The first time DJ Freedem went viral for his plant content, it was for his Trap Gardening Instagram videos, where the New York-based DJ dished out plant and relationship advice in his signature sassy style. Heartleaf philodendrons are heart-shaped because you’re supposed to kill them with kindness, went one of his classic comments.
“Like most content creators, we sometimes create things one time as a joke, which creates a demand for more,” Freedem says now.
That’s what happened with his second plant-related viral moment, too. Last June, Freedem remixed a common sentiment on Black Twitter – “Cash App a Black woman $50,” a joking-not-joking take on the push for reparations – tweeting, “If you’re white, give a Black person a plant this instant.” He reposted the tweet on Instagram – and to his surprise, people actually started doing it.
“In my head I thought at the very least it would start a conversation in my comments, but it evolved into a movement and a platform,” he says.
Freedem had, quite by accident, founded the Underground Plant Trade. At first, exchanges happened through an Instagram account, @underground.planttrade, which operates under the tagline “a reparations network disguised as a plant community.” But by last October, he’d launched a website with a nostalgic internet aesthetic – think neon-green text and animated backgrounds à la Angelfire or Geocities sites of the late 1990s – and a forum with boards for different regions across the United States, and eventually as far afield as Europe, Australia, the Middle East and Canada.
“I think because plants are everywhere, it made people realize that they don’t need much brain power or effort to make someone’s day, week, month or year,” Freedem says. “I also think that because it started during a time when we are told to isolate, people naturally would be drawn to new, innovative ways to connect with other people – especially with other people who share similar interests.”
But it’s not just about connection. The Underground Plant Trade (UPT) builds on an idea that has been present in social justice movements for decades, if not centuries: financial compensation for Black people as amends for centuries of racial injustice. It’s not a new concept. Starting with Field Order 15, the policy behind the saying “40 acres and a mule,” which allocated land confiscated from slave owners to newly freed slaves, the United States has toyed with the idea of making amends to Black citizens through cash payments, subsidies, free tuition and/or investment in social programs that would most benefit their communities – most recently with Bill H.R. 40, legislation that would create a commission to study “lingering negative effects of slavery on living African-Americans and society” and develop proposals for reparations. On April 14, more than 30 years after it was first introduced by Rep. John Conyers, Jr., the the House of Representatives’ judiciary committee voted to move the bill to the House floor for full consideration – the first time it has ever acted on the legislation.
The UPT reframes the idea of reparations from a punishment to an act of community-building – and helps people understand that racial injustice continues to impact Black people all over the world, not just in the U.S. That particularly resonated with Queen Cee, a Hamilton resident who has received plants twice from the project, including a monstera, a pothos and several spider-plant babies.
“People don’t really think of Canada [when they think about racism],” she says. “They don’t think of the demographic here, which is so multicultural. The Black population is very large, and we come from many countries.”
Québec City UPT member Béatrice Paradis-Lebel, who bought Cee an aglaonema from a plant shop in Hamilton, says the project has helped her understand why the fight against racism has to encompass more than just educating herself and others.
“I think I didn’t understand the true beneficial impact of reparations until I saw how the Underground Plant Trade worked,” she admits. “DJ Freedem touched on something so universal, or at least widespread, that it makes it extremely relatable to anybody who likes plants. It just made so much sense to me to have a very tangible way to offer reparations.”
Other plant benefactors agree. “I wanted to participate because I have extra. I’ve learned to propagate some of my plants and have plenty to share,” says Julia Seymour, who recently joined the forum to share plants in Vancouver.
Both she and Paradis-Lebel acknowledge that donating plants is just one small part of the anti-racism work they’re trying to do – but that doesn’t negate its impact, which Freedem argues is bigger than just plants.
“Reparations should come from the government,” he says. “However, this platform and movement shows that it’s not impossible – it just takes initiation and a system.”
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