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Synthesis/Regeneration 29   (Fall 2002)

African American Sensitivities

—reflections by Gene Marshall, Realistic Living, RealisticLiving.org
—reply from Rachel Harding, The Veterans of Hope Project

On February 23, 2002, C-Span broadcast a six-hour panel discussion by some of the most perceptive African Americans. Their topic was the role of the African American community on this side of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The program was put together by the radio talk show host Tavis Smiley and the panels contained well-known people like Cornel West and Alan Sharpton as well as a wide array of men and women, elders and youth, Christians and Muslims, politicians, activists, and university professors.

African Americans who are embedded consciously and actively in their history and in the struggles with slavery and with civil rights, possess an important perspective on American society, the perspective of marginalized people who, because of the cruel gift of this marginalization, can see the whole society more objectively. Like the canary in the mine that is used to test the air for the miners, the African American community senses ahead of others the foulness of air and the need to change it.

Poverty and racial justice issues were so much in the forefront of this discussion that little or no attention was paid to the ecological context or with how racial issues and ecological issues might mesh together. I consider this lack of sensitivity on the part of African Americans a challenge to me and to the ecological movements I support. These panels of spirit-filled and truly giant African American men and women are in some measure blind to the extent of the ecological crisis and to the ways in which the ongoing devastation of the Earth presents all of us with a new master context for all our issues. This blindness may in some measure be the fault of the ecological movements. Perhaps we who see the centrality of the ecological crisis have not done our job in relating our awareness to the awareness being emphasized by the most sensitive members of the African American community. Each set of movements has much to teach the others. African Americans can perhaps teach the ecological movements something about confronting power with truth, with making the world listen to an emotionally and spiritually charged truth.

…truly giant African American men and women are in some measure blind to the extent of the ecological crisis and to the ways in which the ongoing devastation of the Earth presents all of us with a new master context for all our issues.

Ecologists can perhaps teach African Americans something about the bankruptcy of the entire mode of hierarchical civilization, that survival on this planet for all races and classes of humans depends on us working together in the building of a post-civilizational mode of society that is mutually enhancing with the natural planet. Unless this is done, there are no long-range solutions to our racial or feminine or poverty issues. Ecology is indeed the master context, and this has not been decided by a bunch of Caucasian tree-huggers. This master context has been decided by history, by the full drama of cosmic emergence.


from Rachel Harding, The Veterans of Hope Project

I was moved by Mr. Marshall’s appreciation of the perceptiveness and compassion that often arise from the marginalized experience of African Americans. At the same time, I recognize his concern for a more engaged approach to environmental and ecological issues. Over the past few years, I have had the extraordinary pleasure to work with an Afro-Brazilian human rights and environmental justice organizer who is making some wonderful and important connections between anti-racist work and environmental education. Her name is Valdina Oliveira Pinto and she lives in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil.

Ms. Pinto and a group of colleagues have been working for close to a decade now to implement an environmental education program for poor, black and brown youth in Bahia—the St. Bartholomew Environmental Education Project. The program combines citizenship education, anti-racism training and environmental consciousness-raising in a project that (unfortunately) has few parallels that I am aware of. And yet, the model is, I think, eminently adaptable to African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, ethnic whites and others in this country who can be encouraged to connect environmental concerns with community organizing and the recognition of important indigenous/ancestral cultural traditions.

Ms. Pinto is also a priestess in the traditional religion, Candomble. Candomble is an Afro-Atlantic religion developed by enslaved people and their descendants in the colonial period and is akin to Cuban Santeria, Haitian Vodou, Surinamese Winti, African American folk Christianity and many other forms of Black and indigenous religiosity in the New World. One of its central tenets is the absolute interdependence of humans, the natural world and the world of the spirits. In fact, as Ms. Pinto would say, there is no distinction—it is incorrect to think about the environment and environmental well-being without understanding that humans are an absolutely intrinsic part of the environment. And if human relations are imbalanced (due to racial, gender, economic or other injustices) that imbalance will be felt in the whole world around us. Likewise, if the earth, the waters, the air are burdened and anguished, that imbalance will be experienced by human beings as well.

In many ways, the West and Central African traditions out of which Candomble emerged, are similar to Native American and other indigenous ways of understanding the holistic connections shared by all living things. More specifically, in the ritual traditions of Candomble, there is great appreciation for the value of wild lands because there is no ritual, no ceremony of blessing, of purification, of healing, or anything else, that can be completed without plants. “Without plants there is no Candomble”—is a popular adage among practitioners.

The St. Bartholomew Environmental Education Project is located on the periphery of a major wetlands/woodlands park just outside of the city of Salvador. The park is a major resource for ritual and medicinal plants used in Candomble. Its periphery is home to one of the poorest and most disenfranchised populations in the capital city. What the St. Bartholomew Project did was get the students involved in organizing the community for the recognition of the park as a protected space while training them (the youth) to be interpreters of the historical, ecological and religious/cultural significance of the park. For many of the youth this leadership-training was a new experience and they very proudly and interestedly began studying the various aspects of the park’s life in order to share with visitors and better advocate on behalf of its protection from commercial exploitation and neglect.

Ms. Pinto involved them in a project of identifying the many varieties of tree and plant species used in ritual and medicinal healing in Candomble. The young people published a three-volume pamphlet series that included expertly drawn pictures, botanical names, African language names and Portugese names of each plant or tree identified, as well as the condition it was used to treat and a brief description of the treatment. In this project, the students were encouraged to interview older family members and community elders—many of whom were members of the the area’s many Candomble temples.

Candomble, as a religion associated with poor black people in Brazil, has been so much despised by the dominant, racist Brazilian society, that the St. Bartholomew Project’s emphasis on its wisdom and value vis-a-vis healing herbs had a marked effect on the youth and the larger community.

…I am aware of many elements of a richly holistic, ecological orientation to life arising out of the African American experience.

My sense is that similar projects centered around recovering ritual/medicinal plant knowledge in African American and other ethnic communities in the US can be effective ways of “meshing environmental and racial issues,” as Mr. Marshall puts it. There is a great deal of wisdom about living in harmony with the land, with the universe, in African American folk tradition. Many of us have grandparents and great-grandparents who lived very close to the land, who were often healers using the herbs and other natural elements that surrounded them. From my own research among Black folks who are trying to consciously reconnect with ancestral traditions, I am aware of many elements of a richly holistic, ecological orientation to life arising out of the African American experience. If these, sometimes hidden-in-plain-sight, perspectives and practices could be raised more clearly, I think they would represent an indigenous African American meaning of environmentalism, which could then be joined with the meanings and experiences of other communities toward the transformation of our neighborhoods, our cities, our nation.

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