Carl Anthony: Earth and the Narrative of Race

Carl Anthony: Earth and the Narrative of Race
Published: Oct 18, 2020
In a time of confusion, uncertainty and general weirdness unlike anything we've experienced, Chellis Glendinning's new book, In The Company of Rebels, is a welcome salve. It's a book of stories about some great shit-disturbers — from the 1950s to the present — whose soulful and savvy doggedness has kept the flames of hope alive in those know them. In this essay from the book, Carl Anthony — architect, social planner, anti-racism sage — teaches us two things: the meaning of the word indefatigable, and ways of thinking outside the white box.

Race and Climate, journal of wild culture, ©2020

The new sunflower power. [o]



Why is it that white people find it easier to think like a mountain than like a person of color?

— Carl Anthony, 'Environmentalism and the Mystique of Whiteness," Sun Magazine, August 1995



Carl and I stepped onto the stage at Fort Mason’s Cowell Theater. The year was 1997, and the place was packed. SRO, as they say. “The Landscape of Freedom” had been promoted by Earth Island Institute as a public conversation between an unusual duo: an Anglo environmentalist living in a land-based Latino community and an urban African American environmental-justice pioneer who was president of a white conservation-minded organization. The event promised to shake things up. Typically the enviro/enviro-justice clash was between urban whites who favored strict preservation of uninhabited wilderness and people of color who fought for defense of their lands, rights, and cultures.

For me the purpose of the presentation lay slightly off the beaten track of Save-the-Planet versus Save-the-People. I aimed to share the exploratory telephone conversations between Berkeley and New Mexico that Carl and I enjoyed every Saturday morning. In one hour we were capable of covering topics such as the nature of domination, the psychological repercussions of “rolling” traumatization via institutional injustice, Marxism in the contemporary world, and the phenomenology of oppression. It was this intimacy and thoughtfulness that I sought to replicate. But, once on stage, we faced an unforeseen obstacle. As quantum physicists are wont to point out, a scene and the particles inhabiting it inevitably change with the addition of an observer. We were seated facing the audience, not each other, and the massive presence before us caused us to taint our customary ease with an edge of performance.

But still, I would have to say: we pulled it off.

We talk about 'the whole earth'. The task is to make each activity, each event, each encounter, each piece of work whole.

We introduced ourselves in the manner we had learned from Jeannette Armstrong of the Okanagan tribe in British Columbia—by speaking to the question of who we are according to our lineages and our ancestors’ relationships to the natural world. I offered: “Our challenge is to remember who we are—despite all the brokenness, despite all the paradoxes, despite all the ways we cannot remember or haven’t been told. . . . What does it mean to talk about ourselves in [this] way that, in [contemporary] society, was never taught?”

To the hilarity of the audience, Carl started by paraphrasing a quote from Malcolm X: “If you put the cat in the oven and the cat had kittens in the oven, you wouldn’t call them biscuits.” He went deeper. Talking about ourselves in this way “means learning the language of my insides, learning the places of pain that I have not had the courage to think about,” he said. “It means understanding that all of us are the end product of life on the planet. We are connected to the amoeba, we are connected to the rainforest, to the horses and the cows and the lobsters. . . . If we’re going to move toward being human beings, it’s about time we understand who we are. . . . We talk about 'the whole earth'. [The task is] to make each activity, each event, each encounter, each piece of work whole. This goes against everything we have been taught. . . .”

He then turned to me. “One of the things I’ve learned from you, Chellis,” he said, “is that we need to practice making time and making space just to have emptiness in it — [which is] very much related to healing the earth, because in our frantic going to-and-fro to get things done, we create a great deal of damage. By slowing down, we can improve both the quality of our lives and increase the harmony in our communities and in our relationship to the planet.”

Carl asked me about the emotional harm perpetrated by growing up in a place like Hunter’s Point (a ghetto in San Francisco). “We grew up, developed, we evolved in the natural world,” I answered, “because there was nothing else but the natural world until recently. [Being in nature] is not a luxury: there are developmental stages that require being in relationship with the sky and the rush of forest branches in wind and the change of the climate and the falling of rain.”

