Recently showcased at FilmColumbia in Chatham, NY, “Gaining Ground: The Fight for Black Land” is a compelling documentary produced by Columbia County’s own Al Roker. The documentary explores how, within decades post-enslavement, Black Americans amassed substantial farmland, only to lose 90% of it to factors like white violence, eminent domain, and government discrimination. Heirs’ Property, a lesser-known yet crucial issue, has significantly impacted Black land ownership even further. Directed by Emmy-nominated Director Eternal Polk, this stirring film delves into the legacy of Black farming in America, the fight against land loss, and the journey of landowners in reclaiming their rights and building generational wealth.
Harvesting Hope: The Fight for Fair Land in ‘Gaining Ground’ – An Exclusive Interview with Al Roker – by Dino Alexander, Editor, Hudson Valley Style Magazine
Dino Alexander: “Gaining Ground” delves deep into the challenges faced by Black farmers, particularly the complex issue of heirs’ property. Can you discuss any unexpected revelations or personal stories from the farmers that left a lasting impact on you during the film’s production?”
Al Roker: “One of the things that most surprised me in doing Gaining Ground was that, while it started off – and the impetus for this – was the loss of Black-owned farmland. Come to realize that this is an issue that affects a lot of folks that don’t own farms, that may have a brownstone in Philadelphia or New York City or a piece a property in Los Angeles because those families don’t have a proper will or an estate. These folks can lose property as well. Hard to believe but we have a lower rate of having proper wills and estates for people of color who are college-educated than white folks with a high school diploma or less. So it is something that we really need to address.”
Dino Alexander: “The documentary also explores the cultural and historical significance of land to Black farmers. Were there any profound or emotional moments related to this connection?”
Al Roker: “In listening to PJ Haynie who is featured prominently in the documentary, this is a man who comes from generations of farmers. Yet, when he went to a local government official they attempted to dissuade him from following in his ancestor’s footsteps and that’s when you realize when you talk about institutional racism and disadvantages that really coalesced it all for me and you get angry about it and yet you feel a little hopeful because maybe a film like this helps shine a light on the injustices and when you listen to some of the stories about how folks have worked to combat this, then you know this isn’t a lost cause and hopefully we can combat and bring those numbers back. Maybe not they were back in 1920s but certainly higher than they are now.”
Dino Alexander: “Al, you’ve chosen upstate NY as a place of retreat from the bustling life of NYC. How has the tranquility and closeness to nature in upstate NY influenced or inspired the narrative of “Gaining Ground” and its storytelling approach?”
Al Roker: “We have lived in the Hudson Valley for almost 25 years and while we don’t live on a farm, I think the serenity that’s sitting on my back deck and looking out and seeing unspoiled nature and knowing that this belongs to me and my family and hopefully my grandchildren and beyond, that there is something very elemental about it, being attached to the land. I have a couple of vegetable beds and again it’s not like we’re plowing the North 40 but to look at your backyard and to see something growing that you had something to do with is I think very much an elemental part of us and so my life in the Hudson Valley is something that I really do believe makes me more whole.”
Dino Alexander: “Living in Upstate NY has surely given you a closer connection to land and community. Can you share how this proximity to raw nature and a tight-knit community has shaped or contributed to your other creative endeavors beyond this film?”
Al Roker: “I’ve always loved my home and I’ve loved the property around it and the people who live near us but I never appreciated it more than during the pandemic that there was this place that we could escape to and be reenergized and nurtured by just looking out our window. To a certain extent feeling safe and that you become you part of that nature’s community.
We would only usually come up on weekends but for six, seven months we were up there seven days a week, 24 hours a day and realized “Oh, we’ve got coyote”, “Oh we’ve bear”, “Oh, you’ve got mail”. Oh, no, I sorry, I digress, but we had a badger drop into one of our window wells and had to call a guy to come get it and we discovered we had bats in our attic, you know, some would say bats in my Belfry but it was really a time that I think helped us grow and feel much much closer to nature and I think we appreciate where we live so much more than we did before.”
“Gaining Ground” is more than just a film; it’s a powerful narrative that bridges the gap between past and present struggles. It sheds light on the stark racial and economic inequalities that have shaped the United States. Highlighting these issues is essential to understanding and addressing the systemic challenges faced by Black farmers. Al Roker’s insights offer a unique perspective on the importance of land, identity, and resilience, resonating deeply with the themes of the Hudson Valley and beyond.