Book review by Martin Nicolaus
After the election of Barack Obama, author Carl Anthony congratulates a Kenyan engineer on the election of someone with ancestors from his part of Africa as American president. Replies the engineer, “All the presidents of the United States have ancestors that come from my part of Africa.”
The original human diaspora from Africa some fifty to eighty thousand years ago is among the key episodes in a forgotten — no, deliberately hidden, suppressed — narrative of race that Anthony digs up and moves front and center in this intellectual and political autobiography. He goes further back, all the way to the cosmology of the Big Bang, the formation of the galaxies, our solar system, this planet, its elements, climates, continents, first living cells, and millions of years of evolution. In this narrative, he finds not only a source of wonder and awe, but also a sense of place and belonging, and even a source of healing whose sweeping perspective puts in context the inestimable trauma of the most massive human migration in history, the African-American slave trade.
Born in the Black Bottom of Philadelphia, Anthony’s is a life that could so easily have gone wrong at so many turns. His father, an articulate and charismatic individual who survived by doing handyman labor for white developers of subdivisions from which blacks were barred, sent him to vocational school. He could have disappeared there into carpentry, but a teacher recognized his drafting skills and assigned him to the architectural drawing courses. He spends half a year with a relative in Oklahoma and experiences Jim Crow; unthinkingly, he sits near the front of a bus. He could have been beaten for that, but quickly recovers and retreats. Back in Philadelphia, he meets Karl Linn, a Jewish refugee from Germany, who is running community design projects, using local volunteers to turn abandoned inner city properties into common spaces. Linn takes him under his wing and points the young Anthony toward Columbia University, where he is accepted as a night student in 1960.
From the heights of the Columbia campus, where he is one of the very few black students, he makes frequent trips down into the flats to neighboring Harlem. He hears Malcolm X speak. He meets Peter Countryman, founder of the Northern Student Movement, and Bayard Rustin, the civil rights leader. In long hours at Lewis Michaux’ African National Memorial Bookstore, he reads James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Lorraine Hansberry, Ralph Ellison, Harold Cruse, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), and others. He reads Basil Davidson’s histories of Africa, particularly of African cities, of which he had known nothing. He drops out of school for a semester to work full time on civil rights. His career could have derailed at that point, but he returns to his studies. He is a voracious reader. He feels the agony of compartmentalizing his consciousness between a Eurocentric academic pipeline and the rising, burning black community of the sixties. He contains his inner conflict and graduates, winning admission to the postgraduate architecture program.
As a graduate student, he wins an internship with an architecture firm in London, and also visits Turkey and Cuba. He learns that the issues of segregation he experienced in Philadelphia and New York are international. The stress of balancing the student role in a classical Eurocentric architecture department (Greece and all that) with the reality of being an African American man in a time of assassinated leaders and burning cities becomes almost unbearable. He sets himself the task of “fusing elitist architecture and urban planning methodologies with bottom-up direct action civil rights organizing strategies.” But he has little to show for it, and on returning home after his graduation ceremony in 1969, he burns his diploma as if it were a draft card. (His mother is appalled.)
On a travel grant given by a Columbia alum, which most architecture graduates use to visit Greece and all that, Anthony teams up with Jean Doak, his girlfriend, and spends several months traveling by VW bus, boat, rail, and foot in West Africa, historically the catchment area for most of the slave trade. They visit dozens of villages and all the principal ruins and living towns, taking pictures and making drawings. He notes the adaptability of local architecture to regional climates and local materials, and sees how entire communities collaborate to build, repair and restore their dwellings and meeting places. But his hopes of finding some root or reference to his African origins there evaporate; the locals don’t treat him as an African but as an American. On his return to the US, having seen the slave forts where captives were held before being shipped, he determines to study slavery and its relation to architecture.
