Sixth Wave of African American Environmentalists

For weeks, I have been thinking about environmentalism among African Americans. And oh out of that reflection, I feel the power of a people who can make so much out of almost nothing. Isn’t this how it has been for centuries? Isn’t this true for environmentalism by and for Africans and African Americans in a white world?

Some might think that it all started on Tuesday, September 16, 2014 in this narcissistic 20th century world. Not so. There have been waves of African American environmentalism.

The first wave . . . Ancient Africans who I wish I could make famous today times 10 reality tv, worked the land in places like Ghana and Botswana before white colonialist gave those countries a name.

The second wave . . . A stolen assaulted people, an African people–treated as a monolith yet so diverse in cultures including language. They became through struggle and hardscrabble African Americans. Whites used their expertise in the cane, cotton, and tobacco fields. African Americans were the experts with expert experience framed by the brutal realities of enslavement. Stolen and holding their pride in their knowledge of nature.

The third wave . . . Before environmentalism part of the American lexicon, African Americans were just in nature. George Washington Carver, an African American scientist, best known for all the ways to use the peanut, spoke tenderly of nature. He wasn’t using the word preservationists back then but he knew nature.

And even faced with segregation in the first half of the 20th century, we became boy scouts . . . girl scouts. We also squeezed what limited resources the Cooperative Extension Service (United States Department of Agriculture today) and made a way out of no way.

The fourth wave . . . Benjamin Chavez, Robert Bullard, and Dorceta Taylor, and many others with famous names and names we will never know carried us on their shoulders into the late twentieth century with a BANG. We called for environmental justice. Many fought environmental racism. Our pioneers and environmental s/heroes stood up against powerful corporations and corrupt governments to save our children. We fought against that foul garbage dump. we stopped that industrial plant from dumping waste into our neighborhood. Poor people with few resources recognized the environment was deforming and killing babies who could never be born. Marginalized people recognized that too many were diagnosed with cancer at high rates in toxic places.

The fifth wave . . . Over the last ten years or so many have emerged . . . I am afraid to name them all because I might leave someone out. And that would be a shame. They put their shoulders to the plow and there is change.  So to honor the impact of so many, I ask you to name them. Whisper or shout the name of an African Americans past and present who so transformed you, redefined you in such a way that the meaning of nature has changed for you. Speak those words, those names because that is a our power in a world where abuse in the form of words and actions tries to steal from us, steal nature from us. Words.

The sixth wave . . . I see you. So many young people including children embracing nature. I close my eyes and suddenly open them. And as I sit in a field of wild flowers I watch our children dance in circles, kicking their feet and raising their arms. And I am ready for this next generation of African American environmentalists! Here they come . . . wait they are here.

 

Glacier National Park, July 2014

 

imageimage

Glacier is my first national park. Surprised? Audrey Peterman understands the awe I experienced for the first time. She described how she first discovered the national parks with her husband Frank: “From the top of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park in Main to the mesmerizing formations of the Badlands National Park in Washington State . . . we marveled at the astonishing richness and diversity of the natural landscape.” (Audrey Peterman, Legacy on the Land, ix)

I also shared and experienced Audrey’s observation concerning the lack of ethnic diversity. Yes, I saw Blackfeet, Native Americans, who still remained confined to living on a reservation, the worst of the lands, whose borders were circumscribed by whites. Even with the constraints, this will always be the land of Native Americans, even when stolen. Sadly, I saw few African Americans on the trails. Perhaps that will change.

All-in-all, I was transformed by my visit to Glacier National Park. Seeing black bear alone was worth the trip. It is hard to describe but I feel different. I stayed at Many Glacier National Park, crossed the border into Canada for high tea at the Prince of Wales Hotel, and walked in the clouds at Logan Pass along the Sun Road–also at Glacier. And that I saw the glaciers before they disappear were emotional moments. I hope that everyone takes advantage of visiting one of the many national parks in the United States!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Photos by Dianne Glave

 

John Francis: African American Planet Walker

On Thursday, April 10, 2014, I had the honor of listening to Dr. John Francis, Planet Walker. He was invited to speak at the Inspire Speak Series at the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh. Dr. Francis was sponsored by The Green Building Alliance. He was an African American environmentalist long before environmentalism coalesced into a national movement in the late 20th Century and a cultural way of being in the 21st Century. Watch his Ted Talk:

He proudly continues to advocate for the earth.

John Francis walks the Earth, carrying a message of careful, truly sustainable development and respect for our planet.

(https://www.ted.com/speakers/john_francis)

The African American Church Never Left the Outdoors

Many pieces of a puzzle are on the floor of my living room. More are in a large gray tub upstairs. I am looking at the pieces of what has been my interest lately: the African American church and the environment. Going back even further, I’ve long been drawn to learning and sharing about African Americans and the environment–the great love of my life–for about 23 years.

As is true in my life, I shift back and forth between peaks and valleys. A bit of a peak is coming up. In late March 2014, I head to the 12th National Black Writers Conference as a panelist on the “Saving Our Communities, Saving Ourselves” panel sponsored by The Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, New York. Thank goodness they haven’t asked for a title yet but I am leaning towards “The African American Church Never Left the Outdoors.”

The literature on the subject continues to grow though still small:

Veronica Kyle, Faith in Place

I am hoping to blend scholarship with my other concern: environmental activism in and through the African American church.