Ironbound protest, journal of wild culture

residents in Newark, New Jersey, June 1, 1984, in opposition to the construction of a dioxin-emitting garbage incinerator. [o]

For Carl this thought brought up an “image of cattle who are in a harness and kept in a harness their whole lives without freedom to graze. . . . The frightening thing in my mind is that a society that puts the animals into a harness is also doing the same thing to itself,” he said. “So the more boxed-in we become . . . the less we have the capacity to be free. . . . I particularly want to pick up on the incarceration of young African American males at an astronomic rate. Many feel that’s, well, that’s just them, they’re mostly criminals. . . . But one of the ways racism works: it screens reality.” Offering a path toward healing, he proposed that we make connections between all the issues that affect us, implying that single-issue politics can be part of a process toward integrating the many viewpoints. “It seems to me the task is to find the thread that connects,” he said.” We cannot afford an environmental movement that sees [other] issues as disconnected.”

I took a dare. I spoke about the possibility that, given the relentless assault on the planet’s resources, life on Earth could go down the tubes. “When I think about the possibility that we may not make it,” I offered, “the most important thing I can do is to stand in alignment with Creation so that, if indeed we go down, there [would be] at least some people still in alignment. . . . The odd thing is that I bring no less passion to this task than I did when in 1968 I was passing under Sather Gate [on the UC Berkeley campus] and I declared with all my youthful hubris: ‘We [activists from all the social and decolonization movements of the 1940s-’60s] are going to take over the world!’”

Carl always managed to pop out with an unpredictable insight. “The moment we are in right now reminds me of a moment that I cannot fail to recognize,” he said. “It was a moment in the middle of the 1400s when a Portuguese ship went down the coast of Africa and pulled into a place where people were living and had been living quite sustainably for a long, long time. . . . There was no way for the people of West Africa to know what was in store for them. . . . I think we are at a similar place, and whenever I lose faith I think about those people who were in the holds of those ships packed like sardines, going across an ocean in chains, unable to stand up, and I measure my struggle against their struggle.”

At the end of our presentation, Earth Island Institute’s founder and former Sierra Club president David Brower stood up and announced that he whole-heartedly agreed with the tenets of the environmental-justice movement. But the reality was that while Earth Island Institute had sponsored our event, in the day-to-day practices that lay outside the sphere of Brower’s input, the administration did not actually support environmental-justice politics.

Race, Poverty and the Environment magazine cover Barach Obama, journal of wild culture 2020

Still going strong . . . In 1990, Anthony co-founded a journal for social and environmental justice. (Recognize the guy with the chalk?) [o

For example, the white urban environmentalists of Santa Fe’s Forest Guardians were attempting to impede community survival traditions in the forests of northern New Mexico — and if we were to look at the situation in a systemic way, push them out of long-informed sustainability and into the global economy. Using lawsuits as their primary tools of attack, they sought to regulate who would hold the ticket to enter the woods (photographers, tourists, and hikers, according to them) while forbidding local Latinos from practicing hunting, gathering, firewood collection, and small-scale tree cutting. In 1997 Forest Guardians came out with a full-page ad in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Santa Fe New Mexican soliciting funds in favor of what they called “ZERO CUT”; Earth Island had signed on. Clearly, from their offices above Broadway in San Francisco, they didn’t understand sustainable logging as different from blatant clear-cutting, and they did not remember that, back in the 1980s, it had been these poor, rural Latinos who had forced the transnational/industrial logging corporation Duke City Lumber out of the mountains.

Earth Islanders had also traveled north to Washington State to crush the efforts of the Makah tribe to save their vanishing culture — for some 2000 years based on the language, craft, and products of whale hunting. Due to the removal of the gray whale from the Species Extinction List, the U.S. government and International Whaling Commission allowed the tribe to do a one-time/one-whale hunt in 1999. It would be the first time they would be permitted to do so in more than seventy years. Paddling into the Neah Bay in handmade cedar canoes with the intent of taking a whale, they had their yew-wood harpoons tipped with mussel shells and a retrofitted World War I gun they designed for a quick and compassionate death. But, together with enviros from the Pacific Northwest and animal-rights activists, folks from Earth Island Institute upset the aboriginal canoes with metal speedboats lunging toward their delicate craft, thrashing the water like a blender to scare off whales, and shouting “MURDERERS!”

According to Carl, on a daily basis at Earth Island, they faced the same lack of understanding, despite the fact that Carl’s environmental justice project Urban Habitat was one of the organization’s most prized projects precisely because it was for-by-of people of color and that Carl himself was the institute’s president.

