It is disturbing to observe how today’s environmental movement is too often defined by its White crusaders working to save the earth. At the same time, Black people are most often characterized as the victims of environmental injustice and neglect. It is time to tell the true story of Black people’s historic role as conservationists and keepers of the earth and how they continue to advocate for a sustainable future for everyone.
Before being torn away from their homeland, Africans were one with the land, air and sea which they depended on for survival. They viewed nature as a gift from the Creator. They taught themselves how to work with natural elements to produce food, housing, clothing, medicine and even weapons to build and protect themselves, their families and their homelands.
The Africans’ relationship with the environment made them valuable to the enslavers who built this nation on the backs of their free labor in the cotton, rice and tobacco fields throughout the South. Black people brought a deep-seated connection to the environment which they used to plant the harvest while planning their escapes without a compass. They possessed an inherent understanding of how the moon, sun, wind and stars would lead them to freedom.
Everything in the enslaved person’s household had value. They were the cooks of meals made from every part of the animal, including the snout, feet, ears and tongue. Nothing went to waste. And they birthed a generation of early environmentalists including George Washington Carver, Soloman Brown and Captain Charles Young, to name a few, who used their skills to advance environmental science and technology.
As the world observes Earth Day on April 22, the historic role Black people have played to keep the environment safe from human destruction must also be acknowledged. Modern environmental activists deserve homage including the late Damu Smith, Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., The Reverend Lennox Yearwood, Jr., Wangari Maathai, MaVynee Oshun Betsch, Marjorie Richard and Lisa Jackson.
Most of these names may be unfamiliar, so we recommend researching them as an Earth Day, Black History homework assignment. We guarantee you will meet so many others including the next generation of earth savers whose significant contributions will make you proud.
With tremendous pride, this publication, albeit on newsprint, aims to recognize and amplify the Black voices of the environmental movement. The earth belongs to everyone and everyone can play a role in protecting it.