Sixth Wave of African American Environmentalists

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.

 

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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.

VH1’s “You’re Cut Off” Goes to the Woods

Ahh no, I’m not about to share about Ochocinco’s dating escapes modeled on football strategy on VH1.

On a Sunday afternoon, I got caught in the reality TV vortex watching You’re Cut Off. Several spoiled women are cut off financially and forced to endure various tests in different episodes. They have to do chores, look for work, and live relatively peaceably with one another. In the episode titled “Fun on a Budget,” the women go out into the woods in the second half of episode 6.

I think I counted the use of the “b” word at least 20 times. It’s about nature but also about how badly women can treat one another ramped up by film cameras on reality TV. A shame.

Camping and campers will never be the same. I also feel sorry for nature in the episode. George Washington Carver is rolling over in his grave. So is Rachel Carsons and Teddy Roosevelt.