Making a Home on Black-Owned Land

My wife, Mariah, and I now live in Atlanta, on one acre of land. Each morning, Mariah and I wake up and go about our morning routine. Let the dog out, use the bathroom, check on the chickens. As I write this, we have two roosters and nine hens. There’s Hootie, who looks a lot like an owl, and Angelica, named after the bossy little girl from Rugrats. Then there’s Logan, after our cousin whose nickname is “Chicken.” We got Little Brother’s name from the movie Mulan, and Reptar’s name also comes from Rugrats. My sister Brooke named Henrietta, and my sister Blair named one Zen after our nephew and godson. My father said we needed a Disco and a Chicken George, so those two names quickly followed. April, like Tejano singer Selena Quintanilla-Pérez’s childhood hen. And, lastly, Ruby the Rhode Island Red.

When we first got them, all 11 chickens lived in a cardboard home within our garage until they were big enough to move into the chicken coop we built for them. Soon, my morning routine will require a walk into our backyard to gather eggs and ensure no chickens were harmed in the night. Each morning as I feed them and replenish their water, I have to remind myself that we built this life and this coop ourselves.

My wife and father-in-law studied other coops and raised-bed configurations before drawing up the blueprints for our own. During the week, they traded messages planning for the purchases and work ahead, and during the weekend, we executed. Between writing sessions, I was grateful to be their dutiful apprentice taking on whatever tasks they delegated to me. That position gave me the chance to watch them at work, one the miniature version of the other. Watching them cut planks of wood on the table saw before screwing them together in new formations, I was struck by how easily the work flowed.

author brea baker


The author, Brea Baker.

I wasn’t only their sous-builder; Mariah and Tony Harris also called me their historian, because I was always snapping photos of them in action. “For posterity,” I’d say. Really I wanted—needed—to remember the wonder I had. In my wildest dreams, I never imagined I’d take on projects like this. Building a chicken coop most certainly felt like a job for actual architects. Surely we could buy one that came in large parts and only needed light assembly. But Mariah and Tony had different plans. Plans of raised gardening beds full of vegetables and fruits like arugula, tomatoes, asparagus, rhubarb, peppers, spinach, broccoli, and cauliflower. A peach tree and berry bushes lining the beds, all pushed back deep into our acre plot of land. A wooden chicken coop to keep our hens warm, a walled-in chicken run for them to roam free of hawks flying overhead, and a large barrel to collect fresh rainwater.

Their confidence was infectious. Working at their side, I never doubted that we could do hard things. My mother reminded me how far I’ve come. “I can’t believe you’ve got Brea touching chickens,” she said to Mariah. “Well, they’re cute right now, Mama,” I retorted. “Let’s see how much I’m around them when they’re big and ugly.” We all laughed at the truth.

Prior to Mariah, I was not a very “outdoorsy” person. I enjoyed [our family land] Bakers’ Acres in small doses, always returning to my urban or suburban life after the brief reprieve. I’d never let myself imagine what it could look and feel like to grow my own food, raise my own chickens, and generally be hands-on with the planet around me. Mariah, on the other hand, had a childhood full of fresh produce, fishing trips, and other reminders that the natural world has an abundance to offer.

It is through my wife, Mariah, that I learned to stop over-intellectualizing my love of Black-owned land. “You can’t love the land through proximity,” she once told me. “You have to put your own hands in the dirt.” Initially I was low-key offended. Was she insinuating that my love wasn’t as real as hers? No, she was inviting me into a deeper relationship that wasn’t exclusively predicated on the past. Ancestors, former deeds, what was. How about what is? We have the chance now, she reminded me, to be land stewards and to share that love with our children, who will only know ownership.

It’s been somewhat ironic to truly fall in love with land through my wife, considering I had access to land long before she and I ever met. I was born and raised up north, but both of my parents made it a point to ensure we had regular visits to North Carolina. My first visit to our land came when I was still forming in my mother’s womb.

vessels, fruit and cloth

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Ancestors, former deeds, what was. How about what is? We have the chance now, she reminded me, to be land stewards and to share that love with our children, who will only know ownership.”

At the time, and for most of my life, our extended Baker-Spruill family held just over 100 acres of land collectively. I can only remember some of the trips we took to our family land, so I asked my father how frequently he remembers bringing us down south. “All the time,” he responds quickly before adding “at least two or three times a year” for specificity. “What were we traveling for when Thanksgiving was still celebrated in New Jersey?” I asked him. My father thought for a moment before shrugging and replying, “Just because.” Like his father, Alfred, my dad took any chance he got to pack up his wife and car and take the drive down. My mother had just made it out of her first trimester with me when she and my father found out about a death in the Baker family. A funeral was surely cause to be in community with loved ones. To North Carolina they went.

