The Shaping of the African-American Nature Narrative Series Part I: The Impact of Slavery
Black people have a complicated relationship with America. For us it’s painful love. It has an old history filled with slavery
and Jim Crow, so to love America requires a lot more of us.
— Dr. Blair Kelley, quoted in Touré, Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? —
By Sala Faruq | October 21, 2019
The first enslaved Africans were brought to the then-colony of Virginia four hundred years ago this year. Since August 20, 1619, Africans and their descendants have been an integral part of America's nature narrative. Yet, our collective past is dismissed, devalued, erased, or simply unknown.
The Nature Justice Initiative launch includes a series of four articles. These articles will help establish a baseline understanding of the history and current state of the African-American’s relationship to nature.
The articles reflect my thoughts and observations about the state of the African-American nature narrative. They are not—nor are they intended to be—the monolithic African-American nature voice. Within the black community, there are many voices.
This first article looks at the impact of slavery on the shaping of the black environmental consciousness. I have included several direct quotes from former enslaved individuals. You may find the translation of the dialect offensive. Please remember these interviews were conducted over 80 years ago in the era of Jim Crow segregation.
The Antebellum Era
The great evil of American slavery was involuntary servitude of forced labor. I really believe that the true evil of American slavery was the narrative of racial difference that we created to justify it. — Bryan Stevenson
The American Antebellum era (c. 1812-1860) featured a slavery-based economy. Within this system, there were two basic streams of environmental thought. There were the white slaveholders and the enslaved Africans.
Environmental Consciousness Slaveholders viewed nature as something to be dominated and exploited for profit. They dominated and controlled profit through individual land ownership. They espoused a form of Christianity, which supported the superiority of humans, specifically whites, over nature. Slaveholders created and spread the racial idea that the Africans were closely linked to animals on the evolutionary scale. Viewed as subhuman, they justified the subjugation of a race of people based on skin color. These views became the cornerstone of America’s nature narrative.
Enslaved Africans, by contrast, had a holistic view of nature. “Broadly speaking, Africans believed in the interconnectedness of the human, spiritual, and environmental realms and felt that harm toward or care for one necessarily affected the others” (Glave 2010).
In West Africa, where the majority of African-Americans can trace their lineage, there were some instances of individual land ownership. However, the majority of the populous worked and owned land communally.
Collective & Individual Memory What nature represented to enslaved Africans was varied and complex. Their collective and individual memory of slavery informed them that the environment was rich in resources, a place of transformation, a place of refuge, and a place of danger, even death.
“Feeding the enslaved, however, had of necessity to be [an] economically viable process. Rations had to be sufficiently nourishing to allow the enslaved to perform their tasks but could not be so lavish as to be unprofitable.” - excerpt from In Sorrows Kitchen
The life of the enslaved meant inadequate nutrition as well as poor housing, lack of proper clothing and bedding, and relenting hard labor. These living conditions made the enslaved population unable to live a physically healthy life and susceptible to various illnesses.
Despite this, the natural environment offered opportunities for the enslaved to supplement their diets through hunting, fishing, and foraging for food. They established vegetable gardens as well, tending them in the little time they had after they’d finished long hours of labor for their owners.
“When the slaves took sick or some woman gave birth to a child, herbs, salves, [and] home liniments were used or a midwife or old mama was the attendant, unless [there was] severe sickness [when] Miss McPherson would send for the white doctor, [but] that was very seldom.” – Richard Macks, former enslaved in Maryland
The natural environment provided a variety of medicinal plants the enslaved used to treat a multitude of ailments. In the rice plantations of South Carolina and Georgia, malaria was widespread. Treatment consisted of dogwood tree bark tea. Sage relieved colic in infants. Intestinal worms were common. Peachtree leaves helped expel them. Sore throats and colds were treated with pine needle tea.
There were fleeting moments of joy associated with nature. Clara Cotton McCoy, enslaved in North Carolina, found beauty in the blooming of apple trees. “De blooms looked like droves of pink butterflies flyin’ on de sky” (Glave 2010).
