They’re Walking Five Days Straight to Honor Harriet Tubman—and Black Women Everywhere

**This article is reposted from Yes! Magazine, a wonderful forum that spreads hope at a time when it may seem as if there is no hope to be had.

The women of GirlTrek are traversing 100 miles of the Underground Railroad to highlight Black female health and wellness.


Have you ever considered the journey endured by historical freedom fighters, those in the abolitionist movement who led thousands of enslaved Africans to freedom mile by mile on foot?

One group of women has. And this week they are walking 100 miles, from sunup to sundown, in the footsteps of Harriet Tubman on the Underground Railroad from the eastern shore of Maryland crossing the Mason–Dixon Line into Delaware and ending at the Tubman Garrett Riverfront Park.

In honor of Tubman, the 10 women walking Harriet’s Great Escape started their five-day journey on March 6 and will finish on March 10, Harriet Tubman Day.

“A lot of people don’t realize that [day] was designated by Congress,” says Vanessa Garrison, one of the 10 women walking.

Garrison is the co-founder of GirlTrek, a national nonprofit that focuses on walking and has grown into a massive public health movement for Black women and girls. In five years, she and co-founder Morgan Dixon, with their leadership team, have motivated more than 100,000 Black women to put self-care first through walking campaigns for both their health and well-being and social justice.

Data have consistently shown that Black Americans, particularly Black women, have higher rates of illness compared to their White counterparts. Black women have the highest risk of Alzheimer’s disease. They have significant rates of mental health issues with some of the lowest levels of treatment. Forty-eight percent of Black women over age 20 have hypertension, and 57 percent of Black women are considered obese. Sexual assault and domestic violence are also high among Black women.

The GirlTrek leaders say Black women who fought for liberation—historical figures like Tubman, who was herself once enslaved and led thousands to freedom, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Ella Baker, civil rights leaders—have been their inspiration to inspire other Black women and girls.

Free yourself first, then the masses, or at least all those who are willing to come along.

Daina Ramey Berry, historian and author of The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation, says stories like Tubman’s are particularly important in our current socio-political climate.

“Harriet Tubman’s legacy of liberation embodies the American promise of freedom and justice,” Berry says. “Young Black girls and women benefit from [her] legacy because they see someone who looks like them represented and celebrated.”

For example, she says, it’s a big deal that Tubman is the first African American woman who was a former enslaved person to appear on federally sanctioned currency.

In April 2016, then-Treasury Secretary Jack Lew announced that Tubman would replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill when the bill is redesigned in the late 2020s. However, the current secretary under the Trump administration has hedged on that, simply saying, “Ultimately we will be looking at this issue.”

But Berry, Garrison, Dixon, and many others believe Tubman should be celebrated. There are numerous social justice organizations across the country named after Tubman. And there’s the Harriet Tubman Byway in Maryland, where visitors can drive the historic Underground Railroad route.

The GirlTrek organization has been celebrating Tubman since 2013, the centennial of her death. Their first #WeAreHarriet celebration had more than 20,000 women participate nationwide in the largest mobile tribute in the country. Through the years, the #WeAreHarriet campaign has evolved into a larger celebration filled with walks, house parties, and health-related gatherings across the country.

The women say they are leading by example, as Tubman did: Free yourself first, then the masses, or at least all those who are willing to come along.

“We will show and prove that 2018 is about radical courage and unshakeable sisterhood,” Dixon said. “To reach 1 million Black women by 2020, we knew we needed to be even bolder and hold this unprecedented trek. Harriet Tubman saved her own life first and then went back time after time to save the lives of others giving us the blueprint for the work GirlTrek does today. This is radical self-care at its core.”

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Review of James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird

the good lord bird

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

So, lest you think that I just haven’t been reading, let me say straight away that I have indeed been soaking up the fiction. I just haven’t been blown away by anything lately. Believe me, it’s been rough.

For some reason I got caught up in the whole Oprah’s Book Club craze and the number of five-star reviews the books in question had. One of the offenders was Imbolo Imbue’s Behold The Dreamers (2016) which, I’ll admit, while I was reading, I couldn’t put down. It is definitely a page-turner. However, after I was done reading I just kind of closed the book and sighed, “meh”. Not the lasting impression one wants from almost 400 pages of investment.

Nonetheless, I will say that I did find a couple of novels that, while they did not wow me at the first first reading, I found would be useful in the classroom. So I will let you know what they were and will be reviewing them as the semester winds down.

Last week during my usual trolling of Amazon’s website, drooling over the latest releases  and admonishing myself for the shameful number of books that I have on my bookshelves with no intention of getting to anytime soon, I happened upon the most recent gem from the wondrous James McBride, a short story collection entitled Five Carat Soul (2017). I didn’t buy it, but I remembered that one of my favorite novels of all time, Song Yet Sung (2009), was by a younger him. Then there is the memoir that put him on the proverbial literary map, The Color of Water: a Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother (2006) which I haven’t read and doubt that I will. His first novel, Miracle at St. Anna: A Novel of World War II (2003) was adapted into film by  Spike Lee ( the Netflix series based on Lee’s brilliant early film She’s Gotta Have It rocked my world!). I am keen on reading Kill ‘Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul (2016) mostly because the last interview that I saw with James Brown made it clear to me that the genius that he was meant that he was in a lot of pain.

