Excerpt from Before the Streetlights Come On: Black America’s Urgent Call for Climate Solutions, © 2023, Heather McTeer Toney, Broadleaf Books. Used by Permission. Pre-order the book here.
Surviving traumatic change is part of our lived history, not new to our experience. Imagine the upheaval and confusion enslaved Africans experienced as they were stolen from their homes and forced to relocate and adapt in new environments across the new world. Most were taken to locations in the global south like Brazil and the Caribbean while others landed in the continental United States. We are descended from people traumatically removed from one ecosystem—the linked biological community of plants, animals, people, germs, energy—and transported across the Atlantic Ocean to an entirely different ecosystem.
Under the most horrendous and inhumane conditions imaginable, the enslaved were forced to teach and care for people from another ecosystem—European—and to figure out how to make plants grow and animals thrive. My ancestors brought with them skills they quickly learned to apply to the land they were forced to tend. If there is any group of people that can innovate climate solutions and adapt, it’s Black Americans. If our ancestors figured out how to survive the hot underbelly of a ship and adapt to a wholly different environment, we can also figure out how to handle the climate crisis. Our history underscores the value of Black people’s role in the climate movement. We know how to adapt to change.
I love the example of recycling and reuse. Recycling isn’t a “new” method to reduce plastics and waste in Black households. Enslaved Africans creatively recycled and reused every item they encountered. Our great-grandmothers repurposed leftover materials to create beautiful quilts, patterned with the stories of struggle and survival. They wrapped us in the warmth of their love and legacy. Scraps of meat and vegetables were turned into succulent dishes prepared with care and prayers for nourishment. A plastic bag from the grocery store was also a trash bag, hair conditioner cap, lunchbox, Halloween bucket, stuffing for mailing breakable items and what you wrapped the lotion bottle in when traveling so it wouldn’t spill on clothes.
For us, recycling and reuse isn’t just to protect the planet. It is a way of life, a nod to our memories, a way to protect what we had and keep what we have. Today, these recycle and reuse lessons remain in our culture regardless of how much money we have. While it wasn’t right, we managed to survive historical climate and environmental injustices while addressing the multitudes of social justice issues plaguing minority and often marginalized people. This is one example of the ways we have naturally responded to climate crisis. Climate and environmental issues have always been intertwined with our struggles for justice.
Black academics, community leaders, and scientists who work in environmental and climate issues don’t get a break from other injustices that impact Black America. Working in climate doesn’t make us immune to the varied injustices that hurt our sons and daughters. After talking about climate change, I go home to concerns of my husband being pulled over by the police or my sweet five-year-old son being categorized as too aggressive when he’s playing. Before giving a speech on environmental justice, I worry that my daughter has to deal with bullying because she’s in a majority-white school and people either pick on her stunning African features or question her Blackness because of her brilliance.
The multitude of social justice issues that weigh on Black people never gives way to one or the other, nor to environmental and climate injustice. Despite the myriad of persistent struggles faced by Black American climate advocates, we still press the focus on the environment and climate change. We do this because the science is clear—the climate has changed and continues to do so now. Devastation is taking place as we speak. Time waits for no one. Climate degradation and environmental injustice are deadly factors in Black communities, not unlike killer cops and uncontrolled access to firearms.
2019 Rachel’s Network Catalyst Awardee Heather McTeer Toney is an attorney, environmentalist, speaker, writer, and vice president of community engagement for the Environmental Defense Fund.