by Carl Anthony
Those of us that came of age during the 1960’s contributed to, and benefited from, the breakthroughs of that turbulent and regenerative time. We have come into maturity and are now poised to offer important leadership and support in achieving the quantum leap in human social and ecological relationships that were seeded by futuristic thinkers of that time. Such leadership, built upon an empowering understanding of the past and an inclusive vision of the future, requires a larger narrative framework, in which struggles for human justice are linked with the stories of Earth and cosmos.
My intention is to contribute to a common story that harnesses the power of the universe story and includes people of non-European descent. Adopting the story of the universe as a framework for thinking about issues of racial oppression can give us a larger perspective in which to conceptualize environmental issues. If we think only in terms of the moment in which we’re struggling, i.e., the rapidly changing post-industrial world, we can feel discouraged. We obviously don’t have enough time to reconstruct our entire social and economic system. However, placing ourselves within the context of the universe story gives us more time and more space in which to shape our story and our strategy.
The evolution of this way of thinking began for me in the late 1980’s when landscape architect Karl Linn and I collaborated on a collection of papers on the theme of the relationship between place and peace, which were assembled into a paperback and presented at the 1988 World Congress of the International Federation of Landscape Architects, called Places for Peace.
Among the many gifts of working on this initiative was my introduction to the writings of Catholic monk, scholar, and eco-philosopher Thomas Berry. During my days of self-searching, Karl handed me a photocopy of Berry’s essay, “The New Story,” suggesting that I might find it relevant. The essay, which became part of Berry’s first book, The Dream of the Earth, was a real turning point for me. Berry points out that humanity is in trouble today because we do not have an adequate story of who we are. This gave me a context in which to think about a larger story—not only of Earth but of social justice as well.
Berry describes humanity as divided between two dominant stories. On one side are those who believe in the power of science and industry to guide us to a safer and more abundant future; and on the other side are those who center their lives on the religious experience of redemption. The problem, according to Berry, is that scientific materialism has caused us to lose touch with spiritual, ethical, and aesthetic dimensions of life, and has led to mass extinctions and an increasingly toxic industrial environment. The adherents of redemption by a divine savior typically have little interest in or connection with the physical world and its environmental and social problems, focusing instead on a heavenly hereafter.
Berry argues that we need a new, unifying story—a creation story that embraces the empirical observations of modern science about the origins of life on this planet, including the genesis of our own species. Ironically, both scientific reductionism and the promise of salvation in the afterlife encourage human beings to be manipulators and consumers of the natural world. Neither of these systems gives humans a basis for belonging. Earlier humans were much more directly connected to plants and animals, mountains and rivers, than today’s industrial way of life allows. Berry asserts that a new creation story could help restore our sense of belonging to the natural world and allow us to reimagine the relationship between European immigrants and indigenous peoples.
I searched Berry’s writings for clues on how to think about race and city planning. While Berry’s insight into our current predicament electrified me, I was disappointed that, while he referenced the historical role of the American Indian, he made no mention of other people of color, particularly that of African Americans. We also needed a new story—a story that would take us beyond the dignity-sapping narrative of slavery and colonialism and empower us to take leadership roles in responding to our global ecological crisis.
I started to recognize a shift in my thinking about the primary needs of African Americans. In the past, I had focused on increasing opportunities for employment and finding a place in the industrial system. Influenced by the new story that Berry articulated, I placed Earth in a much more central position and started envisioning a new set of opportunities that put restoration and justice at the heart of personal and social transformation.
Working on Places for Peace gave me a new starting point—a respite from the contradictions I had been facing as I attempted to use my architectural and planning skills to benefit African Americans. I entered a space in which I could think beyond a purely local context and develop a more global perspective. Suddenly, a new awareness of myself, my purpose, and my role in society emerged. I became dramatically aware of the need to tell the story of African Americans and other people of color, and to support the development of multiracial leadership for the environmental movement.
In 1992, Thomas Berry and astrophysicist and cosmologist Brian Swimme coauthored and published The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era—A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos. I immersed myself in the grand tale of our cosmic origins and billions of years of history. At last, I was encountering a context in which the answers to many of my questions began to gel.
How does our species, Homo sapiens, fit into the vast history of life on this planet? According to Swimme and Berry:
When shape-shifting matter suddenly appeared in human form, a great surprise took place. For a new faculty of understanding was making its appearance, a mode of consciousness characterized by its sense of wonder and celebration as well as by its ability to refashion and use parts of its exterior environment as instruments in achieving its own ends. The story of the human is the story of the emergence and development of this self-awareness and its role within the universe drama.
As I immersed myself in this story, I felt a growing sense of my place in the universe and on Earth. I felt empowered by the discovery that the universe story was large enough to include my unique role, function, status, and relationships, and the parts of my life and work that are important and meaningful to me. I was pleased to realize that I am an end product of billions of years of life in the universe. I began to ask myself how this knowledge of my full ancestry shed light on my life and daily choices.
In her 1992 book Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, Judith Herman observes that victims of captivity or abuse gradually lose touch with their larger environment and begin to increasingly focus their attention on the perpetrators of their abuse. As a therapeutic approach, Herman recommends that people with post-traumatic stress syndrome find a safe place to tell the story of their abuse. They need to tell their story over and over again until it loses its charge.
Although Herman’s study focuses primarily on prisoners of war and battered women, many of the themes she develops could well apply to African Americans whose ancestors were captured and sold into slavery beginning five hundred years ago, and who continue to experience racist attitudes and treatment from society and institutions. In the trauma of slavery, our African ancestors were uprooted from their village communities and cosmological context and placed in a hostile, oppressive, and demeaning environment. After emancipation, abuse and trauma continued, including the Black Codes, Jim Crow laws, housing and job discrimination, racial profiling, and police violence.
