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.
On September 10, 2011, I was invited by Nu Lambda Omega Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha, Inc. to share about Rooted in the Earth: Reclaiming the African American Environment Heritage at Barnes & Noble Bookstore at the Camp Creek Marketplace in East Point, Georgia. We followed with a group discussion, book signing, and personal conversations. Some in the audience asked:
- What kind of research did you do for the book? How long did it take to research and write the book? It took several years at archives like Tuskegee University and Hampton University. And it took two years to write Rooted in the Earth.
- Would you assign your own book to college students in one of your classes? Yes, but I would not rely solely on the book for my lecture and discussion.
- Is the book used at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s)? I don’t know about specific schools but the book was marketed to the mainstream, academics, and librarians across the country.
Great afternoon! Great people! Of special note was Cynthia Parks, President of Nu Lambda Omega who was a charming co-host at the event.
Many thanks to Na’Taki Osborne Jelks who organized and co-hosted the event.
Photographs by Na’Taki Osborne Jelks and Michael McCrimmon
Several African American women in history stand out for me including Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and Harriet Tubman. As for Harriet, she sure knew how to work nature to survive.
In 1822, Harriet Tubman was born enslaved in Maryland. She escaped to Philadelphia but went back thirteen times to lead other runaways from the grueling existence of plantation life which included planting and chopping tobacco. Harriet led a frightened people–most of whom had not been very far from the farms and plantations–at night and usually in the winter using the North Star to guide her back North. Perhaps Harriet learned the skills of surviving in the woods and other landscapes from Ben, her father, who worked the timber on the plantation. She was also familiar and comfortable with marshes because she checked and emptied muskrat traps.
Harriet Tubman: The Environmental Moses of Her People!
To learn more about Harriet, read Catherine Clinton’s Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom.
I recently discovered the Outdoor Baby Network. Wait, let me get this straight: they found me. And I’m glad they did. I do love children. I talk about my godchildren and the children in my family with great passion and love. I have also written about children in Rooted in the Earth: Reclaiming the African American Environmental Heritage.
So why is this important to me? Well, I have been encouraging African Americans to get outdoors along with the voices of Legacy on the Land and Outdoor Afro. If the parents and adults are not getting out, then the babies are not making it to the woods and beaches either.
Yes, I am a white woman. That said, I have long been interested in connecting people of color to nature. My first-hand experience was working with New York City Outward Bound and leading field trips with my classes in Brooklyn. I remember a conversation about the environment I had with a friend in Brooklyn many years ago. When I asked her about joining Outdoor Baby Network, she responded with “Why should I join that site?” She echoed the sentiments I’ve heard from other African Americans: “Black people don’t do that.” It’s been my understanding that most African Americans live in urban places and are disconnected from nature. Also, time and money is necessary, a luxury both impoverished whites and blacks don’t have. Economic barriers are a reality to nature including outdoor play spaces for babies and children. There is a connection though for many African Americans in their roots in Africa and bond through visits to family members still in the South.
I am aware as a white woman, that there is a divide between blacks and whites, and that it widens even further when it comes to nature. In a small way, I’d like to diminish that divide with Outdoor Baby Network. With my heart and soul, I want all families, including African Americans, to experience the joys, challenges and excitement the outdoors can bring in a connectedness to the living world. I invite you to come join in the conversation, if you have not already done so. I know many African Americans, Dianne counted among them, are already experienciencing nature. I understand the negative aspects but also wish to embrace positive aspects of the African American experience. Through Outdoor Baby Network and Rooted in the Earth, I offer my support to families to enhance their health and personal well-being through nature exploration and adventurous travel.
Photos Courtesy of Heidi Ahrens
If Barack Obama had been born in Kenya and not the United States then his environmental biography would certainly have been different. George Obama, Barack’s brother, grew up in Kenya. George’s biography gave me some insight into an alternate environmental history, what might have been if President Obama’s path had been a different one in Africa. The president’s relationship with and story about the environment would have been different. Or would it have been?