I decided to read The Good Lord Bird (2013) mostly because I love novels with weird titles. They intrigue me. The book description sent me over the top: basically in 1857 Kansas Territory a young slave boy, Henry Shackleford is kidnapped by the infamous John Osawatomie Brown and mistaken for a girl whom Brown decides to call The Onion. The story of Brown’s bible-driven crusade to “free the Negroes” as told by young “Henrietta” aka The Onion, turns out to be less about the evils of slavery and much more of a young boy’s adventure tale.

I had a bit of a hard time getting a handle on the writing at first, assuming that it would follow the general thinking behind novels that have slavery as their subjects–slavery was bad and any struggle against it should be applauded. I talked about the novel to anyone who would listen, so fascinated by this odd creative project that McBride had committed himself to. Finally, while talking with a dear colleague of mine about the narrative I learned that the proper name for the genre is  picaresque: an episodic style of fiction dealing with the adventures of a rough and dishonest but appealing hero. That is surely what The Good Lord Bird is; a beautifully crafted and masterfully conceived and written reimagining of a time that has had such a lasting impact on history through the eyes of a dishonest lazy little boy coming into manhood who masquerades as a girl in order to save his skin. There were a few times when, in the stillness of my home while reading, I found myself shouting “Blasphemy!” Making fun of the legendary Frederick Douglass! I mean, what kind of fool doesn’t desire freedom?!

For a poignant explanation of some of the irreverent humor found in the book see this five minute PBS interview.


McBride has definitely got some balls. He takes chances that, I think, with a less skilled writer, would not be possible. But it’s James McBride!! And I trusted that he knew what he was doing. With that trust came a relaxing into the narrative that made for perfect wintertime, snowed in for the weekend reading. It was a 417-page investment well-made. I would do it again in a heartbeat.

For those who aren’t willing to make the time and imaginative investment, The Good Lord Bird is being made into a movie starring Jaden Smith and Liev Schreiber!! Woohoo!


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Eastern Market and the DIA


Ever since I moved to this part of the U.S. I’ve wanted to learn more about Detroit than simply that it was the home of Motown–a feat in itself. I knew that it had once been a hub of financial and cultural innovation, but, as I understood it, had undergone a significant decline with the decimation of the U.S. auto industry. Since moving here, I’ve learned of the work around regenerating the city through greening projects, urban gardening, and the introduction of new industries into the city. I have only recently learned of the 1967 riots in which several lives were lost and A LOT of property was destroyed. According to “In the five days and nights of violence 33 blacks and 10 whites were killed, 1,189 were injured and over 7,200 people were arrested.  Approximately 2,500 stores were looted and the total property damage was estimated at about $32 million. The “riot” continues to be controversial. In fact, it is referred to alternately as “The 1967 Riot”, “The 12th Street Riot”, “the Detroit Race Riot”, and “The 1967 Rebellion” with each nomenclature having its own distinctive connotation. I am just beginning to learn about this significant, though seemingly neglected time in American history–but that’s a post for another day.

A couple of weeks ago I awoke to a gorgeous Saturday morning and decided on a jaunt to Detroit. I had a plan: I would first make my way to Eastern Market, a place I’ve been advised to check out since I arrived in Michigan.  Then I’d make my way down the road to the Detroit Institute of Arts which, because of my work, has been emailing me a listing of their weekly activities since I arrived at the university. Just a few days before my excursion to the big city I had learned that, to honor the anniversary of the Detroit Rebellion, the DIA was hosting a special exhibit to commemorate art by and about African Americans and the history of rebellion/revolution in the 1960s and 70s. So within about 3 hours of my decision I had arrived at the Eastern Market, finding myself in the midst of a heart of a cacophony of sounds and smells on the sidewalks that reminded me vaguely of West African and Caribbean popular markets that I have visited and relished over the years and strongly of Harlem, New York before former Mayor Rudy Guiliani got ahold of it in the 1990s. The sheds that held some of the vendors in their neatly allotted spaces with their expertly arranged tables reminded me of the “African” market way down 135th Street in Harlem after Guiliani got ahold of it.

eastern market

My greatest find from the vendors was a gorgeous, gigantic bunch of collard greens for the incredible price of $1.50, which my partner and I sautéed up, made its way into a couple of my juices, and just plain ole delighted me for almost a week!  I also got some blue oyster mushrooms, which I think I cooked too long because they were quite dry (not cool), and some sun-dried roma tomatoes from Sicily, Italy. I snacked on a bunch of them before I made my way out of the market and have been adding them to all of my cooking (mostly the sautéed collards and the arugula that we’ve been harvesting from our garden almost everyday) for the past week–yum!!!!

