Today (April 20-2013) we began with 2013 Arbor Day activities. The first group of students from this year’s class (Issues in World History: African Diaspora) planted the first trees along Willard Dr. SE— about 40 of them. We ended our planting with a celebratory trip to Carole Lee Donuts! The Blacksburg Town‘s office of recreation makes this possible.
As with other years, I offered students a rationale for their involvement.
The objective is to give back to the community at large as an enjoyable and practical way of learning about World History and the African Diaspora.
This hands-on instruction intends to engage students’ learning with some of the industrialization’s unintended effects: its impact on the forests (why most trees around are young?), and the spark of the (romantic) movement for reforestation on industrializing nations (i.e., National Parks).
Yet, the most important goal is to get students involved in local communities as a historical lesson that highlights the ethos of many Black communities across the diaspora, and help them appreciate the differences and similarities between our present experience and the way people thought and lived in the past.
The assumption is that our present-day attitudes toward community differ substantially from that of many people in the past (and from people living in other parts of the contemporary world). Western World’s main cultural currents emphasize individual needs rather than community cooperation. But the historical record seems to show that most people in the past view their existences in more fragile terms, and thus relied on a more collective ethos for survival (networks are more powerful than individuals). Several scholars, including Patrick Manning, have suggested that the African Diaspora have broadly shared a spirit of cooperation, collectivity, and equality. These traits are evident in the performance of Afro-Diasporans cultural events, early political organizations, and even on its commonly simple (if any) social hierarchy.
A good example of this collective ethos is the combite (convite in Spanish), dokpwe or fagina. These terms refer to communal and reciprocal forms of labor. The first term is still common in Haiti (in the D.R. It has taken a more festive meaning); the second in West Africa; and the third among Central American Mayans. These traditions have often brought all able-persons to work on a job that would eventually benefit the entire community. Workers would often perform their work, not in isolation but in groups or gangs. The Haitian combite has a reputation for its feast-like nature marked by upbeat singing as men would work the land for cultivation and women would prepare food for many. At the conclusion of a day’s work in a combite people would join in a party of celebration. As with the dokpwe and fagina, Haitians in these communities would derive a powerful sense of belonging through this type of collaboration.
Maureen Warner Lewis tells us about the combite:
Maureen Warner-Lewis, Central Africa in the Caribbean: Transcending Time, Transforming Cultures (Kingston: Univ. of the West Indies Press, 2003), 65.
Walter Goldschmidt provides this explanation about the Dahomey society and the dokpwe:
Walter Goldschmidt, Exploring the Ways of Mankind (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 197), 313.
So, by planting trees for the Blacksburg community without expecting a direct compensation, I aim for students to appreciate these traditional practices in the African Diaspora. Understanding the ethos of cooperation underlying these practices also helps to perceive the historically persistent call for Pan-Africanism, or cooperation among Afro-Diasporans across national boundaries (i.e., W.E.B Du Bois, Marcus Garvey).
This concept of society is perhaps similar to the way we understand the ecosystem in the natural world–of a society built on broad dynamic cooperation and reciprocity rather than on defining limits of freedom. Our Arbor Day activity, then, endeavors to bring students closer to appreciating the historical and cultural gap that separates us from the people we are studying, and perhaps, fit them with the necessary critical-thinking tools to become independent thinkers in the society in which they now lives.