The conventional narrative of the United States that Anthony encountered in school — and that we still encounter — is the product of ethnic cleansing. The role of slaves, to the extent it is mentioned at all, is minimized and rendered romantic. Anthony plunged into the history books, and traveled thousands of miles in the U.S. visiting former plantations and other slavery sites, to reconstruct the true history of this country. The role of slaves in the American space begins with the landscape and the civil infrastructure. The land for plantations didn’t drop from the sky. Slaves hacked it out of forest, drove out the indigenous inhabitants, drained and filled swamps, dug canals, built roads, bridges, barns, and mansions. Africans built the beachhead on which European settlers could establish their civilization. Africans also built the White House and the Capitol, along with numerous other government buildings. And this not only in the South. Slaves built the wall that became Wall Street, and much else in Manhattan, which had the largest slave population after Charleston. The profits of the plantation system built big port cities on all sides of the Atlantic, and supplied the capital for northern American industry. Not only African labor, but some elements of African design shaped America. The ubiquitous Southern surround porch or verandah was unknown in European architecture. It is a standard feature of African tropical buildings, as Anthony found. Visiting and measuring numerous plantations, Anthony wrote a two-part essay about the architecture of slavery that was published in Landscape, a prestigious architectural magazine.
Anthony could easily have blended into a conventional architectural career, indistinguishable from his white colleagues except by his skin tone. But he yanked himself out of that dead end and went west, to Berkeley. He is quickly offered, and accepts, a teaching post in the UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design, to pay the rent. He begins to put together a course on living patterns post-slavery, but the realization that progress since Reconstruction has been mainly backward overwhelms him, and quits the teaching job to open a professional practice. His timing is good: a progressive majority is elected to the Berkeley city council, and a war is raging between the city and the Santa Fe railway over the future of the Berkeley waterfront. Santa Fe wants intense commercial development, a second downtown; the city wants parks and open space. He works for the city on waterfront design, opposing the railroad. He is thrown into crisis when the railroad hires a black public relations firm that promises unemployed black workers jobs on its proposed development. He sees with dismay that the black members of the city council are sitting out the conflict. He is struck by the splintering of the 1960s ideal of the black community into conflicting classes, and by its spatial dispersion, notably a black flight to the suburbs. He feels disoriented and confused, a conflict of feelings sharpened by the death of his mother and the breakup of his relationship with Doak. He needs a new beginning.
It comes while reading Thomas Berry’s Dream of the Earth, which suggests that the world is divided into a secular humanistic linear progress story and a religious story of redemption. Berry says both stories ignore the the present physical and natural environment. Based on geology and anthropology, Berry begins to construct a “new story” that gives human beings a basis for belonging to this world. It is a story of environmental stewardship. Anthony is inspired, enthusiastic. But Berry has a serious blind spot: race. People of color are largely missing from his narrative. Anthony takes up the challenge of constructing a more comprehensive Berry-like New Story in which the role of people of color is given its proper historical weight.
Anthony here draws on an enormous body of scholarship on the slave trade and its economic importance, the role of slaves in the North as well as in the South, the abolitionist movement, Reconstruction, the attack on Reconstruction and the reigns of terror that instituted the Black Codes and Jim Crow, the mass migrations of black people northward, the resulting urbanization, suburbanization, and new forms of racial segregation in housing, schools, jobs, transportation, and related topics. These and some earlier chapters could almost stand alone as a short but deep course in the history of African-Americans in the United States. Here Anthony’s focus is on space and its racialization, and before long he adds to the list of racial inequities a class of environmental issues. In 1984, he recounts, he was approached by a group called Center for Third World Organizing to fight against the location of garbage dumps and incinerators in color neighborhoods. At that time, he ignored them. But now, a few years later, these issues move front and center for him. Not only toxic dumps, but air pollution from freeways and railroads, industrial waste, unsafe water, bad or absent public transit, food deserts, lack of green space, lead poisoning, noise, the disparate impact of disasters, and ever-present stress — a long and growing list of environmental decisions made by elite white urban developers to the detriment of African-American communities and other people of color. He writes an essay, “Why African Americans Should be Environmentalists,” which is widely reprinted and discussed.
The environmental movement at that time was largely concerned with the preservation of wilderness. It was an outgrowth of affluent white people’s pleasure in hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, and photography. Earlier, Anthony had experienced a lack of enthusiasm for this kind of environmental issues among African Americans. He now experienced a reciprocal lack of enthusiasm among traditional environmentalists for the ecological concerns of inner-city African Americans. He set himself the project of fusing the two causes. It was an undertaking of towering ambition and courage, like a high-wire balancing act in turbulent winds without a safety net.