I had some wonderful conversations with some of the vendors about their processes and sourcing. But while the selection was nice, I found myself missing the quiet of my local market; the one in downtown Ypsilanti, where I visit with the lovely farmers, ask them to hold things for me for the next market, touch, sniff, and savor the produce, buy my coffee beans and talk with the guy who roasted them just a couple of days before, and get a front row seat to pretty good local musicians whose parents also show up to cheer them on and work the crowd–good times!

At the Eastern Market I was treated to a lovely young lady, 15 years old, very talented, busking–playing violin–to raise money for her lessons and go to college in a few years.


After a little over an hour I finally quit the activity of the market to go over the DIA for the exhibit–a major treat and highly recommended. When I arrived at the museum I found a temporary stage on which some of the students (a couple as young as 5) were breakdancing to the music provided by a talented dj nearby.


I got to make a bit of art–spray paint my very own lady Day of the Dead stencil on a record album.

day of the dead

I almost reluctantly proceeded into the museum (remember, the weather was gorgeous) to the exhibit. Once inside and faced with the work I was inspired, but also saddened by what I saw, especially given the current socio-political context. There were a number of haunting pieces; one of which featured the faces, names, and birth/death dates of the three young men who were murdered by police in the Algiers Motel in 1967. Below their portraits are the names and birth/death dates of several African American men and women who have, in the past few years, been murdered by the police all over the country.

Below is a a small sampling of the very poignant pieces included in the exhibit:

I encourage you to actually click on and read the commentary on the last art piece, “Say Her Name” by Antonia Clifford, a white artist, as it is perhaps, as important as the work itself. It also raises an issue that has been thrust back into the spotlight in the past few months with the release of Detroit, written by Mark Boal and directed by Kathryn Bigelow and the art piece by Dana Schultz, “Open Casket” with the brutal murder of the 14 year old Emmitt Till as its subject. For an informed and informative conversation about these two recently released art forms as well as the controversy around HBO’s proposed release of the series, Confederate, check out the podcast, “Still Processing” with Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham.


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Review of Will Allen’s The Good Food Revolution

good food revolutionFor the past three years or so I’ve been collecting books on black people’s historical and contemporary relationship with farming. My love affair with the topic began when I tuned into John Robbin’s Food Revolution Summit, which I had been doing since its inception. Although I love and respect the work that John and Ocean Robbins do with their FREE yearly summit, in the early days of the summit I couldn’t help but lament the absence of black voices as experts on the topics of food, health, nutrition, the inextricable human relationship to the earth and its other precious inhabitants. I must say that the Robbins are responsive to their audience: they just recently sent out a survey asking which food activists people would like to have featured in next year’s summit. Go here if you’d like to chime in.

I was delighted when a couple of years back one of the speakers interviewed during the summit was Will Allen, son of a sharecropper, former professional basketball player, and executive of KFC and Proctor and Gamble turned farmer and founder of the U.S.’s preeminent sustainable urban farm, Growing Power. For his tireless work with urban farming Allen was awarded a MacArthur “Genius” Award/Fellowship, the proceeds of which he completely reinvested in his sustainable urban farm. As Allen explains early in his book, The Good Food Revolution: Growing Healthy Food, People and Communities (2012), blacks have a fraught relationship with the earth resultant from their ancestral experience in the United States of slavery and sharecropping with a legacy that is still very much present and prescient today.

After a few false starts—I’d spot the book on my bookshelf, pick it up and read a few pages, put it down—a few days before my trip to Virginia this past June I decided that it was time to dive in and I am so glad I did. Allen’s story is truly inspiring. The work that he is doing to not only bring fresh healthy food to disfranchised communities, but also empower people to truly take their destinies into their own hands is nothing short of miraculous.

In The Good Food Revolution Allen not only recounts his journey from corporate worker to urban farmer and activist, but he provides compelling detours into the lives of those who have worked closely with him almost from the very beginning, namely Karen Parker and her two children, DeShawn and DeShell Walker. He also recounts, in for me, an interesting way his bout with two cancer diagnoses. I say that his way of writing about his diagnoses is interesting because he seems to treat them as just another of the many obstacles that he had to overcome in his quest to build his urban garden into a movement—they are never the focus of his story.

For someone who might be interested in getting into urban gardening Allen provides detailed descriptions of his hydroponic tilapia fish operation as well as his vermiculture production and multi-tiered growing system, making these somewhat daunting endeavors seem quite doable. I looked up Allen’s website,, and found that his organization sells the worms as well as the castings for composting.

