Commentary: Blacks Have Long Been Part of the Green Movement

A culinary historian wants to let African-Americans know that growing your own healthy food isn’t a new hippie thing — it’s a significant part of Black history.

Posted: 07/06/2012 04:55 PM EDT
African-Americans have long been a part of the green movement.

For years now the stereotype has been that African-Americans don’t give a damn about environmentalism. Save for a handful of celebrity activists like Van Jones, who preaches the gospel of going green far and wide, the most notable names in environmentalism remain white people, leading many to believe that most Blacks are divorced from the fight for a better, cleaner world.


We’ve told you before about why African-Americans need to make environmentalism a go-to political stance, namely because pollution and other environmental hazards are often dumped on unsuspecting Black communities, many of which suffer the ill-effects of poisoning for years. But now one historian seeks to remind African-Americans that they’ve been “going green” long before anyone was even talking about how to clean up the environment.


In a new article in Georgia’s Athens Banner-Herald, writer Andre Gallant introduces readers to Michael Twitty, a historian from Washington, D.C., who, among other things, studies the culinary history of Black American slaves. Twitty is currently touring the Southern states doing “historical culinary reenactments,” while also attempting to get Blacks back in touch with their agrarian roots, so to speak.


Black communities in the South once were mostly rural and on the outskirts of towns, so agriculture was an everyday reality, Twitty said. Only in recent years have Blacks, as well as many U.S. residents, lost the connection to their agrarian roots. 


“We are losing our wild knowledge,” he said as he recommended that people plant “folk fruit” like persimmons, muscadines and scuppernongs that his enslaved ancestors would have eaten. In planting okra, sweet potatoes and watermelon, he called the market garden a “living pantry of the average slave in Georgia.”


In other words, African-Americans used to grow their own food and feed their families with healthy vegetables from their own backyards, completely avoiding the environmentally destructive factory farms and genetically modified foods most Americans now eat. The food they ate wasn’t called “organic,” it was just called food. And the food sustained them and their families for decades.


Today, if you think of someone eating organic produce, you picture a hippy-dippy vegan plunking down hundreds of dollars for a few apples and avocados at Whole Foods. In fact, Blacks, and many other Americans for that matter, ate organic long before there was a word for it, not because they wanted to, but because they had to.


Nowadays there are a lot of bogus ways some people attempt to be healthy eaters or be environmentalists. For instance, it seems like everything in the grocery aisle is organic nowadays, even unhealthy potato chips and bottled water, which by definition can’t be organic. Many in the Black community might feel distant from those things. But when it comes to barebones environmentalism, like growing your own food, making your own clothes and self-reliance in ways independent of corporate factories, African-Americans have long been a part of the green movement. They didn’t know it as a movement — they just knew it as life.


The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.


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