George Washington Carver: Touching Infinity
Cursory research into the life of Carver reveals a sort of apolitical figure, someone who cared about peanuts and plants and little more. This could not be further from the truth.
George Washington Carver lived and eventually died not knowing the exact date nor year in which he was born. Born into a family of enslaved Africans in rural Missouri, Carver — in his own words — traced his birthday through the contexts which contoured his life. “I was about two weeks old when the [Civil War] closed,” he stated, placing the year of his birth somewhere within 1864-1865. However, in other interviews throughout his career, this date would become a sort of rolling target, months and years always slightly shifting and never mentioned in static terms.
At just a few weeks old while living as slaves on a Missouri plantation, Carver, his mother, and his sister were kidnapped by Confederate night raiders. George’s mother and sister were resold in the Kentucky slave auctions, never to be seen again by George, a sickly and small baby who was later found in a ditch “nearly dead with whooping cough.”
“My home was near Neosho, Newton County, Missouri, where I remained until I was about 9 years old,” Carver would later recall. “My body was very feeble and it was a constant warfare between life and death to see who would gain the mastery.”
And while the early years of George Washington Carver’s life were spent straddling the line between time, life, and death, with uncertainty on his age and birth frustrating historians and George himself for decades to come, one thing remains certain: George felt he’d touch eternity when he’d touch flowers.
In the short 1939 biography by Glenn Clark, historian and friend to Carver, he recalls George often reaching his hand out to feel the flowers around him, outside or in his home, and stating “I am not merely touching that flower. I am touching infinity. That little flower existed long before there were human beings on this earth. It will continue to exist for thousands, yes, millions of years to come.”
The agricultural scientist and inventor has become somewhat synonymous with Black History Month (in 2014 NPR proudly called him the “Black History Monthiest Of Them All”), and is often touted as a visage of racial triumph, progression, and determination. He’s known as the man who was slightly “obsessed” with peanuts, who invented hundreds of different uses for the popular legume crop during his life. He’s often even referred to as an example of someone who ‘pulled themselves up by the bootstraps’ of slavery to become a prominent figure across the US, a logic repeated by both conservatives and liberals alike.
Carver believed that through careful and informed farming practices, newly freed and poor Black people could generate profit and an eventual self-sustainability.
But the intricacies of his involvement with inventing, with peanuts, and with agriculture altogether have been sorely limited within the historical imagination of the US. Less popular is the task of exploring exactly why he invented, why he was passionate about peanuts and plants, why he “felt infinity” when touching flowers, or even knowing the facts of his life divorced from the ‘Peanut Guy’ persona ascribed to him.
In truth, Carver was not necessarily unique in his adoration of plants and agriculture. Prior to the Great Migration, the vast majority of Black people in the US lived in the South, and at least 80% of those in the South lived in rural areas. Life was dominated by the plantation, by farming and growing, by sharecropping, slavery and its immediate afterlife; Black folks were often born in barns or underneath wide trees, raised surrounded by livestock and cash crops, and died in houses they’d built themselves to escape harsh summers and chilly winters. To understand the motivations of Carver and others of his time is largely to understand how the rural and the agricultural were the textures of Black Southern life.
Any cursory search into the life of Carver reveals a sort of apolitical figure, someone who cared about peanuts and plants and little more. This could not be further from the truth.
Carver was deeply invested in finding alternative crops to cotton, which was vital to the US economy, covered massive swaths of farmland across the US South, and represented some 75% of the world’s supply. Despite the popularity of the cotton crop, Carver was one of the first scientists to warn of an immediate need to transition into alternative crops both as a social, political, and agricultural remedy for the land.
Southern reliance on cotton cultivation meant a large class of exploited and/or forced laborers, slaves and then sharecroppers. Mass amounts of Black Southerners found themselves indebted to former slave owners and the sharecropping system, a trend which Carver would observe and obviously be against. Cotton is also a plant which harshly depletes the nitrogen supply of soil, and the repeated use of unskilled, intense labor for multiple generations to toil the land — a key component in the use of enslaved labor and sharecropping — was on the verge of bringing the soil to a nutrient lacking abyss.
Enter peanuts. While the South’s overreliance on cotton may have rapidly depleted the soil’s nitrogen supply, nitrogen-fixing crops like peanuts, sweet potatoes, and soybeans can replenish it. Carver’s eventual interest in peanuts and the creation of peanut inventions was not random nor of some wayward peanut obsession, rather Carver wanted to invent peanut-related items like flour, paper, shaving cream, soaps, and adhesives to create a market for the crop, in hopes that it would gain a popularity to surpass cotton; to incentivize its planting.
And still, this is not the full story of Carver. He did not simply want peanuts and sweet potatoes to overcome cotton for the sake of saving the Southern economy, but he also wanted these crops to be a gateway for prosperity for Black people. Carver believed that through careful and informed farming practices, newly freed and poor Black people could generate profit and an eventual self-sustainability.
