Sustainable living. Saving the planet. Saving it for whom? African-Americans have to first make sure that while we work to save the planet for the year 2100 that we also work to insure our descendants are able to enjoy it. That date is only eight-nine years from now, just as we are only ninety-one years from 1920 and let’s see how far we’ve come in those last decades. In August of 1920, 25,000 people went to Madison Square Garden to hear Marcus Garvey, founder of the United Negro Improvement Association with four million members around the world. In addition to the famous, though ill-fated “Black Star Line” of cruise ships, Garvey founded “The Negro World” newspaper and his proposed Negro Factories Corporation was to “build and operate factories in the big industrials areas of the United States, the West Indies and Africa to manufacture every marketable commodity.”
Despite the white terrorism of the period, 53 lynchings in 1920 and race riots across the nation, African-Americans were able to capitalize on the non-competitive markets created by segregation and own banks, insurance companies, hotels, food stores and all other manner of businesses. These were all supported by Black people. The Harlem Renaissance of arts and literature was beginning in 1920 and in 1921 Shuffle Along was the first musical written, performed, produced, and directed by African-Americans on Broadway.
The eighty-nine years since then has not been a steady march forward.
All current statistics tell us that the elements that are associated with a sustainable population, good physical and economic health and supportive family units, are missing in the African-American community. Preventable diseases are the leading cause of death, high school graduation rates are under 50%, unemployment is over 50% and 70% of Black households are headed by a single parent. With those facts as underlying truth, there is no certainty that the next eighty-nine will not be a long, sad slide to oblivion despite the record number of Black politicians in office, or the achievements of individuals.
Any effort at environmental sustainability in the African-American community must also address the reality of the tenuous state of racial and cultural sustainability if it is to be successful. Old clothes and bits of material were recycled into quilts, and small garden plots were not planted for esthetics but to feed the family. These activities strengthened social connections and were not fads or impositions, but provided the foundations for memories and success stories that connected folks to a past that was grounded in mutual support and protection.
If there is to be passion about making the world safe for future generations, then there first must be a passion to insure that our descendants will be an integral part of that coming time, and not just fading reminders of what we once were.