Opinion Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.
Editor’s note: This is the first installment of the next iteration of Murmurations, the monthly column originated by adrienne maree brown for YES! in 2021. As adrienne wrote in their final reflection late last year, they are eager to grow the chorus of voices amplified in this space, and have invited a number of emergent strategists to share in authoring this column. Each month, Murmurations will be authored by a different emergent strategist, hand-picked by brown, and edited by YES! staff. Readers can expect the same depth, nuance, and empathy they’ve come to expect from Murmurations, with an even greater breadth of experience, perspective, and wisdom to share. Fittingly, the first installment of this new iteration comes from Leah Penniman, the farmer, author, and food justice activist whose voice will be familiar to longtime YES! readers. brown describes Penniman as “an inspirational farmer-writer who is always thinking about how to bring us into closer relationship with the land that holds us, and the people we build the future with.” Here, Penniman offers timely lessons gleaned from her latest book, Black Earth Wisdom: Soulful Conversations with Black Environmentalists, that will help us all embrace what she calls “collective thrival”—which is as essential in this moment of climate crisis as it ever has been.
While I was studying traditional farming and ecospirituality in Ghana with the Queen Mothers of Kroboland, they offered a teaching which has been seared into my soul ever since. Manye Nartike asked: “Is it true that in the United States, a farmer will put the seed into the ground and not pour any libations, offer any prayers, sing, or dance, and expect that seed to grow?” Met with my ashamed silence, she continued, “That is why you are all sick! Because you see the earth as a thing and not as KIN!”
Indeed, this uniquely Western (and white) non-kin thinking is what leads to both racialized oppression and earth ravaging. It is the severing of family and the relegating of others to “nonperson” status that make possible the enactment of violence and oppression on “the other.” Embedded in the theory of white supremacy is the theory of human supremacy over nature.
The dangerous philosophies and practices of colonial conquest, subjugation, extraction, and commodification mutually reinforce each other, and simultaneously exploit racialized people and the Earth. Any hope of solving the environmental crisis will require an examination and uprooting of the white supremacist ideologies that underpin the crisis.
In this moment, we are acutely aware of the fractures in our system of runaway consumption and corporate insatiability. The path forward demands that we take our rightful places as the younger siblings in creation, deferring to the oceans, forests, and mountains as our teachers. The voices and expertise of Black, Brown, and Indigenous environmentalists must be heeded if we are to halt and reverse planetary calamity.
Ecological humility is part of the cultural heritage of Black people. While our 400-plus-year immersion in racial capitalism has attempted to diminish our connection to the sacred earth, there are those who understand the intrinsic value of nature, and who still know that the land and the waters are family members. Humanity’s collective thrival depends upon remembering the covenants of moderation and cooperation that we have with all beings on this one tiny life raft called Earth.
Contrary to mainstream mythology, the movement to listen to and defend the earth did not begin with Rachel Carson, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, or any other thinkers of European heritage. From the Sahel farmers who turned the desert green, to the enslaved herbalists who cured white and Black folks alike, to the Wildlife Conservation Conferences for Negro 4-H Club Youth, to Planetwalker’s righteous quest, ecological thought and practice have run deep and wide in Black communities. The people whose skin is the color of earth have long advocated for the well-being of our beloved Mother.
It is in this tradition—and with respect for this history—that Black Earth Wisdom, a project of Soul Fire Farm, weaves together the voices of 40 of today’s most respected Black American environmentalists, who have cultivated the skill of listening to the lessons that Earth whispers to them. Contributors include Alice Walker, Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, Steve Curwood, Rue Mapp, and Queen Quet, among others.
As the days in the northern hemisphere get longer, and we find ourselves called outside to once again engage with the earth, I invite you to consider these three central lessons that emerged from conversations with the brilliant Black environmentalists I had the privilege to work alongside in capturing our Black earth wisdom.
Earth as Text
If I were to tell you I had lived in the same neighborhood my whole life and didn’t learn the names of the people next door, you might pass some judgments on my character. And yet, here we are in a neighborhood of trees, insects, and amphibians that many of us cannot call by name.
