The Visible Woman

Why do we still not see black Americans as having a connection to the environment?

illustration by Abayomi Louard-Moore

illustration by Abayomi Louard-Moore

Interview by Heather Shayne Blakeslee

Carolyn Finney’s book “Black Faces, White Spaces” is a must-read for anyone who wants to better understand all of the ways in which African-Americans have been prevented from owning, accessing and having a public relationship with land, open space and the concept of “the great outdoors.” From exploring institutional racism in the National Park Service to lesser known history—black Air Force recruits in World War II had to have all-white beaches opened to them in order to train to serve their country—the book shines light on the underbelly of our white-dominated environmental movement.

National Park Service employees were very upfront during your research about not caring much about addressing exclusionary practices.
CF: One of the things I always say is that privilege has the privilege of not seeing itself... I’m clear when I talk to predominantly white audiences, that ultimately I want to engage people’s humanity, because it’s something that we all have… There’s real fear there, what they’re experiencing now in our country in multiple ways. So what happens? Let’s say I’m a white person who works for an environmental organization, I have a leadership position, I’ve had this for years, I am relevant because the dominant culture is “relevant,” and now you’re telling me that maybe I’m not relevant anymore. So what happens to me if we hire a black or brown person to be that new leader? What happens to me?... We’re dealing with a human being wondering about their own relevancy. So, for me, that’s what I think is behind some of the commentary.

What is the importance of addressing the racism internal to environmental organizations before trying to more broadly engage people of color?
CF: One of the things I often say to audiences is that I don’t use the term “outreach” anymore… It’s well-meaning, perhaps, it means I’ve “outreached” out to you, I can bring you to my table and make room for you, and then—you have to learn everything we do. You’ll always be responsive to us. We brought you here. They basically don’t have to do anything else, except bring you to the table. And, actually, we know that this is not a useful model, for many reasons, besides the fact that it puts all the onus on that person, that person of color, that person who is different, to do all the work. I call it “building relationships of reciprocity,” because when you are in a relationship, the onus is on both of you.

What role does the media play in reinforcing the idea that people of color are not welcome or associated with natural spaces?
CF: I always ask, “Who is not visible? Who do we not see here? When we see someone, what are they doing? The whole myth of black people “don’t” when it comes to the outdoors is just that—it’s just a myth. Because everyone, including black people, have diverse, complicated and complex relationships with the outdoors. … Driving around south Florida [where I did my research], the thing that you will see almost immediately is black and brown people fishing at the canals. You can’t miss them, it’s every day. But it’s as though we can’t see them. As though that doesn’t count. … It’s not always about climbing a mountain. 

You write that, for slaves, “The ‘woods’ induced both positive and negative feelings: a place that was resource-rich, a place of transformation and refuge... but also a place to fear.” You talk a lot about fear in the book, but can you talk about the positive side for African-Americans?
CF: Well, it’s funny that you say that because one of the reviewers of the book thought I didn’t talk about fear enough and wanted me to write a whole chapter about how African-Americans are afraid, and I was very frustrated with that request. Despite all of that fear, black people go on and feel joy, go on and get creative… People are still laughing and falling in love and getting married, creating music, creating art.

You said it really beautifully in the book. You wrote, “While fear as a by-product of white supremacy and oppression was/is certainly part of the lived reality for many African-Americans, focusing solely on the fear denies the malleability of the black imagination to create and construct a rich reality that is not grounded primarily in fear, but in human ingenuity and the rhythms and the flows of life.”
CF: Yes! I like that, too! We’re not always here just to respond to white oppression. We’re living our own lives, like other people do. Sometimes life exists in spite of that other stuff. This is where the creativity comes from and what I want to honor.

You wrote upfront in the book about what it means personally to you to be a black woman writing about the environment.
CF: So, before I am black, I am a human being. And I always want to say that, because what that means is that I am connected to every other human being. I’m part of the species of human beings. And I’m different because I’m black, or different because I’m a woman and all the other ways that I may be different from other people—but I’m a human being. And so I try to understand, ‘What is it about me being different that is challenging in this country?’ So it’s my aspiration to be seen as more fully human, to belong, to be in relationship with all kinds of people. To be visible—I don’t want to be invisible. I want to be visible. I want to be valued. Who doesn’t want to be valued? It’s an intense desire for me and the people I love to be seen, and to increase my own ability to see. I don’t see everything! I have blinders on and I don’t want to. So what does that mean? I’m really interested in all the ways in which we are a person in the world.

Carolyn Finney, Ph.D., is a performer, writer, cultural geographer and a professor in geography at the University of Kentucky.

Popkin Culture: A writer’s multifaceted exploration of the city expands to fiction

For Nathaniel Popkin, Philadelphia is an endless playground. He has explored the city through the lenses of journalism, film, essay and — with the October 30 release of his new novel, Lion and Leopard — fiction. 

