“At Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, members and neighbors buy fruits and vegetables from a black farmers market and work in an organic garden named after botanist George Washington Carver . . . “
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:
What does the film Thor have to do with black people? Well many people, including people of color, helped to make Thor the # 1 movies across the country in the past week.
Oh yeah, and the fabulous Idris Elba as Heimdall, a guardian of the portals between worlds, had a small role! Some hardcore comic fans were not thrilled that Idris, a black man, portraying a Norseman. Read more in an UK Guardian article.
Controversy around race and ethnicity never sleeps. Hey, it’s a film based on mythology and the comics. Mythology through the millennium has been fluid, keeping in mind that the stories of Thor are rooted in ancient Euro-Indo civilizations. Getting really technical, Euro-Indo civilization goes back to Africa, the cradle of all humankind and civilization on earth.
Marvel Comics and director Kenneth Branagh did not invent the Thor narrative. Thor is Norse, a god of thunder who wields a huge hammer that looks more like a mallet, part of Norse mythology. The god represents fertility, a shield to humanity, and lightening/storms–all woven into the film.
Ok, some less serious talk! Those of you who love the Marvel Comics universe, get ready to don you 3-D glasses. Thor, subtitled The God of Thunder on some of the posters opens in the night in the New Mexico desert. Later, we see the desert in the light, the stark beauty of sand and rocks, and wide expanses typical of the desert Southwest. Throughout the film, the scenes shift back forth and forth from New Mexico on earth; Asgard, Thor’s home planet and site of his cathedral-esque city; and Jotunheim the Ice Planet and home of the Frost Giants.
The portals between worlds take the form of tornadoes, allowing Thor and the Asgards to travel through worm holes, short-cuts planet to planet. Each arrival is a whirling man-made tornado of warp travel echoing modern disasters like the 2005 Hurricane Katrina and more recent flooding along the Mississippi River in 2011.
Thor, played by Chris Hemsworth (remember him as George Kirk, James Kirk’s dad in the Star Trek reboot?) hails from Asgard and is the protagonist. I’m using the word hails because Thor’s dialogue is straight out of Tudor England. And no wonder: we’d need subtitles for ancient Norse and director Branagh was weaned on Shakespeare in his many turns in Shakespeare on film including Hamlet. Gotta love that Middle English.
Branagh liberally borrows from the trope of familial violence in which men struggle for power, particularly a throne, from ancient Greek plays and Shakespearean tragedies. For a more modern take, men and some women battle one another for the presidency of the United States, seen by some as the pinnacle of success in society. The battle of wills between Odin and his sons Thor and Loki, and the power struggle for the crown between the two sons is quintessentially human in and outside the family.
There’s a love story too, also very human: Thor falls in love with Jane Foster played by Natalie Portman. I thought that the relationship was under-developed and superficial. Girls likes hot hunky guy. Guy thinks winsome girl got sexyback. Girl and guy fall in love. Clearly, I was more interested in the family dynamics.
Of course evil takes many forms in the film. Such tension is necessary in mythology, literature, and film. The Frost Giants, much like their Ice planet are chilling dark forms, the former dark grey massive icy humanoids and the latter a jagged place of dark ice. Science fiction is always a placeholder for current events. These giants are bound in America’s fears of TERRORISTS including Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden. Perhaps Loki, Thor’s brother, is a bin Laden or Saddam Hussein. America–much like the Asgard monarchy–has turned in on itself fearing the terrorist bogey man at every turn. And sadly darkness has long been used negatively in how people of color are seen and treated.
All-in-all the movie on the surface is not as complex or well crafted as the first Spiderman film and Dark Night series, but as one of the first blockbuster entries for the summer, it’s a fun light ride. Still we as film-goers can go deeper. As was true of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Day the Earth Stood Still, science fiction films mirror our deeper fears in society. The controversy of Idris playing a Norseman in a film is just one example.
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.
Ms. Washington was born in 1924 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. She left behind a powerful and enduring legacy of her torch songs when she died in 1963 of a drug overdose. Her albums spanned from 1950 to 1967. Listen to the full range of her artistry with her 1999 box set titled “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”.
Her haunting torch song “This Bitter Earth” (1960) was on the movie soundtrack of Killer Sheep, a film of African Americans set in Watts in Los Angeles during the 1970s. The song hit #1 on the R&B chart for one week and was #24 on the pop chart in 1960.
Listen to Ms. Washington sing:
The lyrics to “This Bitter Earth” are as beautiful as the melody:
This bitter earth
What fruit it bears
What good is love
That no one shares
And if my life is like the dust
That hides the glow of a rose
What good am I
Heaven only knows
This bitter earth
Can it be so cold
Today you’re young
Too soon your old
But while a voice
Within me cries
I’m sure someone
May answer my call
And this bitter earth
May not be so bitter after all
Ms. Washington, you are remembered in this time when environmentalism is part of the our common parlance. This bitter earth . . .
Last week Thursday on July the 1st, I had dinner with two people who are committed to environmentalism at the Tennessee Clean Water Network (TCWN): Renée Victoria Hoyos, the executive director and Sandra Upchurch, a board member. The organization started in 1998 and Renee has been the director since 2003. The TCWN is a non-profit organization “working on behalf of the environment, clean water and public health.” (http://www.tcwn.org/about)
Renée left Knoxville that same day, stopping in Fredonia, the latter in western Tennessee, before meeting Sandra and me for dinner. Some community members in Fredonia contacted TCWN in 2005 for help: “the TVA Megasite Certification program had just certified 3800 acres of prime farmland for the I-40 Advantage facility.” (The Current: Newsletter of the TCWN, vol. 11, issue 1, Winter 2010, 3) The controversy over land use clearly inpacts Fredonia, a community in which many of the members are descendents of enslaved people; yet the community was and still has not been consulted.
When Renee arrived in Memphis, the three of us shared a meal at Huey’s in midtown. The restaurant is known for their hamburgers. The Hearth Healthy Huey Burger, one of four healthy options on the menu, was great! The conversation about the environmental justice in Tennessee was also enlightening.
Both Renee and Sandra serve impoverished people who lack legal representation when it comes to the environment. Personally, I am excited about the much-needed work Renée, Sandra, the staff, and board members are doing in Tennessee to protect the water and the people who base their very existence and life on the rivers, creeks,and lakes in the state.
I look forward to learning more in the near future.
Barbara Kingsolver with Steve L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year in Food. HarperCollinsPublishers. 2007.
Barbara Kingsolver says in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year in Food, “Our culture is not acquainted with the idea of food as a spiritually loaded commodity. We’re just particular about which spiritual arguments we’ll accept as valid for declining certain food. Generally unacceptable reasons: environmental destruction, energy waste, the poisoning of workers. Acceptable: it’s prohibited by a holy text.” (p. 67). I say both our land and the food produced on that land must be treated as unequivocally holy!
As I began to read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, I felt that the spirituality and holiness she describes is at odds with who does and doesn’t have accessibility to green places including farms. Certainly, the upper middle- or upper classes could pull off living off the land as an experiment.
I had another response to the book: I realized I shared some of Kingsolver’s ideological and practical concerns about American foodways. Louisiana Voices defines foodways as, “obtaining, preparing, serving food and stories and beliefs about food.” Perhaps considering some of these concerns could be a bridge to the spiritual and holy when it comes to land and produce.
Stepping back a bit, Kingsolver describes the purpose of her family’s foodways journey and book: “We wanted to live in a place that could feed us: where rain falls, crops grow, and drinking water bubbles right up out of the ground. (p. 3). She got away from a life in Tuscon where distributors ship in food from far-away places and water is running so low that in the near future it will not support the existing population. Here are the costs: fuel must be purchased to ship the food and when water is diverted to desert places like Arizona someone else has diminished access to water.
Kingsolver and her family moved from Arizona to the southern Appalachia to live off the fruits of their labor on a farm and limit their purchases to local farmers. The Kingsolver clan made it sound relatively simple: relocate and then experiment on the land for a year.
Let’s think it through. “A Year of Food” requires resources, which includes money for expenses, and comfortably owning or renting a working arable farm. Before actually arriving at a farm, the average working- to middle-class family would have to turn on the utilities in a new home–that would be the farm–which could be a challenge. One might ask: Can they afford the gas for the car to make the move? What about motels and food on the way? Can they pay the start-up for some of the utilities? Will they have to physically go and pay with cash or a money order to turn on utilities because of a poor credit rating that does not allow for easy transactions by phone, mail, or the internet? These are real questions and concerns for people living pay check to pay check. Forget actually getting to the point of owning a farm. Most people are not privileged. Kingsolver and her family already own a farm.
Class is a factor. So too is ethnicity. The farm families around her were probably predominantly white though she is not explicit concerning this point. There is a tension here for me. I grew up in Queens, New York in Rosedale, a working class neighborhood of people of African descent. Later as an adult, I lived in Lawndale, California in a working class Latino neighborhood. I’m not sure if many of the people in either ethic group would readily relate to Kingsolver’s agricultural experiment. Some who work the land to survive might see it as a working holiday. The ethnic disconnect and lack of diversity was problematic, typical of broader environmentalism, including the foodway movements.
With that said, Kingsolver gives the reader much to think about through her beautifully written prose. Many of her suggestions are achievable without going through the financial duress of relocating and purchasing a farm. Consider two ways or reconfiguring Kingsolver’s experiment for regular folks with finite resources.
- Farmers Markets: Kingsolver does rely on and support the local farmers market near her farm. You too can do the same since these markets are in many cities across the US. The other benefits are eating local organic foods, and diminishing the fuel used to transport produce. Right now I am in Tennessee and plan to visit the Memphis Farmer’s Market downtown.