When the university prohibited him from introducing the material, the professor up for tenure quit and took a leap: he invited Asians, Latinos, Native Americans, and other African Americans to join him.

Carl Anthony got into his work as an environmental justice activist through a curious route. He was the child of housepainter / ship fitter / farmer Louis Anthony and homemaker Mildred Anthony. An attentive son of Philadelphia’s history of quality urban planning and an activist in the civil rights movement of the 1950s-1960s, he sought to blend a politics of freedom for people of color with that of the emerging community-design movement. His goal: to contribute to community planning so that low-income people and people of color could benefit from better layout of their living spaces. In 1963 he joined with “Father of Participatory Architecture” and member of the cohort of Lewis Mumford, Karl Linn, to convert vacant lands in East Coast inner cities into public spaces. By 1965 Carl was launching what became known as “neighborhood commons” through the Neighborhood Commons Project in Harlem. He received his degree in architecture from Columbia University in 1969.

In the early ‘70s many African Americans were looking for their roots, history, and identity by traveling to Africa. Carl’s rendition of the journey was to study the traditional architecture of indigenous Africans. During the adventure, he was particularly impressed with the houses and arrangement of communities of the Dogon tribe of Mali, who he suspected were his direct ancestors. Here the homes were built of adobe, painted with animals and geometric designs using plant-mineral pigments, decorated with earthen sculpture, and set in a close-knit formation among men’s granaries and meeting quarters, women’s granaries and menstrual houses. When the inhabitant of a house died, that person’s home was not taken over by another; it was allowed to sink back to the sand floor of the desert.

Upon his return, he landed a job teaching architecture at the University of California, Berkeley. Here he began to recruit African American and Latino students. He also pushed the newly developing field into virgin terrain when in 1976 he articulated his perspective in a paper called “The Big House and the Slave Quarter: Prelude to New World Architecture.” In this essay he demonstrated that the exploitation of a controlled slave population made possible the development of industrial agriculture. When the university prohibited him from introducing the material, the by-now professor up for tenure quit and took a leap: he invited Asians, Latinos, Native Americans, and other African Americans to join him in fostering projects to address the neglect and injustices rampant in communities of color. The new project was called Urban Habitat, and under its auspices, with environmental attorney Luke Cole of the California Rural Assistance Foundation, he founded the groundbreaking, award-winning journal Race, Poverty and the Environment.
I met Carl in the early 1990s. I was working with the indigenous people of the Southwest I had joined at the 1992 World Uranium Forum in Austria. This historic gathering, organized by filmmaker Claus Biegert of Germany, brought together indigenous peoples from all parts of the world to construct a record of the multiple ways that nuclear development was destroying the health and cohesion of indigenous communities. When we returned to New Mexico, we began to organize small-scale educational gatherings of the same style; we also worked to change tribal policies regarding cleanup of uranium mines and federal compensations to families of deceased miners. Always eager to expand his comprehension of environmental-justice issues, Carl accepted my invitation to come to Laguna Pueblo high above the desert — overlooking the then-defunct Jack Pile uranium mine — where we were putting on a conference attended by Navajo, Laguna Pueblo, and Acoma Pueblo miners and activists.

Environmental poster, journal of wild culture ©2020

Environmental Justice poster by Ricardo Levins Morales, 2006. [o]

At six-foot one, Carl was a towering presence among the far shorter locals. I thoroughly enjoyed introducing him according to people and place, relations and ecology, history and responsibility to nature. “The person we are about to hear from boasts bloodlines from the Dogon and Shanti in Africa, Scots, from French Huguenots, Cherokee, and Seminole,” I explained. “The way I see it, he’s related to everyone in this room!” Chuckles burst like popcorn from the audience. How preposterous was THAT! Standing high above the podium like an architectural marvel of the modernist period, Carl flowed right into the good humor — and went on to construct a picture of the global environmental justice movement that gave everyone a feeling of solidarity with people they had never met but who now seemed like long-lost brothers and sisters.

Carl’s second trip to New Mexico was for a conference in Albuquerque about the social, cultural, psychological, and health repercussions of the loss of tribal sovereignty. Aboriginals from as far north as Alaska and as far south as Chile traveled to Albuquerque to present their reports. Carl was hot to connect with the Florida Seminole/Muscogee contingent. They were the breakaway group who had not agreed to accept welfare payouts and cans of condensed milk in exchange for government-controlled domestication in Oklahoma; they refused to sign a peace treaty with the U.S. Now, 155 years after that conquest, they still lived in their chickee villages in the Everglades and still practised hunting, fishing, and gathering — albeit precariously, for, as the years went by, both developers’ Drain-the-Everglades mentality and the sale of plots to private owners were reducing their land base.

