What Does Green Mean To African Americans?

As a child my sisters and I would sometimes share bath water and shop at the Goodwill for Sunday dresses.  My great grandma would unearth worms to go fishing and all the fish she didn’t cook, were buried in a u-shape around her flowers.

There were regular commands of us to close the refrigerator door and turn off the lights. And on very hot days – to cool down – we would close out the light and place a block of ice in front of the fan. Translation? Sustainability, conservation, recycle and reuse.

Detroit Community Garden
Earth Works Community Garden in Detroit | flickr / Jessica Reeder

African Americans were green conscious before green was vogue. Our culture, geography, religion and economic reality dictated it.  Today our health, life quality and community viability depend on it.  Simply put, going green for the African American community means going back to our traditions.

Today we hear terms like compostable material, back in the day we knew it as fertilizer.  Things like discarded vegetable ends, eggshells, coffee grounds and lawn clippings.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that these items account for 26 percent of our total municipal solid waste stream.  When homes, restaurants, stadiums, hotels, convention centers, schools and other places toss these otherwise environmental assets into the trash, they end up trapped in oxygen-starved landfills.  Packed tightly and not able to fully breakdown (or decompose), methane –  a gas that’s more damaging to air quality than car exhaust (carbon dioxide) is released into the air.

Often when I am speaking to communities of color about what it means to be green, it never fails to hear someone push back, “you mean a tree hugger”?  We don’t have to become tree huggers, not that anything is wrong with that.  But we can begin right where we are.

For instance, my granny use to call ‘em ‘croker sacks’.  She would tell me to grab hers as she headed off to the Detroit Eastern Market – an open farmers market.   Today, they are known as canvas sacks (reusable cloth bags) you carry to the grocery store to cut down on the use of plastic bags.

Instead of using wood or charcoal during the family reunions and BBQ’s, consider propane, it burns much cleaner and prevents carbon monoxide from entering the atmosphere, our food and lungs.

Let go of the foam cups, plates and plastic utensils.  First, be clear Styrofoam cups do not exist! But a polystyrene cup does – aka a foam cup. A chemical called styrene can migrate into your food from these items.  Studies show that if you eat or drink beverages from foam products Styrene migration happens.  This transfer of chemicals to your food or drinks happen faster as the fat (in a bowl of chili), heat (in a cup of coffee), alcohol content or acids (in tea with lemon) rises.

The urban centers in the Great Lakes region are burdened with more than its share of environmental risks and polluted industrial zones.  A green lifestyle is an ethical awareness of what we consume and its impact on our environment. Just as we didn’t move away from traditions over night, we won’t return to them over night either but if we begin one step at a time, we can get there and bring our children with us.