One of the great challenges of our time is that humanity is increasingly illiterate in the languages of the earth. Audrey Peterman, Jamaican elder and lover of wild spaces, put this well when she explained that there was once a time when most people could read the night sky. We could tell directionality, seasons, weather, story, and calendar by looking to the stars and clouds. The sky was our primary source, our central guide. Society has come to rely on secondary and tertiary sources, farther and farther away from the sky, in order to get our information, playing a dangerous and distorted game of telephone yielding scrambled messages. The languages of the earth are many: The planet speaks through ice cores, the pH of the ocean, birdsong, gravity, tree rings, animal tracks, and silence.
Our directive is to relearn the languages that Earth uses to communicate with us.
Earth as Teacher
What if we learned to love and emulate our elder siblings—the hawks, black bears, and wolves—in a practice of sacred biomimicry? The earth is cooperative, generous, queer, and accepting—all characteristics worthy of emulation.
Nature centers cooperation over competition more often than we are taught to believe. For example, mutualistic interactions are vital for terrestrial ecosystems to function, as over 80% of land-plant species rely on mycorrhizal relationships with fungi to provide them with trace elements. Creatures help each other out, too. Ground squirrels, velvet monkeys, and prairie dogs cry out to warn their peers of predators, even though drawing attention to themselves increases their chances of becoming prey. Ants and bees give their lives to protect their colonies. In fact, mutualism is so pervasive that scientists are now suggesting the very concept of the individual organism needs rethinking. Multicellular organisms and their symbiotic microbes may be regarded as cohesive units acted on by natural selection.
Nature does not discriminate. The flowers bloom and the birds sing for all, regardless of race or class. Nature also celebrates queerness. At least 90% of flowering plants have “perfect flowers” that contain both male and female reproductive organs. Same-sex intimacy, including courtship, pair-bonding, affectionate touch, intercourse, and parental activities, have been documented in more than 450 species of animals worldwide, including black swans, Amazon river dolphins, American bison, elephants, giraffes, marmots, lions, spotted hyenas, and dragonflies.
Earth as Kin
Western thought teaches us that our human dignity is rooted in our difference from other earthly beings, suggesting that we are better than and distinct from animals and plants.
Professor Joshua Bennett sees it differently. “The animals are my kin, my truest kin, since we all belong to the earth,” he writes. “The lie of whiteness is that we can separate ourselves from the earth. In considering animals as co-laborers, friends, and partners in the field, Black people resisted a social order predicated on confinement, and opened to a more radical sociality grounded in the desire for a world without cages or chains. It follows that prison and police abolition has environmentalist roots, viewing human life as part of all life on earth.”
All life on earth shares a narrow band of habitability that extends from the deepest root systems of trees and the dark environment of ocean trenches up to the highest mountaintops. This layer, called the biosphere, is only about 12 miles from top to bottom, comprising only 0.3% of the planet’s radius. We share this tiny life raft with all earthly beings.
To survive together, we must rehydrate the memory that all beings—the mountains, birds, lakes, and amphibians—are “people” too. The Afro-Indigenous religions Yoruba and Vodun both deify nature and prohibit wasteful extraction. No amount of capitalist logic that attempts to quantify ecosystem services or scheme carbon-credit swaps can substitute for the necessary worldview shift toward kinship. If our species is to survive, we have roughly one generation to collectively remember and honor the familial covenant of moderation and cooperation that we signed with all beings at the dawn of time.
The good news is that Earth is still welcoming us home. As Alice Walker said, “All people deserve to worship a God who also worships them. A God that made them, and likes them. That is why Nature, Mother Earth, is such a good choice.”
Leah Penniman is a Black Kreyol farmer, author, mother, and food justice activist who has been tending the soil and organizing for an anti-racist food system for 25 years. She currently serves as the founding co-executive director and farm director of Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, New York, a Black- and Brown-led project that works toward food and land justice. Her books are Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land (2018), and Black Earth Wisdom: Soulful Conversations with Black Environmentalists (2023). Learn more about Penniman’s work at soulfirefarm.org.