Nature defined by racialization: A talk with Dr. Jennifer Roberts 

Pictured is a statue of Harriet Tubman in Philadelphia. Dr. Jennifer Roberts, during her panel on Oct. 2, 2023, mentioned that Tubman was an avid naturalist who took advantage of the nature around her. Photo by Matt Rourke/AP Photo

Yesterday, the University of Connecticut welcomed Dr. Jennifer Roberts, an associate professor for the School of Public Health at the University of Maryland. Roberts discussed the relationship between race and nature in her talk, “We Are Each Other’s Harvest: Understanding the Racialization of Nature.”  

She began the lecture by referencing a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks. The line that Roberts felt most connected to and used was, “We are each other’s harvest: We are each other’s business: We are each other’s magnitude and bond.” She then moved on to the topic of slavery, which is deeply connected to the relationship between African Americans and nature. Roberts states that enslaved Africans “were very connected and respectful of their land, as a newly enslaved person they had to alter their relationship to nature.” Yet even though they were in a strange land, they managed to know the land better than the white enslavers. “The enslaver saw nature as something to dominate,” Roberts commented.  

The history behind slavery and the colonization of America are linked; they progressed alongside each other. “This was a time of not just degradation of African bodies, but degradation of the land,” Roberts said. An example of how enslaved people utilized nature, specifically when escaping, is cornrows. Cornrows were used to design maps that would tell others locations and paths to take in the Underground Railroad. They also poisoned hushpuppies and fed them to dogs in the fields or open spaces to prevent them from alerting authorities of escaped enslaved people. Even moss was examined to determine which direction North was. Roberts also wanted the audience to understand that Harriet Tubman, an iconic abolitionist, was an avid naturalist. She used owl calls to alert others, had knowledge of plants and used them to put babies to sleep, and used the constellations to traverse the wilderness.  

Parks for communities of color were closed down during the pandemic because they were smaller and therefore spread COVID-19 easier.

Dr. Jennifer Roberts

Even after slavery was abolished, African Americans still experienced the struggles that came with a segregated United States. Roberts mentioned that several laws in place, Jim Crow laws, were used to persecute and subjugate Black Americans. “Black codes were a way to restrict the rights of African Americans; vagrancy was the biggest one,” stated Roberts. These said that any male African American over a certain age who did not have a job could be arrested. These arrests resulted in a form of neo-slavery, where convicts would be sold by the prison to private contractors or government projects and used as laborers.  

Sharecropping is another tool the state used after the abolishment of slavery. Roberts explained that “the sharecropping system created a perpetual state of poverty.” This system ensured that African American families in sharecropping deals with the plantation owners would be forced to stay in these systems because there was virtually no way for them to make enough money. Overall, African Americans were more knowledgeable and ingrained with nature than the plantation owners at this time. They were the ones who worked in the fields; many times, the owners wouldn’t know where their land ended. 

Roberts then moves on to her city, Buffalo, New York. She highlights the fact that Buffalo was one of the most popular destinations for African American migrants during both Great Migrations. The population of Black Americans increased by over 400%, while the white population decreased by about 50% during this time.  

Buffalo’s relationship with nature starts with the Emerald Necklace, a project created by Frederick Law Olmsted which created a series of parks and pathways around the city. Yet, even the Emerald Necklace was subjected to the effects of segregation and redlining. Roberts highlights how the major parks are located in the predominantly white neighborhoods, while parks and parkways by the predominantly Black neighborhoods would constantly be ignored or destroyed due to other construction projects. The east side has a high African American population, while the west has a high white population.  

Black codes were a way to restrict the rights of African Americans; vagrancy was the biggest one.

Dr. Jennifer Roberts

What Roberts conveys through her talk is the fact that in the modern era, access to nature corresponds to racial inequalities. “Parks for communities of color were closed down during the pandemic because they were smaller and therefore spread COVID-19 easier,” Roberts mentions. Yet parks found in wealthier, white neighborhoods are much larger and did not need to be closed down. The main takeaway that Roberts puts forth is that “nature equity equals health equity.”  

Ending her lecture, Roberts references another poem by Nikki Giovanni, “The Yellow Jacket.” “Yet in this evening watching you drink I am in awe of your self-possessed beauty,” is a line from the poem that best summarizes the talk. The poem comes from a story of when Giovanni came across a yellow jacket, and instead of swatting it away she allows it to linger. Because of this the yellow jacket invites more to join them, and Giovanni accepts that they live there now, and she cannot kill them just because she is afraid of them. This mirrors the history of slavery, discrimination and life in the U.S.  

The Undergraduate Student Government ran this event as part of the “I Thrive Naturally” program, an initiative organized by NatureRx at UConn. The program is intended to allow students to understand the benefits of spending time outside and promoting engagement with nature around Storrs.  

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