George Washington Carver

January 1, 2012

According to tradition, January is food icons month.

Well, we did it last year. I started out 2011 by posting a blog on Norman Borlaug, the Nobel prize winning agricultural scientist I got to know personally when I was on the faculty at Texas A&M University. This precipitated an e-mail from Terry Link who sent an article by Vandana Shiva, and though I’ve never met her, I was compelled to respond. Somewhere in there I had written a blog on Temple Grandin, who I met when she was a student in Stan Curtis’s lab back at the University of Illinois. So I found myself with three blogs about individuals who have had profound effects on food issues in our time, and it just seemed like Bob’s your uncle to finish out the month with blogs on Michael Pollan and Wendell Berry.

I got a lot of positive feedback on those blogs, more than on any others I’ve written in the two years that I’ve been at this fool’s errand. So I tried a follow up with mini-icons in September: Mark Bittman, Joan Dye Gussow, Bernard Rollin and James McWilliams. The mini-icons were people of lesser stature and lesser renown, (though that may not be true for Bittman). I don’t think these were so successful, and no one bothered to make a comment (other than McWilliams himself, who was incensed). But I’m going to give it another go this month. If doing something once doesn’t establish a tradition, I don’t know what does.

My idea this time around is to do some food icons from the past. I’m going to start with George Washington Carver. As anyone who clicked on the James McWilliams button above knows, I grew up way back in the middle of the last century, and in my world, Carver was famous. I’m blogging about him today because I don’t think he’s all that well known anymore. To test that out, I ran a Google search and discovered a blog posted only yesterday. Carver is there said to have invented crop rotation, which goes back at least to the 15th century. While my first thought was that maybe Carver is on the radar after all, this rather gross error made me a bit skeptical. All in all, it was a strange post in an extremely bizarre blog that seems to have been created in the last couple of days of 2011. The blog already has both dozens of lengthy posts on random subjects and numerous illogical links to external websites.  Highly robotic. And there was an unabashedly robot blog for “George Washington Carver products” which is actually a redirect site that points you to a bunch of crap advocated by a guy named “Herman”. There were a couple of blogs that looked pretty school-project-like, even though they actually had some decent content. Everything else recent was mentioning something named after Carver and not the man himself. So in conclusion, I take my hypothesis as proved. There’s a good Wikipedia article on Carver. It’s not like he’s disappeared from history. But if you don’t set out looking for Carver, he’s not very likely to come up.

I was always alert to Carver because my Grandma Thompson took me to his boyhood home down in Southwest Missouri when I was just a kid. Carver was born on a slave plantation, and back in the 1950’s there was still a large tree on the site in Diamond Grove where someone had been hung by the thumbs during George’s years there. I don’t recall the details and this may be one of those things in the Thornapple Blog that is not strictly true. The site was the first U.S. National Monument dedicated to a black man. Although this story about being hung by the thumbs undoubtedly made me much more aware of George Washington Carver than other white kids from Denver, I don’t think anyone growing up in my era would have failed to know who he was. We learned about him because he came up from slavery to become a “great scientist” and because he was black.

Carver died in 1943. Wikipedia says he spent his last two decades mostly being a celebrity and promoting the cause of racial harmony. By the 1960s, the relentless promotion of Carver as a model African-American probably led many blacks to take a jaundiced view of him. Carver wasn’t really a “great scientist” in the way that we use that term today. He never earned a doctorate, did not publish findings in scientific journals, and cannot, in truth, be credited with commercially successful technical innovations. It would be pretty easy to conclude that his fame was at best patronizing by well-meaning whites. At worst, Carver was a “Tom” being fêted for his compliant and subservient manner.

What Carver actually did during his productive years was to develop and publicize ways that poor farmers could accomplish a lot of practical tasks using natural materials ready to hand on their farms, avoiding the need to purchase goods from commercial suppliers. He and others also helped establish peanut farming across the South as a more sustainable crop that could replace the cotton agriculture that was both depleting soils and requiring ever greater amounts of insecticide. By my standards, that makes him a food ethics icon.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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4 thoughts on “George Washington Carver

  1. [1] 1864 is frequently cited as his birth year, but in the 1870 census form filed by Moses and Susan Carver he is listed as being ten years old.

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