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During European colonization of the Americas, hundreds of thousands of African people were brought as slaves to the American colonies, where food historian Michael W. Twitty said they were able to keep a sense of self and a sense of power through gardening.

“Gardens give people an incredible sense of power,” Twitty said. “Sometimes that power is tested.”

Twitty, according to his website, is known for his expertise in the history and heritage of enslaved Africans and their foodways, and has expertise in growing African American heirloom crops, open hearth cooking, heritage breed livestock and wild flora and fauna used by enslaved Africans and their descendants.

During a presentation Feb. 9 about African-American garden traditions at Annmarie Sculpture Garden and Arts Center in Solomons, Twitty said he believes the amount of power the early generations of enslaved Africans had is under-documented and unacknowledged. Most gardens grown by enslaved people, he said, were tended to at night when literate people were not around to record what they were doing, and most of what is documented was done so by self-liberated African-Americans or white travelers in the South who only saw “little glimpses” of their lives.

“This idea of giving enslaved people gardens — it wasn’t a gift, it wasn’t a privilege; it was a right they took back for themselves,” Twitty said.

The idea that enslaved people in the Americas had no choice “doesn’t really make sense,” because enslaved Africans knew how to deal with farming and gardening in ways their owners did not and outnumbered their owners, Twitty said.

“We don’t give those enslaved Africans … enough credit,” Twitty said. “When it comes to disempowered people, food is their way to power, their way to self identity.”

In Africa, women were the small garden cultivators and men were the large garden cultivators, Twitty said. A traditional African garden contains anywhere between five to 15 different crops to be cultivated at the same time, he said, and crops are not planted in rows.

“There is no space in that garden that doesn’t have a plant,” Twitty said. “It should look a mess. … That’s the way my grandparents grew their garden, and that comes from, partly, the African tradition of multi-cropping.”

Some of the gardens were not intentional, Twitty said. African people would create a compost pile near their home and, when plants would begin to grow there, that would be their new garden.

The crop rotation in the African gardens, Twitty said, was “the short is followed by the tall and vice-versa in cycle.” He said a legume, which grows low to the ground and is nitrogen-fixing, is grown after a tall crop such as a grass that extracts nitrogen from the soil.

Sixty percent of enslaved people brought to Maryland came from Senegambia in West Africa, Twitty said, which is where a lot of tobacco was grown. They had familiarity with the tobacco crop and knew how to grow it, he said. Often, enslaved people would grow cotton or tobacco in their own gardens.

Twitty said Thomas Jefferson told the overseers of his Virginia plantation to not allow “my people” to plant tobacco or cotton in their own gardens. Twitty said the enslaved people who grew those crops in their gardens would sell it, and Jefferson had no way of knowing what crop was theirs or what crop was his, so he forbade them to plant their own.

Twitty said a traditional African dish contains a starch, a soup or sauce that tops the starch and “other stuff.” He said meat is not typically a part of most African meals because Africans are “veggievores,” or people who predominantly eat vegetables and starches and occasionally eat meat. Their dinners did not have names, Twitty said, because they were created from whatever was available at the time, and often looked like “mush or mess” to Europeans.

Prior to African people being brought to the Americas, Twitty said, they grew crops such as corn, pumpkin, squash and beans.

“Africans brought here already had these crops for at least 150 to 200 years,” he said, and were integrated into their culture. Crops such as cow peas, hibiscus, okra and the Virginia peanut were likely brought to the Americas with the African people, he said.

“Some of the things we think of as being perfectly American were actually varieties brought through the slave trade,” Twitty said.