Lion and Leopard gives a voice to Romantic painter John Lewis Krimmel (1786-1821), a German immigrant who challenged the norms of Rationalist art with his paintings of street scenes. Popkin felt a connection with Krimmel because he “shoot[s] in the same kinds of places that Krimmel would sketch and paint.” Krimmel died in an accident near the farm of Rationalist artist Charles Willson Peale, whose journal is missing pages from that day. Thus, a Philadelphia story was born. 

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On the Shelf: Grid contributors produce some worthy additions to your summer reading list

Each month, Grid boasts the work of some of the Philadelphia area’s most talented writers. In this issue, we’re proud to shine a light on some of their endeavors outside the magazine, as a handful of writers affiliated with Grid have new books out, or due to be released in coming weeks.

Lauren Mandel

EAT UP | The Inside Scoop on Rooftop Agriculture

New Society, 288 pp., $29.95, May 2013

The first full-length book about rooftop food production is finally here, thanks to Philadelphia native and Grid contributor Lauren Mandel. The book looks at three scales of rooftop gardening: home gardening, commercial farming and the rooftop agriculture industry. The practices and practicality of rooftop agriculture are thoroughly explored in a book meant for curious individuals, business owners and policymakers alike. With a growing urban population, Mandel’s book is an important and innovative perspective in addressing the world’s current and future food needs. You can purchase her book and browse through some of the pieces that she’s written for Grid on the same subject at gridphilly.com.

Tenaya Darlington

Di Bruno Bros. House of Cheese: A Guide to Wedges, Recipes and Pairings

Running Press, 256 pp., $25, May 2013

Grid’s regular contributor from the world of cheese is the resident blogger for Di Bruno Bros. The pairing of an extensive cheese house with a passionate and articulate spokeswoman has been an exciting project for both parties, and has led to a guide book for the masses. With fun and colorful language, the book provides a thorough map through the cheese counter with directions on how to buy and pair nearly any cheese in the shop. All that’s left for you to do is eat and enjoy! You can read some of Darlington’s cheese reviews at gridphilly.com or read her blog, madamefromageblog.com, but the book puts it all in one place.

Jon McGoran

Drift

Forge Books, 384 pp., $24.99, July 9 2013

Grid’s editor in chief is also the author of Drift, a thriller about genetically modified foods coming out in July. Cops, drugs, violence and classic thriller tension take an environmental twist when a narcotics detective is thrown into the drama of Pennsylvania farmland.

“McGoran impressively integrates concerns about genetically modified produce with an action-filled storyline and fleshed-out characters…” says Publishers Weekly, in a starred review. “The disturbing, but scientifically plausible, secret at the heart of the bad guys’ schemes is an original one, and McGoran makes the most of it.”

The book launches July 9 at the Academy of Natural Sciences. Read more at jonmcgoran.com.

Sarah E. Adams is the editorial intern at Grid and can be found working for Bennett Compost at a farmers market near you. 

Eat Up: New Book for Grid Contributor Lauren Mandel

Eat Up: The Inside Scoop on Rooftop Agriculture

Grid contributor (and Grid Alive guest), blogger, landscape architect and rooftop agriculture expert Lauren Mandel will be launching her new book today. Billed as the first full length book on rooftop agriculture, Eat Up: The Inside Scoop on Rooftop Agriculture, from New Society Publishers, doesn't officially come out until next month, but Lauren will be celebrating with a book launch event from 6 to 8 p.m. tonight, Wednesday, April 25, at Good Karma Cafe, 928 Pine St. Good Karma Cafe is also hosting an exhibit of Laurens photography, through June 30, 2013.

Lauren describes the book as "a practitioner’s view of how to turn dreams of rooftop farms and gardens into actual spaces that feed people.  The book provides useful insider information geared toward three scales of production:  rooftop gardens, rooftop farms, and the rooftop agriculture industry."

New Society Publishers, a carbon-neutral publishing house in British Columbia, is releasing Eat Up in Canada and the U.S. For more on the book, visit Lauren's blog, eatupag.wordpress.com.

Paper Chase: Art torn from the pages of yesterday's books

story by Liz PachecoTwo years ago, Liddy Russo challenged herself to craft gifts for friends and family without buying new materials. Her solution: Make paper ornaments from old book pages. The spherical origami was so well-received that she started a business, Made by Liddy, and began selling the pieces. “I think it’s really important to use what’s around us instead of having to go out and purchase stuff… [and] I really enjoy working with my hands,” says Russo, who is also a freelance graphic designer.
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Media: A Place of My Own: The Architecture of Daydreams

Did you think we could get through an entire issue of Grid without mentioning Michael Pollan in our media section? Maybe next month.  Best-known for his work on food politics, Michael Pollan’s second book, A Place of My Own (1998, reissued in 2008), focuses on architecture and building, documenting his efforts to construct the titular place of his own.

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Review: Eating Animals

Jonathan Safran Foer has flirted with vegetarianism his entire life. Despite questioning the morality and cultural history of eating meat since childhood, the 32-year-old author of the popular novels Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close wavered between omnivore and vegetarian for years until he became a father.
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