In many ways the book strikes me as one that strives to appeal to a broad swath of people, regardless of race or economic background. It, however, cannot be ignored that Allen is a 6’7″ black man in Milwaukee, another of the infamous most segregated cities in America, empowering people who have been historically disfranchised because of their race and economic condition and conditioning. As such, his discussion towards the end of the book about his entering into a collaborative partnership with Walmart was disturbing to say the least. He says about the collaboration:

I was not unaware of the reputation that Walmart had in the progressive community. For years, Walmart has been viewed as undercutting small businesses with its pricing, making it difficult for family businesses to survive. The addition of supermarket megastores in the mid-1990s has made the corporation the largest food retailer in the United States, and the company has undoubtedly contributed to the decades-long trend that has made it difficult for smaller grocers and a regional system to thrive (224).

Nonetheless, as a self-described pragmatist, Allen concludes that simply wishing Walmart gone was not going to make it go away and if the company was going to buy more local food, then he was willing to partner with it to try to make that happen (224-5).

While I agree with Allen in principle it seems to me that in entering into a “partnership” with big business he runs the risk of handing over the power that he has worked so hard to secure for himself and his community to that same big business. At this point I am hard-pressed to find a well-known chain of supermarkets that is controlled by people of color. I remember standing in a Kroger market a few days after November 8th and reflecting on this fact. If Kroger and Meijers and Whole Foods and Trader Joes and Lucky’s decided that my neighborhood was no longer profitable for them my neighbors and I would be f**ked! So, as soon as spring hit my beloved and I got our first community garden plot. We’ve got zucchini and tomatoes and peppers, collards, arugula, and kale, coming out the wazoo already. I supplement our bounty with my Saturday morning trips to the farmers market in downtown Ypsi where I spend the time catching up with my cherished farmer friends and asking questions about how best to prepare the gorgeous produce that they bring especially for me each week. I am fortunate to live somewhere where this is an option.

Despite the difference in outlook regarding Walmart I am grateful that Will Allen exists in this world and in his community. I am grateful for the work that he has dedicated his life to. I am grateful for the immeasurable difference that he is making in people’s lives. He is truly a gift.

My only other uneasiness with The Good Food Revolution is that while Allen talks briefly about his wife, Cyndy, relatively early in the book, she quickly falls away. I found myself wondering at several points in the text how she felt about all the changes the family underwent over the years.

For parents who might be interested in introducing their children to Will Allen’s work a children’s book, Farmer Will Allen and The Growing Table (2013) would be a good bet.

farmer will allen



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Black People and the Environment #1


madison market

Madison, Wisconsin’s Bounty

I spent a good number of my adult years in places that had vibrant farmers markets: Brooklyn, New York and Madison, Wisconsin, for example. Since moving to Michigan a couple of years ago, I’ve been thinking more and more about black people’s relationship to the earth. One of the reasons that I was excited about moving to this part of the country was because I learned that Michigan’s farmers markets accept public assistance vouchers, cards, or tokens and even enables people to stretch their food dollars so that they have access to more fresh fruits and veggies. Read about Double Up here.

In thinking about wonderful programs like Double Up I also had to consider the other side of the proverbial coin. I considered what (too) many black and brown people actually eat on a regular basis; what kinds of and how much exercise we get; where we live. For the purposes of this particular post I considered what some of the environmental factors affecting black and brown Americans are. Why are so many of us plagued by largely avoidable dis-eases like high blood pressure, diabetes, fibroids, cancers? With all the news around the Flint Water Crisis shortly after my arrival here I began to think about our physical environments as possibly one spoke in a many pronged wheel called Environmental Racism, which Vann R. Newkirk II from The Atlantic proposes is the New Jim Crow.

Before I get to some examples of environmental racism, I’ll pass along a pretty straight forward definition of the term from “”:

Environmental Racism: The placement of low-income or minority communities in the proximity of environmentally hazardous or degraded environments, such as toxic waste, pollution and urban decay.

Forms of environmental racism include, but are not limited to:

  • greater probability of exposure to environmental hazards
  • uneven negative impacts of environmental procedures
  • uneven negative impacts of environmental policies
  • intentional targeting and zoning of toxic facilities in minority communities
  • segregation of minority workers in hazardous jobs
  • minority communities with little access to or insufficient maintenance of environmental amenities, for example, parks
  • and disproportionate access to environmental services such as garbage removal.

Now, onto a few examples of Environmental Racism:



A nail after one month of exposure to Detroit water (above) and Flint River water (below) Each nail was rinsed in flowing water before taking the picture.

It’s important to recognize that the Flint Water Crisis is just one of numerous instances in which the lives and health of poor black and brown people come last in the list of considerations with regard to corporate profit potential. A few months ago I learned about Cancer Alley, an area along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans in Louisiana, so named because of the cluster of cancer patients living in the shadow of several industrial plants. Again, this is but one of too many areas to name in the U.S. where poor people of color are regularly subjected to unconscionable disregard for their lives in the face of the U.S.’s endemic racism and corporate greed.


