‘Othered’ Eco-Activism and a Jacket Potato – a poem

In January, fellow poets Sai Murray, Selina Nwulu and I were commissioned to write poetry in response to an event called Weather Fronts exploring the storytelling of climate activism and sustainable futures. The lab-type event hosted by Free Word in Farringdon, London had attracted a healthy number of scientists and writers to see if the line between science and creativity could be further blurred to create more accessibility into conversations about climate change and environmental polemics. Not only was the goal to broaden the audience and de-academicized scientific study of this politically contentious issue,  but to consciously activate creative visions of the future.

What was clear to us three was the under representation of the black and brown voice in the room. This was not a problem directly with regard the intentions of the event organisers, but it spoke to the invisibility of representative diversity in mainstream conversations about climate consciousness and the environmental activism. The irony of this is that the majority of climate and environmental injustices take place south of the equator, in the homelands of First Nation peoples – black and brown folk. Its in their ancestral lands that exploitation and destruction for economic gain, political leverage and mass consumption by “the west” (or more appropriately, the north) is a historical and prevailing fact.

keep-calm-cuz-green-is-the-new-blackThe Others. There is just not enough coverage of climate or environmental activism by black and brown people, except when large corporates are involved and even then they are often positioned as victims. This is, to an important degree, inaccurate. They are not just victims. Part of decolonializing of historical narratives is noting the omission of black and brown folk in resistance. To address the balance we must highlight the rebuilding, restoring and healing of themselves and their homelands during and after decimating exploitation. It could easily be perceived that we are apathetic to climate issues, that environmental activism is for the privileged and ‘white’ who have time and financial resource to save whales, protest outside parliament and flash mob morally bankrupt corporate oil headquarters.

However, eco-activists such as Majora Carter, Ron Finley and Will Allen, make it very clear that black and brown eco-activism intersects with issues heavily nuanced and evidenced as race bais, such as impoverishment through lack of employment, food education and health provision, and civic engagement with urban communities. But focusing on the solution, more importantly, black folk activism is not latent, it is inherently fuelled differently. And racialised ‘difference’ equates to ‘othered’, ranked a lower priority and given less attention. This issue with this ‘othering’ is how their work is labelled or catergorised. Often this work gets called ‘community service’ or ‘community engagement’. What does this subliminally say about the word ‘community’ when associated to black and brown neighbourhoods? That the work that goes on there is less than the big global campaigns against Shell oil or Monsanto. Why is there a disconnect between these black and brown global struggles for eco-justice and equality and those that struggle in the hearts of the inner cities of London or the US?

Thes urban spaces have their champions, growing food for healthier living and creating greens spaces for residents in derelict red zones, consequently bringing health benefits such us lowering incidences of breathing dis-eases, inspiring physical activity and social cohesion, and providing entrepreneurship potentialities, restoring  faith in areas with a predominantly African diasporic demographic, those that had been written off by local authorities.

In my home town, London, new initiatives like the May Project Gardens, co-founded by rapper Ian Solomon-Kawall “KMT“, are engaging local communities and young people at a growing rate  . Informing people of colour about green employment potential in a time of austerity is the future. The lack of coverage about these champions and the growing “Green is the New Black” movement  is indicative of an imbalance in the story-telling of eco-activism by ‘othered’ groups hard at work, providing green support and ways forward for their neighbourhoods.

Potato. The poem that came to me seemed to have an odd connection. Even I questioned its tenuous link, but then the story of how it came about is odd. And I realised the link only after it had marinaded with me a while. It is part of a continuum, one in a series. But I have to tell this story first.

11th December 2014 and London had a biting cold afternoon. I had been working really hard leading up to that date, had been fighting flu and a looming monster migraine, but had vowed to make it to the London #WeCantBreathe Solidarity Die-in protest for Eric Garner (video) in Westfield shopping centre in Shepherds Bush.
My appetite was shot from feeling unwell but I knew my body was hungry, so I slammed a big potato in the oven on low heat thinking I’ll take a 30 minute power nap. It turned into an hour and a half. The potato was going to be a lump of ash. No, I’d guaged it just right (some how), but now I was going to be late to the Die-in that was scheduled for 6pm. So I threw on layers of clothes and wrapped the potato in a strip of tin foil, like a burrito, and strode to the train station, hot potato in gloved hand, head throbbing a little. The glamour of being “woke”, not. As I bit into the potato I couldn’t help but think, “this thing tastes sweet though” – no butter, no salt, no anything – my pace slowed and I began to pay attention.
The quirky ordinariness of the moment began to change tone. I thought about the landmass this potato had come from – First Nation Native America (Peru, close enough). I thought about the colonised country that Eric Garner had died in, the patch of land in that country that Mike Brown’s blood had flowed upon while his body lay in the hot sun for four hours, reminiscent of historical lynching of black people over the time. This didn’t turn my palate off. It intensified it. And I munched on.

Image: Scott Olson

My mind then turned to a powerful image that had been circulating in the media at the height of the backlash of the non-indictment of Brown’s killer, police officer Darren Wilson. I thought about how this young black woman was kneeling defiantly in protest on that land, how there had been some dissenting voices to the “hands up” hashtag campaign and gesture – “why are we begging the oppressor not to shoot us?” That one had me in turmoil for a minute. But then the creative in me kicked. The Poet said the symbolism of this act is profoundly rooted in the strength of vulnerability; that multiple Peoples had welcomed strangers with trust, generosity and open handedness with no concept of the ‘possession of land’. This wasn’t stupid naivety. Once it would have been called ‘heart’. Tribes would have negotiated territorial boundaries  (sometimes through all out conflict). However, they had a complete understanding of the synergy and symbiosis of living WITH the land, its wilderness and abundance. Its heart.

