I’m interviewing my daughter. She’s seven, her top front teeth have been snatched by a fairy, and this is a Big Questions video, a tradition our family has carried on for twenty-five years.
I ask what kind of person she is, prompting her with a few options. I tease her by asking if she is a green person. “No,” she says, “I’m a light-skinned, pinkish white person.”
She enjoys the play, so I tease her again, “Are you a smart person or a dumb person?” She answers in no uncertain terms.
Then I ask what other kinds of people there are. She looks puzzled at first. Never one to dodge or to say she doesn’t know, she begins inventing a list.
We still say black. We still say white. But we don’t say red, and we don’t say yellow. Sometimes we capitalize Black. If we capitalize White, we declare that we are standing on the right, the far right.
We don’t say “light sorta pinkish white.” We don’t say, “black bordering on tan,” or “brown bordering on white,” or “yellowish gold,” or “reddish brown,” or one of the many options we gloss over by saying “people of color.”
What? There are people of color and white people? That’s it?
We’re not color blind. We’re color deprived.
I’ve been wondering about the color of ecology. Does it have a color? Green, I suppose, but that’s the color of Martians, farts too. Surely ecology, like physics, economics, or history is colorless. Right? Maybe these supposed universals are transparent? Is transparent a color?
I was taken aback recently when someone told me that black people don’t attend ecology gatherings, because ecology is a white thing.
True, the way we white people do ecology could make it a white thing.
But if the sea rises and Manhattan sinks into post-holocaust mud, which part would sink first? Lower Manhattan where Wall Street is? Or upper Manhattan where Harlem is?
People of various shades talk past each other, but on rare occasions they also confer, collaborate, and joke. “9 Rules for the Black Birdwatcher, is a sadly funny piece in Orion magazine by Drew Lanham, a black birdwatcher:
1. Be prepared to be confused with the other black birder. Yes, there are only two of you at the bird festival. Yes, you’re wearing a name tag and are six inches taller than he is. Yes, you will be called by his name at least half a dozen times by supposedly observant people who can distinguish gull molts in a blizzard.
2. Carry your binoculars — and three forms of identification — at all times. You’ll need the binoculars to pick that tufted duck out of the flock of scaup and ring-necks. You’ll need the photo ID to convince the cops, FBI, Homeland Security, and the flashlight-toting security guard that you’re not a terrorist or escaped convict.
3. Don’t bird in a hoodie. Ever.
4. Nocturnal birding is a no-no. Yeah, so you’re chasing that once-in-a-lifetime rare owl from Outer Mongolia that’s blowing up your twitter alert. You’re a black man sneaking around in the nether regions of a suburban park — at dusk, with a spotting scope. Guess what? You’re going to have some prolonged conversations with the authorities. Even if you look like Forest Whitaker — especially if you look like Forest Whitaker.
5. Black birds — any black birds — are your birds. The often-overlooked blackbirds, family Icteridae, are declining across the board. Then there are the other birds that just happen to be black — crows and their kin are among the smartest things with feathers and wings. They’re largely ignored because of their ubiquity and often persecuted because of stereotype and misunderstanding. Sounds like profiling to me.
6. The official word for an African American in cryptic clothing — camo or otherwise — is incognegro. You are a rare bird, easy to see but invisible just the same. Until you snap off the identification of some confusing fall warbler by chip note as it flies overhead at midnight, or a juvie molting shorebird in heavy fog, you will just be a token.
7. Want to see the jaws of blue-blooded birders drop faster than a northern gannet into a shoal of shad? Tell them John James Audubon, the patron saint of American ornithology, had some black blood coursing through his veins. Old JJ’s mom was likely part Haitian. Hey, if we can claim Tiger Woods . . .
8. Use what’s left of your black-president momentum on the largely liberal birder crowd to step to the front of the spotting-scope line to view that wayward smew that wandered into U.S. waters from Eurasia. Tell them you’re down with Barack, and they’ll move even more to the left to let you look at the doomed duck. After all, you stand about as much of a chance of seeing a smew again as you do of seeing another black president.
9. You’re an endangered species — extinction looms. You know all the black birders like siblings and can count them on two hands. You’re afraid to have lunch with them all because a single catastrophe could wipe the species from the face of the earth. There’s talk and posturing about diversifying the hobby, but the money is not where the mouths are. People buy binoculars that would fund the economy of a small Caribbean island — where, coincidentally, lots of neotropical migratory birds winter, and where local people of color might contribute to their conservation if more birders cared about more than counting birds.
Here he is Drew on video:
Black people are, in fact, attending to the state of the planet, just as they attend to the state of their families, neighborhoods, or nations.
Here is a very moving Ted Talk by Majora Carter called “Greening the Ghetto” (also see her African American Scientists, Environmentalists and Activists You Should Know):
It may be true that black people avoid white ecology, but it is also true that black people are ecologically active. If white people connected climate justice with social justice, black and white ecologies might be closer together.
Behind black and white ecologies often lie indigenous ecologies, on which much environmental thinking and action depend (or ought to depend). Listen to Winona LaDuke talk about “seed slavery:”
And John Mohawk talking about indigenous knowledge regarding the earth:
Here in “Kiss the Earth” Emigdio Ballon is talking to seeds at Tesuque Pueblo in New Mexico (see also “Seeds Are Alive,” an interview).
Ecology and the state of the planet are breaking into political discourse in the form of The Green New Deal (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) and The New Consensus (Demond Drummer):
Bioneers: A Revolution from the Heart of Nature, is a good resource for interracial, crosscultural, international discussions of ecology.