A mound of oil drums near the Baton Rouge ExxonMobil Refinery, 1972

The black community’s affluence is not always as much of a factor as color in cases of environmental racism. Consider Houston, Texas where studies beginning in the late 1970s and continuing into the 2000s show Houston’s black and brown neighborhoods bearing the brunt of city-owned and privately-owned landfills, incinerators, and garbage transfer stations. This pattern has persisted for more than eight decades.

Get more info about environmental injustices facing black and brown people in Houston at Dr. Robert Bullard’s (the father of Environmental Justice) website.

Here are some other examples:

Warren County, North Carolina

Racism and environmental justice unified for the first time during the 1983 citizen opposition to a proposed PCB landfill in Warren County, North Carolina after North Carolina state officials decided to bury soil contaminated with toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in Afton, a small town in Warren County.

Between June 1978 and August 1978, 30,000 gallons of PCB-contaminated waste were illegally deposited along 210 miles of North Carolina roads. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared the PCBs a threat to public health and required the state to remove the polluted waste.

In 1979, the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources and EPA Region 4 selected Warren County as the site to deposit the PCB-contaminated soil that was collected from the roadsides.

Why there, you ask? Warren County is one of the six counties along the “black belt” of North Carolina and as such, is significantly poorer than the rest of the state. For example, in the early 1980s the residents in Warren County earned an average per capita income of $6,984 compared to $9,283 for the rest of the state. In addition, in 1980, the population of Warren County was 54.5% African-American.

The site of the landfill was not scientifically feasible due to the shallow water table, with the drinking water only 5–10 feet below the surface.

In 1982, the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People filed a lawsuit in the district courts to block the landfill. The residents lost the case in court.

In September 1982, the outraged citizens of Warren County, joined by civil rights groups, environmental leaders, and clergymen protested the first truckloads of PCB contaminated soil. During the protest, over 500 people were arrested and jailed. Despite the protests and scientific evidence that the plan would cause drinking water contamination, the Warren County PCB Landfill was built and the toxic waste was placed in the landfill.

After nearly two decades of suspected leaks, state and federal sources paid a contractor $18 million to detoxify the PCB contaminated soil in Warren County.

Check out this short documentary on the crisis and the community’s response to it:

Chicago, Illinois

Altgeld Gardens is a housing community located in south Chicago that was built in 1945 on an abandoned landfill to accommodate returning African American WW II veterans. Surrounded by 53 toxic facilities and 90% of the city’s landfills, the Altgeld Gardens area became known as a “toxic doughnut.”

With 90% of its population African-American, and 65% below the poverty level, Altgeld Gardens is considered a classic example of environmental racism.

The known toxins and pollutants affecting the Altgeld Gardens area include mercury, ammonia gas, lead, dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), heavy metals, and xylene. The residents of Altgeld Gardens are surrounded by landfills, a chemical waste incinerator, and piles of loose trash.

In 1984, a study by Illinois Public Health Sector revealed excessive rates of prostate, bladder, and lung cancer.

Additionally, medical records have indicated (1) high rates of children born with brain tumors, (2) high rates of fetuses that had to be aborted after tests revealed that the brains were developing outside the skull, and (3) higher rates of asthma, ringworm, and other ailments.

Despite evidence of health problems, the residents of Altgeld Gardens have not been relocated to another public housing project.

altgeld housing

1974 gas tank leak forced Altgeld residents from their homes

Chester, Pennsylvania

Chester, Pennsylvania provides an example of “social, political, and economic forces that shape the disproportionate distribution of environmental hazards in poor communities of color”.

Although Delaware County, an area with a population of 500,000 that, excluding Chester, is 91% white, Chester is 65% African American, with the highest minority population and poverty rate in Delaware County. It is also the recipient of a disproportionate amount of environmental risks and hazards.

Chester has five large waste facilities including a trash incinerator, a medical waste incinerator, and a sewage treatment plant. These waste sites in Chester have a total permitted capacity of 2 million tons of waste per year while the rest of Delaware County has a capacity of merely 1,400 tons per year.

One of the waste sites located in Chester is the Westinghouse incinerator, which burns ALL of the municipal waste from the ENTIRE county and SURROUNDING states.

Not surprisingly, the cancer rate in this area is 2.5 times higher than it is anywhere else in Pennsylvania. The mortality rate is also 40% higher than the rest of Delaware County and the child mortality rate is the highest.

New Orleans, Louisiana

At the time of Hurricane Katrina 60.5% of New Orleans residents were African American, nearly 50% higher than the rest of the United States.

We cannot overlook the fact that the stage for what happened in New Orleans was set decades before the catastrophe. Pre-existing racial disparities in wealth within New Orleans worsened the outcome of Hurricane Katrina for minority populations.

For example, institutionalized racial segregation of neighborhoods left black and brown  members more likely to live in low-lying areas that were more vulnerable to the devastating effects of the hurricane.

Additionally, hurricane evacuation plans relied heavily on the use of cars and personal vehicles. However, because black and brown populations are less likely to own cars, some people had no choice but to stay behind, while white majority communities were able to escape.

