Blackgirl on Mars
I decided to go to plant school. It’s not a physical school with humans as teachers, and I don’t sit at any one desk. This plant school is not the one where you buy lots of cute baby plants, either. It’s not a course where I will finish and get a certificate — but it is one in which I have become a humble student. And plants, they are my teachers. This school gives me support in ways that no human has ever been able to do. Throughout the years, I have found that engaging with plants helps keep my stress levels down and is a great way for me to metabolize many of the experiences I find myself having. It made complete sense to me when I learned in Braiding Sweetgrass that the various native names for plants are usually some version of “those who take care of us.”
I’ve even incorporated plants into my classrooms and teaching. Together with some of my students I’ve grown beans in cups and worked with local parks to assist in their gardens. I know that when we do this, we become a little more aware of the other life forms on our planet. And that’s a lesson I definitely want to impart.
Without sounding mushy, it helps me maintain my perspective when I think of the fact that none of us would be here without plants, which showed up on our planet around three hundred thousand years ago. When I stop and ponder the beauty of a plant, when I stop to ponder all that we owe the plant kingdom, it helps take me away from the pain of racism; until I encountered the work of Carl Linnaeus — because in Europe, quiet as it’s kept, everything is about race.
My lifelong respect for and curiosity about plants can be traced back to my earliest memories in Trinidad of working in the garden with my grandmother. On this small patch of land that surrounded our squat, gray house, which was separated from the sidewalk and road by a rusty, white iron gate, I learned about the land and the relationship we could forge with it. Through the various plants my grandmother, Mummy Hildred, cultivated — like hot peppers grown from seed or the ruby-red sorrel harvested for another Christmas — this mysterious and fascinating world was revealed to me, a world that seemed to operate outside the laws of humans, including our construct of linear time.
Whenever I look at an emerging leaf, I am always struck by its perfection: the cell structure, patterns and color. What is this world that I live so close to but know so little about?
That my grandmother’s name is Hildred is also telling. It was something my curious mind had to ask her about when I was a child, already knowing the name to be uncommon, at least in our part of the world.
“Well, it was during the war,” she tells me while digging up some dirt to plant a flamboyant sapling in our yard. “They had wanted to name me Hildegard, but my family thought it sounded too German. So Hildred it is.” I’ve since looked a bit into the life of Hildegard of Bingen, and was not disappointed. She believed the only sin in life was to “dry up.” She believed that we were all capable of healing.
Placed in the care of the Jutta monastery, she was a thinker, scientist, musician and architect, among other talents. She was into healing herbs, stones and crystals, and left many insights regarding plants, animals and diet. She believed in the erotic nature of life, and that this is our divine right. After the death of Jutta, she was the abbess in search of whom women flooded the monastery, donating enough dowries to build two monasteries for this growing community of spiritual women who eschewed marriage. A believer in the cosmic Christ, she continued the Celtic tradition of relating to earth as a living organism, and believed in the deep wisdom of the feminine. For her, god was in everything — everything was god. She believed in veriditas — greening power, the color of the heart chakra, the color of love. Just to be alive is erotic in nature, and our senses are our divine right. She believed that if we destroy the rest of creation, creation will destroy humanity. She knew that we were part of the web of life and that the earth must not be destroyed. You have to do something that will get you wet and green and moist and juicy, like the earth recently rained upon; the petrichor erupts, unleashing our connections to it all. I don’t think that there could have been a better namesake for my grandmother, who, although contained by Catholicism, had the classic wild-woman archetype dancing behind her eyes, which would often make my grandfather lament, “You see you? It’s a good thing you never got an education. I would be in trouble for sure!”
Plants have always played a role in my healing, whether it was taking bush tea to alleviate fever or learning that the original aspirin comes from the bark of the willow tree, not the German company, and that it has been in use for more than 3500 years. The active agent, salicin, is what helps with general pain relief and is considered an antipyretic.
When you delve into the world of plants, one of the first things you’ll probably encounter is the way that plants are named and categorized: the taxonomy. And you cannot learn about taxonomy without hearing the name Carl Linnaeus — the father of taxonomy.
