Michael Twitty creates a new kind of garden at Colonial Williamsburg


Michael Twitty has made a career out of highlighting the connections between food, history, religion and culture. The food historian, author and blogger behind Afroculinaria explores the enduring food legacy of the African diaspora, tracing the roots of today’s cuisines and cultures to highlight the overwhelming influence of African traditions and knowledge.

One of his latest projects, however, goes beyond food on the table, literally: Twitty has teamed up with Colonial Williamsburg to help tell the story of black food during Colonial America through a replica. the kind of garden plots that were enslaved at the time. would have kept.

Twitty in the Sankofa Heritage Garden with Eve Otmar, Supervisor of the Colonial Garden, shortly after its inauguration.

Wayne Reynolds, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

“One of the things I want to do is try to bring to life the landscapes of the unseen, the landscapes of erasure and oblivion,” Twitty said. Beautiful House during a recent visit to the Living History Museum as part of his Craft & Forge program, where he gave a tour of the Sankofa Heritage Garden.

“We’re talking about a space that was 52% black,” notes Williamsburg’s Twitty in her 18th century heyday. Sankofa Garden strives to present more of the history of this often overlooked half of the city’s population, providing a livelihood, exuding juxtaposition to the “gentleman’s garden” it sits next to.

The project is part of a larger effort (gradually unfolding in many historical institutions) to reframe historical museums through a broader lens, which encompasses all residents who would have lived in a historic space – and are faced with the darker history of what happened there, something that many historic homes and museums have often swept under the proverbial carpet.

Derived from a Ghanaian term meaning ‘to go back’, Sankofa celebrates ancestral heritage and what can be learned from it today. For Twitty, the heart of the Sankofa Garden not only shows the types of crops that the slaves cultivated at the time, but pays homage to the immense knowledge contained in these crops and how they are used.

three people in the garden
The garden contains basil, okra, peanuts and many other crops grown by people of African descent.

Wayne Reynolds, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

“These gardens were spaces of knowledge,” he explains. In the garden plots they tended, Twitty points out, colonial American slaves practiced techniques such as planting companions and repelling animals (peppers at the edge of a plot, for example, prevented foragers , while the basil deterred mosquitoes) which were not very common. adopted by white and western gardeners until much later.

“In Africa, there are different forms of knowledge for different people,” says Twitty. Unlike Western ideology, which tends to value so-called “intellectual” knowledge over learning transmitted by the family or neighbors (which are often rejected as superstition), in most African traditions, “it is not. is not hierarchical, each has a different knowledge. ”

man in lush garden
Twitty visiting the garden this fall.

Hadley keller

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The Sankofa Garden clearly shows the impact this knowledge has had on plant and food culture in America, a legacy that continues to this day. “So many other things have irrevocably changed since then, but not the food,” Twitty notes, citing the enduring popularity of things like tomatoes, peppers, peanuts and beans in associated foods in the Southern States. United, all of the elements that go back to their roots. to the African continent, and which were fed by people of African descent in the New World. “They brought with them seeds and ideas that would become Southern food,” Twitty notes.

Although for people who would have worked on a plot like this, the garden – which would have been tended at night, when the day was spent working hard for the slavers – was much more than a source of food, points out Twitty. It was a way of preserving a legacy, connecting a community of people who had been brutally displaced, and providing a creative outlet for people who were systematically denied. “These gardens are not just food,” says Twitty. “They are a liberation for the spirit.”

The Sankofa Heritage Garden is open for visits to Colonial Williamsburg; Click here for more information.

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