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MN VOICES | Louis Alemayehu on environment and culture
Culture, environment, and poetry are all words that describe Louis Alemayehu, who is of African, Native American, and European ancestry. Rather than focus on the differences between people, Alemayehu emphasizes the connections between people and the earth. His poetry is inspired by beat writers such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac and Harlem Renaissance writers such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, who taught him how to listen. According to Alemayehu, he does not separate his work and art as he weaves “together the threads of different religions, different cultures, different songs.” Here’s what Alemayehu had to say in an interview with Twin Cities Daily Planet that focused on his work on environmental issues.
What does it meant to work on environmental issues in a cultural context?
When it comes to something like culture, most people are like fish in water; they don’t even notice that they’re in water. The reality is that, we live in a cultural context. Our culture has taught us about the economy, how to relate to the earth… and all these manifestations of life present a cultural perspective, a worldview.
The Industrial Revolution pretty much required a colonization of other lands that had resources that would feed the Industrial Revolution. When the colonizers came into Africa or the Americas, there were usually things that they were going after. The whole relationship that emerging modern Europe had to the environment in a lot of ways were an attack upon the earth. And when you attack the earth, you also end up attacking people’s culture, which had sustainable relationships with the environment.
How do you think communities of color relate to the environment today?
Older people, like myself, more often than not have memories of grandparents or aunts or uncles who grew food in their own yard, who knew how to can, who realized that things that were grown in a natural way without pesticides and commercial fertilizers tasted better. Older people know that there are certain herbs that you can grow that can help you maintain your health, that honey is a super food that has many uses beyond just sweetening. You mix honey with lemon and eucalyptus and you’ve got a great cough syrup, for instance.
Native American people in this region, the ones that have traditional knowledge, will also tell you that every plant has a purpose and that this concept of weed is very misleading.
Concept of weed?
A weed. If you just look at a weed as something harmful then you start putting all these pesticides in order to kill them. Whatever you do to the earth, whatever you do to the water, whatever you do to the air, and whatever you do to somebody else, you end up doing to yourself. We are not isolated bags of flesh that are independent from everything else. So that’s a cultural perspective.
Photo by Mike Hazzard, courtesy of Louis Alemayehu
It’s a global village. What I do in my home, although it’s my home, it’s my country, might very well affect people around the globe. For instance, Fukushima happened to Japan, but it happened to all of us because we breathe the same air and we drink the same water. It also happened to us in an emotional way because as we saw what was happening to the people there, many of us were very touched and concerned. The thing in my work that I try to do is to try and help people realize we are all intimately connected even though we physically look different and live in different locations.
Tell me about some of the work you are doing.
Our challenge right now is to create a culture that’s sustainable. Not that everybody has to be the same or do the same but there are certain principles that we all have to buy into. If you grasp some of the simple principles, and then make a connection between the choices you make and how those choices impact the environment and everyone else, you realize that you’ve got to make some different choices on a day to day basis.
My mother told me about five years ago that when I was 9 or 10, I out of the clear blue announced to her one day, “Everything is related to everything else.” That insight has really guided my whole life. That’s what my ancestors, Africans, Native Americans, and Europeans, wanted me to know and to live. And if I don’t, I have no reason to be here. So it affects certain choices, what I do, what I say. It’s in my art, it’s in my work. That’s what’s behind it all. There’s people that disagree with me, but that’s beside the point.
What is your cultural heritage?
My father’s family was primarily African and Native American. My mother’s side of the family was tri-racial: African, Native American, and European. A lot of my personal references and the environment I grew up in the south side of Chicago was black southern culture. I had a southern accent before I came to Minnesota.
I had an awareness that my skin was different, not only from the larger white world, but also amongst a lot of my classmates because I turned out pretty fair. I had an awareness that there was a price to pay for being the wrong color in the wrong place. I wanted all of that to be in harmony or at peace with inside of me and not be conflicted.
My parents brought up my brother and I in an extended family. When I came up to Minnesota, my survival strategy was to re-create another extended family. And in the process, my extended family began to evolve to be people from not only the African American culture, but over time, it began to develop to be European Americans, Native Americans, Africans, a real mix of people.
I found that in the African American community, amongst some Mexican American activists, in the immigrant Ethiopian community, I am regarded as an elder. And so I have this responsibility to be some kind of a bridge and a translator between communities, to help people see where the common ground is. It’s a matter of being accountable and being supportive and telling the truth as best I can.
What do you see as your mission today?
Plant the seeds for a new sustainable culture that encourages us to see one another as relatives and to be good stewards of the earth to celebrate all the gifts of Mother Nature.
I really have to give the Native American community, the Dakota community in particular a lot of gratitude for how they shared a lot of cultural wisdom with me. The man most responsible for that was an elder from Prairie Island, named Amos Owen. His purpose was global, but he worked from home. I still stop by his grave when I go along the river road and leave offerings and express gratitude for what he passed on.
If you care about your country more than the earth that cradles that country, you’re setting the stage for a real disaster. So I live here on this piece of ground, but I can’t think about it as though it’s isolated, as though it’s disconnected from everything.
© 2011 Andrea Parrott