Skip to main content

By Levi Perrin

Header image: Our Collective Table by Bevelyn Afor Ukah

Bevelyn Afor Ukah holding her work, Naija Body

Bevelyn Afor Ukah is coming home to herself.

A space on a quiet street, surrounded by trees and greenery—where storytelling, community, and the earth come together to build a new future. With the ancestors and garden shears as her tools, Bevelyn’s resolve to use her hands to create a better world is unshakeable.

“At the end of the day our future is a collective vision. There are millions of ways people can come together,” she said.

By day the North Carolina based activist serves on the Committee on Racial Equity in the Food System (CORE) and as Director for the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS). By night, she is an artist steeped in Afrofuturism and a convener of Black people on organizing, empathy, and looking toward what is to come.

Ukah is a product of multi-general food deprivation. Scarcity of access to nutritious food hits hard in Black communities. In 2022, one in five Black people in the United States reportedly experienced food insecurity, and almost nine million could not access enough food to lead a healthy lifestyle.

That disparity is at the heart of Ukah’s work with CORE and CEFS.

Food sovereignty is intimately connected to Ukah’s beliefs, birthed from gardening with her father and lessons from her maternal grandmother Mary and paternal great grandmother Agbogo Odide.

“My dad always had a garden, so I grew up watching him grow food for our household. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I started my own, confides Ukah.  “It’s interesting that I had this experience as a child only to now work with other gardeners and farmers.”

Ukah views gardening as a spiritual practice that teaches people how to reconnect to earth in order to heal themselves. Combining the Nigerian and Black American experience in her bloodline revealed the unsustainable challenges of modern society built on convenience that  separates people from the process.

Listening to her story reminds me of my grandmothers, Lela Mae and Azalee, and the passion with which they led their lives. Head held high and shoulders rolled back, both women were born decades before the end of Jim Crow, and yet created lives that prioritized the health of their families and friends, dismissing  the overbearing intervention of the white gaze and the big agroindustry.

As a child, I was annoyed by being forced to get up before the sun, to pick vegetables from their gardens and blemish my hands to unearth the very food that would keep me alive. It is easy to see oneself separate from the labor that is needed to fortify a people. Removal quiets harm and builds pathways for slavery, the cries of migrant workers, and the loss of land owned by Black farmers to fester unchecked and unanswered.

That labor, managed at the community-level, produces lifetime bonds. It crystalizes why my grandmothers joyously shared fresh food with friends. I can still hear the porch-side laughter as they traded stories while shelling peas and shucking corn.

Bevelyn Afor Ukah

The food they grew, hands deep in the dirt with sweat on their brow, is still feeding us. Two decades after my grandmothers joined the ancestral realm, the memories now tell me the truth of what those moments meant. They were planning for the future–visioning a world that would be seen through my eyes, carrying the responsibility of passing that knowledge, connection, and fulfillment to the next generation.

For Ukah, the connecting dots are powerful and frightening. “The only way I’ve been able to address [the fear] is by doing a little bit at a time,” she says. “It’s helped me to understand the limitations of it all and how deferring to ego does not serve me. It serves other people who want to see me unhealthy . . . who want to see us fail.”

The unbroken line of Black voices, daring from each generation to the next, to reach past the fear of failure has sowed seeds of togetherness, storytelling, and autonomy in the earth waiting for their kin to find them. Everyone can’t be a farmer or step away from the systems that often make life a tad easier. But all of us are capable of working toward a future that centers better access and support for feeding ourselves.

From dirt we come and to dirt we must return. This inevitable, and honorable, cycle is not measured by the ease of life, but rather the care with which we had for Earth and our community while living.

Levi Perrin is a writer for Unerased | Black Women Speak and senior communications manager for the Center for the Study of Social Policy.