“Garden club? I’m not trying to join the garden club! What are you trying to do, make me a slave or something?” How do you respond to a question like this? A few years ago I was volunteering at my youngest brother’s high school garden club. The club had only a few student members, so I took it upon myself to do some recruiting after school by chatting with some of the kids. One of those conversations elicited the comment at the beginning of this paragraph regarding working with the land and slavery. Was I caught off guard by the comment? Yes. But was I surprised by the comment? Not at all. While, generally speaking, it may be difficult to get young people to do outdoor activities, let alone to garden, this task is particularly problematic for black youth due to the legacy of forced agricultural labor for African Americans – slavery.
The legacy of slavery, of being tied to land that you cannot own, to produce crops that you cannot sell, which will generate revenue that you cannot legally keep, still looms large in black culture. This is particularly true of black folks who grew up in the North and whose parents didn’t have a job that was tied to agriculture. Now I am sure that some of you who are reading this (particularly those of you who are not black) might find it difficult to believe that some black people are still working through the psychological impacts of slavery some 150 years’ post-emancipation. People often struggle to understand why both black and white people are still impacted by slavery because in America we suffer from what liberation theologian Dwight Hopkins terms “historical amnesia.” Historical amnesia allows American culture to avoid answering difficult questions, questions whose answers paint a picture that runs counter to the image of America as a land of opportunity. Simply put, I believe that in order to continue healing from the terrors of slavery black people must acknowledge and work through the social and psychological consequences of forced agricultural labor, because the stories of those laborers are sown into the soil of America.
In her book Rooted in the Earth: Reclaiming the African American Environmental Heritage, environmental historian Dianne Glave attempts to dismantle the stereotype of African Americans as physically and spiritually detached from the environment. Her book, and other works like it, are excellent resources to help black people remember our environmental past. Glave’s book is also important because she points out that while there may be some truth to the anti-environmentalist stereotype regarding black people, the reality is much more complicated. Nature ought to be understood as a place of complex contradictions for black people. For enslaved black people the wilderness could be a place of refuge, shelter, or a means of escape. And yet, it could also be a place that needed to be cleared and tended to for farming or a place where lynched black bodies could be seen hanging from trees as Billie Holiday laments in her song Strange Fruit. Both of these images are true and both must be acknowledged by black people as a part, but not the only part our ecological and environmental history.
Contrary to what many students are taught in school, slavery is not the totality of the African American experience with the land. More than anything this message must be made to clear to all black people, but particularly to young black people if we desire long term ecological healing in the black community. We must remember that many of our African ancestors were excellent farmers, and their agricultural prowess were among the reasons why they were enslaved. Post-slavery, many African Americans chose to continue farming despite the many legal obstacles that racism allowed, such as inequitable access to quality land and federal farming subsidies. Looking at our environmental history beyond the narrow lens of slavery creates the space for the African American community to construct a counter narrative to the stereotype that black people are anti-environmentalist.
I believe that in order for black people, and particularly black youth, to take gardening, farming, and environmental justice seriously, we must reclaim the garden and the kitchen as sacred spaces that are conduits of sacred wisdom. Gardening, urban farming, and even cooking are a few of the practices that black people can do that can create the aforementioned counter narrative to the anti-environmentalist stereotype.
In closing, I want to emphasize the importance of the word narrative in the previous sentence. Indeed, as noted in the beginning of this blog post, gardening alone will only bring up the wounds of the past. However, combining gardening (or farming, or cooking) and storytelling enables us to teach young black kids the truth about their agricultural past. It has allowed me to share my own stories and fears about being a black man who works in the primarily white dominated fields of religion and ecology. Specifically, it has allowed me to share stories that my grandfather, a migrant farmer from Brookhaven Mississippi, has shared with me. To do his stories justice would require an entirely separate blog post! Perhaps the most salient points I have learned from him are that he loved farming and loves the land, and it was the systematic discrimination of black people that made his life difficult as a young black man in the South. Nature, so to speak, was a bystander.
Whenever I work with kids in a community garden or in the classroom I tell them my grandfather’s story. I tell young people such as the young man who made the “slave” comment to me that my grandfather taught me that people who look like us actually have green thumbs but we’ve just forgotten how to use them, and I would love to help him learn how to use his.
 Dwight N. Hopkins, Being Human: Race, Culture, and Religion (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005).
 Dianne D. Glave, Rooted in the Earth: Reclaiming The African American Environmental Heritage (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2010) 5.