Art by Kida
First, they take our 40 acres, then they poison our underdeveloped and dried-to-hell lands– niggas can’t have shit. The inequitable consequences of climate change affect BIPOC communities the hardest. Without adequate resources, these communities cannot adapt effectively and mitigate its consequences on their families. Some of the many major environmental issues that threaten the lives and livelihoods of BIPOC individuals are toxic waste and freshwater pollution, droughts, and flooding. Yet despite these hazards, black voices are drowned out and unheard on the local, state, and national scale. The struggle to be heard and acknowledged is all too familiar to the black community in a nation where black lives are not held in the same regard as white lives. Making the situation worse is the sad reality that environmentalism is not as prevalent in black culture as it once was, likely because most Black families reside in highly urbanized areas where the disconnect with nature is higher. As a child, I used to be frustrated with my community for not taking a louder stance on climate change. But as I grew older and began to understand social systems better, I realized that the political muzzle placed on black individuals is intentional. Black communities are ignored and silenced through lack of education, inadequate infrastructure, and systemic marginalization, creating quiet individuals within the culture.
Living in a low-income neighborhood can be a slow death sentence for BIPOC individuals. Housing discrimination has made it difficult for black families to obtain housing in certain neighborhoods, relegating them to subpar homes and apartments located in the most polluted parts of the country. Many black communities are built around or on polluted lands and in disaster-prone regions. But the ancestors of color helped to cultivate the American lands, and infused culture into the ghettos; so it's hard to just leave them behind. But as the climate gets more extreme, black families are being left with no choice but to relocate from their homes. Hurricane Katrina swept thousands of unprepared black people from their ill-equipped homes, and many have not been able to return til this day. Ohio has suffered a recent surge in air pollution that is sure to affect black asthmatic kids the most. These huge national moments draw the media's hunger for polarizing stories, but not the collective voice of the black community. It can be hard and tiring to speak up about something that seems so prevalent, the destruction of our communities.
Growing up in Los Angeles, I always feared the heat. My apartment is poorly built, so when it was hot you felt it in your bones. The heatwaves have become increasingly more dangerous, thanks in part to Los Angeles being a concrete jungle. As the city paints the streets a reflective white coat to combat the piercing rays of the sun, the black folks continue to struggle in poorly insulated and equipped homes. We had no air conditioning unit growing up, and using the fan meant juggling a high electricity bill with the frustrating summer climate. While the heat boiled us slowly like unbeknownst crabs, the pollution of our local environment was ever-present. I felt alone every time I told someone to keep our environment clean when I saw them litter. My family easily ignored my opinions as many politicians do of black individuals and their ideas, concerns, and dreams. We won't be heard if we are tuning each other out, the struggle is hard but it's harder when we aren't even listening to our community members. Once we hear one another, we can begin to get back in touch with our roots.
The relationship between African Americans and nature is conflicting yet crucially intertwined. Our enslaved ancestors felt a connection to the land because they were forced to cultivate and interact with it on a daily basis. The land gave them a sense of purpose, although it was a purpose forced upon them. They used the earthy scraps tossed at them to make delicious sustenance. Black philosophers, authors, and thinkers have explored the connection between the black individual and the environment; to understand how nature is a part of the existence of black culture. WEB Du Bois explained that despite the outside influences that molded enslaved people's culture, they remained natural, “and, therefore, stood near to Nature’s heart.” As the South became more dangerous and a near death sentence for many Black individuals, the direct descendants of enslaved people migrated throughout the 20th century to the big cities. Their search for a fresh start with new opportunities led them to become trapped in the concrete jungles of the ghetto and prison system, and their connection to the land slowly faded from their souls. The disconnect between soul and the lands of our ancestors’ struggle represents the detachment between the environment and black culture. It is no wonder that many black individuals do not feel the need to advocate heavily for the environment, too many are strangers to nature and its worsening state.
When talking about climate justice, or green justice, you have to include the idea of black justice. There are a vocal few politicians, academics, musicians, and community leaders who amplify their voices as much as they can—to inspire the black community to demand action from the government. The Black Hive @ the Movement for Black Lives created the Black Mandate, outlining methods for the government to take swift action in addressing the inequitable consequences of the climate crisis. It addresses many climate-linked sectors, including but not limited to energy, land, and health care. Academics like Robert Bullard and Wangari Maathai have broken the color barrier in environmental science, bringing awareness about deforestation and environmental justice. Black educators like Dr. John Francis is creating a climate curriculum to increase environmental literacy and encourage more BIPOC students to speak out for the climate. The musicians of the Black community, like Marvin Gaye and Mos Def, have serenaded hymns and rapped verses about the environment–to urge black people to be more aware of their decaying neighborhoods. Community leaders, like Hattie Carthan, have increased their neighborhoods' climate resilience by creating opportunities for independence and self-determination through gardening and farming. These individuals and many others have been fighting for decades to force governments to respond. In reality, the community is not as quiet as I once believed, as these individuals and many others have advocated for and sought to protect the environment for decades. The need to protect the land is a trait deeply embedded within the existence of being African American, and people should unearth it.
Unmotivated state governments combined with weakened and underfunded federal programs have fostered anechoic conditions where Black voices are not heard nor recorded in policy decisions. I close my eyes when I step out into the polluted and overcooked neighborhoods, and I can't hear my brother and sistas. But I can see what's in store for them if they do not become ferociously vocal. It's the 40 acres our ancestors were promised, biologically dead and unlivable.