Black on Earth

Black on Earth: African American Ecoliterary Traditions

Kimberly N. Ruffin
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 192
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  • Book Info
    Black on Earth
    Book Description:

    American environmental literature has relied heavily on the perspectives of European Americans, often ignoring other groups. In Black on Earth, Kimberly Ruffin expands the reach of ecocriticism by analyzing the ecological experiences, conceptions, and desires seen in African American writing. Ruffin identifies a theory of "ecological burden and beauty" in which African American authors underscore the ecological burdens of living within human hierarchies in the social order just as they explore the ecological beauty of being a part of the natural order. Blacks were ecological agents before the emergence of American nature writing, argues Ruffin, and their perspectives are critical to understanding the full scope of ecological thought. Ruffin examines African American ecological insights from the antebellum era to the twenty-first century, considering WPA slave narratives, neo-slave poetry, novels, essays, and documentary films, by such artists as Octavia Butler, Alice Walker, Henry Dumas, Percival Everett, Spike Lee, and Jayne Cortez. Identifying themes of work, slavery, religion, mythology, music, and citizenship, Black on Earth highlights the ways in which African American writers are visionary ecological artists.

    eISBN: 978-0-8203-3753-1
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. INTRODUCTION. Message of the Trees: Recognizing Ecological Burden and Beauty
    (pp. 1-24)

    For as long as Africans have been Americans, they have had no entitlement to speak for or about nature. Even in the twenty-first century, standing next to a tree has been difficult. A student tradition in Jena, Louisiana, brought this fact to national attention in August 2006. A black freshman at the area high school asked permission from the school’s principal to sit under a tree commonly understood as “the white tree.” The following day when black students arrived to enjoy the white tree, they found three nooses hanging from it. The school’s principal suggested an expulsion of the white...

  5. ONE “Toil and Soil”: Authorizing Work and Enslavement
    (pp. 25-55)

    Public awareness about global climate change increased precipitously as a result of the imaginative and intellectual work of former U.S. vice president Al Gore. The book and documentary film An Inconvenient Truth garnered international acclaim and awards, stimulating individuals and organizations to take specific actions to reduce their ecological footprint. However, both the book and the film reflect a strain of environmentalism informed by a limited triumvirate of Ws: wilderness, the West, and whiteness. For instance, in the book’s section “Across the Wilderness,” Gore writes, “When I returned from Vietnam in 1971, my wife, Tipper, and I bought a tent,...

  6. TWO York, Harriet, and George: Writing Ecological Ancestors
    (pp. 56-87)

    Although author and activist Randall Robinson has decided now to “quit America”¹ and live in St. Kitts, he details ideas about improving the relationship between African Americans and America in his book The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks. One idea is to increase public acknowledgment of African American ancestors who have helped build the nation. His statement about the idea of ancestor worship may be discomforting for those who consider themselves too intellectually sophisticated and technologically advanced for such notions. However, Robinson suggests industrialization and its aftermath have not removed what he feels is a basic human need: the...

  7. THREE Animal Nature: Finding Ecotheology
    (pp. 88-110)

    “They don’t believe in God. . . .” Charlotte Keys responds to a perceived gap between the worlds of environmentalism and religion with a passionate pronouncement of her religious belief. Why would such a gap exist? What makes environmentalism incompatible with religion? Perhaps because, for some, environmentalism takes on religious importance itself? For instance, William Cronon asks, “Is environmentalism a religion?” (Dunlap xi). Reflecting on this question he writes, “Environmentalism, in short, grapples with ultimate questions at every scale of human existence, from the cosmic to the quotidian, from the apocalyptic to the mundane. More than most human endeavors, this...

  8. FOUR Bones and Water: Telling on Myth
    (pp. 111-135)

    Right now, myth might seem superfluous in a hierarchy of ecological needs. Given the material complexity of our ecological condition, academic discourse in the hard sciences may seem more urgent than myth. Even ecocritics have suggested that literature and criticism of it must reflect scientific understanding, if it is to speak to the moment. Glen Love, in his chapter “Ecocriticism and Science,” makes a convincing argument that ecoliterary study benefits from an in-depth knowledge of the life sciences, making the claim that “scientifically informed ecocritics have an opportunity to reinvigorate the teaching and study of literature and to help redirect...

  9. FIVE “I Got the Blues” Epistemology: Thinking a Way out of Eco-Crisis
    (pp. 136-157)

    The written word was and is a crucial tool for African American creativity; however, the place of musicality, aurality, and orality in this tradition also continues to have a thoroughgoing presence. Music, itself, has been with African Americans through a host of environments, and its sonic and cultural DNA represents its African and New World parentage. One of African American musical tradition’s most famous offspring is the blues. In the epigraph, Samuel Charters’s portrayal places the blues at the meeting grounds of people and, in this case, rural place. He first makes reference to songs for collective work in fields...

  10. CONCLUSION. After Levee Disaster: Learning from a Sinned-against City
    (pp. 158-176)

    Published in 1949, Aldo Leopold’s essay “The Land Ethic” offers a powerful conceptual frame for ecological progress: citizenship. At the same time, it asserts a premature sense of completion in the area of human relationships and “ecological evolution” (238). Turning to ancient Greece to make his case, he argues that humans have advanced beyond Odysseus’s time, when slave girls could be punished with death because they were understood as property. This, of course, overlooks the more contemporary experience of enslavement and subsequent racial discrimination in Leopold’s own homeland. However, there is merit in his suggestion that humans must continue to...

  11. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  12. NOTES
    (pp. 177-186)
    (pp. 187-204)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 205-212)