Excerpt from the Introduction:
In the mid-1980s, my friend and mentor Karl Linn, who had moved to California from the East Coast, introduced me to the writing of Catholic priest and cultural historian Thomas Berry. Berry’s insistence that humanity needs a new story excited me since I had been feeling that African Americans need a new story — a story that is more inspiring than the horrors of the Middle Passage, slavery , and the pressures of racism that seemed to intensify after emancipation.
Berry suggested that neither of mainstream culture’s two dominant stories — one centering on the promise of redemption in the afterlife and the other trusting in the power of science and industry — was able to unify people and inspire them to engage in collective efforts to respond to the serious environmental problems that have resulted from our long practice of massive extractive industry. Berry insisted that we need to reinvent ourselves as a species within the community of life. Identifying ourselves primarily as members of nations, religions, or racial groups had proved to be a sure route to oppression and strife.
Thanks to my third grade teacher and the assignments and field trips she organized, I had always held a fascination with history and an excitement about — and love of — nature, particularly stars and trees. Looking at the fossilized remains of trilobites and a dinosaur footprint within a short distance from my home gave me a sense of deep time and appreciation for the big story of life on Earth in which we are all connected. I now found this same excitement when I read Thomas Berry.
Deeply inspired by Berry’s writings and his collaborations with evolutionary cosmologist Brian Thomas Swimme and scholar of world religions Mary Evelyn Tucker, I wanted to make their vision relevant to a larger pool of readers. In order to do this I needed to fill in the two large gaps I had encountered in their narrative: I had found hardly any mention of cities or people of color. I felt a strong desire to correct these significant oversights and to help craft a new story that could include those elements. I hope this book will make an initial contribution and will encourage others to add their own stories. We all need to embrace and understand our own histories and identities, and we all want to feel understood by others. Since the majority of people today live in cities, and analysts predict that the majority of US residents will be people of color by 2042, efforts to expand the new story seem particularly relevant.
My search for the new story found me reaching back to the very origins of the universe, then coming through humanity’s origins in Africa — the emergence there of agriculture, nomadic herding, and city-building that developed into a variety of thriving cultures until they started to unravel with the incursions of Portuguese fortune hunters — known in the old story as explorers. The story developed as I studied the slave trade, the plantation era, the gradual undermining and reversal of black rights after the Emancipation Proclamation, and the betrayals of the Black Codes and the Jim Crow laws in the South, resulting in waves of black migration to the cities of the North, where the new arrivals were exploited by greedy real estate speculators and thwarted by racist policies that kept them in ghettos and denied them loans to make necessary repairs and improvements to their property.
Finally I studied the unfolding experiences of my father, an orphan from birth and a self-made man with many achievements; my mother and her accomplished and cultured family; and my own experience, growing up alongside my brother in racially defined black neighborhoods in Philadelphia.
Our African ancestors were uprooted from their lands, transported many thousands of miles, and forced to work without remuneration for the benefit of others. Still, the majority survived and found ways to retain their dignity and humanity. Many lived truly heroic lives. Many of their descendants now live in cities where they suffer from lack of opportunities to develop their potential.