Guest Blog: Grey Gundaker on African American Yards

No Space Hidden

For many years I was fortunate to visit and learn from around fifteen African Americans and their yards in detail. Most of the yards are located in small towns and cities in the South and a few are rural. I wasn’t looking at that them from an environmental perspective, but more at their design–the total layout as well as placement of plants, art works, and other areas.  I wanted to know what these places meant to their makers and neighborhoods.  Mainly I looked for memorials to ancestors and loved ones.  Each yard had areas that represented “wildness” and those that role modeled how to be “cultivated”–a mature, responsible person. These different areas has different contents. Wild parts were jazzier and looked like little forests. Cultivated areas were more symmetrical and planned. Eventually I realized that these yards built in some valuable information about an African American environmental philosophy that is very old and also mentioned in memoirs from the past  Some of the ideas in this philosophy  include:

  • We are part of  nature.  If we “lose our nature” we are in trouble, with no zest for living. So instead of nature– (or environment) —versus—society, there are three kinds of land/places in the world that involve different kinds of responsibility: Wild, settled (or cultivated) and ruined. The first two are both “natural.”
  • “Cultivation” does not oppose nature. We have to work with and in nature to grow plants and to mature as people. For example, it is a part of nature to make homes and take care of them.  But this care-taking and imposition of order can be too much– too rule-bound for good health, carried too far. So wild and cultivated ideally balance each other.   Kongo scholar Fu-Kiau Kia Bunseki has written: “a place with one kind of trees can never be a forest; it can only be an orchard.”
  • “Wild” places are defined as being unpredictable, beyond human control and diverse– not  pristine or untouched by people, as they is said to be in much mainline American environmental theory.  Wild places are unpredictable because the more diversity there is, the more that can happen. This as true in the city streets and in the forests. But diversity means wild places are where new, healing ideas and resources come from, too.
  • So wild and cultivated can cut both ways: to be right the have to interact and balance each other.
  • But RUIN IS “unnatural” because from a religious/moral perspective some place is only ruined through irresponsibility: it is an affront to God’s Creation.  Studying Old Field Succession is now a standard part of  environmental science.  But during Reconstruction after the Civil war, African Americans in Virginia called “old field” “ruined land.” They said that the plantation land had been “made” from wild into cultivated by their work and that the whites were too lazy to keep it up after they lost their forced laborers.  Saying that is an accusation of moral failure.

These words have given me a lot to think about. It seems like much African American environmental activism is directed at avoiding and healing human beings’ moral failures through pollution of the earth and bodies, too, through crack and drugs.  The aim of activism to restore well-being for all– not to get to a pristine state or remove human beings from the forests. Thus healing neighborhoods is as “natural” as  cleaning up a polluted river.  Anyway, I would really like to know what all of you are thinking and doing.

By Grey Gundaker

Read: No Space Hidden: The Spirit of African American Yard Work