Love and Land

‘The Aunties’ proves that love and land are dear companions

The documentary short The Aunties, produced by The Center for Cultural Power, proves that our Black Queer elders hold us with their sowing hands and tenderly find a heart space to share with each other. Following the journey of Donna Dear and Paulette Greene, this cinematic balm proves that love and ancestral memory are entwined. Their tilling and stewarding of land in Maryland, where Harriet Tubman’s family were enslaved, are living proof that being spiritually and lovingly called to a place, can mean a harvest that is shared with community, dispersed and displaced by the malefactors of global environmental ruin. 

I think I can call this magic a must see.

Cultivating storytelling that captures the tender stories of Black queer women who love each other, these farmers living together on the ancestral lands of the Tubman family is something profoundly unique. Donna and Paulette met on New Year’s Day in 1974, a Tuesday at a Dew Drop Inn, hosted by Paulette. This serendipitous meeting happened after an oil crisis erupted globally in 1973, which showed the devastating social and economic impact the reliance of fossil fuels has on our planet. 

It’s beautiful that these two Black women and their love would act as a counterbalance to destructive environmental practices, as they journeyed through time and space – finally settling on the two thousand plus acres of land where their farm operates.

Mt. Pleasant Acres Farms is nestled in Caroline County, Maryland, an abundant forest where Tubman took her family “out of slavery.” This sacred site is part of the network of places known collectively as the “Underground Railroad.” Donna and Paulette married there on May 24, 2014, crystalizing a long love that has surely been witness to a world that is unkind and unaffirming of Black LGBTQ+ people. Paulette says in The Aunties that Donna needed “a spirit” like hers and that she “needed to be affirmed in a way” she had not been in her life, up to that point.

Their farm was a finalist for the Maryland Leopold Conservation Award in 2022. Mt. Pleasant hosts row crops and bears fruits and vegetables, while providing a “habitat for insect pollinators, songbirds and game birds,” according to the Sand County Foundation’s website, the organization responsible for this honor.

The short film is directed by partners Jeannine Kayembe-Oro, and Charlyn Magdaline/Griffith Oro, multidisciplinary artists rooted in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Both of them have been cultivating a relationship with Donna and Paulette for years, as they, too, are connected deeply to the practices of land work and food cultures. I’m reminded by their intergenerational friendship that climate work is about being in the right relationship with our environs and our elders who hold knowledge that isn’t easily passed down in books. If you look closely, you’ll see the cowrie shell abundantly adorning the sunglasses worn by “the aunties,” a signature motif of Charlyn’s work that is a currency of abundance

Photo credit: Beverly Price

The Center for Cultural Power’s “Climate Woke” initiative connects climate justice work to racial and gender justice. In 2019, a #ClimateWoke convening in Hollywood brought activists, actors, entertainers, and other communities together to express deep concerns about the unfurling climate crises the world is facing and to discuss strategy – the same crises that will undoubtedly impact Black, brown, and Indigenous communities in the global south. 

The Aunties provides a roadmap for land stewardship, rooted in food systems that don’t rely on industrial and mass farming, but rather are forged from relationships and are locally minded. 

The love they have for each other is palpable throughout. Towards the end there is a moment where both Donna and Paulette are sitting in a clearing on the farmland. They gesture towards holding and touching each other’s hands. 

I don’t think I’ve seen this kind of representation ever. It is heartwarming evidence that even when the world feels like a space that dismisses the texture of our humanity, we find loving homes within our boundless reaching for ourselves. Within that, there are seeds for growing a futurity of queer possibility that enriches our ecosystems with cultivation that is protective of the land we are on. 

As a Black queer person who works with histories that have been distorted or go unnoticed, it is an honor to know, write about, and witness the relationship of two amazing Black elders. I know that this film will resonate with so many of us looking for reflections of love that has a shape like ours. May their story find joyous and purposeful witnessing in the archive and may both Donna and Paulette enjoy the fruit of their labor. 

As the world heats up due to unprecedented shifts in our weather, this story shows us ways of being that are in alignment with the planet’s needs. 

Photo credit: Beverly Price

Abdul-Aliy A. Muhammad is a Philadelphia born/raised organizer and writer. In their work they often problematize medical surveillance, discuss the importance of bodily autonomy, and center Blackness. Follow their musings, writings, and offerings on Twitter @mxabdulaliy.

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