Even today, America seems unable to avoid retraumatizing those whose ancestors it once enslaved. Recent African American history is littered with examples of individual and collective betrayal: the dramatic withdrawal of assistance and protection for those freed from slavery when federal support for Reconstruction evaporated; the establishment of segregation via discriminatory Jim Crow laws throughout the South; the denial of federal assistance to black farmers; the denial of loans for purchasing homes to black veterans of World War II; the refusal of home-improvement loans to inner-city residents like my family, which resulted in the deterioration of our neighborhoods; and the allowance of racially restrictive covenants in real estate deeds. White flight resegregated the United States during the 1960s and 1970s; and when African Americans migrated to suburban places, the suburban prosperity they anticipated had evaporated. It reminded me of how duped and distressed I felt upon learning as an adult that William Penn, who had been one of my childhood heroes, had owned slaves and that his father’s enormous wealth had grown out of his participation in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
As a result, many African Americans—myself included—retain an excessive preoccupation with what white people think and do instead of focusing on overcoming the many very real obstacles to our own self-realization and fulfillment. What are we to do with the wounds of such betrayals? The diverse people of European ancestry who surround us black Americans today are not the slave traders who captured our ancestors centuries ago, and our present ecological context is quite different from the environment that our ancestors knew. We have much to learn about how to achieve reconciliation around the intertwined histories of exploitation, of both our labor and our shared environment. How do we move from there to effective common action? A crucial first step is to expose and deconstruct the harmful illusion of racial identity.
In June of 1993, I was invited to a conference on ecopsychology, an emerging field that studies the relationship between human beings and the natural world through ecological and psychological principles. There, I met many well-known psychologists. Theodore Roszak invited me to contribute to his forthcoming book, Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind. I am not a psychologist, but I was told that Roszak’s interview with me, included in the chapter “Ecopsychology and the Deconstruction of Whiteness,” turned out to be the most widely read part of the book. In it, I argue that we cannot make any progress in our damaged relationship with nature without taking the whole notion of race apart at the seams.
The monolithic human identity that has been built around the mythology of pure whiteness is destructive. We must find a way to build a multicultural self that is in harmony with our ecological self. We need to embrace human diversity in our dealings with one another and reject the notion that white people are the mainstream and everybody else is “other.” An ecopsychology that has no place for people of color and that doesn’t deliberately set out to correct the distortions of racism is an oxymoron.
We often assume race to be something clear-cut and solid; we take it to represent real divisions among peoples of the world when, in all actuality, it is an equivocal ideological concept that has very little biological basis. This perceived separation within the human community, mistaken as it is, is deeply reflected in the equally mistaken perception of separation between people and nature. Nature is also defined as “other” in the same way that people outside the dominant group are “other.”
I came to realize that the story of the cosmos can have a transformative effect on the most marginalized populations. For example, when a friend of mine recounted the universe story to an inmate serving a life sentence in San Quentin State Prison, the prisoner remarked, “That changes everything.”
“Know from whence you came,” wrote James Baldwin in the famous letter to his fifteen-year-old nephew, “and there is no limit to where you can go.” As an African American in the United States thinking about my origins, I am fascinated by the ancient geographic connection between North America and Africa during the formation and breakup of the supercontinent, known as Pangaea, hundreds of millions of years ago. The formation of Pangaea included the collision between the continents of North America and Africa that produced the Appalachian Mountains. Later, the continents moved apart, forming the Atlantic Ocean. In my mind, the story of African Americans begins many millions of years ago, when Africa and America were one land and continues for millions of years as they became two geographically distinct places separated by a great ocean. This information is an essential element of African Americans’ place in the story of Earth.
The more I read and reflected on the universe story, the more confident I became that the story of Earth’s formation and our place in its long evolution can give African Americans, Native Americans, and other people of color a larger sense of identity and belonging. Moreover, the story can serve as a corrective to the extremes of hubris and shame that have enabled our oppressors to weaken and disempower us for centuries.
Acting on my new thinking about African Americans, the experience of belonging, and environmentalism, I wrote an essay entitled “Why African Americans Should Be Environmentalists,” which appeared in Call to Action: Handbook for Ecology, Peace and Justice assembled by David Brower’s assistant Brad Erickson. The book consists of short essays by an international roster of activists, including a preface by Jesse Jackson asserting that environmental justice is a human right. I considered my essay to be the first installment of a new story about, and for, African Americans and their allies.
Pondering the writings and vision of Berry and Swimme has sharpened my awareness of the three stories that have engaged my attention most vividly and consistently throughout my life—the stories of the Earth, the city, and the struggle for racial justice. In their introduction to The Universe Story, Berry and Swimme state:
Our aim is to awaken those sensitivities to the great story that enable a rich participation in the ongoing adventure. We offer this brief narrative in the hope that others will fill in what is missing, correct what is improperly presented, and deepen our understanding of the ongoing story.
I continue to do my best to respond to that invitation. And I invite other men and women of color to weave their experience and perspective into the rich tapestry of the Great Story, the one we all share and live together.
Carl Anthony is an African American architect, regional planner, social justice activist, and author. He is the founder and co-director of Breakthrough Communities, a project dedicated to building multiracial leadership for sustainable communities in California and the rest of the nation. He is the former President of the Earth Island Institute and is the co-founder and former executive director of its Urban Habitat Program, one of the first environmental justice organizations to address race and class issues. His recent book, The Earth, the City, and the Hidden Narrative of Race addresses ways to heal the wounds of racism, build equity, and bring people together to protect and restore our shared environments.