Racism, and Care of the Environment

One day when I was very, very young, I sat on the curb in our yard. I was so small that it felt like a comfortable chair. The length of my legs exactly matched the height of the curb. I remember clearly the details of that moment—the roughness of the concrete, how it felt under my hands and on my legs, the cracks in the street, the gravel and soil that had collected in the gutter. I don’t remember being aware that I was a little black girl. I don’t remember being aware of being poor. My clearest memory of that moment is about the earth. I was thinking about the grass and the dirt and that they belonged to me. I was aware of each blade of grass and thinking, “This is my grass, it belongs to me. This is my ground.” I knew that I could act in this world in any way I chose. It belonged to me, and I belonged to it.

My awareness of racism is not as clear a memory. It came on gradually, I think, but the content was clear. Over time little messages I received—from my family, from our neighbors, from the white insurance collectors who came to our house once a week, from the white men who drove the bus past our house every day, from the white family who owned the grocery store on the corner, and from the radio—jelled into a clear statement about who I was and my relationship to that grass and that dirt.

The message was that the world was not mine. It did not belong to me. Once that message was clear to me, I was aware that I was a little black girl and that we were poor. I came to believe that the world belonged to white people and not to black people, not to Indians, not to Mexicans. I did not yet know that there were other people of color in the world.

As I think about it now, I realize that volumes of misinformation had taken shape in my mind and misled me about my place in the world. What I came to believe at that point was that Mexicans were physically beautiful people who were ornamental. Their place in the world was decorative. Native peoples were a bit less beautiful, but stoic and strong, and were enemies of the white people and thoughtlessly mean to them. Good ones could be the white man’s sidekick.1 We black people were not at all beautiful and had no power or value in the world.  We were allowed to be in the world if we were quiet, respectful of white people, and stayed very small.

I saw my parents and other relatives become humble when white people were present and angry when they were not. I learned to behave that way, too. The adults in my family were servants—doing domestic work, mowing lawns, carrying luggage, carrying groceries. But they had learned to disconnect from the people they served and from the world they lived in. I learned it from them.

We did not totally disconnect from the earth, but like sharecroppers we accepted that only a small piece of it could be cared for by us. My family raised a garden and from time to time raised rabbits and chickens. I saw that my people had some happiness around digging in the dirt and growing food and caring for animals. And I also saw some sadness in it, connected to being locked out of the big picture of things.

Racism caused us to become politically humble as well. The position was that it wasn’t our world and it wasn’t our country. Our people were brought here against their will, and we felt no responsibility for or connection to the country. I can remember as a child hearing the news reports on the radio and thinking they were about the big wide world out there, which was just intimidating to me. It had nothing to do with me and my family. When we heard that a family in our neighborhood had gotten on welfare, we rejoiced for them. It was our way of getting something back for the sacrifices our ancestors had made.

When Barack Obama became President,2 I was finally able to claim this country as my own.

That was a step for me in reclaiming my connection to the planet. I am not yet able to fully embrace the attitude of the little girl who knew the world belonged to her, but I can now see the possibility of reclaiming it. The RC Community accepting the new goal on care of the environment at the recent World Conference was another big step in that direction for me. I am seeing many things in a new light now, and I can see myself moving closer to the earth. The shift has a lot to do with moving from using the earth for my benefit (having a garden and a nice lawn) to caring well for the soil and remembering that all living creatures love their life. I am carrying bugs outside now, rather than smashing them (not all of them, but I am getting there). My commitment to recycling has a deeper focus now. I will continue to discharge on this goal and enjoy seeing where it will take me.

Dorothy Marcy
Fayetteville, Arkansas, USA

1 “Sidekick” means subordinate partner.
2 Barack Obama, an African American man, became president of the United States in  January 2009.

Last modified: 2022-12-25 10:17:04+00