Looking the black farmer in the eye

UPDATE 11/30/10: The House passed legislation to fund $1.2 billion in settlements for black farmers who were denied loans  from the USDA. The measure now heads to President Barack Obama for final approval. 

For more than a decade, Congress had been dealing with black farmers’ claims of pervasive discrimination at the hands of U.S. Department of Agriculture officials.

Listen to my interview with John Ficara

[swf file="John_Ficara_2-way.mp3"params="wmode=transparent"]

John Ficara's photographs of black farmers


For most of this year, funding for a final settlement on a class-action lawsuit was stalled in Congress. But in November, the Senate finally approved the funds — about $1.15 billion. It turns out the holdup was lawmakers’ concerns that black farmers gave false accounts of discrimination and shouldn’t be owed money for something difficult to prove.

Kevin Bogardus from The Hill quoted Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who pushed for the settlement’s passage: “It was a matter of making sure that we had mollified any concerns that senators may have had about that process. That took some time. We had to work through all those concerns and objects.”

In the end, it’s about the individual black farmer. There comes a time when controversial social issues like this may have one right answer. When true suffering occurs, maybe this is the point where political infighting becomes irrelevant. 

Perhaps photojournalist John Ficara understands the hardships faced by black farmers in America better than most.

In the early 2000s, as the lawsuit simmered, Ficara set out to capture the black farmers’ stories. Ficara knew the men and women owed payments were getting older, and their faces and stories would go with them as they passed away. Ficara spent months photographing and interviewing black farmers from Michigan to Georgia, often spending a week with each family to learn their story. He studied these aging farmers through his camera lens. He listened to each family’s perspective on what it meant to farm while black years ago.

I recently interviewed Ficara and asked him how his experience with black farmers matched up with Washington’s concern about fraudulent claims. He explained it was clear wherever he went, similar discrimination stories resonated: “I was able to see firsthand the discrimination and the problems black farmers faced currently, not just beyond the 80s and 90s.”

Ficara’s work has helped identify the people and stories behind the epic lawsuit which now may be coming to a close after a decade of deliberation. Ficara’s photos allow the viewer to decide for themselves, “Who are these people?” “What is the truth?” “What do the faces say?”

The settlement still must be approved by the House, which is expected to happen before the lame-duck session of Congress adjourns in December.  It then goes to President Obama for a signature he has promised black farmers since 2008.

A traveling exhibit of 60 images from Ficara’s book “Black Farmers In America,” continues to make the rounds. The next stop is in Battle Creek, Mich. Check out Ficara’s website