January 2019–January 2020, Black with Plants will publish q and a on mental health + community building with botanists, college dropouts, horticulturalists, plant care specialists, natural hair experts, social justice advocates, sound therapists, etc. across the thirteen hardiness zones in the United States and African diaspora.
Leigh Kiyoko: I noticed over the winter, you turned 32. Happy belated birthday! The last year you also made a major career change: You went from serving in managerial, Chairman and Board Member roles within the non-profit youth and education domain for over ten years into creating W/Plants, a botanical shop based in Union Market, DC. I immediately noticed how your writing on Instagram stood out, how you had a mission statement for Black With Plants and a commitment to inspiring better social media practice. Do you think you could talk a bit about the creation and vision for Black With Plants? What was the transition like switching from a high profile, stressful job to working in a plant-based environment? Did you feel supported by the community?
D’Real Graham: Black With Plants began in Fall 2018 as a superficial pursuit to demonstrate me (D’Real) sharing space with plants rather emphatically in a small, dark basement apartment located in a row house in northwest DC. However, after uploading images/footage, I started to care less about showing off my apartment and fully committed to a quest to connect with Black people (in the district and across the African diaspora), particularly Black/Brown IG users that made time to daily showcase their caring for plants journey. (Late December/early January) That’s when I realized that my original plan: use @blackwithplants in IG to showcase plants that I have occupied space with was in fact not revolutionary. Thousands of people upload images, video, etc. bringing viewers closer to their urban jungle.
I am very humbled by how helpful black (and brown) IG users are, especially using a direct message. Community now reflects the Black With Plants feed on IG. And, Blackwithplants.info provides readers Q&A on mental health + coalition building, in addition to direct access to Black With Plants Zine designed by Ashanti Carpio Africana (@ashantiafricana; IG). Challenging Black and Brown people reimagine their relationship with the natural world on a social media platform makes ongoing conversations accessible. In 2019, I am committed to working in concert with folx to rewild urban landscapes + embrace opportunities for self-discovery. Black With Plants is a great platform to encourage IG viewers to lean in towards possibilities.
Leigh Kiyoko: It’s glaringly obvious that large plant accounts on social media promote certain voices and images, mainly white, able-bodied, thin, cis plant people. As a thin, light-skinned, light-eyed mixed Japanese-Canadian cis woman, I’ve certainly unfairly benefited from this platform. What are some criticisms of the Instagram plant platform?
D’Real Graham: Rather than bring attention to criticisms, I’d rather honor the thousands of Black/Brown IG users that are determined to define their realities outside of western ideology and/or European nomenclature. Black with Plants, Black Kids With Plants, etc., and IG feeds steady sprouting original content that challenges the dominant worldview. All Spring 2019, I have noticed more and more accounts managed by Black/Brown folx. This is really good, we need thousands of examples of Black/Brown people in relationship with the natural world. My Summer 2019 goal is to bring more attention to ethnobotany and compel Black/Brown men to activate in the fight to understand + live with the seasons.
Leigh Kiyoko: I often see you promoting Black/Brown plant people on your Instagram account, constantly directing your audience to new accounts (I’ve found a number of local accounts through you, thank you!). I think the Gram is notorious for making celebrities out of people who LOVE to hog the spotlight, almost like bizarre karaoke singers who sing the same old song every day to their audience. It gets redundant, boring and old, really quick. I think a better social media practice is to PASS THE MIC. Promote and share voices that aren’t heard. Share your spotlight (or grow light)! How can privileged plant people do better on social media? I’d love to hear your tips for better social media practices.
D’Real Graham: Better social media practices can be promoted by all IG users. However, it will take a month full of Sundays or more before American’s obsession with the consume-entertain cycle. I am using social media to bring attention to the overlooked and devalued, unfortunately, both plants and people of color fall into the same basket at the end of the day. If I could challenge readers in this line, it would be to consider to make room for Black/Brown people, maybe not just spotting light on friends/colleagues of color but giving attention and acknowledgment to the Black/Brown makers, countries, ancestors that serve as a source of inspiration, even if it’s unconscious.
Leigh Kiyoko: I often come across people making connections to family members from another generation as their first plant role model. For me, it was my grandfather, Kiyomi, who worked as a gardener after World War II. Back then, it wasn’t a hobby but a way to survive and make ends meet. Again, his relationship to plants is a reminder of the incredible privilege I have. Who are your plant role models?
D’Real Graham: My plant role models at the moment are Michel E. Lee (Working The Roots), Carolyn Finney (Black Faces, White Spaces), Doria Robinson (North Richmond Farm), Xavier Brown (Soilful), Gail Taylor (Three Part Harmony Farm), Stephanie Leah (The Root Pause), Katie Pettit (Current Movements), and Gynelle Leon (Prick London).
Leigh Kiyoko: Can you talk about the hashtag you use, #ethnobotany and what ethnobotany is for those who have never heard that term before. How can we redefine ethnobotany on Instagram since its a term that is attributed to a white colonialist?
D’Real Graham: Ethnobotany is a practice which reminds contemporaries of the many ways in which our ancestors worked in social groups to incorporate plants into their cultural norms, especially for diet, spirituality, and healing. I use the term + hashtag to remind IG users that we should return to traditional knowledge contained within plants. And, I will continue to use the term + hashtag to remind myself that there are alternatives to the dominant worldview on healing readily available.
Leigh Kiyoko: Name five must follow plant accounts on Instagram.
Leigh Kiyoko: Where can we find you online and in real life?
I (D’Real) am available online via @blackwithplants (and @withplantsdc) via IG. In real life you will catch me at Three Part Harmony Farm in northeast DC or in Loudon County at the Potomac Vegetable Farm.