Forty-one years after the first African-American was elected to the Maine legislature, the second one was sworn in this January. In last fall’s elections, Craig Hickman beat his Republican candidate by a landslide in what has traditionally been a moderate to conservative area in central Maine.
That feat alone was enough to convince Bowdoin’s Dean of Multicultural Student Programs, Leanna Amaez, to invite Hickman to speak on campus Feb. 7, as the Martin Luther King Jr. keynote speaker. The fact that Hickman is also a writer, a performer and an organic farmer — and that he campaigned on issues of sustainability, local food and ending hunger — clinched it for her. “He shares Martin Luther King’s commitment to the poor and needy,” Amaez said.
When the lights dimmed in Kresge Auditorium, Hickman began a talk that harked back to his days as a performance artist. He delivered not so much a lecture, but rather a series of stories that wove in his personal experiences with his beliefs and political agenda. Using poetic language and vivid imagery, Hickman started his narrative with his father, Hazelle Hickman, who was released from service with the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II and moved in 1946 to Milwaukee where he heard it was easier for black men to find work.This was part I of his talk, about family. Hickman separated his talk into three parts — family, community and prosperity — saying these were the most poignant themes for him of King’s legacy.
Hickman described the garden his father kept in Milwaukee, and how his sister confessed to him one day that while his father was dying of pancreatic cancer, she and their mother had gone two years without fresh collard greens. Hickman listened to this while standing at his Maine farm among his own limp collard greens, which were suffering from insect infestation.
Hickman said the death of his father in 2007, who had taught him “discipline, respect, honor, dignity … how to love, how to live,” had left a hole in his soul as big as the lake near where his farm sits.
Two years after his father died, Hickman had a vision — he’s not sure if he was awake or asleep — in which he saw his father walk up his gravel driveway and into his house. Later that day, Hickman told his husband he wanted to become “a bona fide farmer.” Despite his husband’s skepticism, five months later Hickman was “selling the succulent vegetables our farm offered up.”
People who want to live need to eat. There’s no reason whatsoever that we can’t come together as a community to feed them.”
—Maine Rep. Craig Hickman, 2013
Hickman said his drive to grow whatever he can, working sun up to sundown, comes as if to compensate for the lack of energy his father had in his last two years of life. “I’ve never been more committed to anything in my life. Never been happier,” he said. “I never would have imagined I would become an integral part of a local food chain.”
When Hickman told one of his regular customers about his father’s collared greens and his sister’s “heartbreaking confession,” they shared a moment of silence in his father’s memory. “And, I swear to God,” Hickman recalled, “within a week, my collards were on their way to being the biggest, sweetest, greenest collards I have ever grown.”
Hickman started part II of his talk with a story about the first time his mother took in a homeless girl, a 12-year-old “who smelled of dried urine.” His mother bathed her, fed her, let her rest and sent her away with food and more clothes. This was the first of many needy girls who came knocking on the door, and despite the Hickman family’s limited means, they always were helped.
“It is no surprise then that I would turn my home into a place where anyone, no matter their needs, can come any time, no questions asked, and receive food,” Hickman said. At his 25-acre farm in Winthrop, Annabessacook Farm Bed & Breakfast, Hickman makes free food available around the clock, any day of the year. And when the local soup kitchen ran into hard times, Hickman made his farm available for a free hot meal to-go once a week.
“Everyone has the right to food, so we must make sure we don’t keep anyone from the table,” Hickman said. “We cannot allow a person to go hungry for a single day.”
“I have a dream”
The third part of Hickman’s talk laid out his goals as a Maine representative.
“People always ask, how did you do it? How did you, of all people, get elected to the Maine legislature?” Hickman repeated. His answer is that he shared a credo that evidently 59 percent of voters did as well. “I believe locally grown food is national security. I will work to reform the Maine food code and develop a comprehensive food policy to make more healthy options available for ourselves, our children and our seniors. Access to wholesome food is a human right for every citizen,” Hickman said.
Maine imports more food per capita than any other state on the continent. Hickman said that Maine would change this, using its bounty and beauty to become a flourishing culinary tourist spot and giving grants to returning veterans to help them start farms.
“I have a dream,” Hickman continued. “Imagine all our children, even those who live in oppressive poverty — especially those children — if they all had access to wholesome food every day and never went to bed hungry or malnourished. Right now one in five children in Maine goes to bed hungry every night. That’s unacceptable.”
He continued, “People who want to live need to eat. There’s no reason whatsoever that we can’t come together as a community to feed them.”