Since the age of Enlightenment, man has afforded himself the highest hierarchal value in relation to his ecosystem.24 By doing so, he created and maintained a nature-culture divide, whereby nature was considered an “objective” environment (sans culture) and culture was considered a “built” environment (sans nature). This nature-culture divide creates schisms and discursive distancing between ecology and culture. Terms like environment, nature and wilderness perpetuate anthropocentric and exploitive practices and prevent the realization of social and environmental justice.25
When you hear the words environment, nature and wilderness do you conjure up? National parks, camping, traveling across country admiring the protected environs like those presented in Al Gore’s book (and later movie), An Unconventional Truth, where he describes his travels across country with his wife and later his family...”26 The movie references a montage of accomplishments of America-the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage and victory in World War II to convince the viewing audience of their capacity to do the work needed to save the future of the planet. When one speaks of nature, they generally reference the 3 W’s: wilderness, the West and “whiteness.”27 The wilderness is depicted as a place governed by a natural order not the human orderliness reflected in rural and urban landscapes. The wilderness is sometimes referred to as a place of spiritual or political refuge. It has been described as a place to start over or an “Edenic” untouched paradise. Unlike the Old-World view of the American landscape, typical of the “Wild West,” it is has not been agriculturally cultivated or impacted by the human settlement of white-European Americans. The “Wild West” was said to be the home of savages and beasts-a place of danger.28
In some instances, “environmentalists are seen as “self-righteous, privileged, and arrogant” in their interactions with and ecocentric assertions to communities of color.29 Some have remarked that African Americans are perceived collectively as uncomfortable with nature.30 Perhaps this is why a search for nature and/or environmental writings by African American produces such a scant reporting. Are Africans Americans not interested in issues concerning nature and our environment? Do people of color experience the montage of America’s accomplishments in the same way? Do they need convincing that they are capable of saving the planet? Or do they question whether this appeal applies to them?
Ruffin in Black on Earth highlights that African American activism in environmentalism dates to the Progressive era.31 She acknowledges that their activism presents differently than white European American efforts surrounding conservation and wilderness campaigns in that it is generally locally focused and framed as civil rights issues, such as access to urban parks, combatting air pollution, and protecting public health. She asserts the basis for these civil rights issues is the assumption that “environmental amenities and freedom from environmental harms are critical to the good life and should be available to all.”32 This assumption informs the ideological roots of black politics and black thought and connects such with environmentalism from the periods of abolition movement through the Harlem Renaissance to the current environmental movement. It denies the misperception that African Americans are indifferent to environmental values and presents evidence of a rich tradition.
Carolyn Finney in Black Faces, White Spaces defines environment as “any outdoor green space, whether natural or constructed, insofar as it relates to environmental issues such as air quality, climate control, and species protection.”33 This definition of environmentalism is indicia of human engagement directed to some problem or issue. It is activity based or a stewardship of nature or its inhabitants.34 Her definition of environment is much more expansive and encompassing than that of the romanticized view of the environment and nature.35 This definition broadens environmental thought to include not only the natural environment but humans’ relationship to it. This definition broadening allows voices of color to be heard. It also allows the effects historic events such as slavery and racial oppression and their respective past and contemporary effects to be included in the conversation about its relationship to both people and nature.
Both Finney and Ruffin redefine the nexus between land, labor, and liberty as it relates to collective consent, the passage of time and the property conflicts that arise as result of the triad.36 In contrast to white European American nature and environment writers such as Henry David Thoreau, George Perkins Marsh, John Muir, Rachel Carson, and Aldo Leopold, who saw the natural world as independent of human manipulation--“untouched,” Finney, Ruffin and other African American and Black writers hold that America (as defined by its political community) and its physical terrain is impacted by (and some go as far to say it is cursed with) injustice and is in need of redemption.”37 The black environmental tradition holds that slavery and post-Emancipation racial oppression place African Americans into a conflicted relationship with nature. They hold that African Americans view nature through an historical lens of coerced labor, ownership prevention, and impaired ability to interpret nature’s landscape. Further legitimating this oppression was the development and promotion of a scientific racist ideology of an environmental determinism that insisted that blacks, as a race, had virtually no capacity for free creative action. As a result of this denial, both African Americans and the land have been scarred.