My parents had been married for a few years by this point, but my mom was still meeting cousins and aunts. (My father had 16 aunts and uncles and literally hundreds of cousins.) When my Aunt Sue called out for someone to help her cook the chicken, my mother quickly volunteered! She may not have been a country girl, but she knew how to fry some chicken. This was the perfect chance to get closer to her in-laws! Grateful for the help, Aunt Sue told my mother to wait right there in the front yard for Uncle Plummer. Before my mother could ask why she wasn’t being led inside to the kitchen, Uncle Plummer emerged in denim overalls. With little fanfare, he wrung the chicken’s neck and went about his business. My mother stood there mouth agape as the chicken ran around the yard without its head. First frantically, then slowly before coming to a stop that signaled its death. My mother didn’t help cook the chicken that night. She didn’t even eat it when someone else stepped in for her to skin and clean it. Instead, she had my father drive her to Golden Corral for a meal with a little less intimacy.

Most of my visits down south have been for funerals. Distant family for whom attending the funeral is how we show up for the living. Close loved ones whose losses remain with us to this day. When not returning family members “home” to the ground, more often than not our visits revolved around family reunions and church conventions that doubled as family reunions. On lakefront shores, a horde of Black bodies wearing baggy shirts with large trees printed on the front. Printed zines recapping our genealogical history and documenting the many branches of the Baker and Spruill lines. An uncle on the grill. A parent juggling a sleeping child and a plate of food. Older kids leading younger ones on adventures. Elders sucking their teeth at the short shorts and crop tops. A few cousins put poles in the lake.

Throughout my childhood, I was surrounded by vivid scenes of Black people enjoying themselves on land. But because those trips always ended eventually, I never accepted it as my way of life or norm. What did become ingrained in my psyche was a love of communion. The sound of roaring laughter and cards smacked onto tables during spades games. The smell of freshly butchered meat and salty sweat from working just hard enough. The feel of wrinkled hands caressing smooth babies incredulously; proof of a continuing lineage.

the turkeys at the chateau de rottembourg by claude monet

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I don’t know who I’d be without Mariah and her family. Their active and ongoing love for land—hunting, fishing, growing—reignited my desire for a birthright I’d given up on. Having access to land, I’d grown complacent, not realizing how much it had taken to acquire let alone keep it.”

I asked my father what stood out about our trips down south. Ten-hour drives with several kids is no easy feat. I wanted to know what made the trips so worth it for him. “I loved seeing you all with Grandpa,” he said to me. “He loved the trips just as much as you all did and he took you everywhere with him.” Though I can’t recall, my dad reminded me that my grandfather took all of his grandchildren fishing for the first time. Only one of us caught anything at the small pond where he lined us up that day, but catching fish wasn’t the objective at all. He wanted us to love the land as much as he did.

There were so many times as I researched and wrote this manuscript that I wished my grandfather was still alive. That I could share my discoveries with him to change his perspective on a few points, and have him change mine as well. That he could watch Mariah and me swap seeds with Auntie Karen and take the five-hour drive to Georgia and meet Hootie, Logan, Little Brother, Reptar, Henrietta, Zen, Disco, Chicken George, April, and Ruby. Even though I still don’t want to bait my own hook or exert myself too much, his granddaughter loves the land.

I wonder if my grandfather would even take any of the credit for himself, or if he’d thank God for sending me a wife who’d steer me back to myself. I’d like to think it would be a bit of both but the truth is that I don’t know who I’d be without Mariah and her family. Their active and ongoing love for land—hunting, fishing, growing—reignited my desire for a birthright I’d given up on. Having access to land, I’d grown complacent, not realizing how much it had taken to acquire, let alone keep it. My wife’s paternal grandmother, whom we lovingly call Mama, once told me, “All my kids love the land ’cause we never owned any.” I wonder what my grandfather would say about that. If he’d agree that even when referring to land, absence makes the heart grow fonder and ache deeper. If displaced Black people are more attuned to what’s been taken from them, no wonder so many Black Americans are craving a sense of self through homeland. Why without one, we will always be like lost wanderers following a north star to freedom. Where and when do we get to lay down our baggage and make ourselves at home? To enjoy the fruits of our labor?

Rooted: The American Legacy of Land Theft and the Modern Movement for Black Land Ownership

Rooted: The American Legacy of Land Theft and the Modern Movement for Black Land Ownership

From the book ROOTED: The American Legacy of Land Theft and the Modern Movement for Black Land Ownership by Brea Baker. Copyright © 2024 by Brea Baker. Published by One World, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

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