The tension in American culture between black people and anything environmental does have a basis in history. Before 1900, 90 percent of African-Americans lived in the South, where many had been enslaved and then exploited as sharecroppers in rural areas. After two waves of migration between World War I and 1970, almost half of black Americans had relocated to the urban North and West. Blacks’ determination to flee the horrors of the Southern rural landscape played out in long-distance moves to cities like Cleveland, Indianapolis, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and San Francisco. Blacks became associated with gritty cities, disassociated from nature in the popular view.

As African-Americans moved in, white urbanites began moving out to spaces in between the city and country — rolling green suburbs with colorful flower gardens and tree-lined streets. White Americans with the means to settle into suburbs and vacation in state and national parks seemed to fit the picture of leisure-time naturalists promoted by white nature writers and conservationists described in the sociologist Dorceta Taylor’s “The Rise of the American Conservation Movement.”

It is true that African-American attitudes toward nature were (and remain) conflicted. For most of American history, land was a bludgeon used against the bodies of black people, who were forced to work it to raise tobacco, rice and cotton while being deprived of that bounty.

When African-Americans left the South en masse, they spat on the memory of life-stealing cotton fields. But they also cherished the memory of Southern pines, meandering rivers, tropical flowers and the delicious dishes made from local plants and animals. In “The Warmth of Other Suns,” the journalist Isabel Wilkerson captures the wondrous beauty of this environment that migrants abandoned, detailing the story of her own grandmother’s sweet-smelling, night-blooming cereus flower around which an annual neighborhood ritual formed. Black departure from the South, while necessary for safety and opportunity, was cloaked in the loss of that regional beauty.

Excerpt from Black Bodies, Green Spaces
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