A report commissioned by the U.S. House of Representatives found that political leaders failed to consider the fact that “100,000 city residents had no cars and relied on public transit”, and the city’s failure to complete its mandatory evacuation led to hundreds of deaths.

In the months following the disaster, political, religious, and civil rights groups, celebrities (remember Kanye‘s pronouncement), and New Orleans residents spoke out against what they believed was racism on the part of the United States government.

hurricane katrina

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina

Detroit, Michigan

The southwest region of Detroit, in the zip code of 48217, there is heavy industry, led by Marathon Oil Refinery, and including Severstal Steel, US Steel, Detroit Edison Coal Plant, U.S. Gypsum (USG), and the Detroit Wastewater Plant (the single largest sewage plant in the U.S.), all within a one mile radius of one another surrounding a community of about 25,000 people, according to the National Environmental Justice & Community Partnership Program and Sierra Club Detroit. More importantly, they are within hundreds of feet of neighborhoods and schools.

These industries pollute with a variety of effluents, which impact local air and waterways. For example, there’s a mountain of petroleum coke, a byproduct of Marathon Oil’s tar sands processing, on the edge of the Detroit River. The mountain is a full city block long and stands three stories high.

Despite outrage from local businesses and residents, the EPA says the material is not carcinogenic, although it’s not clear what effect this material would have if significant amounts entered the Great Lakes.

petroleum coke detroit

Petroleum Coke at the Detroit River

A little background, please? In the 1950s, heavy industry began to grow in this area and workers moved to be close to their jobs.

According to one of those workers, Delores Leonard, when she and her husband bought their house on Bassett Street in 1955, it was one of the few places that African Americans could buy homes (the zip code is currently 85 percent African American, 10 percent Caucasian, 5 percent Latino).

She also remembers that people in the neighborhood would cover their cars with tarps to protect them from the soot raining down from nearby industries and pitting the paint. No one thought, at the time, that it could harm their health.

Now, this community is rife with cancers, asthma, skin problems, and cardiovascular disease.

Big business at its best and worst: Marathon announced in 2007 that it was going to begin a $2.2 billion expansion to enable the plant to process tar sands. There was a hope for jobs, but it has been estimated that Detroiters received fewer than five of those jobs – and those few went to residents from other areas of the city.

At the same time, Marathon requested and received a more than $1 million tax abatement from the city of Detroit, while 48217 received no relief and watched the dust cloud thicken and their property values continue their freefall.

Many have lived in that community their whole lives and are unwilling to leave. Others simply can’t afford to as their home’s value is not enough to allow them to move. Homeowners in the area list their homes for sale in 48217 as low as $2,300, $4,900, and $6,000. I was, in fact, just last week, reading an article about a young white man who bought a house in Detroit for…wait for it…$500. Read the article here.

In order to get government action, the residents of 48217 attended meetings with the city, and then took their own environmental samples, which showed 20 toxic gases, including ethyl benzene, a product of oil refinement.

A silver lining for some? This positive link between blatant pollution and Marathon Oil brought the company to the table, and the company subsequently agreed to buy out many homeowners that were being adversely affected by their operations.

Since that time, Marathon Oil has contracted to buy out 13 homes at Liebold and Pleasant, and 480 homes in nearby Oakwood Heights (both in 48217).

Many of those people wanted to stay and have Marathon clean up its operations so their neighborhood could be livable again.

Duplin County, North Carolina

Most recently I was watching a documentary called What the Health? (available on Netflix) about big business’s role (with government sanctioning) in our nation’s current health crisis. One of the communities featured in the film is Duplin County. Many of the residents are plagued by diarrhea, eye irritation, depression, asthma, impaired neurobehavioral and pulmonary function, and cancer.

Who lives there? Twenty-five percent of Duplin County residents are black, and over 20 percent are Hispanic. An analysis conducted by WaterKeeper Alliance found that out of 2,246 pig concentrated animal feeding operations in the state, only 12 have been required to obtain permits under the Clean Water Act. The rest operate under lax state permit guidelines. A 2014 study conducted by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that black people are 1.54 times more likely to reside near these hog operations in North Carolina than white people, Hispanics are 1.39 times more likely, and Native Americans are 2.18 times more likely.

Again, these are but a few of the numerous ways that the environment can be seen as evidence of the way a racist ideology grounded in capitalist greed undergirds much of the U.S.’s past and current housing policies with regard to black and brown people.