Round about the late 1960s, these few who still held to their culture decided that young Bobby Billie would learn to speak English so that he could relate to the increasingly encroaching outer world. The same went for his younger brother, Danny Billie. When it came time to travel the distance to attend the sovereignty conference, Bobby got a driver’s license and rented a van, and the group set out to traverse the American South to Albuquerque. Notable in their journey was that, aside from gas and bathroom stops, they did not get out of the van for the full thirty-hour drive: as they traveled through the lands of other indigenous peoples, it would have been irreverent to set foot upon their terrains without invitation.

The most comprehensive presentation I have ever witnessed at a conference was delivered by this group: Bobby, his mother, and Danny. Each had five minutes to communicate the tribe’s experience of the devastation wrought by loss of sovereignty. There was a set of questions they had been given to guide their presentations, but no other tribal members who had spoken had actually followed the proposed order of inquiry.


Carl Anthony. "For him, the sense that he had unearthed a crucial link to his own identity." [o]

Florida schools had taught Bobby the art of following instructions, and his presentation in English went down the list like that of a PhD student taking orals. “Only a handful of native speakers remain in our tribe,” he said. “Less and less animals populate the Everglades.” “Our traditional ceremonial grounds have been bought up by newcomers who prohibit our entry.”

Next up came Bobby’s mother. She delivered her testimony in the Muscogee language of the Independent Traditional Seminole, and while not understanding a word, we in the audience had the remarkable opportunity to hear the rhythmic poetry of their land and soul.

Finally, the microphone was passed to Danny. He too had learned English, but soon into his talk he broke down into the universal language of emotion: he began to sob. He cried for a full minute as we in the audience gagged back our own tears. Then he stopped and said he could not go on. Narrator Chili Yazzie of the Diné/Navajo Nation told him he had four minutes left and he should indeed go on — whereupon Danny turned to the microphone and sobbed aloud for four more minutes.

Carl was astonished. Quivering with anticipation, he approached his newfound people, telling them that Seminole blood flowed just below his black skin. They were astonished too — and thrilled. Indeed the Black Seminoles had been important figures in their history as a tribe, fighting against the U.S. Army with courage and pluck. A bond was formed that would lead to Carl’s assistance with psychological and social problems stemming from the encounter with the outer world — and, for him, the sense that he had unearthed a crucial link to his own identity.

After a shakeup emanating from the ongoing lack of consciousness about environmental-justice issues, Carl left Earth Island Institute. Urban Habitat left. I had been on the Board of Advisors and, guided by Carl, I too left — as did a small cadre of members, advisors, and groups. He went on to a position with the Ford Foundation as director of the Sustainable Metropolitan Communities Initiative, and as a Senior Fellow he received a stipend to write the book he had long envisioned: The Earth, the City, and the Hidden Narrative of Race. It was published in 2017. ≈ç



Childrens_Books_Against_Racism, journal of wild culture

 As early as 3-6 months of age, babies begin to notice and express preference by race (Bar-Haim, 2006). Between the ages of 3 and 5, children begin to apply stereotypes, categorize people by race, and express racial bias (Winkler, 2009). White North American children begin to report negative explicit attitudes toward people of color as early as age 3 (Baron, 2006). By age 3, children also use racist language intentionally — and use it to create social hierarchies, evoke emotional reactions in people of color, and produce harmful results (Van Ausdale, 2001). By 6 years of age, children demonstrate a pro-white/anti-Black bias (Baron, 2006). Adolescents, when looking at Black people’s faces, show higher levels of activity in the area of the brain known for its fight-flight reactions (Telzer, 2013). [o]



CHELLIS GLENDINNING is a psychologist and long-time social-change activist. She has written ten books, her latest being a novel in Spanish, Objetos (Editorial 3600, La Paz: 2018), and a generational memoir In the Company of Rebels (New Village Press/NYU Press, New York: 2019). She is currently working on a novel about women in the Chaco War (1932-35). A U.S./Bolivian citizen, she lives in Sucre, Bolivia. View Chellis' website.





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