Alexis Nikole Nelson, also known as Black Forager on Instagram and TikTok, is a content creator and social media manager in Columbus, Ohio. She creates videos that share foraging tips on topics like identification, sustainable cultivation, and what to do with forage foods, and she’s amassed a community with 1 million subscribers on TikTok. and over 300,000 on Instagram. In this Voices in food story, Nelson tells Stephanie Gravalese how a series of laws put in place over 150 years ago prevented black and indigenous peoples from feeding themselves after slavery.
On what it’s like to be a black picker today
I went through a phase where I was feeding myself in town, wearing exclusively full-make-up dresses, because I was like, ‘If I’m looking at the nicer version of myself – even if someone’s. one doesn’t know what I’m doing and the fact “not identifying it makes them a little nervous – hope I sound so inviting, so pleasant, that they come and tell me about it before I call cops about it ”, which is not an experience I see many of my white counterparts being even a little familiar with.
If you’re brown or a black face living mostly in white space, you stand out by default. So a lot of times, just for our own safety, the last thing you want to do is already draw attention to yourself because of your existence, and then add on top of that, the layer of no. – easily identifiable action. Sometimes it makes people nervous.
I feel like I have to have a speech ready to broadcast anytime, anywhere. I’m not the type of person who can really get away with foraging in spaces I’m not meant to be.
To call it racism in the foraging would be a bit reductive, as it’s not that people in the foraging community go out of their way to guard barriers or ostracize people of color. It really is something that has happened, culturally. The things that triggered this were helpful, but they were 150 years ago.
At this point, there are about a century and a half of cards stacked against blacks to participate in foraging activities, activities like trapping, even activities like fishing or hiking, outdoor activities in general.
How we got to this point
Until the end of the Civil War, just like in many parts of the UK, foraging was extraordinarily normalized. Foraging and hunting on public property were not only normalized, they were Standard. It was simply something people did to supplement their meals, increase their income, and foraging and hunting on other people’s property was not necessarily as frowned upon as I would say it is now.
In most places it was considered a civil offense as opposed to a criminal offense as it is everywhere now. What kind of change began in the southern states once the slaves were freed – the newly freed blacks knew how to feed themselves, and [there was a desire to] cut off their chance for financial integrity and financial freedom.
Many of them [knew how to forage] of parents and grandparents who were educated by indigenous peoples who were also very submissive and victimized by these laws which were then put in place.
For many black people, they expected to be able to provide for themselves and even expected to be able to make money with what they picked up and trapped, which they must have already known how to do because a lot of meals you can eat. went up to the plantation, it was not enough – they were skinny, and that is to be generous.
But with the trespass suddenly becoming a criminal offense, well, boom! There is a lot of space where you would otherwise have been able to get food that you can’t, because all of a sudden you are thinking about paying a bond, having to serve time if you get caught and in trouble . At the same time, metaphorical fences and sometimes physical fences have been erected around public property.
As a freed person, you had no land. No one really ended up getting the promise of 40 acres and a mule. So if you couldn’t forage and hunt on public property, and you couldn’t forage and hunt on other people’s property, what did you have left? The answer is nothing.
The answer for many people was to have to go back to the plantations they had just moved away from as sharecroppers, because at least they were able to provide a little for themselves, a little for their families and their communities.
It’s super unfortunate because with these laws that were put in place to subjugate black people, they weren’t the only ones who felt the blow. Indigenous peoples have also suffered greatly as a result of these laws. And the poor whites must have suffered because of these laws.
Where we are today
Foraging has become and gone and out of fashion over the past century. After the Great Depression hit, many people were eating more regardless of where they came from due to the terrible economic recession. Then when we sort of got over the bump of WWII and entered the 1950s, foraging was seen as something you would do if you were poor. If you didn’t want to project poverty, you would go to the grocery store.
You would have your ticklish house in the suburbs with your white picket fence, and no one would see you wandering the streets and coves looking for food, because that didn’t tell the story you wanted to tell.
For the blacks of the 1950s in particular, the last thing what you wanted to do was protect poverty in places where you already have every chance on your side to start. The icing on the cake of why I think we see so few black people outdoors, not even just in the feeding space, is in the 50s and 60s. It was dangerous to be. a colored person by oneself in those spaces where our population was dominated by whites.
It was not a sure thing to do with the number of deaths and lynchings we have seen in the first half of the 20th century. It was a scary concept; that’s sort of the reason why even now a lot of black people don’t swim. It makes sense that now, it’s been culturally ingrained in us for several generations now to stay away from some of these spaces, because your great-grandparents stayed away from those spaces. They certainly did not teach your grandparents who dare all this war to teach your parents who then did not teach you.
For my part, I am just very lucky that both of my parents were very outdoor enthusiasts because their respective parents were very outdoor enthusiasts. So we had a bit of a break from the chain, but that means my Nana’s outdoors, and part of that is because she had to work in the cranberry bog in Massachusetts as a teenager with a lot of his siblings. Guess I’m just lucky that it’s our foot in the door a little with our love of culture and our love of the outdoors in general.