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On Botanic(al) Garden(s) and Arboretums

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Brooklyn’s Botanic Gardens

A couple of weeks ago I traveled to Norfolk, Virginia to visit my absolutely stunning aunt who is the equally stunning age of 78, last count. It has become a practice of mine, whenever I visit a city, to spend time in its botanic(al) garden(s) and arboretums. I have come to believe that you can tell a lot about a city by the state of its nature spaces. As to be expected, New York City has an absolutely amazing botanic garden. Every time I travel to New York, Brooklyn more specifically, I spend a few hours there, never really feeling like I’ve taken in enough of its gorgeous wonder. This particular nature space was a lifesaver for me and my little guy at the time (he’s now a grown man), who also loved it there. The garden was within walking distance of our tiny apartment on the top floor of a lovely house that was in terrible disrepair and which was unbearably hot in the summertime. We couldn’t afford an air conditioner. That said, in recent years, the gardens have become heavily policed so that the ease with which I used to wander around, sometimes taking my ESL classes there for whole afternoons when I lived in Brooklyn, has fallen to memory. Gentrification maybe (yep, sounds about right).

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Madison’s Arboretum

Madison, Wisconsin also has a lovely arboretum—one where the visitor can just sort of roam free. I remember on several occasions, wondering if anyone really took care of the grounds or if the paths had simply been carved out by seekers like me. There’s something huge to be said for spaces that give one the illusion of wildness, especially if one is in the midst of several years of grueling, isolating, soul-crushing graduate research and dissertation writing (teasing).

Gosh, I miss that place!

Although, admittedly, I would often pass it right by and find myself heading towards the highway because it was so tucked away. I’m sure you can see how its location would be both a pro and a con.

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Madison’s Olbrich Botanical Gardens

Madison’s Olbrich Botanical Gardens is also pretty nice, voted #1 of the five best gardens in Wisconsin, although I don’t remember it—AT ALL (I’ll have to go back, I guess).

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Dallas Botanical Garden and Arboretum

I was in Dallas, Texas last year in April for a conference. The conference was fine—nothing to write home about, which I think has more to do with my disillusionment with academia than the actual conference (but that’s a post for another day). Although my panel of which I was the chair was not terribly well-attended (one of the issues with large conferences and multiple simultaneous panels) my presentation went well. The people who were supposed to be there were there and they picked up what I was putting down. The article on which the presentation was based can be found here (the link will only work for the first 50 visitors). It’s about “workings of the spirit” (love that turn of language) on Julia Alvarez’s memoir, A Wedding in Haiti (2012).

Anyways…after my presentation I had a few hours before my flight back to my current “home” city so I decided to leave the hotel and visit nature—just to say “hi.” My son had told me that Uber was a safe, easy, and cheap way of getting around so, standing outside the hotel where the conference was held I downloaded the app onto my little-ol’ smartphone and within 10 minutes I was in the clean car of a lovely, relatively young black man who expressed the importance of having multiple income streams and provided a running commentary on the city as we drove. Sadly, one of most memorable aspects of his narration was his assessment of the isolation of the Mexican community of Dallas—profound. It’s always interesting to consider if a group’s isolation is self-imposed or imposed on them—and where is the line? But I digress…

I could feel my whole body relax as soon as I stepped out of the car, because while I didn’t feel like Dallas was particularly congested or polluted, I have come to recognize trees as my dear friends and relatives. They soothe me and provide the balm for my physical and spiritual healing just by their presence. I, unfortunately, wore the wrong shoes to go trail-walking. Nonetheless, I toughed it out (thank you, feet!!—I love you!!) and it was worth every pinch of my poor toes. I had brought along with me my kindle with Awakening to Kali: The Goddess of Radical Transformation by Sally Kempton (2014) and, after a couple of hours of walking along some of the most wonderfully managed grounds I’ve thus far encountered, found a bench facing a forested area and read most of the book. I was, indeed, transformed, transported. I fell in love. With what, you ask? Too many entities to name on that particular afternoon.

I boarded my plane, heading “home” later that afternoon feeling rejuvenated and renewed.

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Ghana’s Aburi Botanical Gardens

Going back quite a few years, my son and I visited Ghana’s Aburi Botanical Gardens when we were there. I remember taking a very long and winding trotro (local transport) ride through mountains and valleys before finally coming to a place that screamed of wilderness—but it wasn’t. It was a truly well-cared for haven with a plethora of “exotic” plants and flowers to behold. I can’t remember much about the actual gardens, but I do remember walking under an eve made of vines and having a profound feeling of being safe and sheltered. The other thing I remember was finding lobster claws, these darlingly vibrant flowers that I had first seen when Ruby and I visited Jamaica’s botanical gardens; another place/space that I loved.

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Jamaica’s Hope Botanical Gardens

When my kid and I visited Jamaica’s Hope Botanical Gardens and Zoo (needless to say, we did not visit the zoo part) he was only about 5 or 6  years old. We had gone down there to spend two weeks—he thought—lying on the beach and swimming in the clear blue ocean. Needless to say, when his mama got bored and came upon the crazy idea to venture out to other parts of the island he balked. The bull in him came out in full force that day and for a full half hour, at least, he refused to move himself from a small boulder just within the compound in which we were staying. Fortunately for me, I am equally stubborn and when the little bus that came to take us to the gardens arrived we boarded. It was there that I came upon my first encounter with a lobster claw. I was in love.

