Revisiting Fear Through Walker’s Essay “Everything Is a Human Being”

Book cover for Alice Walker’s Living by the Word: Selected Essays 1973-1987.This spring I’m reading Alice Walker’s Living by the Word slowly, mindfully, as part of my “Contemplative Writing” course. I appreciate this book of essays for many reasons, including its title, which makes an argument that we live by the words we put into the world. As a writer committed to everyday living for justice, I am taken with this idea of “living by the word.”

I am taken, too, with Walker’s reflections on her many relations, including with her father and daughter, readers and publishers, ancestors and elders, horses and snakes. Across her essays, Walker shows the interconnectedness of all beings, tracing lineages of trauma and healing as well as fear and (in)justice.

Recently, the essay “Everything Is a Human Being” stood out to me. As a keynote address Walker gave at the University of California, Davis, in 1983 for MLK Day, this piece weaves together reflections on fear and humans’ destructive impact on the earth and each other. I found myself lingering over words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and pages …

In class, several students read aloud from the following passage, one I’d earmarked, as it spoke to my recent blog post on interrogating fear (fear of spiders and people alike).

Screenshot of blog post “Do Vegans Kill Spiders? Recognizing Fears and Others’ Right to Exist”

Here’s a bit of Walker’s reflections on fear, which resulted in a neighbor killing a small garden snake:

“Everything I was taught about snakes—that they are dangerous, frightful, sinister—went into the murder of this snake person, who was only, after all, trying to remain in his or her home, perhaps the only home he or she had ever known. Even my ladylike ‘nervousness’ in its presence was learned behavior. I knew at once that killing the snake was not the first act that should have occurred in my new garden, and I grieved that I had apparently learned nothing, as a human being, since the days of Adam and Eve.

“Even on a practical level, killing this small, no doubt bewildered and disoriented creature made poor sense, because throughout the summer snakes just like it regularly visited the garden (and deer, by the way, ate all the tomatoes), so that it appeared to me that the little snake I killed was always with me. Occasionally a very large mama or papa snake wandered into the cabin yard, as if to let me know its child has been murdered, and it knew who was responsible for it.

“These garden snakes, said my neighbors, are harmless; they eat mice and other pests that invade the garden. In this respect, they are even helpful to humans. And yet, I am still afraid of them, because that is how I was taught to be. Deep in the psyche of most of us there is this fear—and long ago, I do not doubt, in the psyche of ancient peoples, there is a similar fear of trees. And of course a fear of other human beings, for that is where all fear of natural things leads us: to fear ourselves, fear of each other, and fear even of the spirit of the Universe, because out of fear we often greet its outrageousness with murder.” (Walker, Living by the Word, p. 143)

Walker’s words not only touch my heart but also remind me of the deep work I have to do with confronting, befriending, and watching for fear. I notice, for example, that fear of snakes is close-at-hand when hiking. I’m fascinated by and try to learn all I can about snakes, yet I still have much to do to quiet the learned/internalized fear that drives me to keep watch along trails.

Similarly, fear of myself and other humans is never far away. Such fear leads to literal and figurative murder—from police and state-sanctioned violence to dehumanization and discounting others. It erupts in microaggressions and denial of anger and grief. It leads to destruction of the earth, disproportionally impacting people of color. It’s also why we all (and white folks especially) need to strengthen emotional literacies for racial justice.

Fear blocks the ability to see beauty, the potential for human connection, and the work of striving for justice. Fear tears down instead of building up.

In Walker’s words: “[W]e should be allowed to destroy only what we ourselves can re-create. We cannot re-create this world. We cannot re-create ‘wilderness.’ We cannot even, truly, re-create ourselves. Only our behavior can we re-create, or create anew” (p. 151).

With humility, I commit again to revisiting destructive fear and re-creating behaviors aligned with justice. To do so, I see the value of “living by the word”: words of relationality, connectedness, and kinship. Kinship with spiders and humans, snakes and structural change. Kinship linking why I’m vegan with why I’m committed to social and racial justice. Kinship toward blocking destruction and creating anew.

View of the book’s inside binding coming loose and pages falling away.
Speaking of destruction and re-creation, here’s my well-loved book on its way to physical destruction, but ingested as nourishment and fuel for ongoing action.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For related posts, check out “Do Vegans Kill Spiders? Recognizing Fears and Others’ Right to Exist,” Refueling with Feminists of Color,” and the series of posts on why I’m vegan. Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

Do Vegans Kill Spiders? Recognizing Fears and Others’ Right to Exist

During the holidays, I visited family in Tennessee and Florida, where we encountered multiple spiders. They were doing what spiders do in houses: walking along baseboards, in and out of shadows, with seemingly little or no interest in human co-habitants.

