“History shows that it does not matter who is in power or what revolutionary forces take over the government, those who have not learned to do for themselves and have to depend solely on others never obtain any more rights or privileges in the end than they had in the beginning.”
— Carter G. Woodson
Woodson’s words are not typically thought to have any relevance in the sphere of environmental justice, but for Black Americans within the movement, those words hold as much weight as they would if they were on a poster at a Black Lives Matter (BLM) protest. Although growing in numbers with support and the local and national emergence of some amazing new young black voices, environmental justice spaces continue to be heavily populated by white advocates. Best intentions notwithstanding, white advocacy is usually what upholds the collective grassroots influence over policy decisions despite universal understanding that communities of color are hit the hardest by all forms of inequity — environmental oppression being no different. As such, it is imperative for frontline communities to be the architects of their own advocacy in this arena.
I have been in enough policy meetings on the subject to know that there is oftentimes a lot of discussion on how to make authentic connections to environmental injustice in the black community. Oftentimes the “community” is discussed as if it were a monolithic entity. We know that it’s not. The Black community does not move all together in fluid motions on all social issues. However, studies show there has been a notable and sizable shift amongst the broad collective of younger African Americans away from formal religion.
We also see some evidence of these shifts within black popular culture. Millennial popular artists such as Erykah Badu and Gen Z’s Summer Walker are just a couple who have openly espoused and championed aesthetics and discussions on practices more closely aligned to indigenous African spirituality. Acknowledging these shifts may provide insight and authentic pathways for those of us black people already involved in the environmental injustice movement to further strengthen connections to the community, while paying homage to our history and paving a way forward in the movement.
The discussions and formal teachings of African American history are oftentimes flawed in their applications. Black History often begins during slavery and reconstruction. Africa’s contribution to the stage of world history is largely ignored, or misrepresented by continual talk of Egyptian Dynasties, as if Egypt were the only place on the continent with notable culture. The vast majority of African Americans originate from West African coastal countries. Like African Americans, indigenous Africans were not monolithic people. There was an abundance of variety in world view, creation stories, hierarchy, art, and customs among the people of this region pre-slave trade and colonization. However, much like the indigenous people of the Americas, there also was a recurring theme across many tribes revolving around an overall respect and interconnectedness between humans and the earth. Spirituality was integral to understanding the world and one’s place within it. Relationships between nature and humans, spirit and nature, are not compartmentalized, but instead tied together through spiritual interactions.
For example, in Yoruba tradition, gods and goddesses manifest within the natural world. Orishas inhabit the physical world through nature, and for humans to connect with them, they pay homage to the elements these deities represent. This is because in African worldview, nature provides substance and therefore must be respected in order for the deities within them to continue to provide. On the other end of the spectrum, malevolent spirits also occupy these same spaces, so fear leads to respect for these same environments so as to not bring about any misfortune. To destroy nature and our environment would be akin to destroying mankind. Living in symbiosis with the natural world translates to living in harmony, as the two are interconnected and codependent. This automatically ensures that nature and the environment are protected.
Our indigenous spirituality has been lost, continually looked for, and found, as evidenced by the trend in abandonment of western religions (that profess dominion and dominance over nature) for the more traditional African worldview being adopted by younger generations today. Black history is too massive to be boxed in by the confines of American History. Blacks are diasporic people who can lay claim to the entirety of the earth by genealogy, descendance from the very first people found in the Cradle of Civilization, and traditional spirituality.
However, having been robbed of our right to organically grow and study the nuances of these religious and spiritual perspectives, many African Americans, although having taken initial steps, find themselves buried in surface-level adaptations of African Spirituality that don’t extend further than performative stances in much of popular culture. As we reflect upon Black history during this Black History month, it might be a good idea to really grab a hold of our history in a way that has tangible applications to not just our immediate condition, but to the very earth we are inextricably tied to. It is not enough to explore crystal work, divination, and smudging.
All of these are amazing practices used to center the individual however, true African spirituality is focused on the collective. Blacks in the energy justice movement need to lift this perspective up in as many spaces as possible to capitalize off of trends and illustrate the pressing need and responsibility of collectivism for the greater good. Marcus Garvey, grandfather of Pan-African philosophy, and founder of the United Negro Improvement Association famously wrote, “A people without knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots”.
Unfortunately, Blacks across the diaspora are connected through a shared story of fighting for freedom from colonization, and emancipation from physical and mental slavery. I’m sure he did not have environmental injustice in mind when he said this, but his words encapsulate the very need for us to think more holistically about how broadly his sentiments reach in our continued collective fight. The same energy that has sustained our culture is the same energy that sustains the life of that tree.
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