Hog Maw Epiphanies

Sharecropper picking cotton in North Carolina, 1939. Photo from Wolcott, Marion Post, 1910-1990.

“Mama and Daddy were farmers in Tennessee,” my friend shared, as she watched her mother wash out the makings for chitlins. “Mama misses this food. She was very excited to come to the farm.” My friend, her mother, and the family matriarch all came to my farm, Sandhill, for Hog Day. The family had a wealth of recipes that could make use of every part of a hog: parts of the hog that as people of privilege, my family had never tasted or bothered to do anything with, other than throw into the bone pile at the back of the Sandhill acreage.

“We moved up from Tennessee when Daddy bought some land in Michigan outside of South Haven,” she continued. “Gran’ma and Mama miss Tennessee, but Mama mostly misses farming. She never liked the city.” I asked what kind of farming her parents did in Tennessee. 

“Cotton, mostly. Ha-a-rd work on the hands.” 

“Was it your parents’ land, or were they sharecroppers?” I asked. The matter-of-fact response cut me to the quick. My friend stated that her parents were sharecroppers on the same land for quite some time.

“Finally,” she said, “it got too hard on us to stay there. You see Gran’ma is lighter-skinned; my mama is darker. After a while, it was clear that Great-Gran’ma and Gran’ma was forced by the owner of the land.” She looked at her impeccably dressed and remarkably put-together grandmother and said:

In Tennessee, if you owned the land, you believed you still owned people’s bodies. That landowner was just too much for my mama and daddy to live with. The whole family resented the fact—and it wasn’t really talked about with us kids. But we figured things out as we grew up.

Reparations of any sort show intent to recognize the trillions of dollars of financial benefits received from slavery and Jim Crow policies, prison labor, and forced segregation. But for repaired relationships to occur, people of European descent must see that the only repair that needs to occur is the repairing of our own souls.

I had met my new friend serendipitously: one of several new friends I met because I was weary of farming and discovered that a close friend’s band was playing in Grand Rapids. I thought it was an opportunity to visit and introduce two of my grown children to the punk music scene. While talking with Commie Scott before the concert, I told him about my farming and how I used the land, animals, and other resources to move forward the concept of using privilege to engage in reparation payments.

I explained my thinking to Commie Scott. I have land and experience with animals, and I know how to butcher. Twice annually, I provide chicken and pork that I raise and butcher at my own expense to African Americans: descendants of enslaved people. They are a people whose very humanity was betrayed and stolen by my ancestors, who regularly engaged in and supported the policies and religious values of White supremacy: segregated schools and neighborhoods, racist policing programs, intentional economic and educational marginalization, and outright lynching.

Scott immediately suggested doing a harvest festival in a city near the farm. He proposed getting several punk bands together to draw folks who would be easy sales for vendors. Scott introduced me to some folks in a southwest Michigan city, and within 30 days we had a festival put together and a BBQ vendor that was provided with one whole hog, ten whole chickens, and $500 from proceeds gleaned from Sandhill’s raw milk shares. The cash was counted as taxes on my own gun and ammunition purchases. There were no strings attached to the meat or cash, but the vendors agreed to sell their products at the event in a local neighborhood long identified as “troubled.” We also raised funds with a GoFundMe page to pay for other festival costs.

The event came off with no problems, and it was a great time for those old punks like me who have a lot to contribute to neighborhood organizing but don’t often integrate our gifts and skills under the leadership of People of Color who live next door or in the next county. One of the great aspects of the event was the friendship forged between the BBQ vendor and the vegan food vendor. They spent much of the day getting to know each other.

A few weekends later, I forged further relationships that stemmed from the festival and working with the BBQ vendor. Meeting her family was an unexpected educational experience, but the deepest thought was not inspired by intergenerational conversation related to farming. Rather, it was experiencing the contrasts of marginalization—violence of the deepest dye—and the story that stood behind the activity of preparing intestines, hoofs, livers, and hog maw for service as comfort food. The facts of African American sharecropping came to light without nuance as I watched Mama work with my neighbor and son to wash chitterlings. The last item packed into the car was the prized hogs head for head cheese.

