Photo information:

Perspective: What Being Black Across the Diaspora Taught Me About Ecology

This story is supported by a grant from #BlackinScicomm Week and COMPASS Scicomm. All stories under the brack•ish series can be found here.

 

St. Kitts and Nevis is one of the many small, independent island nations in the Caribbean, and it happens to be where my dad was born and raised.


By the time I was born, my family had moved from the Caribbean to the U.S mainland and back again, finally settling in the Southern United States when I was three. However, we would return to the islands every now and again, since most of my extended family still call the islands home. One of my most vivid memories of my trips to St. Kitts as a child were the monkeys, mischievous little primates that delight tourists and frustrate locals. St. Kitts is special in that way, most Caribbean islands don’t have native primate species (other than humans of course). However, the Vervet monkeys you find on St. Kitts are not monkeys you’d find in nearby Central or South America. Their closest relatives and kin are across the Atlantic Ocean in Western Africa, their ancestors brought over on slave ships alongside my own ancestors.





The Vervet monkeys you find on St. Kitts are not monkeys you’d find in nearby Central or South America. Their closest relatives and kin are across the Atlantic Ocean in Western Africa, their ancestors brought over on slave ships alongside my own ancestors.

I’m a Black person living across the diaspora that has scattered my people all over the world these past 500 years. The inalienable fact of life being Black, as well as being an immigrant is building a home out of the unfamiliar. Those of us brought across the ocean had to learn to make homes for ourselves in strange, unfamiliar environments. Meanwhile, our kinfolk who remained on the continent faced a drastically altering landscape, as colonial forces upended thousand-year-old ecosystems through dispossession and extraction. As it turns out, my ancestor’s animal neighbors were making the same journeys, adapting to the same stressors, a shared story of catastrophe, but also of adaptation and resilience.


View of St. Kitts' capital city, Basseterre, from the main harbor. (Courtesy of Kwasi Wrenford)

 

As my family moved from the Caribbean to the U.S. mainland, it seems like we had to do it all over again, albeit on a smaller scale. As part of my attunement process going from place to place, I’ve gotten used to reading landscapes, trying to understand the history and character of a place through the life that inhabits it. A healthy appetite for books and nature documentaries would fuel curiosity into passion, a passion I’m still nurturing as a Ph.D. student at UC Berkeley. Several homes, and many years of experiences and training later, the desire to understand my surroundings remains, and the questions in my head persist.


I’m a Black person living across the diaspora that has scattered my people all over the world these past 500 years. The inalienable fact of life being Black, as well as being an immigrant is building a home out of the unfamiliar.

As an ecologist and wildlife scientist, I am most curious about the ways animals cope with a dynamic, unpredictable environment. As our world changes, animals are faced with all sorts of new realities, and the decisions they make will have drastic consequences for their individual survival, and the survival of their populations. We often discuss biodiversity under climate change as a tally of what species we stand to lose and to be sure many species are not going to survive the next century. However, many species will survive this changing climate, and some species may be even more successful than they were before. However, the species that do survive will not be the same. Urban and rural populations of the same species can differ drastically in behavior and physiology, as urban animals learn to exploit novel resources while interacting with a denser human population and their built environment. Like the people who inhabit these environments, the legacy of racism and segregation can have profound effects on where these animals are found in that landscape, and potentially their behavior.


In my own research, I study how animal ranges and distribution are affected by climate change, and how individual variation drives those shifts in range. Some animals are seeking out refuge at higher elevations or higher latitudes to escape habitats that are no longer climatically suitable. However, some are not, and are adapting to historical habitats that look very different than what they are used to. Like my ancestors, you have those who have been forced to leave and find new habitat, and those who have stayed.


 

Two vervet monkeys resting on a hillside. (Courtesy of Kwasi Wrensford)

St Kitts’ vervet monkeys are simply a part of the landscape now. No one questions their presence, their place in the fabric of island life. In fact, those who visit have come to expect to see these monkeys leaping through the treetops as they explore the island. The same is true of St. Kitts’ people, descendants of enslaved Africans brought to these islands and forced to make a life there. These people have persevered and built a culture and identity that honors their origins but is altogether unique.


The ecology of humans and the ecology of the animals we share the world with differ less than we think, as when catastrophe strikes, we are often faced with the same challenges. How do we feed ourselves? How do we navigate an unfamiliar landscape? How do we coexist with our new community members?


While not a one to one comparison, I often find myself coming back to the story of Black folks, how our resilience, our creativity, our adaptability in the face of the unpredictable has allowed us to build something rich and beautiful. This doesn’t diminish the magnitude of the crimes perpetrated against us, but rather reinforces the humanity of those who survived. I think the same can be said of anthropogenic climate change. In many ways, the social and environmental upheavals of the current climate crisis are unprecedented. But for my ancestors, and for many of the marginalized and displaced people who survived imperialism, genocide, and oppression, the trials they faced are very similar in scope and magnitude. Entire ecosystems, entire cultures, and entire ways of life were wiped out, and those that remained were never the same.


Our ecosystems are beset by changes so far unseen in recent memory. It will take resilience and creativity to survive and persevere, but what will come after, while sharing a common history and kinship, will be something altogether unique. And while there will be pains as we make this transition, there is beauty in the struggle as well.

 


Support Student-Led Science News

The only student-run newsroom focused on science and society. Our in-depth, data-driven approach, mentorship for early-career storytellers, and multicultural content take time and proactive planning, which is why The Xylom depends on reader support. Your gifts keep our unbiased, nonprofit news site free.

37221767_728738530791315_276894873407822

Author Name

Author Bio