How I Got Into African American Environmental History!

That's Me on the Right

I have been doing diversity and environment since the  early 1990’s. It started for me in the M.A. program in the History Department at Stony Brook University. When I transitioned to the Ph.D. at Stony Brook, I said to my dissertation advisor that I wanted to write my dissertation on African Americans and the environment. She gave me a blank look and said there was no one in the department, probably the whole country, who could advise me concerning my topic. Well, I forged ahead, struggled really. I finally finished my dissertation with some help from Mart Stewart, an outside advisor on my dissertation committee.   

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 What is African American environmental history? 

Carl Anthony gives us a definition: “African American environmental history is concerned with questions of environmental justice in the past; patterns of exploitation within society that have limited African American access to nature and the fruit of the community engagement with the environment; African American resistance to that exploitation and mobilization to confront environmental injustice; ways that African Americans have acted on the environment and have been affected by it in everyday life; the historical environmental health exposures and risks to African American communities; the role African Americans have played in helping to build sustainable societies. (ASEH News, American Society for Environmental History, Spring 2006, 9)    

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When I began doing the work on African American environment there were no definitions. Even today, if you google African American environmental history, a definition does not pop up. That’s so unlike google.  One of my early efforts in working towards defining African American environmental history was an article on African American women and gardening

In  my personal and professional struggle, I have been an academic for many years. There were few people of color I could count on, and that I knew of who working in various areas concerning diversity and the environment . So my cohorts and primary audience were mainstream academics. I was frustrated and alone, often asked, “Where are the white people?” in my narratives and analyses. 

From Black Enterprise

I still teach. I still think like a historian. In many ways, I still write like a historian. What’s different though is I have more people to connect with now that I’m writing for a broader audience with the upcoming book and my ongoing blog. 

I have Rue Mapp, Jarid Manos, Rona Fernandez, EcoSoul, James Edward Mills, Evonne Blythers, Phoenix Smith,Danielle N. Lee,  Audrey Peterman, Dudley Edmondson, and so many more. And thankfully, I have all of you!

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Percy: Father, Organic Gardener

My dad had a garden in Queens, New York. It was a wild place. There were no rows. There was no rhyme or reason. Mixed in together were tomatoes, cucumbers and peas. When the vines got long, he cobbled together pieces of wood to wrap the many vines.

My family–me, my mother, and my brother–made fun of his wild vegetable garden. He laughed at us. But still we ate what he produced. Big fat tomatoes. Long huge cucumbers. So much came out of his tiny garden that he shared with family and friends. Community!

Percy at 19 (?) in Jamaica

And when the planting season was over and all the vegetables plucked from the stems and vines, he would let what remained rot back into the earth. We thought what a mess. The earth thought: Hey, I’m getting back the nutrients I parted with everytime you people ate my peas and tomatoes.

It was not until I started reading about Africans and the environment, that I realized he was gardening the African way. My dad was being organic before we knew the word organic–basically composting and replenishing the soil for the next season naturally and without chemical fertilizers.

Did he learn this method in his youth? I know he worked in a banana business with Boss, his stepfather in Jamaica. When I call home the next time, I’ll ask!

2004: Mowing His Lawn