This story was originally published on July 2, 2015.
When author Dianne Glave told her graduate studies advisor she wanted to write a broad thesis on African-American environmental history, she was told the project was too ambitious. She didn’t listen, and a Ph.D. later, her book, Rooted in the Earth: Reclaiming the African American Environmental Heritage, was born. Recently, Kara Holsopple sat down with Glave to talk about some of the themes in her book. Here are some highlights from the interview.
LISTEN: The Roots of African-American Environmentalism
On the myth that African Americans separate themselves from nature:
“I think some of the mythology is true. I think the roots are in the fact that Africans were pulled from their homes and were forced onto ships in the Middle Passage. And then they came here to the Americas, which included the Caribbean and the northeast and the southeast. And they were forced to labor on the land. So most were doing it to survive, but they didn’t connect in that way.
I remember when I worked at a university down in Louisiana and a gentleman, he was white, he wanted to take some children out into the Gulf. And the African-American mother refused to send her son and he wanted me to arbitrate the situation and push her to let the son go out into the ocean. And I said to him, I’m not going to do that. Because the history of Africans and African Americans in a place like Louisiana goes deep, there may be a story that goes all the way back to the Middle Passage in which ancestors went through a horrible experience. And in some ways, even in a small way, it’s been retained from generation to generation—the fear of water.
In the context of the woods: Africans who were enslaved—they were tracked in the woods. And you had whites, and perhaps other blacks working for the whites, tracking them down with dogs. So it wasn’t always a safe place.”
On how Africans and African Americans used the woods to escape slavery:
“In order for Africans and African Americans to meet at all, they went to places called ‘brush harbors,’ and they went into the woods to have conversations because slaveholders, and even whites in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, did not want blacks gathering together because they were concerned that there would be revolt and violence. So African Americans turned to green spaces in order to gather together and also to agitate.
Those who were enslaved, many of them knew the land outside of the plantation. They knew the pathways, they knew the trees, they knew what was poisonous, what wasn’t. And they developed the ability to live off the land for extended periods of time. I’m thinking of the Maroons in Jamaica: They went deep into the Caribbean landscape, hiding from the British, and the British weren’t able to track them down because they didn’t know the land as intimately as those Jamaicans who had fled the plantations.”
On early African-American preservationists and conservationists
“Someone like George Washington Carver, when he spoke about the environment, he spoke about it in complex ways. He talked about ‘injuring’ the earth. So he talked about caring for the earth, but at the same time, he figured out ways to exploit and use different crops, like peanuts or cotton. So you see the two sides in terms of the poetic ways that he talks about the environment; but also in the ways in which he’s teaching future farmers and future scientists to use the land.
I think the best example I can think of in terms of preservation are what they called ‘Negro girl scouts and boy scouts.’ Even in the schooling system down south, the children were taught about farming, which again, is utilitarian. But they were also being taught how to identify flowers and birds and trees. Looking back, it was a very complex experience that the children went through, which brought to them both the conversation and the preservation.”
On reclaiming African-American environmental heritage
“Last summer, I went to my first national park. Maybe I encountered one African American or an African when I was in Montana at Glacier National Park. I can’t tell you what a profound experience it was to actually see a glacier before they’re gone. And I know, for me, that spiritually and mentally, I’m better when I’m outdoors.
I remember when I was living in New Orleans, people would sit on their stoop or their porch in front of their houses. And there was a banana tree behind the double shotgun [house] that I was living in. And I would just go and sit there, and just that little tree would soothe me. So, I don’t think people need to spend a lot of money. It’s right there with you.”