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Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens

I lived in Buffalo, New York for about five years and visited its botanical gardens only once when I first moved there. It was my birthday and I made my visit there my present to myself. I was sadly, badly disappointed. It was there that I came to understand that if gardens and arboretums are not in a major city that could and would support them then it was necessary to have the support of a local university that has the resources and assumed commitment that it takes to provide a sanctuary to its community and visitors. If the University at Buffalo was at all involved in supporting the botanical gardens there then I saw no evidence of it. That said, the volunteer that I met in the gift shop deserved props for her commitment to serving her community in such a visceral way. Those men and women who work to keep what exists of their arboreal collection alive must also be recognized. It would be nice if the money that is spent on things that do less for the community were diverted to projects such as this.

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Ann Arbor’s Maathai Botanical Gardens

In Ann Arbor, the city I now call “home”, the botanical gardens and the arboretum are two separate entities in two very different parts of the city. I love them both so much and since I have a little cash now that I have a paying gig, I am a proud member. I love the name of the botanical gardens because it reminds me of Wangari Maathai, the beautiful Kenyan woman who stood up to the capitalist bullies who would cut down every tree in their path on their way to profit. I spend A LOT of time at both of the gardens, depending how I’m feeling on which day.

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Ann Arbor’s Nichols Arboretum

This brings me right around to my earlier comment about the importance of having a university that is invested in its community as The University of Michigan has taken it upon itself to make sure that these gorgeous gardens and nature spaces are true havens that are accessible to EVERYONE!! Visitors only pay for parking at Maathai, but I feel like, if you walked into the gift shop and told the gentle souls there that you didn’t have money they wouldn’t deny you entry. At The Arb, if you can get there you just go in and spend your day breathing in the deliciousness that is its gift to the world. When I say, “if you can get there” I do not mean to imply that The Arb is in some far off place. Its, in fact, right smack in the middle of a neighborhood that is accessible by bus. The botanical gardens are, at the moment, a little less accessible because its on a road that doesn’t have sidewalks and people drive, easily, 50 m/h. However, I learned just the other day that they are building a bridge from Gallup Park, another gem of A2, to the gardens. I think it’s a little over a mile long—very exciting!!

I have digressed—wandered as it were.

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Norfolk Botanical Gardens

Back to Norfolk: I had gone to visit my aunt with a purpose having everything to do with my African diasporic womaness. I had been down there many years before, under vastly different circumstances, and spent most of my time on the beach then. I’ve never been a big beach fan. In fact, the one day we did go on this trip was lovely and relaxing, but I’m still trying to get sand out of my bag. I don’t like that.

Just before I traveled I looked up Norfolk’s Botanical Garden and learned that during the Great Depression when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt came up with the brilliant idea for the WPA, 200 African American women and 20 African American men were commissioned to break ground on the land. I had to go! As soon as my plane landed and we performed the requisite kisses and hugs I asked my aunt if we could visit the gardens the next day. It turns out my aunt had never been! I cannot say enough about the place/space. Even these photos do not do it justice. You must visit yourself.

**By the by, if you’re a member of another reciprocal botanical garden, you don’t pay admission.

Enjoy the photos!!

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Posted in African-American, nature | 1 Comment

Yoga and Meditation: 3 Brothahs Doing Amazing Things




From the book, You Are a Lion! and Other Fun Yoga Poses by Taeeun Yoo

Three young Brothahs are doing some a-maaaaazing work in their community of Baltimore, Maryland. Check out the work of Andres Gonzales, and Ali and Atman Smith, co-founders of  the Holistic Life Foundation.

Check out this very cool interview with Atman as part of the Unify Summit spearheaded by the Panacea Community founder, Nathan Crane.

When you’re done with that, watch Ali and Atman’s Ted Talk at Columbia University’s Teaching College.

Finally, when you’re done with that, check out Holistic Life Foundation’s Ted Talk in Charlottesville, featuring two of the organization’s young, gifted, and black proteges.

Holistic Life Foundation is a Baltimore-based organization committed to nurturing wellness in underserved communities through yoga and mindfulness practices.

About the founders of

Ali-Smith-square.jpgAli Smith learned yoga and meditation from his parents, and by visiting ashrams as a child. He has over 12 years of experience teaching yoga and mindfulness to diverse populations. He has helped develop and pilot yoga and mindfulness programs with at-risk youth at drug treatment centers, mental crisis facilities, and in many other underserved communities around the world.

Atman Smith is a native of Baltimore, MD who’s parents were yogis that taught him contemplative practices as a very young child. For the past twelve years he has been teaching yoga and mindfulness to a diverse population.

andres gonzalez-squareAndres Gonzalez has been practicing and teaching yoga for the past 12 years to diverse populations. For the past three years, he has partnered with the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health and Penn State’s Prevention Research Center on a federally funded yoga and mindfulness based study involving urban youth.

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