On Black Women’s Ecologies

*This post is part of our new series on Black Ecologies edited by Justin Hosbey, Leah Kaplan, & J.T. Roane.

Zora Neale Hurston, 1937, (Photo: Library of Congress)

“Oh to be a pear tree—any tree in bloom!”

Janie Crawford, the protagonist in Zora Neale Hurston’s seminal novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, spoke these words as a young Black woman coming of age. This novel is hailed as the quintessential Black feminist text, but Janie’s identification with a pear tree also reveals a legacy of Black feminist environmental consciousness, one that invites us to pay attention to Black women’s ecologies.

Ideologies about African Americans and their relationship to the environment were being developed at the same time as other racist stereotypes and myths. The pervasive misconception is that Black people have no interest in the natural world and are environmentally apathetic. This sentiment stems from African Americans’ traumatic, coerced relationship with the natural world during enslavement that presumably impeded their ability to cultivate an autonomous interest in and connection to the natural world. Both in American society and in the American literary imagination, the natural world is represented as a white space with Black people existing as ecological pariahs and environmental outsiders. However, Black people are deeply, intimately, and historically connected to the environment. Their stories have yet to be told, and their environmental imaginaries have yet to be considered.

This is particularly true of Black women’s poetics. New Negro Renaissance women writers often infused their poetry with natural world imagery and consequently faced criticism that their “feminine” writing was raceless and apolitical. Nature is a fitting symbol to articulate and theorize Black women’s intersectional oppression because they bear the common scars of colonization and patriarchal white supremacy and capitalism.  We need only to look at the writings of such Black women writers as Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, Jesmyn Ward, and Dionne Brand to see that there is a rich tradition of Black women articulating their ecological experiences, one that continues into the present.

Scholar Katherine McKittrick, author of Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle, underscores the importance of the conceptualization and creation of geographies in understanding Black women’s oppression, identifying it as both a source of Black women’s knowledge and domination writing, “the category of black woman is intimately connected with past and present spatial organization and that black femininity and black women’s humanness are bound up in an ongoing geographic struggle.

During enslavement, Black women and their bodies were inscribed with oppressive myths and stereotypes, ones that rendered them grotesque vessels of biological and economic reproduction.

Ecofeminists and ecowomanists rightfully caution against women’s assumed connection to the land and the conflation between “woman” and “land.” Most notably, womanist theologian Delores S. Williams, articulates how the legacies of colonialism are mapped onto Black women’s bodies and how Black women, like the land, were colonized and positioned as a natural resource to be exploited. However, for Black women, race, space, and gender are inextricably linked to their lives and knowledge production.

Indeed, the natural world represents a fraught contradiction of beauty and pain for Black people. Black people have been systematically and institutionally denied access to the environment just as they have been excluded and alienated from other facets of American society. Black artists’ attention to the natural world, reveals the important representations of trauma in Black literature and culture.  In “Strange Fruit,” Billie Holiday sings of “Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze/Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.” In Beloved, Sethe’s “Chokecherry tree” scar on her back is a reminder of the physical abuse she endured during enslavement. The photojournalism project Without Sanctuary is a visual testament to the public celebration of lynching and is filled with images of brutally-murdered African Americans hanging from trees. Furthermore, such scholars as Jacqueline Goldsby have called our attention to tropes and histories of trauma via lynching in African American literature, illustrating how nature can be a difficult and dangerous place through which to render Blackness. These are only a few examples of how the natural world functions as a site of trauma within African American literature and history. We should not negate these perspectives, nor should we accept them as the sole narrative.

I will admit that as I write this essay from my New York apartment, I am a nature-loving Black woman who is afraid of going outside. (Truthfully, amid a nationwide shutdown, there is not anywhere to go.)  And I am still reeling from the California wildfires that left my community in ashes. It is ironic – or perhaps fitting – that I would be writing about Black women’s ecologies during a pandemic that has caused all of us to reimagine our relationship to space and made us aware of how spatialized our existences are. However, this pandemic is not just a medical issue. It is an environmental issue, too, one that lays bare this country’s legacy of environmental racism and renders Black women especially vulnerable.

I opened with Hurston’s quote to signal how Black women have reimagined the natural world beyond the lens of trauma. As a Black women’s studies scholar, I am interested in the ways that Black women position the natural world as a generative space, a space that allows them to theorize and articulate their lived experiences. This generative perspective allows for an engagement with the natural world that is not rooted in Western Christian notions of dominion that justify human authority and exploitation of the earth—the same notions that also justified enslavement.

Black women’s ecologies guide us toward a more restorative relationship with the natural world, one that invites us to understand how environmental issues are Black community issues as well. This framework also enables us to push back against the myth of Black environmental apathy. Black women are—and have been—on the front-lines of climate change and environmental justice issues while the face of these movements remains largely white and male. Foregrounding Black women’s ecological materialities is necessary because it is one of the many ways Black women theorize their oppression. And, indeed, “if Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free.

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Carlyn Ferrari

Carlyn Ferrari is an Assistant Professor of English at Seattle University where she teaches courses on African American literature and culture and Black Feminism. She received her Ph.D. in Afro-American Studies from the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst where she was awarded the Esther Terry Award for the Distinguished Doctoral Dissertation in Afro-American Studies (2018). She also earned graduate certificates in Advanced Feminist Studies and African Diaspora Studies. Her research explores the intersection between Black feminist thought and literary ecocriticism. Her scholarship has been supported by William A. Elwood Fellowship in Civil Rights and African-American Studies at the University of Virginia and the Joyce Avrech Berkman Endowed Fund for Outstanding Feminist Scholarship at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is currently working on two book projects about poet and civil rights activist Anne Spencer.