It was the South Korean-Danish performance artist Yong Sun Gullach who, one day, broke it all down for me. “Linnaeus was the one, or at least one of the first, to depict a racial hierarchy– stratification system, attributing certain racial stereotypes based on ideas of race.” Yong Sun, a Korean adoptee, uses performance to challenge the dominant narrative around Western adoptions. Throughout her work, she questions the Good Samaritan/savior image that is promoted when it comes to Western (mostly White) adoptive parents of (mostly) non-White children. Her work makes the connections between demand, exploitation and supply when it comes to transnational adoption policies, highlighting the ways in which gender and race play into them and how this trafficking of babies even helped rebuild South Korea. I also learned through her and the Forum for Adoption Politics, a group committed to offering support to adoptees, that the Black babies born to German women during the war were the beginning of transnational adoption.
It is through my newfound obsession with plants that I stumbled upon Linnaeus’s name again. Here in Denmark, I have begun to collect tropical plants. I know I do this as much to help me feel a little bit more at home as to learn. You eventually read that the weeping fig you bought from Ikea twenty-two years ago while you were pregnant, and which is still alive (albeit with much fewer leaves), is called Ficus benjamina, and that this way of classifying, using these two descriptors, is known as binomial nomenclature — which is a direct result of Linnaeus’s legacy. So, in this way, my calathea is a Calathea ornata, and my angel wing begonia is a Begonia coccinea. This system of categorizing is implicitly hierarchical.
When I read about Linnaeus, it is easy for me to get swept away by the details of his story: a poor boy from southern Sweden whose father’s passion for plants fueled his. It is the story of a little boy who had his first garden when he was just five years old. Who was terrorized in a school that practiced corporal punishment and was, in fact, a poor student. The story of a young man who got lost in the world of plants and whose observations of that world would lay much of the foundation for modern botany. This was in the 1700s, during the height of Europe’s colonial period and “Enlightenment” — that period when Europe humanized herself at the expense of the entire planet and everything else on her. While this Swedish man attempted to bring order to this world’s creations, Europe herself was going through a massive “discovery” of worlds whose inhabitants were as foreign to Europeans as Europeans were to them. In a way, Linnaeus could be viewed as Europe itself: Where would we be without the European compulsion to name and organize? Perhaps in a more peaceful, prosperous and equal place? I’m just asking. We are a culture that often uses nouns for concepts that used to be expressed as verbs, thereby halting the dynamism of existence, bounding it into seemingly static ways of being — “human being” stands out here
I am here in Denmark, the vestiges of my lineage held together by tropical plants recently bought (like a palm tree cultivated in the Netherlands, which you’ll learn is the world’s number-one exporter of tropical plants!). And even still, there are times when I read of men like Linnaeus and find myself getting caught up in what it must have been like to have been a botanist in a time when so much was being discovered in Abya Yala, the Amazon, the Caribbean and throughout the Pacific and the African continent. But why do I put myself in the shoes of an eighteenth-century European scientist? I suppose the real question is, would an eighteenth-century Swedish scientist ever have the heart, courage and imagination to put himself in mine? I am sure I know the answer to this question.
My recent plant collection features mostly plants that are endemic to South America, the Caribbean and the Pacific Islands. I know that when I buy another Pothos, or monstera, or Caladium, I am attempting to buy a piece of my past back .
So I imagine what it was like for a man like Linnaeus to train his eyes, for the first time, on a plant like a fishbone calathea, which creeps along the jungle floor, its leaves colorful and papery. Linnaeus lived during a time when Europe met the world like the rapey Zeus, who transformed himself into a beautiful, sweet-smelling white bull in order to entice the young Phoenician princess Europa to climb upon his back. The legend goes that he dashed into the sea, abducting her, taking her to Crete, where he raped her. There’s a depiction of Europa on a fourth-century find in an Eritrean woman’s grave that has been named “The Mirror of Europe.” Europa looks like she has an Afro if you ask me.
This was a time when economies were built on the bitterness of genocide and enslaved Black and Indigenous suffering, transformed into the sweetness of sugar for the now growing European middle class. Europeans, like all other human beings infected by civilization, have a craving for things. Cotton hardened calluses on enslaved children’s hands, hands that will leave imprints on sought-after Southern bricks. Whales, birds, people, and so much more life will vanish forevermore, and here we all are: drumroll, part the curtains, please! Modernity, in all its destruction. I cannot wait until the concrete crumbles back into the earth.
Linnaeus had “apostles” whom he would often send out on voyages to bring back botanical plunder. Some would die, including plant specimens, but in a way, I imagine there is no better time to be a scientist, to truly believe that you are on par with god, that you are the one who brings order to all of this world’s creation. Imagine the feeling of such power! So Zeus-like. Who has the audacity to think they can name and categorize all of creation?
