On the visibility of Black bodies in environmental histories.
Text — Carolyn Finney
This is part of the Dossier Black Lives, Green Spaces.
Close your eyes. Picture an ocean, waves gently lapping at the feet of a woman who is soaking up the sun. Or imagine a forest, lush and quiet, as a young boy confidently walks among branches, feet scuffing the dirt, searching for everything. Linger in a garden where a person has their hands deep in the dirt, kneading the soil into revealing its potential. Who do you see? What do they look like? What colour is their skin?
I am an African-American woman, and for the first 18 years of my life I was all about the outdoors. Born in New York City, I was raised by Black parents who had grown up poor in the rural South under Jim Crow segregation.
Like many other African-Americans, they made their way north in the 1950s with hopes of better job opportunities. When they arrived in New York, my father was offered two jobs: he could be a janitor in Syracuse or a full-time caretaker, gardener, and chauffeur for a wealthy family who owned a 12-acre estate just outside of New York City. They chose the latter option and found themselves living in an upscale, all-white neighbourhood, on a property filled with northern red oak, black birch, poplar, and beech trees.
There was a large pond, which was home to fish, turtles, and waterfowl, including mallards and great blue herons. Deer, wild turkey, and cottontails roamed the property. The flower gardens were filled with tulips, zinnias, daffodils, snapdragons, and roses, which my father tended regularly. For me and my brothers, it was like playing in our own private park.
I rowed my first boat and fished for the first time on that pond. I learned how to swim in the pool that belonged to the owners. I ran and rode my bike and created whole worlds of possibility there. I loved that land.
When the original owners passed away and sold the estate to a new owner, my family had to leave our home. The Westchester Land Trust, at the behest of the new owner, placed a conservation easement on the property, protecting it in perpetuity. In their excitement, the trust sent out a letter to everyone in the neighbourhood, extolling the virtues of the land and thanking the new owner for his conservation-mindedness. There was nothing in the letter acknowledging my parents, who had cared for the land for nearly 50 years. Just like that, they were erased from the environmental history of that place.
My story is part of a larger narrative of erasure and invisibility, which defines and informs environmental practices and legislation in the United States.
I became interested in the legacy of contradictions: how the Homestead Act of 1862 provided the opportunity for European immigrants to own land and build a home while Black people were being held as slaves and Native people were being pushed off the land; how John Muir started publicly speaking about the preservation movement at the same time that Jim Crow segregation prevented African-Americans from freely enjoying outdoor spaces; and how, as Gifford Pinchot was creating forestry as a profession and conservation as a way of life, African-Americans (and others) could not participate to the same degree. How are these contradictions reflected in the current moment?
In 2006 when Vanity Fair produced their first green issue, I remember thumbing through the pages, excited to see how we were working to repair our relationships with the natural environment. What I found were 28 pages of photographs and stories of people doing impressive work—and in all the photographs (63 in total), there were only two Black people (one of whom, Kenyan activist Wangari Maathai, had just won a Nobel prize). I didn’t understand; did this mean the editors didn’t think that Black people had anything to offer? Or did they just not see us?
There are so many stories about Black people who have been dreaming green, but we rarely see them in the media, in school curricula, or in common conversations about the environment.
Consider MaVynee Betsch, who gave away all her wealth to environmental causes and started her advocacy when she was young. Or John Francis, who spent 22 years walking across the U.S. and Latin America to raise environmental awareness (and did it for 17 years without talking).
There’s Angelou Ezeilo, the founder and CEO of Greening Youth Foundation, which focuses on building the capacity of diverse communities to address environmental issues; Rue Mapp, who is the founder of Outdoor Afro, a nationally recognized organization that celebrates the relationship between African-American families and the great outdoors; Mari Copeny, age 12 from Flint, Michigan (known as Little Miss Flint), who has been working to eradicate the Flint water crisis since the age of eight.
Our ability to meet the environmental challenges that face us all will be shaped, in part, by our willingness to reach beyond our bias and fear. This is truly a moment for seeing and doing differently. Only then can we open our eyes and determine collectively what’s truly possible.
The title “Self-Evident” is inspired by Ingrid Pollard’s book, Postcards Home, which makes Black bodies visible on the natural landscape.
Carolyn Finney, Ph.D., is a storyteller, author, and a cultural geographer. Her first book, Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors, was released in 2014 (UNC Press). She is currently doing a two-year residency in the Franklin Environmental Center at Middlebury College.
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