Carver advocates for a type of “land ethic” or morality surrounding agriculture which equally impacts the treatment of the land’s workers; in the immediate aftermath of slavery and the context of sharecropping, this statement is a radical departure from the norms of the time.
Carver would never quite engage in outright “political activism,” however, his life’s work and motivations would prove a direct action of sorts: he wrote weekly bulletins for farmers with farming tips, he gave gardening workshops to local Black residents and students while teaching at Tuskegee University, and he often found ways to slightly critique the capitalist system which caused unskilled and forced labor to dominate over the soils which had given him a sense of ‘infinity.’
Moreover, in Carver’s conception of agriculture, botany, and general gardening, he should be revered as an early founding father of what’s now known as the sustainable farming movement. Carver was profoundly concerned with the many ways mass-scale farming often led to depleted soil, exploitation of workers, and eventual difficulty of soil.
Often speaking through clever double talk, Carver would lace Biblical examples and messages in his writings on agriculture, and leaned on phrasing like “kindness” to describe interactions with plants. In a 1914 article titled “Being Kind to the Soil,” Carver observed:
“Unkindness to anything means an injustice to that thing. If I am unkind to you I do you an injustice, or wrong you in some way. On the other hand, if I try to assist you in every way that I can to make a better citizen and in every way to do my very best for you, I am kind to you. The above principles apply with equal force to the soil. The farmer whose soil produces less every year, is unkind to it in some way; that is, he is not doing by it what he should; he is robbing it of some substance it must have, and he becomes, therefore, a soil robber rather than a progressive farmer.”
Two readings of such a quote are present: an obvious reading of the agricultural implications, the notion that care must be equally given to the soil as one would a human, but then there is also the reading which indicts the context in which such a statement arises. The subtlety of his politic has been blasted by some as assimilationist, while it could also be read as strategic. Carver advocates for a type of “land ethic” or morality surrounding agriculture which equally impacts the treatment of the land’s workers; in the immediate aftermath of slavery and the context of sharecropping, this statement is a radical departure from the norms of the time.
Carver also prophetically recognized the need to rid ourselves of the capitalist profit incentive which loomed over agriculture in the US South at all times. He saw conservation as one of the greatest problems of his time, and in a 1940 interview with the Atlanta Journal Constitution he even went as far as to deftly state that exploitation of the land is “sinful.”
Carver understood that Black people, the land, and the plants which grow from it share a special relationship that should be nurtured with care, and he — a message we surely can learn from today.
“You can’t tear up everything just to get the dollar out of it without suffering as result,” Carver asserts in the interview. “It is a travesty to burn our woods and thereby burn up the fertilizer nature has provided for us. We must enrich our soil every year instead of merely depleting it. It is fundamental that nature will drive away those who commit sin against it.”
Indeed, Carver’s legacy and influence stretches far beyond that of the “Peanut Guy.” In recent years some scholars have slowly begun the work of reexamining the massive but unorganized remains of his life, writings, ideas, and influence. In his seminal work “My Work Is That of Conservation: An Environmental Biography of George Washington Carver”, historian Mark Hersey refers to Carver as a “prophet of sustainable agriculture” and invigorates a rememory of Carver as integral to understanding the early origins of our current environmentalist movements. Hersey greatly details Carver’s ideas and motivations, as well as his life of actions; his years spent developing the Tuskegee Institute’s department of agricultural sciences at the invitation of Booker T. Washington, the campaigns he led on behalf of Black farmers, his meetings with and influence on prominent figures like former US President Roosevelt, and so forth.
The reasons for the currently distorted popular view of Carver are multifaceted and complex, and “the fact that Carver was black and seeking solutions to problems specific to African American farmers muted his influence in the conservation movement, and his subsequent rise to iconic status artificially inflated his influence on southern agriculture even as it obscured his work along conservation lines,” states Hersey. “…But his vision for southern agriculture represents a proverbial road not taken, one that might have made all the difference for communities like those in Alabama’s Black Belt.”
Truly there is much to be said about the man made synonymous with peanuts, and this piece is only a mere scratching of the surface in light of the depth which could be devoted to him. However, as the advent of climate change and impending ecological catastrophe draw near, forcing alternative, decolonial, and sustainable methods of agricultural production to emerge, Carver’s prophetic messages should be resurfaced with intention. Carver understood that Black people, the land, and the plants which grow from it share a special relationship that should be nurtured with care — a message we surely can learn from today.
Devyn Springer is a writer, independent researcher, community organizer, and cultural worker whose work typically focuses on the African diaspora, history, political art, pedagogy, violence, and the space where these things come together. They’re an outcast who like loves Outkast and fried chicken.
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