The black environmental tradition sees the evolution of private land ownership moving away from an individual’s (corporation’s) property claim to do whatever they wish with “their” private property to incorporate changes in what is deemed good for the larger community. It asks that the centrality of consent of the collective move away from the “absolute rights of ownership38 but asks that it include claims of stewardship.
Freedom is an important theme as it relates to nature, especially in the context of creative agency in relationship to nature. Being able to not only own land but do with it what you desire is part of the definition of what it means to be an American. Unlike the mainstream environmental tradition, the black environmental tradition sees humans as “active, creative, and co-equal partners in giving meaning to and redeeming the natural world. In the black environmental tradition, the central question is not how to protect the natural world from human interference but how to facilitate a responsible and morally beneficial interaction with nature.”39
The concept, ecoculture operates to decenter anthropocentrism and promote a more holistic human and human-ecology relationship. It is based on the biologically defined understanding of relationships within ecology. It holds that the relationships between human sociocultural systems and ecosystems are so intertwined that they cannot be separated or divided. Instead, it promotes an interdependence of life systems. Conceptually, promoters of ecoculture, see ecoculture as a potential “bridge” between the disciplines with shared goals.40
The black environmental tradition seeks to deepen the American environmental discourse.”41 By acknowledging that both narratives exist coupled with a historical recontextualization and close textual analysis of environmental justice criticism. This developing discourse offers a common ground for environmental history and ecocriticism to exist. This eco-historicism is a multidisciplinary approach that historicizes text within both a sociocultural context and environmental history. Claborn argues that history matters not because it complicates the history of Civil Rights and environmentalism but that it articulates the interconnectedness of the scope of the Civil Rights and environment struggles of today.
Environmental racism, a term credited to Robert Bullard, “father of environmental justice” is a subset of the larger environmental justice movement that originated in the United States.”42 It refers to environmental policies, practices or directives that disproportionately disadvantage individuals, groups or communities (intentionally or unintentionally) based on race or color. The concept emerged when the Northeast Community Action Group, a group of African American suburban homeowners in a middle-class enclave in Houston tried to prevent the siting of a landfill near their neighborhood in 1979 (Beans v Southwestern Waste Management, Inc.). In their suit, they were able to document “ecoracism” with a finding that over 80% of landfills and incinerators in Houston were bult in African American neighborhoods.”43
Additionally, in Civil Rights and the Environment,44 Claborn proposes a supplement to the eco-historical method of analysis of African American literature. He proposes a Marxian and intersectional understanding of ecology and environment. He posits that a Marxian ecology places an emphasis on the “natural” whereby labor theories of value are not materialistic enough. A Marxian ecology recognizes that capitalism has a material limit—total economy of the planet’s ecosystems and that all value is derived from its metabolic cycles to fuel it and survive. An eco-Marxist reading of text should uncover the homology between human ecological exploitation holding that the same forces that generate exploitation and oppression, generate ecological damage. Citing Marxist text, “Capitalist production…only develops the techniques and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker.”
The challenge for integrated analysis is to go beyond establishing mere correlations among these intermeshed systems of oppression but to unearth points of causation, homology, and overdetermination in that the systemic oppression of historically and environmentally embedded groups and identities have multiple causes and origins. Not treating all categories as equal or that they create an artificial totality rather that intersectional analysis is more complete than atomized analysis of race and class.
However, according to Myers, Ruffin’s ecocriticism is incomplete. He asserts that it needs to include contemporary race theory not only for reasons of fairness and social justice but also ecocriticism that does not account for racism or include in its vision of a sustainable human relationship to the land thar many perspectives on the nonhuman world that different cultures afford is necessarily incomplete.45