From growing up in the Tennessee mountains, I’m familiar with spiders. I’ve studied which spiders’ venom is likely to impact humans. I’ve encountered black widows, watched for brown recluses, and investigated spider bites on my body. I’ve also realized that my fear of spiders—a fear that I’ve quieted over time—is not a rational fear of venom. Instead, it’s a fear of any and all spiders, simply because they are spiders. And I worry a lot about fearing something because it exists. Such fear literally kills people, as internalized fear of black men (fear of black and brown bodies, especially by white women) is well-documented. It’s essential to explore, spend time with, and really understand this fear.

*          *          *          *          *

When I think of fear (and spiders), I think of this wisdom from poet Nikki Giovanni (who also grew up in the Tennessee mountains):

I killed a spider Not a murderous brown recluse Nor even a black widow And if the truth were told this Was only a small Sort of papery spider Who should have run When I picked up the book But she didn't And she scared me And I smashed her I don't think I'm allowed To kill something Because I am Frightened

Giovanni’s “Allowables” reminds me that when fear is in the driver’s seat, it can do real harm. Fear is linked with violence, with the limits of coming to see or care about another being, another person. Fear is linked with dehumanization, with injustice, with denying life. Literally, such fear undermines another’s right to exist.

Though fear has a role in play in our lives, that role needs to be considered and measured. For author Elizabeth Gilbert, fear belongs in the backseat. Though it can offer suggestions and give information, we must determine how to act with that information.

More and more, I realize that whenever I’m tuning out fear, it grows louder in its insistence to be heard. And the louder fear is, the greater its potential for taking over and short-circuiting mindful, committed action.

*          *          *          *          *

It’s taken me years to shift my attitude toward spiders, but now when I see spiders in houses, my instinct is to observe them and, typically, leave them be. I’ve learned that their self-determined path is to disappear into nooks and crannies, and their presence won’t harm me. That’s why I was taken by surprise by my family’s reaction to spiders.

In one spider encounter (after some yelling and shoe-throwing), a family member challenged: “If you don’t move it, I’ll kill it.”

At that moment, I heard my fear speak loudly: “Beth, if you try to move it, it might bite you.”

I’ve learned from educator Margaret Wheatley that looking at what surprises and disturbs me is a good way to see my assumptions and beliefs. In this moment, I could see shame that my old fear of spiders was still driving (not backseat-riding). I could see how fear was preventing me from interacting with spiders, much less seeing myself as truly in relation with them. Even the language of “it” held the spider at a distance, making me question the depth of my relations with other humans and non-human animals.

Thanking fear for these lessons, I luckily found a glass and a holiday card to trap the spider and move it outdoors. After a few deep breaths—of feeling how fear was undercutting relations—I looked down to see that the card held a much-needed message:

2017-12-26 10.09.46

That line—“to every creature great and small”—is the sort of holiday greeting that communicates a desire for connectedness with all beings. It’s a sentiment offered to snow-people and birds, but what about to spiders? What about to humans deemed less-than-human? What about to those who are deemed expendable, whose right to exist is constantly called into question?

*          *          *          *          *

As a framework or orientation to the world, veganism helps me recognize and relate differently with fears. Through striving to relate with “every creature great and small,” veganism helps me notice when I’m afraid of others and to question—and not continually perpetuate—those fears. Veganism, too, helps me notice when fear is driving instead of backseat-riding. This noticing arises through a commitment to ecofeminism: a commitment to counter exploitation, oppression, and injustice and to affirm social, racial, gender, economic, and environmental justice.

It’s not by chance that Nikki Giovanni, a Black woman born “during the age of segregation,”  wrote “Allowables.” Lived experiences facing dehumanization and white supremacy provide insights into the experience of being feared, killed, and written off. Of being dis-allowable. And such dis-allowing is why veganism must be intersectional—working not only against speciesism but also against racism, sexism, classism, -isms.

When I think of what’s most urgent in the world at this moment, I think of what’s allowed and dis-allowed. I think of who’s allowed and dis-allowed. And I think of the urgent need for a white woman to leverage courage toward combating fear. For, truly, white women’s fears have historically bolstered white supremacy, and so working with fears is essential to countering dehumanization and super-humanization (inferiority and superiority).

