One love of my life is studying and sharing about African Americans and the environment. Read and watch “Looking Back at African-American Environmental History,” my interview with Allegheny Front–NPR that aired on July 4, 2015 at 7:30a.
Join me at the 7th Annual Kinks, Locks & Twists Conference focusing on health, beauty, and the environment. I will present and facilitate a conversation on Earth Day, Wednesday, April 22nd at 6pm at the Hill House in Pittsburgh. The focus will be the history of African Americans and the environment. Registration is now open!
African American Women & Gardening!
I published ‘A Garden So Brilliant with Colors, So Original in Its Design': Rural African American Women, Gardening, Progressive Reform, and the Foundation of an African American Environmental Perspective back in 2003. Environmental History recently virtually republished the article in a collection titled Race, Justice, and Civil Rights.
What I loved the most about writing an environmental history of African American women and gardening was the arduous love I put into the research at places like the North Carolina State Archives and the Rockefeller Archives. More importantly, I walked across a threshold with women with dirt under their nails moving with them from invisible to visible in the historical record.
I was and still am honored by and proud of my connection to these gardeners.
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 \ and suddenly open my eyes. 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 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!
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.
by Drew Dellinger
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:
- Dianne Glave, “Black Environmental Liberation Theology,” To Love the Wind and the Rain: African Americans and Environmental History (2006).
- Dianne Glave, “Religion: Shouting in the Woods,” Rooted in the Earth: Reclaiming the African American Environmental Heritage (2010).
- Eileen M. Smith-Cavros, “Black Churchgoers, Environmental Activism, and the Preservation of Nature in Miami, Florida,” Journal of Ecological Anthropology,” vol. 10 (2006)
- Mark Stoll, “Religion and African American Environmental Activism,” To Love the Wind and the Rain: African Americans and Environmental History (2006).
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:
- St. Andrews African Methodist Episcopal Church (The Saint): based on my own experience in 2010 they have offered an environmentally themed adult vacation bible school and continue to take the lead in a farmer’s market across the street from the church in response to a food desert.
- Faith in Place: Our own Veronica Kyle works and serves there.
- National Black Church Initiative
- Green the Church
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: