African Americans, Eco-Resistance, and Eco-Inequity:
Green spaces hold complicated meaning for many . . . Read more.
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.
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:
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:
The Hunger Games has a somewhat integrated cast that includes African Americans: Katniss Everdeen, the protagonist of the Hunger Games, sure loves black people. And we love her too. I’m often critical of the relationships between African American and whites, along with stereotypes of African Americans in film, television, and literature. But The Hunger Games got it right. Cinna, an African American man and Katniss’ stylist, becomes the father she lost in the District 12 mines. Rue, the little African American wood elf, initiates an alliance with Katniss in the games-to-the-death. They find a sister in one another. Katniss in particular, embraces Rue much like the little sister Katniss left behind in District 12. There’s no patriarchy here where whites save African Americans. And the African Americans are not stereotyped as mammy’s or thugs. True relationships are established on film and experienced by the audience.
Without the relationships, the Orwellian dystopian themes typical of science fiction would not matter. The foundation of The Hunger Games is George Orwell’s 1984 (1949). He is the great granddaddy of dystopian science fiction in the form of the novel. 1984 is where we get the term Big Brother, the roving eye of technology that is always tracking us in the 21st century. We see much the same in The Hunger Games where even the trees have electronic eyes. And the world in The Hunger Games has gone to hell in a hand-basket, a post-war hand-basket in which the survivors live in a police state. If that isn’t Orwellian, I don’t know what is.
Oh, the first scenes in The Hunger Games are moving pictures that mirror the gritty still photos of rural people taken during the Great Depression. The pain, the seams in the faces of even the young remind me of Dorothea Lang’s “Migrant Mother.” In the film, the camera stops at a worn laced high-top shoe. It lingers on the wind in the trees. The people in District 12, Katniss’ little town, are a worn people, worn by mining. Those scenes, mirroring a Hunger Games Appalachia, are the most memorable in the film.
Katniss leaves home to fight as tribute in The Hunger Games. The trope of youth battling in games is not new going back to ancient Greece. There’s also a modern take which I believe is a nod to “The Most Dangerous Game,” a short story by Richard Connell. In the story, one man hunts another. Ultimately, the hunted creates intricate traps to capture the hunter. Both the human-hunt and traps are echoed in the Hunger Games. Katniss did something similar turning the game on the elite, her captors and humiliating them.
Taken together, what does the Hunger Games say about contemporary American society? The Great Recession of the 21st Century first comes to mind. Much like the children living in poverty in the 12 Districts and battling in the games, we are frightened at every turn by unemployment, high gas prices, and a depressed real estate market. The film reflects our national malaise. In addition, our children are consumed by technology and even in a virtual forest, the children in the games are moved around like puppets on strings among the trees and along the creek. As Americans, have we lost our rugged individualism, unquestioning puppets in the day-to-day drudgery of survival?
Hopefully, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, the next novels in the trilogy will translate well, meeting the high expectations already met by The Hunger Games, the first in the trilogy.
Another Blog Carnival Presented by Rooted in the Earth! Read the original call for blogs.
I am going to keep this simple: my hope is to join with each of you to meaningfully and fruitfully gather together face-to-face focusing on people of color and the environment in the near future. In 2009, Audrey Peterman did just that with Breaking the Color Barrier in the Great American Outdoors.
Some thoughts on some wonderful work in 2011 and where we are headed in the future including 2012:
Go to the blogs to read thoughts, ideas . . . some are transforming thoughts into action.
Do contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to add your blog to this carnival.
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:
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
Right now I’m caught up in series of novels titled Game of Thrones, and the HBO series based on the novels. Creatures called dire wolves–from the Ice Age and now extinct–are central to one of many over-lapping story-lines, with dire wolves in symbiotic relationship with young royals. 2011 transitioned so quickly cart-wheeling into 2012, and I am embracing my she-wolf. I don’t bite but am running hard and fast down two different paths: the environment and health. Like the story-lines in Game of Thrones, the two paths have and continue to overlap. I’m including some of my favorite photos from 2011 some with and without rhyme and reason in relationship to the text. Put simply, these photos like so many I took last year simply touched me.
The first path is environmental. I continued my life’s work, a ministry to people and the earth, sharing the gospel of African Americans and the environment. Back in 2010, I published Rooted in the Earth: Reclaiming the African American Environmental Heritage. Continuing into 2011, non-profit organizations invited me to do speaking engagements, some of the content based in part on the book:
I also did a radio interview with Groovin 1580 FM and a book-signing with the Wildlife Federation at Georgia Tech. In 2012, I will continue to share an environmental gospel, speaking at the Tuskegee Institute Historic Site in Alabama and Getty College in Pennsylvania.
From Fall 2010 to Summer 2011 when I continued my environmental opus, I was in an intensive Clinical Pastoral Education Program training for chaplaincy. I managed to complete the program, while still blogging.
Interestingly, the Rooted in the Earth WordPress Annual Report differs from my favorite blogs “penned” during part of the program. The highest ranking blog going back to 2010 was (drum roll please) Predators: Survival of the Fittest in a Busted Paradise. Perhaps not so surprising since my blogs on film and television ranked higher than some of the historical blogs. People like popular culture. Well, so do I.
I also love history and my personal favorites included Kentucky, African Americans, and the Environment, Harriet Tubman Working Nature, Barack Obama: An Alternate Environmental History, and 2011 MLK Day: Remembering Martin Luther King, the Environmentalist. Hey, I’m a historian. What can I say. I’m back on the steep happy hill–that’s the she-wolf in me on the move–blogging again in 2012 with a call for blogs for a State of Diversity and the Environment Blog Carnival.
So what’s that second path as I continue loping on winding path? Back in 2010, I never imagined that graduating with an M.Div. in “Faith, Health and Science” at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University would be life changing concerning my health. Over the last year I lost 17 pounds and hope to lose about 20 more. No rush. One pound at a time. Jenny Craig, Nutrisystem, Weight Watchers . . . make it happen like Mariah belts out in the recent Jenny Craig commercial.
I continue being heart healthy with nutrition and exercise. I serve as a pastor at Crafton United Methodist Church and some of the members have followed my example joining Weight Watchers. Others have been serving healthy options like veggies at Coffee Hour after church. And yes, I found time to blog about spirituality and religion at BeingEphesus.com.
I am grateful to everyone in my personal life who patiently listened to my stories about being on paths of the environment and health. In addition, so many colleagues invited me into their institutions trusting me to share one vision of an African American environmentalism. I did not take that trust for granted because many of the people in the audience were college students. I honored to continue working with young people, my favorite “demographic.”
Now I stand among many talented and committed in an environmental family with shared interests in diversity. One kind and generous person in stood out in 2011: Na’Taki Osborne Jelks. I knew Na’Taki for years going back to 2005 when I went on a hike with Keeping It Wild in Georgia. It wasn’t until she organized several events for me that I got to know her better. I am grateful for Na’Taki and so many others devoted to the cause.
I invite you to continue with me embracing your inner-she-wolf (or whatever creature works for you) on paths to protecting the planet and good health, with a dash of science. Thank you for coming along with me.
Photos by Dianne Glave
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.
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)
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.
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.