FEAR, HOPE AND THE WILD: Reclaiming the Heritage of African American Environmentalism

About the Author

Dianne D. Glave, the pastor of Ingomar Church in Pittsburgh, Pa., is the author of “Rooted in the Earth: Reclaiming the African American Environmental Heritage” and a co-editor, with Mark Stoll, of “To Love the Wind and the Rain: African Americans and Environmental History.”

From ancient Africa to the modern-day United States, people of African descent have continued the legacy of their relationship with the land…What makes the environmental experience of African Americans distinctive? Enslaved people did not stumble upon or discover wilderness. Instead, African Americans actively sought healing, kinship, resources, escape, refuge, and salvation in the land.” — from “Rooted in the Earth”

I am middle-aged and still my parents’ child.

My parents came to New York as immigrants from Jamaica. I was born a year after their arrival in Queens, New York. We lived in a little ranch home. We were right under the path of planes taking off from John F. Kennedy Airport. The house shook but we stopped feeling the shake and the rumble. It was no Jane Austen manor, but we were comfortable.

My dad planted a little vegetable garden surrounded by concrete. My mother grew houseplants from cuttings taken from Jamaica. I remember. And in that house and through my parents, I began my environmental odyssey, ultimately becoming an environmental historian.

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Who would have thought that, living in an urban/suburban place defined at least in part by rap and rough and tumble, I would earn a Ph.D. focusing on African American environmental history – that I would end up writing a book about African Americans and the environment?

In it, I write, “Stereotypes persist that African Americans are physically and spiritually detached from the environment. This wrongheaded notion is so ingrained in our culture that many of us have begun to believe it ourselves. But nothing could be less true. From ancient Africa to the modern-day United States, people of African descent have continued the legacy of their relationship with the land.”

It has not been easy for people of color as environmentalists.

Now the world is changing. In the 2011 census, more black, bi-racial and Latina and Latino babies combined were born than whites. Will these babies become children and then adults engaged in nature and our natural resources? Will these children be at odds over environmental racism?

Shifting demographics and power struggles over limited resources have generated a fearfulness that cannot be easily quantified. Us versus them. Black versus white. Latina and Latino versus black. And more.

Reflecting on that fear, I think of Kanye West and Jay-Z’s rap “No Church in the Wild,” featuring Frank Ocean. They use the word church, but we can use temple, mosque, synagogue, your backyard, or anyplace of worship or meditation.

Consider the barriers faced by people of color trying to live out and spread the word about the beauty of nature, as one way to interpret the metaphor. It can also describe our conflict, fears, and distress – not only the bad news, but hope and human struggle.

As a professor living California from the late 1990’s … I felt tremors and some were earthquakes … I saw ash falling from the skies from wildfires … I saw houses about to tumble down hills after mudslides … I knew fear like so many others facing earthquakes and ash. Then 9/11 happened. And I really understood fear, like many across the country. No church in the wild.

Later, I moved to New Orleans in 2004 and a year later I evacuated to Atlanta, Georgia fleeing Hurricane Katrina. And I was really afraid. I went back to the city briefly to the smell of death, to the soldiers driving hummers and carrying machine guns. No church in the wild.

So I understand your fear and nervousness.

My path has been uneven, often broken, as an African American environmentalist, an African environmental historian, an African American environmental author, often feeling very alone in my endeavors and often fearful. Yet, there is hope.

Here I am. I found the way. And so will you.


Dianne D. Glave

, pastor of Ingomar Church in Pittsburgh, Pa., is the author of “Rooted in the Earth: Reclaiming the African American Environmental Heritage” This updated post was first published in 2012.






Other reading

EVERY CHILD NEEDS NATURE: 12 Questions About Equity & Capacity


TIERRA Y LIBERTAD: A Camping Trip Illustrates Nature’s Place in Family and Heritage

OCCUPY NATURE: Parks Are For People

THE FIERCE URGENCY OF NATURE: A New Generation Works for the Human Right to Connect With the Natural World and a Healthy Environment



SAVING THE FIELD OF DREAMS: Building ‘Natural Cultural Capacity to Enrich Our Parks and Cities


  1. Diane,
    I am glad I had the opportunity to meet you at the Grassroots Gathering, and I really enjoyed reading this piece. Thank you for sharing your story here!

  2. Thank you for your books, your work, and your love of nature and the environment. When I was a child growing up in the 1950’s in a small town surrounded by nature, I loved being outdoors. In the 1980’s my son enjoyed riding his bike with friends all over Pittsburgh; bringing tadpoles home, etc. Children played outside all the time. Now in 2012 in Braddock PA, while there are many playgrounds, they are not safe havens for children to play. In the City of Pittsburgh, blessed with several huge lush, and beautiful parks, you see families picnicing, going to organzied soccar games, but you hardly see famlies trekking the trails, even in this urban setting. There is a proliferation of community gardens and schools that have gardens. Now — if we can just get our kids back outside and let them run free, and safe, in nature soaking up essential nutrients like Vitamin D.

  3. Dianne D. Glave

    Toni, it is such a small environmental world. Thank you for stating. Much to think about what we are missing on the trails.

  4. Dianne D. Glave

    Leslie, I missed your post. It was great meeting you too back in 2012!

  5. This is a breathe of fresh air i would love to talk with you about some work i have done with Green My Hood. Could i email you?

  6. Greetings of Peace and love! Many thanks, for being in place and remaining committed with your vocation. {work the the Earth needs done} I truly appreciate your sentiments, with regards to “My path has been uneven, often broken, as an African American environmentalist”. “often feeling very alone in my endeavors and often fearful. Yet, there is hope.” I have often felt the same,as an African American environmentalist having committed the past 27 years of my life,while working with various main stream environmental organizations. While working with these very well known organizations on many local and national campiagns,there had been many successes,failures and disappointments. And as an African American male,working within these arenas that were,and are still predominantly influence by Euro-centric thoughts,ideas and morals(when it comes to dealing with environmental concerns)I became disenchanted with these organizations and elected to no longer render my services, within these institutions. I now spend a great deal of my time, talents, space and resources, towards educating others(especially underserved children)on the “deepness” of having a “Relationship” with the natural world. Many thanks again!


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