I thought about the power of Ancient wisdoms  that reside in the soils of that land and the  wall of exploitative practices that deliberately deprive us of the wealth of those wisdoms,  sealing us separate from them physically and psychologically, with concrete, steel,  tarmac and mass media barricades, policed by state violence in all its pervasively insidious and overt forms.
Scott Olson, who shot this image, and subsequently got arrested for documenting the Ferguson protests accurately, had succeeded in capturing the absurdity of trying to control the spirit of a Peoples that no bullet, no tear gas and no act of state violence can kill:
“The most dangerous creation of any society is the wo/man who has nothing to lose.” – James Baldwin.

Climate change deniers state our 4.54 billion year old home has its own natural cycles of renewal (ergo: the ice age) and that the extinction of humanity is pre-destined.  Ok. As a reasonable human, I’ll take that on the chin but do we have to speed up the process?! From the Earth’s perspective, it has nothing to lose wiping us out.

I’d been wanting to write  in response to freshly spotlighted excessive police force (brutality and extrajudicial killing) since August 10th 2014, after Mike Brown’s death, after Tamir Rice, since Trayvon Martin, Aiyana Jones, Rekia Boyd, Yvette Smith, but just couldn’t find my way in passed the shock and the mourning.
The mysterious workings of  creativity: potato + protest = poem.

Here is  mini interview and reading of the poem.

[Free Word Climate Blog]

Learning new form – What I appreciate about this commission is that Sai ntroduced me to a poetry form called the Kwansaba, African American verse form of praise rooted in swahili kwan – first fruit / saba -principle): 7 lines, 7 words per stanza and 7 letters per word. (I cheated a little. Some of my words were longer, but you  know, creative license.)

When Earth Speaks Through Flesh 
And there she is again, vulnerable and brave
Body out in the open. Open season.
For good reason, light ablaze in her eye,
She kneels, not for absolution but freedom
Before a growling arsenal , dogs closing in.
She stands her ground untiring, her flesh
Soft, communicating hard resistance, no supplication.
She carves a silhouette: don't shoot! She kneels
On the white front lines for revolution 
Time is no obstacle to her thinking
A future imagined for her children, reclaiming the
dignity of her forbears waking stolen limbs
Of lineage, threaded through the black tar.
She is feminist activist now because her skin brims
With sharecropper songs pulled from the belly
of a nutritious homeland ripe with First Nation
ancient pueblo* song that echoed across plains,
when prairies were free and mustang grazed
When buffalo hoof pounded the grasses fleeing
the hunt. There, when enough was enough, And the earth
would yield in reciprocation to ritual prayer
Offerings in tune with natures seasonal reincarnation
Here, activism rich as the land lush
Here, before violence planted with each seed
watered from wells of wept human misery,
Toil - black African woman, man made mule
Under musket, bible, eugenics, profit, cotton bale
Cane and whip, welts and scarring deep
as the future name Ferguson. The season
Is ripe with familiar fruit, black bodies
plucked from their potential, sucked by hate
Spirit succoured by fallen ancestors. Arms open
To lightening strike, none but Ogun's* embrace
Will vanish this Oshun* beauty in high-tops
And jeans. Clear is her focus. Clean
is her heart, a forest purified. Pride
after conflagrations of fury, flaring after murder
Staring down the swathes of state armour
She kneels in protest before steel and hate
Buoyant upon centuries of crescendoing warrior roars
of the Genocided. The climate is hot:
Fermenting prejudice, ripe rot, riot shields. Hot!
(Indict. Convict. Send those killer cops to jail
The whole damn system is guilty as hell.)
Clouds sting her eyes, tears smear, diluting
Her fear. Unreal courage where she kneels 
She, vigilant dissident, in orbit for justice
on a land she'd walked centuries before
She seems ephemeral, blurring reality, wooing bullets
That will not taste blood her today. Kneel!
Her body told her. Raise your hands Sister!
Praise those knees Girl
Praise your knees and hands Sister!

Watch a performance of the piece at Free Word centre on  26th January 2015.

And here is the full sharing with Selina’s and Simon’s poems.

FYI: More Black and Brown Eco-Activism…

Water Movement in Bolivia
In spring 2000, the people of Cochabamba, Bolivia rose up against the privatization of their water, forcing out the US based corporation, Bechtel, and Bolivia’s neo-liberal government to back down. The rebellion opened up new political space in Bolivia, catalyzing the most powerful, radical, visionary mass movements and mobilizations on the planet.

Remember Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni Eight
Initially as spokesperson, and then as president, of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), Saro-Wiwa led a nonviolent campaign against environmental degradation of the land and waters of Ogoniland by the operations of the multinational petroleum industry, especially the Royal Dutch Shell company.

India against GMO crops

More than 100 farmers’ organisations…demanded guarantee of minimum income for farm households, ecologically sustainable farming, shift to organic farming and control of rural communities over agricultural resources, including land, water, forests and seeds.

Amazon resistance to  Hyrdo dam
“Over the last few months some 13,000 Munduruku have been protesting against government plans to build a series of hydroelectric dams that will flood part of their land on the upper reaches of the Tapajos river.”


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