- Indoor Plants and Gardens: The author had a flower garden that was part of the farm. This is not an option for many people live in apartments in cities or townhouses in the suburbs. In both types of housing, keep indoor plants, some that flower for the aesthetics. Consider growing herbs in a box on a window ledge. When I lived in Los Angeles I kept orchids, African violets, and a bonsai. Plants, particularly flowering plants, bring a bit of nature’s beauty indoors, which I find soothing spiritually. Tending, watering, re-potting, and fertilizing plants is a break from hectic modern life. Community gardens in cities are another option working side by side with others or carving out a plot of your own. There are benefits to the physical labor of turning over the soil and weeding the rows of plants. At the end of the season, you can enjoy the produce, the fruits of your labor.
So there is a bridge between Kingsolver’s experiment and incorporating nature into the daily lives of regular people.
Going a step further, I feel a connection with Kingsolver because of my own environmental concerns. I worry about the planet. I worry about the limits and our dependence on fossil fuels. I worry about how many Americans are disconnected from the land and don’t understand how plants actually get to the supermarket.
Kingsolver develops a parallel argument: when the oil runs dry, and we have to return small-scale agriculture to sustain ourselves, we will not have the skills to produce much needed food in rural settings.
Perhaps if we resolve to treat the land and our food as edible holy objects, we can save the planet for our children.
Photos by Dianne Glave Except the Book Cover
I have been hiking on easy to moderate trails for about twenty years now. I started hiking in the Atlanta area by myself until my mother and brother made me promise to stop going out alone. I’ve hiked in Malibu, California, Washington, D.C., and Upstate New York.
If you plan to stick to easy trails, well any trails, find a friend to go along with you. There are also organizations like the Sierra Club that do hiking outings. They even organize nature trips for youth. I get email updates from Keeping it Wild, a multicultural environmental non-profit for outings and an alternative to the larger mainstream organizations. You get to hike in a group and meet new people! I’ve gone on several hikes including Sweetwater Creek and Cascade Park in the Atlanta Metro area.
To hike on easy trails all you will need are:
- Sturdy comfortable sneakers or hiking shoes/boots
- A knapsack
- Nutritious snacks
- Bug Repellent
- Cell Phone
Also consider bringing (optional):
- A Camera – for the memories
- Binoculars – closeups on birds, animals and plants
- Hiking pole – more for moderate to difficult hikes
- Rain resistant jacket or poncho – a sudden storm can catch you unawares
- A little first aid kit – if someone suffers a minor injury
- A whistle – if you get lost
- Toilet paper – sometimes you find empty rolls in park bathrooms!
For cold days consider: a cap, gloves, and wool socks. I’m looking to purchasing some of this items in material that wicks perspiration.
I like REI when shopping for some items. The staff is kind to someone like me who often walks in with newbie duh questions!
Please do stretch before and after hiking to avoid and diminish injuries to the muscles.
ENJOY YOUR FIRST/NEXT HIKE!
I once birdwatched. In 2004, when I lived in New Orleans, I saw so many waterfowl in the springtime. One day, I spotted a bird with white feathers, yellow toes, and a black beak at Audubon Park in uptown New Orleans. A small part of the park, had a bit of marsh filled with birds, if I remember correctly. The Mississippi River wasn’t too far away either–probably less than a mile–another draw for birds. So it made sense that I spotted this waterfowl uptown. So ok, the bird had me intrigued: it was pretty.
I quickly ordered a laminated chart of southeastern birds and a bird guide. I learned that it was a Snowy Egret!
I kept the guides in my car so when I saw a bird that caught my eye while driving around southern Louisiana, I could identify it. Who knows where my guides ended up when I moved from New Orleans to Atlanta. I tried rooting around some closets to find them. No luck.
I had completely forgotten about my brief interest in birds until I picked up John C. Robinson’s Birding for Everyone: Encouraging People of Color to Become Birdwatchers. Although the book is for everyone, Robinson does focus on African Americans. Many people often ask why African Americans do not enjoy the great outdoors, why they don’t embrace nature. Robinson gets more specific detailing why people of color, including African Americans, are not birders or birdwatchers.
He offers several reasons:
- Rejection of black culture: If blacks appreciate the outdoors, what is perceived as a white activity, then they are rejecting their own people and values (Robinson, 47)
- Lack of participation: If blacks do not see other blacks at birding clubs or organization, they generally won’t join (Robinson, 47)
- High cost: If blacks spend money on equipment like binoculars and hiking gear then who will buy the baby’s shoes and pay junior’s school fees? (Robinson, 51)
- Limitation of time: Blacks have little time for leisure activities because they are hustling to cover basic expenses like the electric bill (Robinson, 52)
- Company and training: They cannot find company to go birding, nor is there anyone to teach them this outdoor activity (Robinson, 52)
Robinson also alludes to fear of wild places. And I would add a form of racism on the trail when whites stare at blacks who actually make it outside is a deterrent. And perhaps some would say birds were meant for plucking, cooking, and eating not watching.
Photo from early 1900s.
I say give it a try. Hey, I identified a Snowy Egret all on my own steam.