Words by Rachel Cargle
photograph by Wami aluko
It’s not a stretch to use elements of Mother Nature as a lens to explore and appreciate the beautiful, complicated reality of the Black experience, writes Rachel Cargle.
When I was a little girl I often would run my small brown hands through the wet spring soil outside of my Ohio home. The black of the earth always felt familiar to me. The loose dirt would nestle under my fingernails and smear in the creases of my hand. It felt cool and soft—it didn’t surprise me that beautiful things like flowers and fruits might grow from it. As an adult playing in the soil brings me just as much joy, though now it’s most often within small pots on my Brooklyn terrace. Tiny sprouts, suspended in pockets lined up along a wooden wall, holding my favorite herbs, various types of kale, and some of the vegetables I enjoy like green beans and tomatoes.
I never knew how much my ongoing relationship with earth, soil, and things that grow would intersect with and influence my work in adulthood. As a Black woman who often writes and teaches on the topic of Blackness, the earth has been both a classroom and a muse. It’s not a stretch to use elements of Mother Nature as a lens to explore and appreciate the beautiful, complicated reality of the Black experience. More tangibly, the conversation between racial justice and environmental justice are more in relationship than ever.
I’ve been considering all of these things as another Black History Month rolls around for us. The ways Blackness has been a core part of what we know as the American landscape. The additions we’ve made are not just ornamental to what is understood as American culture. It is buried deep into the foundation. We are the roots. It is imperative to acknowledge that so much of what we love, understand, and fight for is indeed rooted in Blackness. This is the Black history I want to consider. The roots of all we have come to appreciate about arts, music, culture, science, and literature are rooted in the expression and expertise of Black people, culture, and community.
The texture of the Blackness is rich and thick and elaborate. It is a tapestry, woven with ancestral knowledge and generational wisdom.
Throughout my childhood education, Black history was positioned as an opportunity to “celebrate” how Black community survived whiteness. They were stories of enslavement, Rosa Parks, MLK, of the ways we fought for our lives generation after generation. There seemed to be no room for the innovation, the intellect, and the creativity of Black folks who used their genius to do other things besides react to the oppressions around them.
A truer attempt to celebrate the roots of Blackness would have unveiled the legacy of the likes of Rosetta Thorpe and her dynamic contributions to the music genre of Rock and Roll. We would have learned the origins of some of our most celebrated cuisines such as Southern gumbo and the way it was connected to the ancestral skills and memories of those enslaved Africans who worked the land. The stories of brilliant scientists would have been mentioned, especially the likes of Daniel Hale WIlliams and his claim to the first successful open heart surgery.
Do you see? The texture of the Blackness is rich and thick and elaborate. It is a tapestry, woven with ancestral knowledge and generational wisdom. This, too, is where the power of rootedness comes in. Now more than ever is a time to tap into the guidance of the most tangible form of our roots—our ancestors. Those who lived on this earth in the years, centuries, and generations before we arrived. They tended to the earth so that we could reap their knowledge, harvest their dreams for us. Connecting with their wisdom leads us to a truth we can be grounded in. Truths that affirm things like our inclinations, our robust community, our prides, and even our sorrows. And I would be remiss not to remind you that our ancestral connections aren’t simply a part of a spiritual practice or religious ritual. The relationship we have with ancestors takes place in the pages of books Black people have written, in the art created while they were alive with us, in the teaching done by people of the diaspora that we still have access to now.
I often think of the quote by Gwendolyn Brooks that states, “We are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s business; we are each other’s magnitude and bond.” It moves me, the idea of being each other’s harvest. The consideration that we have an intergenerational ecosystem that includes the planting, pouring into, tending to, and harvesting of each other—this fortifies me. I hope that we spend this time recognizing how rooted in Blackness we truly are. I hope that time acts as both a reminder and a decree. I hope that we remember the power we all have to dream, reimagine, to celebrate, and to honor what has brought us to this place, and of the possibilities of where we can go. Always rooted, forever growing.