Consider George Obama’s biography written with Damien Lewis titled Homeland: An Extraordinary Story of Hope and Survival (2010).
Perhaps Barack Obama, the older of the two brothers, calls many places homeland including his birthplace Hawaii in the United States. Like many a child of an immigrant, Kenya is Mr. Obama’s ancestral homeland, the birthplace of his father.
If Barack had been born in Kenya his experiences might have paralleled George’s life. The president would have visited and perhaps even lived with the Luo, his people, his cultural group in Kenya. Much like George, a young Barack might have visited his grandfather’s compound filled with family in rural Kenya.
The family supported themselves herding livestock including cattle. (Obama, 4) The Obamas were also farmers. Their grandfather “owned land . . . that was used for rice growing. The rice fields were rain-fed, as opposed to irrigated. If the main April-June rains failed, the young plants would wither and die in the fields, and there would be no crop that year.” (Obama, 4-5)
George, who spent much of his time in Nairobi, remembers nature as a child visiting the family compound:
At the start of the rainy April season the wind would blow in from the bush in a sudden, raging storm. The dry fronds on the palm trees clashing together sounded like an army of children fighting with wooden swords. Then you knew that rain was on the way, and you had no more than ten minutes to get under cover. As a wall of gray clouds rushed in from the far horizon, powerful gusts knocked down coconuts from the palms and dead branches from the trees. (Obama, 5)
Now here is some whimsy on my part: although Barack did not grow up in Kenya, his DNA influenced his environmental thought and actions in reality, in the real world. In 1987, George still a child met Barack already an adult. They met on a Nairobi playground. Barack had visited Kenya, his homeland. He returned again in 2006.
Today, President Obama is the first green and black president. In his 2011 State of the Union Address, he highlighted that California Institute of Technology was developing “a way to turn sunlight and water into fuel for our cars.” (2011 State of the Union Address, NPR transcript) This is part of federal green initiatives in and for the United States and the world.
As I sit here in my home, miles away from the president and the White House, even more miles away from Kenya, I dream a global dream that embraces Barack Obama a descendant of Kenyans influenced by his rural origins there; at the same time, he is driven to implement environmental innovation and initiatives as an American, as the President of the United States.
I have been thinking of the people in Brazil, Australia, and Sri Lanka who have been suffering because of the floods. African American Zora Neale Hurston’s best known and most compelling novel Their Eyes Were Watching God focuses on the grief surrounding a watery natural disaster.
It’s the fictional love story of Janie and Tea Cake set against the backdrop of southern Florida during the early twentieth century. Hurston describes the aftermath of the flood of the1928 Okeechobee Hurricane:
Janie buried Tea Cake in Palm Beach. She knew he loved the ‘Glades but it was too low for him to lie with water maybe washing over him with every heavy rain. Anyway, the ‘Glades and its waters had killed him. She wanted him out of the the way of storms, so she had a strong vault built in the cemetery at West Palm Beach . . . No expensive veils and robes for Janie this time. She went (to the funeral) in her overalls. She was too busy feeling grief to dress like grief. (Zorah Neale Hurston, Novels and Stories, 330)
Remembering tragedies past and present. Remembering my sisters and brothers around the world who are suffering.
Where do you stand with Michael Vick pleading guilty to charges of interstate dog fighting? Without having done a formal survey, I think people fall along the lines of African Americans/football fans and animal lovers.
I empathize with both Vick and the dogs. Why? Consider the broader context: African American men have some of the highest rates of incarceration and the longest jail-times in the United States. You can now count Vick among those numbers, whether you consider him guilty or not guilty. In addition, dog fighting has long been part of male culture, including African American men, and was not condemned like the Vick case until the early twentieth century. Vick like other men was probably introduced to the fighting through family or by his peers. So there might have been a history there too At the same time, I am also horrified about animals abused around the world. This includes cock and dog fights. I love animals and don’t like to see them abused, caged, or encased in Plexiglas.