And the first person who comes to mind is Veronica Kyle, Congregational Outreach at Faith in Place.  She has been faithful and busy:

“Veronica joined the Faith in Place staff in August 2008 to engage in the much needed work of linking/involving African American churches to the work of Faith in Place. In addition Veronica works with other Faith in Place partners in the movement to share, coordinate and support congregations that are new to the idea of living out their faith while serving as good stewards of the environment. Veronica lived and worked for the past twelve years in the Caribbean and Southern Africa for a faith-based organization in the areas of social justice and development. She received her B.A. in Religion and Women Studies from Vermont College of Norwich University and her Masters degree in Gender Studies from University of the West Indies, 1999.” (“Our Staff,” Faith in Place)

Veronica works with one of many grassroots environmental activists in or with churches:

As I continue to consider this puzzle, take a look at a classic scene of African Americans having church in the woods “Beloved,” the film. Steven Spielberg, the director, was smart to use what sounds like Toni Morrison’s exact words from her novel Beloved:

African Burial Ground National Monument: 2013 New York Stories 2

In 1991, I was living in New York when the burial place of Africans who were enslaved and free were discovered at what is now 290 Broadway in downtown Manhattan. Their remains were buried from the late 1600′s to the 1794. It is only recently in 2013 that I am fully understanding and appreciating the African Burial Ground in the context of a long history of Africans and people of African descent . . . my history . . . our history.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The National Parks Service offers a broad experience at the monument including an indoor video and exhibition at the museum, and an outdoor memorial.

Some of the focus is on the spiritual implications of a people in bondage holding onto their humanity by burying loved ones in the midst of oppression and violence. Only humans bury their dead. The curators offer insightful social and cultural context to the lives of people of African descent including how some labored and family lives.

Learn more reading Audrey Peterman’s “African Burial Ground National Monument: Peace at Last” in Our True Nature: Finding a Zest of Life in the National Park System.

Photos by Dianne Glave

Arrival: 2013 New York Stories 1

I really had to practice some self control when I arrived at Laguardia Airport in Queens outside New York City. Super Shuttle took an hour to arrive at the airport. Shame. And the driver was no bargain even with GPS. Shame. He almost left the back door open. I visualized my luggage, strewn across the BQE-Brooklyn Queens Expressway.

I  did look to my left and saw soccer players playing under the dark of night lit by powerful lights. What a pleasure.

We took the Kosciusko Bridge into the Lower East Side. Darkness . . . Illusion of brightness in the bright lights.

Back to the driver. He jumped over a stop and had to double back. I really wanted to get in the passenger seat and direct him. We were a few blocks from my hotel so I grabbed up my bags knowing I was a few moments from freedom. I yelled to the driver, “There’s my hotel on the left.”

I jumped out of the van and yelled at the other passengers, “Good luck, ya’all!”

They looked at me like frightened birds, appearing as though their last hope had ejected from the shuttle.

So here I am back in my homeland . . .  bright lights, big city . . .  Singing a different song having lived in so many places . . . But so quickly returning to the core of my New York self.

Isaac Marion’s Warm Bodies: Zombies, Alzheimer’s, and Morality

I’ve always read novels and watched films that are speculative in nature more for the metaphors and meaning and less for the violence and the macabre. My recurring question is often: what do the words and images say about all us as people?

So my fascination with zombies, the undead makes sense. It’s personal because of members of my family are suffering from dementia in their old age. Speculative fiction including the zombie genre, also gets me thinking about the deeper meaning of life including our spiritual lives.

The fascination with zombies goes back further for me as a teen, when I first read Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein in which various body parts were reincarnated as a zombie whole. I can list many Frankenstein incarnation on film going back to black and white movies.  Fast forward to “28 Weeks Later,” the film, which jump-started the zombie craze in the 21st Century. And we can’t forget AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” still currently on television because of stellar ratings.

ImageThese zombies can be interpreted in many ways but here are just two that I’ve drawn from reading Issac Marion’s zombie bestseller Warm Bodies: zombies as a metaphor for Alzheimer’s and the moral tensions between being undead and human.

There isn’t a more complex map or landscape than the human brain. And when Alzheimer’s takes hold, that map slowly painfully shrinks, reconfigures, and disconnects. The person inside once known as dear grandma or loving father becomes someone else. Like the violent zombies that beloved someone, our beloved someone, can become alien wielding a knife or screaming, really shrieking.

These people, our people, mirror those in Warm Bodies. As is true of the zombie genre, the undead mindlessly seek flesh to continue shuffling along. Our own people suffering from dementia simply shuffle along. Yet for grandma and dad, there is something going on inside, a struggle against the dying of the light. Something of their moral selves sputters and flickers.

The interesting turn with Warm Bodies is the many zombies display varying degrees of sentience as is true of the many stages of Alzheimer’s that ultimately lead to death. R, the central character, has a soul. He’s driven by eating flesh but also grapples with the meaning of God in his life, and the tension between eating and killing in relationship to the sanctity of life.

And it seems love, central to most organized religions including Christianity, truly transforms R, the undead. Will R stop eating flesh because it is the right thing to do? Will love transform him from a killer to the redeemed? Will he make the moral, the right choice?

As the world grapples with increasing numbers of people living longer and dying from dementia or it’s related medical complications, some family and friends forced to stand by and watch a slow death, cling to love. Alzheimer’s patients,our people, ultimately succumb to the disease seemingly undead, particularly in the last stages.

For some, our fascination with zombies is fueled by reality filled with dementia patients including those with Alzheimer’s.

I don’t want to give away too much concerning Warm Bodies’ plot, including the love story. I will tell you I was moved by R, a zombie listing and tilting between right and wrong, moral and immoral. The polarities are fascinating but the inherent moral struggles are enthralling.

If you pick up the book, consider the parallels to Alzheimer’s and morality as you read. The alternative to reading is watching the film Warm Bodies, a zombie romance, which will be out in a theatres near you on February 1, 2013 just in time for Valentine’s Day. I hope the nuances in the novel are ultimately matched in the film.