“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.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.