Revisiting African American Women and Gardening

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.

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Glacier National Park, July 2014

 

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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!

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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.

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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

2012 Helpshop: Where Environment, Spirituality, and Health Meet

With Leanna, A Participant

The Greensburg District of the United Methodist Church (UMC) held their Helpshop on January 28, 2012 at Community Church in Irwin, Pennsylvania. The theme was “Mind, Body and Spirit” with Tanika Harris, the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM) of the UMC, serving as the keynote speaker. At the GBGM, “she provides resources as well as training opportunities to communities and churches throughout the country that are engaged in community development and social justice through advocacy and youth/young adult empowerment.” (Helpshop brochure) The breakout sessions included “Healthy and Vital Congregations,” “Sexual Health and Wholeness,” and “Remodeling the Temple.

I was invited to facilitate a session titled, “Africans Americans, Religion, the Environment, and Health.” We discussed:

  • Knowing one’s (environmental) history is good for you
  • Nature is healthy
  • Scripture and health
  • Better health of (African) Americans by experiencing the outdoors
  • Our Stories
  • A healthy mind: environmental meditation with African American themes

With William Meekins, UMC

One participant shared her memory of the fragrance of lilacs while spending time with her grandmother; the memory of those flowers evoked a spiritual connection, a connection to God. Our meditation included scripture, deep breathing, music, the sounds of the ocean,  prayer, and silence.

Many thanks to those in the Greensberg District of the Western Pennsylvania Conference, UMC who organized the Helpshop: Holly Sawyer, administrative assistant and William Meekins, District Superintendent. Of special note: Community United Methodist Church did a wonderful job hosting the event. And of course, many thanks to Rev. Kathy Barnhart, Rev. Rhea Summit and Rev. Augie Twigg for their diligence and hard work.

Photo by Dianne Glave

Kentucky, African Americans & the Environment

Kentucky has a long history of African Americans and the environment. Much like other states in the South, Kentucky benefited from the labor of enslaved people of African descent.

Kentucky!

At the peak of tobacco and hemp production, African Americans comprised 25% of the population, many of whom were enslaved in the state. So basically, the historical economy of early Kentucky was built on the labor of African Americans. Kentucky is a reflection of how the South benefited from agricultural production from the 17th century.

From a more personal perspective, George Henderson described what he experienced in enslavement. Henderson was born on May, 10th 1860, five years before the end of the Civil War and emancipation in Woodford County, Kentucky. George said,

Some boy would ring a great big bell, called the “farm bell” around sunrise. Some went to the stables to look after the horses and mules. Plowing was done with a yoke or oxen. The horses were used for carriages and to ride. My work was pulling weeds, feeding chickens, and helping to take care of the pigs. (Interview with George Henderson, WPA Slave Narratives: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/11920/11920-h/11920-h.htm#HendersonGeorge)

George Washington Carver

Yes, enslaved African American children worked rather than go to school. As part of the slave codes, it was against the law for any African American who was enslaved to learn to read and write.

After this period of enslavement, African Americans served in agricultural agencies in Kentucky. One was Arp C. Burnette. He was the first African American to work for the University of Kentucky Agricultural Extension Service–today the Federal Department of Agriculture (FDA)–from 1919 to 1944. We often hear about George Washington Carver’s role in the Extension Service but there were many others like Burnette who have not be heralded for their hard work. Since the US was still segregated during this period, he only worked with African Americans. He started a Negro 4-H for the youth and was instrumental in increasing the number of cattle raised by African Americans in Kentucky. (University of Kentucky Libraries: http://www.uky.edu/Libraries/nkaa/record.php?note_id=2023)

Even with contributions of African Americans in Kentucky, segregation remained a terrible barrier to African Americans during the first half of the 20th Century. The state of Kentucky established a Public Accommodations Statue in 1956 segregating parks and playgrounds. This translated into to separate and unequal for African Americans in the outdoors. Such statutes and laws began to be dismantled in the 1950s with the Civil Rights movement but lingered through the 1970’s. (Jim Crow Laws: Kentucky: http://www.jimcrowhistory.org/scripts/jimcrow/insidesouth.cgi?state=Kentucky)

Today, African Americans can enjoy local, state, and national parks across the country. In Lexington, Kentucky, go visit Jacobson Park where in 2011 everyone has access. Let’s not let the taint of segregation, stop people of color from experiencing the outdoors, sitting under a tree, rafting on a river, and swimming in a lake.

African Americans, California, and Place

An article titled “Black Population Drops to 3.9% in San Francisco” in the February 4, 2011 in the San Francisco Bay View National Black Newspaper, got me thinking.

The percentage of African Americans in California was never very high even when I lived in Los Angeles more than a decade ago. My sense was you were either very poor or extremely rich. A handful of us lived somewhere in the middle. Where you lived and the type housing you lived in was and is defined by your socio-economic status.  Not so nice neighborhoods were more concrete than grass and trees. Nice neighborhoods had more access to recreational amenities like local and state parks, and even the ocean. This dichotomy was true for African Americans living in that sprawling city I once called home.

Director Michael Mann made even the gritty poorer neighborhoods look good soaked by electric lights, stars, and the moon in the story of a white hit-man played by Tom Cruise and a cabdriver portrayed by Jaime Foxx:

Based on the article, I considered  African Americans in urban/suburban place/environments. For example, people across ethnic lines yearn(ed) for suburban McMansions, as noted in the article, where African Americans have been increasingly migrating from San Francisco to places like Antioch to sprawl out on larger tracts of land. In another example, gentrification has long redefined cities including those in California for impoverished blacks. Historically, they have been forced out of the only places they have known, their cities of concrete, asphalt, a few struggling trees, and some patches of crabgrass. Upper middle-class people often come in and replaced the former occupants of  public housing.

Socio-economic status does define where you live, the meaning of place, and what your urban and suburban environment look like. I am constantly reminded by this issue of social justice when it comes to these landscapes and African American people.

Barack Obama: An Alternate Environmental Biography & History?

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)

Barack Obama in Kenya, 2006

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.