Elevate Difference

Black on Earth: African American Ecoliterary Traditions

African American literary contribution to the national conception of nature, in all of its symbolic ambiguity and historical twists and turns, is a subject that has been little studied. In fact, African American writers have contributed profoundly to our popular understanding of nature and to our ecological concern. Kimberly Ruffin’s book must confront the notion that modern ecological movements have been the exclusive province of privileged white people—that African American people have had little to do with the natural world as writers or advocates. To challenge this assumption, she redefines nature and ecological thought as it has applied to the experience of African American people throughout American history, as articulated by artists both well known and obscure.

This transformation in our understanding begins with a recent anecdote concerning the “Jena Six” incident in Louisiana in 2006. When high school students sought shade under what had been designated “the white tree,” they were subsequently threatened with nooses hanging from it. A tree is, indeed, a source of comfort, a sign of natural beauty with practical value. But it is also—sorry, Joyce Kilmer—emblematic of lynching and a history of terror aimed at African American people. The author points out that rather than preserving the tree as a “troubled relic,” school officials cut it down, presumably in an effort to prevent further trouble and to erase this living monument to racial injustice.

If many African Americans have felt estranged from mainstream environmentalism, Ruffin argues, it is because people themselves—“the most precious of natural resources”—seem to have been excluded from the discourse. The author cites Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt Movement as a model for a new way of thinking about environmentalism, a “human-sensitive” activism that advocates simultaneously for people and the land. She argues that people of African descent have had both the burden and the blessing of being themselves seen as natural; whereas too often people of European descent have viewed themselves as radically separate from nature, a realm to be tamed and controlled or, later, to be visited for leisure.

Another critical point that she makes is that pre-twentieth-century Americans knew nature through work. The connection to the land was forged through labor, with both the body and the landscape part of the same “bioregion.” Similarly, nature has been inextricably involved in human efforts to achieve social justice and to escape from enslavement. She demonstrates that environmental degradation has disproportionately harmed the disenfranchised, but a detailed knowledge of the environment was instrumental, for example, in helping enslaved people establish routes to freedom. African American writing also reveals the extent to which the natural world provided sources of healing—the “wild-growing medicines” that are so much a part of cultural tradition and folklore.

Ruffin revisits the contributions of George Washington Carver, whose intense scrutiny of the natural world led to a unified view of science and religion, a balance between practical knowledge of the natural world and human spirituality. This balance is displayed in the myths written into the African American ecoliterary traditions about food and medicine and many different aspects of life, and they still are made manifest in community urban gardens, for example. The ultimate aim is an environmentalism that fully incorporates social justice as its aim, a natural world that includes humanity.

Written by: Rick Taylor, April 17th 2011