Linnaeus was a pioneer in the science of identifying, naming and classifying nature, and he, in the tradition of his people, will also play a large role in scientific racism. The term “scientific racism” is an odd one. The word “scientific” gives an air of credulity where there shouldn’t be any. We know that it describes the compulsion to use “science” to justify racism, something which has had devastating results, including the conception of non-Europeans as being less than human, justifying slavery and genocide. And just in case you haven’t noticed, eugenics is still a thing. The Nazis didn’t lose; they were absorbed. And if it weren’t for them, just think, there would be no word for what Europe did to the world — the word “genocide” wasn’t coined until 1948, after the Second World War.
Genocide may seem like a strong word to those who do not understand the definition of the word as outlined by the Genocide Convention adopted by the UN in 1948. Many feel that it is only applicable when used to describe the attempted complete destruction of a people, like in Armenia or Rwanda, or of German Jews in Nazi Germany. However, what about those before, when a word actually didn’t exist to describe the large-scale murder of American Native, African and other Indigenous peoples throughout the world, the very foundation of European settler expansionism? There has been no justice for the descendants of enslaved Africans, Native Americans and others who were in the way of expansionism.
In the first edition of his most famous work, Systema Naturae (Systems of Nature), twenty-eight year-old Linnaeus, divided the living world into three kingdoms: animal, plant and mineral. Prior to Linnaeus, naturalists did not include humans in the animal kingdom as it was a widespread belief that humans were higher beings than animals; the latter were created solely for our use. Linnaeus, to his credit, actually challenged this belief by placing humans into the same group as mammals and primates.
However, the progress seems to have stopped there, as something else was at work. Systema Naturae would go on to be reprinted twelve times during Linnaeus’s lifetime. The first nine editions (1735–56) divided the human species into four “varieties” that corresponded to the four (known) continents of the time. The “varieties” were: Europaeus albus (European White); Americanus ruescene (American reddish); Asiaticus fuscus (Asian tawny); and Africanus niger (African Black).
Over the years, he moved the order of his “varieties” around, but there was always something that remained unchanged: the Africanus variety always occupied the bottom of this hierarchy. In many editions, his descriptions of Africanus were the longest, the most detailed and physical, and also the most derogatory. Linnaeus created a racial hierarchy with Black people, associated with negative moral and physical attributes, at the very bottom.
As I pull my focus away from the specifics of Linnaeus’s professional and even personal life, as I see him in light of the greater web of worlds clashing, I find myself wondering, not for the first time, about this propensity of our culture, the compulsion almost, to constantly privilege ourselves over others.
I guess this is the part that I can’t seem to reconcile with Linnaeus. Part of my passion for plants comes from the undeniable intelligence that is often expressed in their very presentation. It could be in the shape of a leaf, a combination of colors, a texture that reminds you that the universe can, and often does, create masterpieces, that it has a sense of humor; and if it can create this, then what is there to say about us?
Tell me, how could you ponder the beauty of a dandelion, see its transformation from a bright yellow sun to its fluffy, intricate galactic patterning of seeds, become lost in the wonder of it, as one could imagine a man such as Linnaeus did, and still, at the end of the day, come up with something such as a racial stratification system?
We know how. There had to be justification for the violence against and exploitation of land and people. There had to be a logic in place that made Europe’s colonial project a more savory affair. It is in the air that we breathe and the water that we drink. It is the very ether in which we swim. But as Deadric T. Williams noted on Twitter @doc_thoughts, “Racism is not about skin color. Racism is about having the POWER to make skin color salient for the purpose of unequally distributing resources and opportunities.”
In The Myth of Race, the Reality of Racism by Mahmoud El- Kati, the author reminds us that “racism was not born in America. It was brought here. The idea had been initiated and well-honed among Europeans themselves, as a collection of ‘races,’ Nordics, Alpine, Celts, etc.” For El-Kati, “race is the principle, racism is the act,” and “categories of ‘races’ exist, but races do not.”
“White supremacy,” he writes, “is a modern world western European construction.” But for me, the sentence that sums it all up is: “Racism is a superstition, our modern-day witchcraft.”
‘Blackgirl on Mars’ is available to pre-order from Repeater Books now.
Lesley-Ann Brown is a Caribbean American writer who is originally from Brooklyn, NY. She is the author of Decolonial Daughter: Letters from a Black Woman to her European Son. She currently resides in her own body.
Illustrations by Ida Marie Therkildsen.
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