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Green and Black? It’s complicated, writes Nels Abbey

Green and Black? It’s complicated, writes Nels Abbey

Image: Tracy Worrall

4 min read

It is surprisingly common, almost to the point of cliché, that after a stressful meeting or challenging period, someone well-meaning, (always) middle-class and (generally) white offers some nature-related advice: “You need a long weekend in the countryside. Spend some time with nature. It will help you relax.”

I generally think: when it comes to Black guys camping in the woods, horror movies are documentaries. I’d rather head to Miami. Is it even possible to be green and Black?

Funny thing is, I am almost certainly better acquainted with the British countryside than most city-dwellers. For the first decade of my life I was raised (by loving, working-class, white foster parents) in a little-known village called Benson, in Oxfordshire; aka “the countryside”.

During my (only ever) return visit, it immediately struck me that Benson had experienced something of a population boom (though diversity is yet to become its strength) and urbanisation since the 80s. Even the cows I knew and loved appeared to have been gentrified out and the village now boasted a drive-thru McDonald’s. When I lived there, the pinnacle of civilisation was the mobile chip van.

As I conducted my fact-finding mission, I wondered whether I was actually in Benson. Then I ordered a glass of sparkling water in the pub and was given a pint of lemonade, and the old adage from Disney’s Aladdin went through my mind: “It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home!”

For much of my childhood, I didn’t know what a Black person was. I had no idea I was different to the other children… until I was approached by some teenagers offering me 10p to see if my hair would attach to Velcro (this was the mid-80s, pre-Google and pre-unconscious bias training; a time some current ministers probably would have loved). 

The idea of going to an Extinction Rebellion-style demonstration with full knowledge that my actions may get me arrested is a concept filed under ‘must have been a blue-eyed person who came up with that'

Moments later, for the grand booty of 10 sterling pennies, my first capitalist endeavour, six-year-old me inadvertently agreed to enter the centuries-old ritual of Africans being used in experiments by racially-curious and confused Europeans. Hypothesis: negative.

After the experiment, I quickly figured out what a Black person was and realised I was surrounded. In terms of hostile environments, Benson was to the left of Mississippi Burning but leaving for London was not the biggest heartbreak I have had to contend with.

Although I find waxed Barbour jackets irresistible, since those childhood days I have steered clear of the countryside and any involvement in green issues. But I’m pro-Greta Thunberg and Caroline Lucas, and am at least mildly sympathetic to the idea the planet might be worth saving. However, the idea of going to an Extinction Rebellion-style demonstration with full knowledge that my actions may get me arrested is a concept filed under “must have been a blue-eyed person who came up with that”.

When nature cries, one must wipe its tears away. So a month ago I decided it was time to get serious about the climate emergency – largely because from October, mayor Sadiq Khan will extort £12.50 a day out of me if I wish to drive my ancient Audi anywhere in his London. In a bid to boost my green credentials, I tried one of Elon Musk’s Teslas: it was hands-down the best car I have ever driven.

The very moment I lifted my phone to make my order, the good old pro-green British government suddenly rendered Tesla’s entire range of environmentally-friendly electric cars ineligible for the electric car grant with immediate effect. The price had increased by £3,500.

In anger I considered borrowing a coal-fuelled tractor (probably from a farmer in Benson), and parking it outside Downing Street with the engine running. Then it dawned on me I’d merely be doing a reverse-Extinction Rebellion event and would probably end up in Motel Cressida Dick. 

Well hell, until I’m able to change things I cannot accept, I might as well accept the things I can not change … and ensure my recycling is ready for the diesel-fuelled rubbish truck.

Nels Abbey is author of the political satire Think Like A White Man, and co-founder of the Black Writers’ Guild

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