A Stone’s Throw
We live on an Earth very changed from the world each of us was born onto. To face the increasingly urgent challenges of global climate change, fresh-water shortages, persistent fossil-fuel dependence, cascading extinctions, and inequities behind the spread of poverty and food insecurity will require the best of human imagination and responsibility because, at end, they are moral crises. Yet I wonder what really is possible to achieve when, at least in the lives of many Americans, so much remains unchanged and unrecognized across generations.
I’m often asked twin questions: “Why don’t African Americans [or other “minorities”] care more about the environment?” and “Why is there so little ‘nature writing’ by people of color?” My responses to those inquiring—“we do” and “there is a great deal”—often meet with disbelief.
But environmental thought and activism in the United States have old and diverse roots with a rich legacy of contributions by many cultures to the development of an environmental ethos, richer than just the offerings of those generally acknowledged. W. E. B. Du Bois’s essay on the African roots of the First World War, for example, which appeared in the May 1915 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, is as much an environmental essay as any piece written at that time on the need for a national park system. Zitkala-Sa (Lakota-Dakota) and Sarah Winnemucca (Paiute) noted more than a century ago the close linkages between Euro-American racism and environmental attitudes that led to the degradation of what had been indigenous land. And as African American abolitionists fought and wrote against slavery in the early to mid-19th century, they also fought and wrote against the use of arsenic in tobacco fields.
A segregation of ideas continues in this country, such that both the environmental movement and “nature writing” do not (yet?) recognize the culturally and ethnically diverse voices and storied lives that make up a far from post-racial America. “Race” and class have always been ingredients in how Americans define who “we” are and how “our” communities are framed, including communities or associations of ideas. Just as every day of one’s life is embedded in nature, every day of one’s life is also embedded in a complicated cultural legacy.
Each of us carries history, the past(s) becoming present in what we think and do, in who we are. Deeply rooted values and economic norms institutionalized exploiting and manipulating the natural world—by fragmenting ecosystems, threatening biological diversity, and changing the atmosphere’s nature through fossil-fuel burning. And few honest self-reflections have yet considered how the roots of “democratic” values and institutions relate to class conflict, to sanctioned violence for power and profit, or to the exclusion of peoples of color in a still deeply racialized America.
Across the nation polluting industries continue to follow paths of least power or resistance, as the federal government has persistently weakened or simply failed to implement enforcement structures and health-protection measures for communities less capable of defending themselves. The recent study, Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty: 1987–2007: Grassroots Struggles to Dismantle Environmental Racism in the United States, reports that more than half of the nine million people living within two miles of hazardous waste sites across the country are people of color. The study goes on to document systemic racial and socioeconomic inequities in the siting of commercial waste facilities.
Or we could consider a single place such as New Orleans. Years after Hurricane Katrina made landfall on August 29, 2005, the wake of levee failure still points to long embedded practices of de jure and de facto apartheid. After the Civil War, African Americans were forced to live in the least-desirable, flood-prone areas there. Lawful segregation of the city’s public housing and transportation before the mid-1960s further entrenched a geography of poverty and race such that, when Hurricane Katrina arrived, the greater burden fell again on low-income people of color not only vulnerable to flooding, but with limited access to evacuation, rescue, or recovery efforts. Weeks after the levees broke more homes owned or rented by African Americans remained submerged, as in the Lower Ninth Ward, than those of other ethnic groups.
By many measures today’s New Orleans has recovered significantly. The Brookings Institution reported in late 2010 that the city’s population exceeded three-quarters the pre-Katrina numbers, that large-scale rebuilding efforts boosted the area’s economy, and that local unemployment and poverty rates were lower than national statistics. But who has moved back and who is being counted?
Thousands of displaced families still, years later, live in “temporary” housing, or are homeless, many squatting in abandoned buildings. Thousands more, particularly low-income former renters and public housing residents, have not been able to return to the city as rents climbed out of reach and as mixed-income homes replaced affordable housing. Reconstruction is changing the city’s racial and economic complexion, rather than restoring separated families, communities, or the spiritual rootedness that made the city so culturally rich. Yet, polled by Gallup and other organizations on whether Hurricane Katrina’s impacts pointed to persistent racial inequality, fewer than half of white Americans thought so, while more than three-quarters of African Americans in the country said yes.
Anyone who looks closely and honestly enough can see that how the United States organizes its political system and economy—from de facto segregation to toxic waste sites to trade policies—is far from neutral and even farther from “post-racial.” And yet, despite one of the most massive and ongoing segregated depopulations of a United States city in history—New Orleans—and despite well-researched studies proving racist policies, like Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty, citizens with great power in this country continue not to see the systemic injustices daily visited on communities of color.
