Heather McTeer Toney
Broadleaf Books, 198 pages | Published April 18, 2023
She nailed it! Heather McTeer Toney set out to issue a culturally relevant – and therefore compelling – invitation to the Black community to not only understand the current climate crisis, but to prioritize it among the causes we care enough about to get involved, or even champion. And just the first two chapters of Before the Streetlights Come On should lead any African American adult to ask, “What’s Going On?” (to borrow from Marvin Gaye); reading the entire book could put environmental justice in its rightful place, at the top of our priorities.
After all, if African Americans are not addressing police brutality or community gun violence, or trying to save our churches or our schools, we are simply trying to make a living and keep our families healthy and progressing. Climate change and environmental justice simply are not on the radar of many in the Black community.
Yet, Toney makes a strong case. She meticulously addresses everything from historical redlining, fenceline communities, food insecurity, the water crisis, the power of voting and more, connecting it to climate change. From her lens as an African American woman of faith from the south, she educates her audience on every aspect of environmentalism — and her approach is more than effective.
What makes this piece of artistry so effective? It’s just that: artistry. Toney weaves metaphors from Black music, history, faith and more, elements of Black life that speak to the heart and soul of Black America. Like a close girlfriend who knows your favorite childhood candy store, Toney uses culturally relevant references to help African Americans understand that while we may think we don’t care about climate change, we do care, and want to make a difference.
Consider her reference to Stevie Wonder’s 1976 album, “Songs in the Key of Life.” Of his song “As” Toney says, “The lyrics create an impossible order of events that would have to take place before Stevie could ever stop loving his beloved. That’s the powerful adoration to say that love will last until the trees up and fly away, the ocean covers the mountain and Mother Earth calls it quits. But we live in a time when Stevie’s wild declaration is not too far from our reality.”
This brilliant reference will speak to just about any African American adult (over 40!) causing them to pause, appreciate the reference, and think hard about climate change. Those outside the Black community might not recognize Toney’s artistry, and that is ok. She clearly intends to reach and inspire the Black community, and it would be unfortunate for the book to receive negative reactions by those who do not appreciate the references, strategy and artistry.
The subtitle of the book could use a slight tweak, for it is an urgent call to Black America to participate in solving the climate crisis. Put this book in the hands of Black America via churches, classrooms, Black environmentalist affinity groups and green teams! It is a gift to our community that will ignite a passion to address climate change, now — before the streetlights come on.
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