Anthony is a giant today in the history of social movements because he managed to knit environmentalism and social equity into a single meaningful stream. He did not invent the concept of environmental racism (at least there is no claim in the book, express or implied, that he did so), but he raised this concept out of obscurity and built a series of high-profile projects that involved real people moving purposefully, with plans and budgets, to stop and to reverse environmental racism where that was possible, and to carve out small worlds that mated ecology and equity, as models for the larger world. The concepts of environmental equity — climate justice and its corollaries — are more or less common currency today because Anthony made them so.
In doing so, he had great timing and help and luck. His Philadelphia mentor, Karl Linn, had moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, and introduced him to David Brower, the (now) legendary environmental activist who had founded the Earth Island Institute. Brower, stung by the lack of any minority person on the EEI board, offered Anthony a board seat. Anthony, smelling tokenism, hesitated. He laid down conditions regarding autonomy and support. Brower accepted. In 1989, Anthony joins the EEI board and forms something completely different from anything else under the EEI umbrella: the Urban Habitat Project. Its mission: to build multiracial leadership for sustainable cities. He impresses funders: both the San Francisco Foundation and the Hewlett Foundation kick in serious grant money. He recruits a broadly diverse staff. The UHP pioneers a totally different approach to environmental issues. Instead of dodging social and economic issues — for example, the claim that blocking development costs jobs — they tackled them proactively. They showed how environmental stewardship creates jobs.
His work with EEI and on the UHP formed the new beginning that he had needed. This work opened new doors for him. He is appointed to the City of Berkeley Planning Commission and works on a series of local issues in which environmental health and job preservation appear to conflict; he shows himself a skilled negotiator and mediator, able to bridge inflamed disputes and work out mutually acceptable compromises. He attends the National People of Color Leadership Summit in Washington DC and drafts its “Principles of Environmental Justice” document. He works on issues of transportation justice, military base conversion, and similar issues. He is appointed a Harvard Fellow. He participates in the Bay Area Alliance for Sustainable Communities, working with the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), Bay Area Council, Sierra Club, and others. He develops relationships with business leaders and elected officials in order to move his projects forward. But he still has not solved the tough question of how to build power in low income communities.
After ten years at the helm of the UHP he grows restless with its local and regional scope. He looks for a way to spread the environmental justice message nationally. Along comes the Ford Foundation and offers him the position of heading its Metropolitan Sustainable Communities Initiative, with millions of dollars in grant money to spend. He accepts. In seven years at the foundation, he not only funds a broad range of projects, he works to start a national conversation and movement about environmental equity. With the resources of the Ford Foundation behind him, people listened.
In 2007, Anthony returns to Berkeley and two years later celebrates his 70th birthday. He continues to work on climate justice issues, builds projects and coalitions, continues to study and learn, participates in the burning civil rights issues of the day, and writes his book. His concluding thoughts are worth quoting:
“Civilization as we know it is in urgent need of a great shift in how we participate in the life of this planet … Our challenge is to refashion our social structures and our organization of space and infrastructure around the central ideal of maximizing justice and full-spectrum sustainability. The current era of development controlled by small groups of privileged elites seeking profit by using and discarding people and resources is nearing its end.”
The Earth, the City, and the Hidden Narrative of Race rests on more than 300 bibliographic references. The production is highly professional and includes a detailed index. Yet the tone is conversational, often in the first person, filled with telling little narratives and illuminating anecdotes, and if you open it at random you may quickly get hooked, as I did, into reading the whole thing. It’s the story of a single life — a classic American story, in a way, about rising from humble origins by virtue of intelligence, courage, hard work, and luck to a position of some fame and influence. But it’s also the story of the universe, the earth, original humanity, and the modern African diaspora, from centuries ago right down to this morning’s headlines. Anthony delivers a rich legacy here to the younger generations, and also a large challenge, namely to augment the story with the hidden narratives of the indigenous people of the Americas, of pre-Columbian civilizations, of the early Asian and Arab worlds and their great achievements, among others, and, above all, the challenge of ways and means of refashioning the social structures, ending the rule of privileged elites, and achieving full-spectrum sustainability.