Stories in Virginia

From the Sky to the Rivers

A reflection on the complicated relationship of nature and Black America.

Composite photo showing a column of gas and stars in the night sky over an open field of purple flowers.
Night Sky Nature has been essential for African American communities, serving as home and protection from slavery. © Brennan Gilmore
Candid headshot of intern Basia Scott.
Basia Scott Lands and Lives Intern, Virginia

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Basia Scott was the summer 2022 communications intern for TNC's Virginia Lands and Lives Project, researching historic and contemporary Indigenous communities in places where we work and exploring African Americans' traditional connections to nature. From Greer, South Carolina, Basia is studying anthropology at Wake Forest University. Read Basia's Q+A sharing her experiences.


Complex Connections

Nature is an essential part of all histories, cultures and identities. But there are some misunderstandings outside—and sometimes within—the African American community about our relationship with the land. An example of such a misunderstanding is that the community is detached from nature due to forceful displacement from Africa. Some believe the effects of this unique situation have shaped a general disinterest in the environment, conservation and ecological topics.

This is a false notion that simplifies the complex connection between African Americans and the landscape. Though our culture is vast and diverse, the roots of the African American story start and continue with nature. Despite mixed feelings across the community around water, animals and nature as a whole—coming from our collective memories of trauma—it is hard to deny that the environment shaped the past and still shapes contemporary lived experiences of African Americans.

 


 


 

The land has been historically used to terrorize, hurt and marginalize black populations on U.S. soil. Examples of this can be seen in chattel slavery, sharecropping and lynching. But nature has also served the community throughout our story. The landscape has been a venue for spirituality and a place of refuge, as well as resilience. When enslaved peoples were not allowed to attend churches, forests became their religious institutions, offering shelter, safety and connections to higher beings.

A historical print of an enslaved person's funeral taking place in a heavily wooded grove. Numerous mourners gather around a preacher with raised, outstreched arms. Mourners kneel, pray, and weep.
Nature and Spirituality In an engraving from 1859, mourners gather in a wooded grove for an enslaved person's funeral. © Special Collections Department, University of Virginia Library

The importance of nature within this spiritual sphere of enslaved life can be seen in many ways, like through the use of environmental themes within hymns. Wade in the Water, Go Tell It on the Mountain, Jesus Is a Rock in a Weary Land, His Eye Is on the Sparrow and Take Me to the Water exemplify the significance of nature to African American spirituality. They also show the deep connection that was felt by enslaved peoples to nature, even if the land occupied a complex space within their worldview.

Sweet Honey in The Rock—Wade in the Water (5:38) Sweet Honey In The Rock perform "Wade in the Water" during sound check at Koerner Hall in Toronto. This performance was shot for an episode of "God's Greatest Hits" on Vision TV.
A historical print of a black man in tattered clothing fleeing through tall grass in a swamp. He is pursued by a dog and white men mounted on horses.
Flight for Freedom Forests and waterways served as a means of cover and transport for enslaved people making attempts at freedom. © Edmund Ollier, Cassell's History of the United States

Additionally, the role of nature as a place of refuge and rebellion within African American history is incredibly salient. These roles played by nature demonstrate how the environment has been key to the evolution of experiences within the population. Varying degrees of historical black resilience and refuge can be linked to nature. One of the most important pieces of our historical tapestry can be seen in the sky. The North Star, otherwise known as the drinking gourd, served as a beacon of hope and navigational waypoint for runaway slaves seeking coveted freedom.

Similarly, the eclipse that catalyzed Nat Turner’s infamous rebellion is yet another natural element that occupies a critical space in the story of black resilience. After witnessing an eclipse in 1831, Turner took it as a sign that it was time to begin preparing for a rebellion against enslavement. Aside from the celestial, it is implicit that the forests and their waterways, in Virginia and other states alike, served as a means of cover and transport for enslaved peoples as they made attempts at freedom. More somberly, they did also serve as arenas for the hunting and mauling of those who could not evade slave hunters.

 


 

The riverbank makes a very good road. The dead trees will show you the way. Left foot, peg foot, traveling on, follow the Drinking Gourd.

Follow the Drinking Gourd Traditional African American folk song
An 1864 painting of an enslaved family, at lower left, hiding from slave catchers closing in on them. The Black man holds a knife as two white men, at upper right, search the thickly forested area.
Slave Hunt An enslaved family hides from slave catchers in this c. 1864 oil painting by Thomas Moran. This scene likely depicts Virginia's Great Dismal Swamp. © Virginia Museum of History & Culture
× An 1864 painting of an enslaved family, at lower left, hiding from slave catchers closing in on them. The Black man holds a knife as two white men, at upper right, search the thickly forested area.
A historical print of a group of enslaved men fleeing from bondage as they wade through waist-deep water in a thick swamp under the light of a full moon.
A Secret Meeting A group of men meet under cover of darkness. One of three illustrations depicting fugitive slaves which accompanied an 1861 account of developments in the American Civil War. © Le Monde Illustré
× A historical print of a group of enslaved men fleeing from bondage as they wade through waist-deep water in a thick swamp under the light of a full moon.
Slave Hunt An enslaved family hides from slave catchers in this c. 1864 oil painting by Thomas Moran. This scene likely depicts Virginia's Great Dismal Swamp. © Virginia Museum of History & Culture
A Secret Meeting A group of men meet under cover of darkness. One of three illustrations depicting fugitive slaves which accompanied an 1861 account of developments in the American Civil War. © Le Monde Illustré

 

Smaller examples of nature’s involvement in enslaved resilience can be seen in the hunting of small pests, such as opossums, foxes and raccoons by these communities to gain nourishment that was denied to them. Foraging for medicinal herbs, such as mullein, sassafras and wormwood, was another way the community gained nourishment during the complicated institution of American chattel slavery. Another form of environmental refuge can be seen in the cases of maroon communities, such as those of the Great Dismal Swamp.