What is the American Earth to people of color? Of course there is no single or simple answer. For some the land has been origin and continuity for millennia; for others the land holds the memory of those who worked it under a system of bondage; for others it is a place migrated to in search of new beginnings or a place of refuge from intolerable oppression. Euro-America’s exploration and empire owed much to colonization, slavery, dispossession, and forced removal from homeland to reservation. And the idea of wilderness as untouched land in the West to be preserved—a place for solitary encounters with some pristine wild—was accomplished hand-in-hand with that land’s de-peopling of its indigenous inhabitants to reservations. Euro-Americanization has also led to the use of a problematic and oversimplified classification of “people of color,” which I reluctantly use here.
My intent is not to paint a simplistic scene of victims and aggressors, with single proximate factors of cause and effect, but to recognize that the complexities and ambiguities of this nation’s multicultural past and present, and the ways in which American culture has used or impacted the Earth, cannot be separated from underlying values that have fed racism and systemic inequality. If seen in terms of process and response, human interactions of the past several hundred years on this continent have yielded—and continue to yield—very disparate experiences of estrangement for those in power and for those on the margins. Land conservation, for example, while a sine qua non for mainstream environmentalists, can be experienced by economically poor communities as land grab and dispossession.
There is no requirement that a writer deal with any particular subject—yet, it seems to me that the discourse of nature or environmental writing has proceeded within a frame narrowed by avoidance of the storied lives of people not of Euro-American descent. African American, Asian American, Arab American, Latino/a, Native American, and “multiracial” or “mixed-blood” voices have profoundly enlarged and enriched not only our national literary identity but America’s environmental identity as well.
A person’s primary experience of land or place may be urban, indigenous, exiled, (im)migrant, or toxic, rather than one of solitary encounters of wildness or laments over degraded environments. To define nature literature as anything that does not include these other experiences reveals not a “lack” of writing, but reflects, instead, a societal structure of inclusion and exclusion based on othered difference—whether by “race,” culture, class, or gender.
The meaning of the word “nature” is derived from the Latin nascor, to be born. Perhaps a birth of sorts may yet occur if the broadest “we” possible could cultivate a capacity to ask significant questions about our lives in a larger world, and about lives not our own. Then, perhaps, it might be possible, finally, to resist any mono-identity or mono-culture of mind, self, or knowledge, and celebrate the biodiversity of self and of others. Field and street activists for environmental justice, like Majora Carter and Van Jones, are putting this principle into practice. As founder and first director of Sustainable South Bronx (SSBX), Majora Carter worked in partnership with neighborhood groups, local government, and businesses to stop New York City’s plan for a solid waste plant to process 40 percent of the city’s garbage along the Bronx River. SSBX and other community groups have since reclaimed much of the waterfront—and improved the quality of life for local residents—by developing an ecological restoration workforce, building a park on old industrial land, increasing public waterfront access, establishing a community market, and introducing green roof technology. Both Carter and Van Jones, the founder of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and Green For All, also pioneered successful urban green-collar job training and placement systems.
I’ve been very fortunate to collaborate with Alison Hawthorne Deming on an unusual and provocative anthology, The Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity, and the Natural World, which explores the intersections of ecological awareness, cultural diversity, and human responsibility. The book’s contributors—including Jamaica Kincaid, Joseph Bruchac, Yusef Komunyakaa, bell hooks, Francisco X. Alarcón, Kimiko Hahn, among others—are African American, Arab American, Asian American, Latino/Latina, Native American; and they are “multiracial” and “mixedblood” writers for whom such classifications are both limited and limiting. They write as essayists, critics, poets, scientists, policymakers, teachers, and novelists who recognize, and bring into dialogue, our embeddedness in nature and our embeddedness in this nation’s complex cultural legacy.
Taken as a whole the writings creatively present how identity and place, human history and “natural” history, power and silence, and social injustice and environmental degradation are essentially linked. Some pieces reflect on how dis-placements and migrations have fragmented not only history and memories, but also language, names, and the thin frames within which we try to order our lives. Other pieces turn our attention to the role language plays in our understanding of nature and place, considering words and tropes that have remained unexamined or largely taken for granted (e.g., “Mother Earth”). These essays also recognize the failures of imagination that have widened false gaps between science and “non-science,” humans and nature, us and them, subject and object, civilized and savage, “Third World” and “First World,” as if such words named independent, separate realities.
In the end, the distinct voices weave very different experiences of, and relationships with, place to create a larger and more vari-textured and vari-hued cloth than the largely monochromatic tradition of American nature writing or of the mainstream environmental movement. They help us recognize how crucial it is to think and write across threads of identity that are around and within us—those defined from within and those imposed from without—to understand more fully our place on Earth and connections with each other. They also ask us to contemplate how one can take possession of dignity and history, not in ownership but in honest relation.
Anishinaabe author and cultural critic Gerald Vizenor’s term “survivance” comes to mind. Meaning more than survival, more than endurance or mere response, stories of survivance are an active, evolving presence that resists rigid categories, racialist stereotypes, or “manifest manners” sustained in a literature of dominance. Through these stories of survivance we might more fully imagine and comprehend who and what we are with respect to each other, to the land, and to our shared responsibility.
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