In The Lost Dogs: Michael Vick’s Dogs and Their Tale of Rescue and Redemption, Jim Gorant recounts the events that led up to Vick’s charges and conviction, followed by rescuing the dogs and finding them homes. Gorant is clearly an animal lover, often telling the story through fictional vignettes based on what might have happened to the dogs:
“Sometimes men come and take a few of the dogs away. Sometimes those dogs come back tired and panting from running and running. Sometimes the dogs come back scarred and limping. Sometimes they come back looking the same, but acting completely different. Sometimes they don’t come back at all, as if they’ve simply disappeared.”
Many people found homes for the dogs to my relief; I love animals. People rehabilitated the dogs, many of them pit bulls, new kinder owners. Some even live with children. Redemption!
Vick has experienced some redemption too as the quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles.
So where do you stand?
I sat in the amphitheater at Zoo Atlanta listening to Shelton Johnson. He was the keynote speaker for the 6th Annual Keeping it Wild (KIW) Gala, and is a national park ranger and author of Gloryland. As I listened to Shelton, one row back from me I heard the rhythmic breathing of a six year old girl. Shelton’s passionate story-telling and cadence of that small child’s breathing mentally and spiritually took me outdoors.
I imagined being at Yosemite National Park, the source of many of Shelton’s stories. The adults–I was there too–were up late quietly looking up at the sky filled with distant stars and a crescent moon. We had tucked the children away in the tents and we could hear the distinctive breathing of each child, like different signatures on many pages.
So to beginnings. KIW hosted a wonderful gala. It began with a reception filled with people from so many cultures eating from their bamboo plates. Later, more guests filled their plates from a buffet with cornbread, black-eyed peas, and more.
In the amphitheater, the latter part of the evening, I felt love and joy seeing so many people of color listening to Shelton tell his stories. The Buffalo soldiers also drew me in. I cried when one of the soldiers stepped forward and affirmed Shelton in honoring the ancestors. Towards the end, a young woman strummed her guitar singing. We sang along with her about fighting pollution.
I hope that KIW continues to grow and expands their good work. I may not always express my feelings in the moment but my heart was bursting and full last night, full of Yosemite National Park.
Photos by Dianne Glave
In my book Rooted in the Earth: Reclaiming the African American Environmental Heritage, I open each chapter with literary or fictional vignettes. Read the first paragraphs of Chapter 4 titled “Resistance: Rebellion, Sustenance, and Escape in the Wilderness:
Joseph dreams that he is a revered priest in West Africa, where his people, the Gruma of the Akan, all call him Minkah, which means justice. Some of his priestly duties revolve around nature—blessing a field, pouring libations with water onto the ground to revere the ancestors, and tending to the village’s earth shrine. Minkah strides through the forests and sees a vision of a long leaf pine that weeps and shakes like a small child.
Awaking from his reverie, Joseph realizes that he is this child, who has ended up enslaved. Now, north of the city of Mobile between the Tombigbee and Alabama rivers, he is far from his ancestral home in Africa. Yet he is comforted by the familiarity of leaves falling from the branches of the trees onto the uneven floor, a patchwork of sunlight and shadows in the forest.
Joseph’s visions and dreams have momentarily liberated him from the bondage of enslavement with thoughts well suited for the making of a runaway. Intuitively, he is comfortable and familiar with the woods and waterways surrounding the plantation. Joseph runs away for one- to three-day stretches, relying on his knowledge of nature, which originated in Africa, to survive. The first few times Joseph runs, Matthew Samford—the slaveholder of a two-hundred-acre plantation kept productive by seventy-five enslaved people— tracked him with dogs . . . (57-58)
My goal in using the fictional vignettes was to give thehistorical perspective of the book some “flesh.”
This is an exciting time with many blogs and websites focusing on diversity and the environment.
Here is a sampling of the ones I visit the most with some amazing people behind the sites:
Jarid Manos (Ghetto Plainsman)
What are some of your favorites? Which blogs and websites do you visit regularly? I’d love to learn more.