I cannot understand the relationship between soul food and violence against the soul of the Other. But my thinking about reparations became clearer. The Cross, one of the focal points of my faith, is to eschew privilege on behalf of people who do not share in the privileges from which I benefit. I had at various times allowed myself to whisper in tones audible only to myself that my farm labor is solely for the benefit of others. Remarkably, I still can’t understand the concept of being forced to labor for the benefit of others and being left to eat intestines as my compensation. 

It is clear that I have no idea of what sharecroppers in Tennessee ever felt like or lived like or how hard their work was. I have no idea what it is like to have my entire family held financially, physically, and intellectually hostage for the profit of another. The tension between soul food and reparations holds new meaning for me in this season of my desire to address my own White supremacist values and identity.

Sharecropper’s cabin and sharecropper’s wife. Ten miles south of Jackson, Mississippi. Photo by Dorothea Lange, FSA, HD. Library of Congress.

My labor, farming produce, and cash were intended to build bridges or conquer the abyss that exists between the fundamental differences of the beneficiaries of White privilege and Persons of Color. My attempts to be individually accountable for privilege and empty myself of some of those benefits in order to share with African Americans is not noble and, in fact, displays little more than an intention to move forward the conversations about compensation: a sort of walking the walk.

But the sojourn in this season’s harvest reparation occurred on a cement slab where our former butchering building burned down. We still butcher there. And from those ashes rose a kind of relationship that is yet to reveal any outcome. My agenda was friendship when the three women came to the farm to get ingredients for soul food. How strange that my growth, both emotionally and intellectually—my increase in self-awareness—came from a dynamic that allowed me to understand power relations differently.

There I stood, a White landowner, giving what I treated as waste to three generations of women who found comfort in the food that would once again fill plates in their homes, this time and once again the work of their own hands. The dynamic could not escape me, especially after hearing about the violence a White landowner brought to their family tree. I was humbled, briefly ashamed, and found myself with a better understanding of what debt must be accounted for.

My suggestion is this: reparations of any sort show intent to recognize the trillions of dollars of financial benefits received from slavery and Jim Crow policies, prison labor, and forced segregation. But for repaired relationships to occur, people of European descent must see that the only repair that needs to occur is the repairing of our own souls, so that the power and control relationships of racial domination and institutional racism can be understood and accepted as fact. Then, in humility, we might become cognizant that a new relationship can be built, based not upon what is owed but upon what is shared from the heart at the level of the oppressed: a total emptying of the privilege of Whiteness when confronted with realities of the violence inherent in Whiteness. When we sit down for the Thanksgiving turkey, can we have a helping of chitterlings with it that we prepared after getting the recipe from others in our lives?

Hell, rather than commiserating together over the annual fate of the Detroit Lions, we might instead celebrate new relationships that share a common history: a history experienced without a coat of whitewashing the hog maw and pig’s feet that are said to go so well with the neck bone I tend to favor. Then we can begin to think honestly about the violence that stands behind such soulful dinner experiences that are able to overcome shame and guilt.

R. Scot Miller

R. Scot Miller and midwife spouse Jenn Seif have been among Friends for 25 years and attend Red Cedar Meeting in Lansing, Mich.. He is the author of Gospel of the Absurd: Assemblies of Interpretation, Embodiment, and Faithfulness. They are looking for live-in learners to join their commitment to community building, farming, and researching Quaker history in southern Michigan.

3 thoughts on “Hog Maw Epiphanies

  1. I do not understand this Reparations business. I do not think that there is any spiritual benefit in guilt tripping about what my collective ancestors may, or may not, have done to others, whatever their colour. It is more useful, in the here and now, to devote my energies to striving to conduct all my relationships with integrity.

    1. Ah, but the question reparations asks—or one of them, anyway—is: Can you say with full confidence that you’re conducting your relationships with integrity if you know those relationships exist within an oppressive framework yet refrain from making an effort to transform or dismantle that framework and remove the oppressive conditions that have sustained it? Is it integrity to let an unjust system continue to exist, even if you try to transcend it in your personal conduct?

      Well, okay, I guess that’s two questions.

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