A man wearing a coat and tie kneels in an open field. A rifle rests on his knee and a small hunting dog crouches between the man's knees.
Hunting for Recreation A Newport News shipyard worker poses with his dog in this 1942 image made by photographer Pat Terry. © Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Maroon communities were groups of escaped individuals who lived off the land and used wild natural landscapes to protect themselves from re-capture. There were many maroon communities across the United States, the Bahamas, South America and even Africa—each unique and situated within complex trade and social networks. Nature was essential for all of these communities, serving as their home and protection from slavery.

Therefore, it is obvious that the African American community does have a very deep relationship with the environment historically. The land offered spiritual venues, grounding, protection and sustenance. These historical ties also carry into our present. We can see traces of them in church hymns, the professions of our ancestors, herbal knowledge, literature and other forms of media.

Famous Black intellects and artists, such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, bell hooks and Maya Angelou, harp on the importance of nature. They explored the conditions of African Americans through the use of natural symbolism and metaphors. They understood the connection the African American community had, and continues to have, with nature. They knew our roots run deep in the earth, not only in Africa but in America as well.  


 

Four quotes from Maya Angelou, Zora Neale Hurston, bell hooks and Langston Hughes are superimposed over a photo of tall fir trees that are reflected in the waters of a still lake.
Connections to Nature Famous black intellects and artists, such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, bell hooks and Maya Angelou have explored the importance of nature. © TNC
Black and white photo from the 1930s. A group of people enjoy an outdoor meal. Dishes are set up buffet style on rough cut boards.
At the Picnic In a Depression-era scene from 1936, a group of people gather outdoors to share food and celebrate community. © Paul Carter / Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

We also have contemporary connections to the environment. I believe nature still serves as a venue for fellowship and congregation, specifically in the case of cookouts. African American families and communities create vast spreads of food, dance, play and interact during these outside events, which center family and community.

Additionally, despite most protests taking place in urban areas, they almost always happen outside. The community still uses nature as a venue for change and resilience. It is clear that the environment has served as a canvas for the African American community’s journey from chattel slavery to Black Lives Matter. The land will continue to serve this purpose if we understand its importance and partner to aid it, as it has aided us.


A group of Black Americans march together along an open plaza. Two men leading the group are in uniform and carry an American flag. The dome of the US Capitol building rises in the background.
Marching for Change In 1946, a group marches near the US Capitol building in Washington, D.C., to protest the lynching of four African-Americans in Georgia. © Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
× A group of Black Americans march together along an open plaza. Two men leading the group are in uniform and carry an American flag. The dome of the US Capitol building rises in the background.
A sign reading Black Lives Matter is held aloft over a group of protestors.
Black Lives Matter An activist holds aloft a sign during a protest sparked in reaction to the murder of George Floyd, June 2020. © Mathias Reding / Pexels.com
× A sign reading Black Lives Matter is held aloft over a group of protestors.
Marching for Change In 1946, a group marches near the US Capitol building in Washington, D.C., to protest the lynching of four African-Americans in Georgia. © Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
Black Lives Matter An activist holds aloft a sign during a protest sparked in reaction to the murder of George Floyd, June 2020. © Mathias Reding / Pexels.com

 

The hard truths of the African American relationship with the environment are many. The landscape was a medium for enslavement, lynching and inequality. This is a fact that cannot be ignored. Forced voyages across oceans separated the diaspora from Africa, and we cannot deny this.

But we also cannot deny the fact that rivers were highways to freedom; forests, our churches; and the sky, our map. If we keep running from nature and conservation efforts because of painful truths, we will lose a part of ourselves—the medium of our history—to climate change and a lack of biodiversity. African American history was born out of the land. We must recognize that we are intrinsically linked to it because of this.

It is important, then, to recognize the complexity of our relationship to nature. It's also important to do work to protect the habitats, species and natural features that have accompanied African Americans out of the past and into the present, especially if nature is to continue with us on our journey. A better understanding of the community’s relationship with natural spaces is necessary moving forward. The environment and conservation are for everyone, including African Americans, because all of our stories are rooted in, and cannot continue without, nature.


 

It's been a long, a long time coming. But I know a change gonna come. Oh, yes it will.

Sam Cooke A Change Is Gonna Come

 

Learn More

Explore these programs that are working to re-connect African American communities to nature.

For resources and information for understanding the connection between African Americans and nature, visit Black Americans & the World of Nature—Cross-Cultural Solidarity.

Sources discussing the historical connection of African Americans to the environment:

To learn how you can get involved with The Nature Conservancy, visit nature.org to find events and volunteer opportunities near you.

Candid headshot of intern Basia Scott.

Basia Scott, from Greer, South Carolina, is studying anthropology at Wake Forest University. She was the summer 2022 communications intern for TNC’s Virginia Lands and Lives Project, researching historic and contemporary Indigenous communities in places where we work and exploring African Americans’ traditional connections to nature.