ll do things that make things worse. I was taught a faith in myself; you can weather this storm if you can look back and laugh at what happened.
Mark. I got one more question for you, but I want to make sure you’re okay. We’ve been talking now for almost three hours. It looks like we’re the last people in the restaurant. Do you need a break, or a walk around the block?
Jim: I could do this all day! In my view, what’s missing in the movement is an opportunity to have just these kinds of conversations.
Mark: So, my question is this: We are two guys who devoted their lives to community work. But unlike past Presidents, we’re unlikely to be spending our later years planning our national libraries. What’s our role, what’s our work at this stage in our lives?
Jim. As elders, we have experienced seven decades of life. Our work is to synthesize our past and the past work of others, and then to share that synthesis. To help future generations develop a more integrated view, one that will allow them to look forward and backwards at the same time. We need to have a vision based on a synthesis of past, present, and future, like the West African bird whose head is facing to the rear to know where he’s come from. Like I said, to exploit people, the plantation and factory owners needed to give them a diminished view of the past. They accomplished those ends with stolen land, stolen people, and enforced their work with violence. As H. Rap Brown said, “Violence is as American as Cherry pie.”
Mark: How appropriate for today! That could be the NRA’s motto.
Jim: Yes, the Second Amendment is used as a way for capital and power to control others through guns and violence.
But what’s our work? Synthesis. I was blessed in my life to be in the presence of elders who themselves synthesized for me and others. Generational disconnect is real. Part of our work as elders is to reach out to younger generations. Whenever I can, I sit around over breakfast and have conversations; sit around over dinner and have conversations. My mantra is to bring light in and send light out. Real simple. That’s the work.
Humans are social beings but are suffering from a form of psychic hunger. Much of our episodic violence is a result of their isolation, of people wanting a sense of relationship but not getting it. There is a psychic hunger that results from dead Kentucky coal towns with their boarded-up buildings and the remaining people on opioids. If people don’t have access to creative outlets—if they can’t see beyond a set of diminished possibilities—that psychic hunger will lead to destructive behavior.
I’m some time referred to as that crazy-ass farmer from Kentucky, but our work is synthesizing, and to connect with young folks.
Mark: And to bring joy, which you have done for me tonight! Thank you.