I see history in my tomato vines and collards that reach toward the sky. Black history. I live in Seattle, surrounded by a mix of concrete, Douglas firs, and views of wild Washington in the distance. Mount Rainier shines on sunny days. Its icy peak screams of nature and feeds my imagination so that it transcends the constructs that try to contain me. I live in an apartment building but have a patio that I fill with potted plants—an extension, through time and space, of my grandmother’s garden in Chicago. Wherever I am, I learn to make do and honor my ancestors’ ways of knowing.
I feel connected to nature, though not in a way that frees me. Unlike most birds, my habitat doesn’t extend into the sky. In a 2017 Audubon interview, ornithologist Dr. Drew Lanham, author of The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature, compared the confining factors of bird ranges to boundaries created and experienced by human populations. “There are the generalists that can tolerate and are tolerated everywhere; then there are the specialists that can’t tolerate and aren’t tolerated by all,” Lanham said. “Being Black, my habitat is further compromised by these social situations. The space is there physically, but I don’t feel welcome.”
I want more freedom in my ranges—for spaces to burst open as I remember dreams deferred and reimagine a new Black environmental memory.
Hummingbirds and butterflies would visit the flower beds that my grandmother Catherine Brookins planted in the front yard of her home in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago’s West Side. But it was her backyard garden—a small green patch on a slab of concrete—that is a staple in my childhood memories. I can’t remember Grandma without her homegrown vegetables, which she transformed into dishes like fried green tomatoes and stuffed bell peppers in her yellow kitchen.
Catherine Brookins, née Seaberry, passed away in 2009. Her physical garden is no longer, but I often find myself revisiting it in my mind while thinking about my own connections with the land and how they were seeded through our intertwining histories. I am careful, though, not to romanticize that history.
Born in 1932 in Merigold, Mississippi, my grandmother dropped out of fifth grade to work as a sharecropper. Her history, my history, reflects the broken promises of the post–Civil War “40 Acres and a Mule” order, which would have given Black people an ownership stake in the agricultural system they had already built. And even as Black land ownership began to grow, peaking in 1910 at nearly 20 million acres, so did the backlash. By the end of the century, around 90 percent of those lands were lost, with Black farmers owning less than 1 percent of the country’s total agricultural acreage. Lynchings and police brutality, together with racist practices by banks and federal loan programs that forced Black owners to give up their land, fed an already hostile environment. As a result, between 1916 and 1970, more than six million Black people, including my grandmother, fled the Deep South for cities in the North and West, in what’s known as the Great Migration.
Grandma moved to Chicago in the early 1950s as a teenager. I am not sure of the exact reasons behind her leaving, but I know she took her environmental memory to the city with her.
When she first arrived, she lived in North Lawndale, which, in the years following World War II, emerged as the first Black community on the city’s West Side. She then landed in the nearby Austin neighborhood, where many had gone to escape racist housing policies, only to confront the same issues there. In Austin, like so many other Black communities in the North, redlining, segregation, white flight, and disinvestment sabotaged the potential for financial prosperity for residents.
I wonder if Grandma knew what she was up against—that the North would also impose limits to her pursuits of freedom. If she did, she didn’t show it. I remember the garden times, the backyard barbecues, the neighborhood block club parties, the joy, and the strength of Grandma and her neighbors. Looking back, I see those acts of abundance, despite the scarcity, as forms of resistance. Displacement can take away land but not our relationship to it. Grandma became a homeowner and used a slab of concrete to make feasts.
While attending fourth grade at Henry Nash Elementary School in Austin, I learned about explorer Matthew Henson, very likely the first human to have reached the North Pole. The image of a Black man dressed in a big fur hood and standing at the top of the world is forever etched in my memory. I was young enough to not have internalized the stereotype that Black people didn’t like the cold or to go on adventures. In Henson’s photo, I saw a more diverse narrative of Blackness,representing the myriad ways in which we’ve contributed to U.S. history. Blackness is no monolith.
And yet, Black people seemed to have been erased from the country’s environmental landscape. As a child, I learned about environmentalists like Jane Goodall and grew accustomed to David Attenborough’s British accent on nature shows. The stories I heard in my environmental science classes also came from white voices—those advocating for the natural world. I didn’t see myself in these stories. It wasn’t until I attended graduate school in Seattle that I learned of Hazel M. Johnson, who has been dubbed the “mother of environmental justice.” While living in public housing on Chicago’s Southeast Side, Johnson founded the People for Community Recovery in 1979 as a means for protecting the health of other Altgeld Gardens residents from heavy amounts of industrial pollution.
When Grandma was alive, I didn’t know about Johnson, even though she had been fighting for our West Side neighborhood too. While combing through research for a paper on the disproportionate impacts of pollution on Black communities, I learned that there were even more invisible threats to our rights to clean air and clean water than I had known. For instance, a trash incinerator had been raining soot down on Austin and surrounding neighborhoods for 25 years, before complaints from the community helped lead to its shutdown in 1996.
I think about the ways in which Black people are so often left out of the mainstream environmental movement—fueled by myths and assumptions that we somehow lack environmental awareness and have little care for the natural world, or if we do, it’s a newfound interest. With such huge consequences for our lives, health, and communities, the erasure feels violent and intentional.
We must continue to resist that erasure by nourishing, cultivating, and reimagining our collective Black environmental memory. My grandma widened her range to the North, and I’ve now widened mine to the Pacific Northwest. Coast Salish land is not free of the confining constructs of our previous habitats. Black people whose Great Migration brought them here have also faced displacement, as have the Indigenous tribes who have been here for thousands of years.
But I find peace standing in the resistance—filling that space that Grandma and so many other ancestors carved out for me, a space I hope to expand even further.
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