Into The Woods: Environmental Justice Work And Conservation Spaces Without The Presence Of Black People
I was recently at Severson Dells Nature Center in the Rockford, IL area to record a video for an upcoming nature and poetry workshop I am leading there this month. As an employee and I stood thick into its grounds working to get the video recorded, we had an honest conversation about why Black people are not found at spaces like Severson Dells often — the conversation woke me up significantly to why many of us Blacks are not either involved in environmental justice efforts, or are not participating in white led conversations space’s programming and events.
Because of racism in the United States, we have been chased, hung, and dehumanized in rural, wooded spaces. Why would we want or trust to be among white people in the woods in this country? Just like the employee — who is also a friend of mines pointed out — the woods has never been a safe space for Black people. It immediately moved me to visions of Black people — maybe even my own ancestors — running on dirt trails or through tall trees to escape captivity or worse. I could deeply sense heavy breathing or tired bodies who had to go through this for centuries.
The existence of this trauma and terrorism made me pause. I could feel everything former slaves in this country experienced as they ran for their freedom, or was simply done wrong because of the color of their skin. It was a blessing, that conversation. As someone who has been involved in environmental justice work or attending events led by white people at such places as Severson Dells, I had to come to grips that I had usually felt safe; that being in the woods with white people in places far out from city life I was not considering this trauma. As I move forward in this work I will not be surprised or disappointed when my people are not there working or participating with me.
I recently watched the movie Antebellum with Jonelle Monae. It is exactly the kind of memories, the kind of trauma displayed by her character in that movie, that I felt in those moments having the conversation. Just as she was frightened in the movie because of the situation she found herself in, imagine what is circling in our bodies and in our psyches as we think about where we have been and what has happened to us in those places. It is not at all comforting or joyous. And how do we, as Blacks in this country, get beyond the trauma collectively and evntually feel that those spaces are safe for us?
We are probably many generations away from that becoming a reality. We will have to use trauma ministry or spiritual healing to get past all of that ugly history to work with white people who are leading conservation or environmental justice efforts in parks and the like in order to trust the process and show up as our full selves. If not, then those movements will lack our voices as we seek to make this country more just on the environmental and conservation front. I trust that my people, that Black people, will find ways to figure this out that are safe and mentally and spiritually healing for us.
I will continue to show up where I am needed and work with allies who I have trusted over the years. In the mean time, I will continue writing poems or short stories addressing this issue so that I am finding myself freer and freer — but not ignoring the past and what my people had to endure. I love the parks, the woods, the grass, the trees and all of the specimens one comes in contact with while being out in nature. I hope I am reversing the energy that has been toxic in my family lineage regarding slavery, anti-Blackness, captivity, and dehumanization. For rejuvenation, I seek natural settings to keep me prepared and focused on the work of racial equity. I should be able to enjoy the blessings of our natural environment to maintain my activist energy and focus.