Enslaved children found the natural environment was a place of transformation and refuge from a life of bondage. They had the opportunity to reclaim their lost childhoods.
"Oh, we chillum would have de most fun dere ever was romancing (roaming) dem woods in dat day en time. I used to think it was de nicest thing dat I been know ’bout to go down in de woods side one of dem shady branch en get a cup of right cool water to drink out de stream. I tell you, I thought dat was de sweetest water I is ever swallowed." – Lizzie Davis, enslaved child in South Carolina
For some enslaved Africans, the wilderness meant freedom and a place of sanctuary. One such place was the Great Dismal Swamp. Located in the Coastal Plain Region of southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina, it once covered more than one million acres. It became the home of thousands of runaways or maroons. “Despite the difficulty of navigating this kind of terrain, runaway slaves shared their knowledge of this environment with each other to build a life apart from the watchful gaze of their white owners while successfully avoiding capture” (Simpson 1990).
The natural environment meant danger and death. In the woods runaways were hunted and captured, attacked by dogs, and tortured. It was a place where you could stumble across black bodies hanging from trees. “Between 1882 and 1968, approximately 4,742 black people were lynched illegally by white mobs” (Litwack 2004).
We have grown up singing the patriotic song “America the Beautiful”: “O beautiful for spacious skies /For amber waves of grain /For purple mountain majesties” (line 1-3). "America the Beautiful" was a romantic notion for those in power. For enslaved Africans and their descendants, "America the Beautiful was anything but.
How blacks thought about and engaged with the natural environment was vastly different than whites. Whites owned the land and the enslaved black population worked the land. For the enslaved, it “. . . meant hard, unremunerated work and excessive, brutal punishment suffered while doing that work” (Glave 2010). Though there were moments when the enslaved enjoyed nature for its own sake, the hard reality of slavery was ever present. Still, the natural environment allowed the enslaved to grow their own food to supplement the meager diets their enslavers gave them; learn, use, and share their knowledge of medicinal plants to heal and treat each other; and carry-forth healing practices straight from their African ancestry. Without such knowledge and actions, the enslaved would not have survived.
Image #2: James Hopkinson’s Plantation Enslaved Africans Planting Sweet Potatoes (cropped) ca. 1862/63. By Henry P. Moore - Library of Congress (Image page), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4853695.
Image #3: Fugitive Slaves in the Dismal Swamp, Virginia 1888. By David Edward Cronin - Underground RR Audio Tour at NY Historical Society, New York History blog.com, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=215524.
For Further Reading
Convey, Herbert C. African American Slave Medicine: Herbal and non-Herbal Treatments. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2007.
Finney, Carolyn. Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimaging the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2014.
Glave, Dianne D. Rooted in the Earth: Reclaiming the African American Environmental Heritage. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2010.
Klein, Lauren. “Slave’s Diets in Antebellum America.” Food and Eating in Early America, 2 Nov. 2015, blogs.iac.gatech.edu/food15/2015/11/02/slaves-diets-in-antebellum-america/.
Lentz, Carola. Land, Mobility, and Belonging in West Africa. Bloomington: Indiana Press, 2013.
Martyris, Nina. “Frederick Douglas On How Slave Owners Used Food As A Weapon of Control.” NPR, National Public Radio, Inc. 10 Feb. 2017, www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2017/02/10/514385071/frederick-douglass-on-how-slave-owners-used-food-as-a-weapon-of-control.
Robinson, Ph.D., Maisah and Robinson Sr., M.D., Frank H. “Slave Medicine: Herbal Lessons from American History.” Mother Earth Living, Ogden Publications, Inc. Jul./Aug. 1998, www.motherearthliving.com/health-and-wellness/slave-medicine.
Smith, Kimberly K. African American Environmental Thought: Foundations. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2007.
Twitty, Michael W. The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2017.
Check your inbox for the next article in this series. It will explore the impact of Jim Crow segregation on the African-American nature narrative.