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Re-Thinking Who is an Environmentalist

Seated front and center is my great-grandmother Eula Mae Martin Parks.

Lately I've been thinking more about how my ancestors, particularly my foremothers, and how they might have interacted with the natural world- earth, wind, fire, water, and space...about how might they have been ecologists, conservationists, protectors and sustainers of life and its potentialities.

The woman in the center of this photograph is my great-grandmother, mother of Savannah and daughter of Georgia. Decades ago, my mother Paulette would share with me stories about her large family. Her parents Fred and Savannah, known as 'Muh Dea'h', had twelve children and my mother was the tenth child. You talk about life being rough? It was very hard.

Grandma Savannah relied on her mother, Eula Mae who was called "Mama" and her extended family just to make it from day-to-day in Atlanta, Georgia.

My grandfather worked various odds-and-end jobs, while my foremothers were domestic laborers in wealthy white families with no opportunities to improve their status because of the social prescriptions on black life. Mama was a cook for Oochie Rogers. She had been known a time or two to be the best chicken dresser in town. By that I mean she could catch a chicken, ring its neck all quick-like, pluck it, butcher it in to pieces, and fry it like nobody's business! She would prepare and serve the Rogers family their meals and take leftovers home for her daughter and her chirren (children).

But Mama also had a little subsistence garden to supplement her family's needs. She grew all kinds of vegetables- tomatoes, collards, turnips, peppers, and so on you know?

Mama and my great-grrandfather, "Papa," migrated to the big city from Newnan, Georgia around 1918. Savannah was about eight years old then. In their souls, they were really farmers. Growing up they were sharecroppers on a white man's cotton field and they had their own portion to grow food and whatever else they wanted to do on it.

I don't know too much about Papa's side of the family. But on Mama's side of the family they were farmers. And a generation before that they were enslaved on somebody's land. My great-great grandmother, Georgia Ann, was eight years old when the Civil War ended in 1865. She and her siblings rarely attended school because they had so much cotton-pickin' cotton to pick!

I have a 102-year old great aunt, Rosa Lee, who lives in chicken-in-the-ca-and-the-ca-wont-go. Chicago. She's been there since the 1950s. She is my maternal grandfather's sister and she shared with me that farming was all she knew before she struck out fir the big city. She described plowing the land and planting taters, the red Georgia clay slithering through her fingers, and following behind her brothers and sisters who goes and plowed while she dropped the seed in to the Earth. After doing so, she would pat the ground to make sure the seed wasn't going no where. She also told me that as a teenage she could pick two hundred pounds of cotton. She had a third grade education. She rarely went to school either because she had to 'git out dah in dem fields." She recalled picking cotton until her fingers bled.

Both sides of my mother's family were farmers as way back as anyone can remember.

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