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Objects do not die quickly in Caribbean households. Maybe because on a subconscious level, we understand what it means to be disposable or an accessory. Memes scattered across the internet poke fun at many a Caribbean child’s plight looking for sweets in traditional butter cookie tins, only to find sewing supplies. I remember looking for cookies in repurposed tins or finding unrecognizable leftovers in Cool Whip containers turned Tupperware. These containers, long devoid of treats, represent a duplicitousness that the children come to expect, in which receptacles and miscellanea have their own identities, inextricably connected to our dependence on their continued utility. The act of throwing away was deliberate and cautionary in the many houses throughout the islands that I knew, where resources are limited and expensive. There, accessibility is in constant conversation with our relative isolation from the source of the “things” that we are told we need.
Literature and contemporary discussions of conservation share a long-held narrative sinew that links Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Dorceta Taylor’s The Rise of the American Conservation Movement. “Blackness” and “nature” operate within collective global narratives as “other/unknown.” However, while both have endured brutal circumstances at the hands of their cohabitants, repairing one seems to negate the existence of the other.
Often when walking through the streets of Harlem (where I currently reside), I see trash bags ripped open and strewn across the sidewalk showcasing diapers, juice bottles and food waste. Personal items are thrown across the street by the wind, and we are forced to navigate through our neighbors’ trash, bearing witness to the discharge of their needs. It is a mess similar to the wreckage of 2017’s hurricanes Irma and Maria, where I walked through the heirlooms of peoples’ lives, what they chose to save and what the storm threw away indiscriminately. At first, I regarded these street scenes as a kind of American insouciance and wastefulness. But more and more this pollution appears as a kind of war.
The habits for which Black people are frowned upon in urban settings mirrors how America treats the Black, corporeal home of the body. The Tuskegee syphilis experiment was a clear example of physical pollution, sanctioned by the government, a government that also fines people for littering. So then, which one is worse, the plastic islands floating in the Pacific or generations of contaminated bodies? I consider the water in Flint, Michigan; and, immediately, the urine in the stairwell of my predominantly Black apartment complex makes sense. Can a house be sacred when the home of the body is in constant subjugation by its surrounding environment? The phlegm I found stuck to my elevator door one evening then becomes a silent protest, a way of making the internal external, and contaminating the feigned comfort provided by fines on dog waste. Accumulated acts of individual rebellion create the riot that is urban decay.
The whiteness implicit in the conservation movement implicitly prioritizes place over people. This fantasy often paints a veneer of idealistic vistas. It harkens to paintings of the Hudson River Art School that are often devoid of human presence. Therein lies the problem, one cannot exist without the other. Ironically, there is a realism in conservative segregationism, where at least we have a place, although it might be “over there,” and it can be as beautiful or as ugly as we want it to be.
On the island of St. John and in the sweep of the Caribbean — territories bound to the Americans, the British, the Spanish and others — Black people have for years made themselves smaller to accommodate our visitors. Our footprint shrinks with water rationed from cisterns, periods of daily power outages and screen windows that take advantage of tradewinds. Self-erasure is almost a physical apology, an offering to a land that bears no loyalty. Black environmentalism has always been in front of our faces but without the virtue signaling because no one is paying attention. Why talk about nature when its force, invisible and unprompted, dictates your way of life?
Cultures of Caribbean islands form around the knowledge that their physical and political isolation leaves them at the behest of nature. Like the Cool Whip container that is constantly morphing, and its contents must follow suit. Cities exist in a denial of nature and can only survive if repurposed like a container, by the people who need it most and by the cultures that hang onto it for survival. As islanders, our collective ego is brought to sea level where hurricanes formed thousands of miles away will destroy your house and the things in it. In a territory dictated by a peripheral government, there is no difference between a hurricane forming in the Atlantic and a president that you cannot vote for.
The dilemma is “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” for both the ecosystems and the Blackness that encroach on our comfort and the lies we tell ourselves about “good intentions.” However, I believe that the salvation in Blackness is not in our image but in a rootedness in the unknown, and the ability to guide those who exist outside of it as a treaty before the Earth.