My hope is that by relating more humanely with spiders, we learn to relate more humanely with humans. May valuing spiders’ self-determined paths allow us to value all humans’ rights to existence and to self-determination.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. Feel free to check out other answers to “why I’m vegan,” including environmental justice, ecofeminism, and doing something small and sustained. Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

Vegan for Environmental Justice

This week I’m caught up in strong emotions and difficulty finding words as I watch the precarity, migrations, and destruction associated with climate change. The world is literally on fire and under water, and yet there is still widespread denial of global warming:

Or, as some might say, the world is trying to kill us:Screen Shot 2017-09-12 at 7.16.49 PM

This current environmental destruction is not only extreme, but it’s also extremely inequitable. The people who least can afford to are bearing the weight of hurricanes, fires, droughts, and related environmental destruction from toxic waste and hazardous pollutants. We’re witnessing the impacts of environmental discrimination, which is entwined with discrimination based on race, nationality, socioeconomic class, and other group memberships. And discrimination is why we need the language of environmental justice, or equitable and just distribution of environmental protections and impacts.

One of the many reasons I’m vegan is for environmental justice. Veganism offers anti-speciesism as part of an intersectional approach to justice. Veganism also contributes by limiting greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, and methane emissions, among other pollutants, and reducing carbon footprints. The impact of eating vegan is environmentally significant—much more significant than eating locally or upgrading appliances or turning off lights.

Certainly, there are a LOT of ways to work for environmental justice. Veganism isn’t the only answer. Antiracism isn’t the only answer. Anti-discrimination isn’t the only answer. However, these are pieces of a larger puzzle, and when these pieces are missing, there are evident gaps. What’s so troubling is that their absences seem frequently to not even to be noticed.

Though I’m sorely limited in what I understand from my privileged position in the world, I can see more and more that the unwillingness or inability to engage veganism is connected to the unwillingness or inability to engage larger matters of rights violations, discrimination, racism, inequity, injustice, and the related need for justice. It’s not enough for vegans to be vegans. Vegans, too, must take an intersectional approach that works to dismantle white supremacy and to enact racial, social, economic, and other forms of justice.

This intersectional approach is why environmental justice matters for vegans and why veganism matters for environmental justice.

This intersectional approach is needed within environmental organizations and vegan organizations alike (thanks, Dr. Amie “Breeze” Harper, for your advocacy).

This intersectional approach is why veganism for environmental sustainability is much richer when rethought in terms of environmental justice and commitments to justice.

So, why am I vegan? Because I’m committed to environmental justice. And as a commitment, environmental justice leads me to an intersectional vegan approach.


This post is written by
Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. Feel free to check out other answers to “why I’m vegan,” including cookie dough, ecofeminism, and doing something small and sustained. Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

Gratitude for/on Earth Day

Earth Day snuck up on me this year.

Though I wasn’t thinking about this annual event, I was in the midst of writing blog posts about why I’m vegan, how hiking supports my commitment to justice, and why there’s cause to be alarmed with the world right now. All of these posts communicate the importance of environmental justice and connections between how we treat the earth and how we treat each other. In other words, environmental justice is also about racial justice, indigenous rights, the poor people’s campaign, and related movements for justice.

So, I’d like to honor Earth Day, its efforts to make visible a larger grassroots environmental movement, its too-often unacknowledged roots in indigenous epistemology, and its call for a different relationship with “the earth”—with land, water, animals, and more.

Truly, there’s so much work to do, and I appreciate the people who marched for science today. Today I needed to take a break, to spend time recharging outdoors, and to experience the healing power of nature (or ecotherapy).

As a way to honor this day—Earth Day—I’ll share a few statements of gratitude:

For national and state parks that need public support, funding, and protection to guard against escalating attacks (like Kohler-Andrae in Wisconsin), I am grateful.

View of boardwalk trail, sandy dune, and Lake Michigan.

For the love of being vegan and for more readily-available vegan options (like this avocado reuben sandwich from Urban Beets in Milwaukee), I am grateful.

Photo of Beth with lunch food from Urban Beets (open-faced avocado reuben sandwiches).

For the privilege to experience healing through play, I am grateful.

Photo of Beth along the lakeshore, dipping hands into sand.

For seeing two muskrats, who give me courage to swim in emotionally murky waters (to dive deeper into introspective self-work), I am grateful.

View of the marshes at Kohler-Andrae State Park.

For befriending a cat who reminded me of my childhood companion Fuzzy Fat (and being guided by this cat to remember formative emotional experiences), I am grateful.

My partner and a friendly cat interacting at the end of a long day of hiking.

For the ability to write, reflect, and share this gratitude, I am grateful.

I’d love to hear how YOU are honoring the earth, your earthly self, and Earth Day. Stories to share? Calls to action? Photos from marches? Hope from the light of spring?


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Vegan for Environmental Justice.” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!