*This post is part of our new series on Black Ecologies edited by Justin Hosbey, Leah Kaplan, & J.T. Roane.
What does African American environmental thought look like? The cover of Camille T. Dungy’s now-classic 2009 anthology suggests one possibility. A Black boy is pictured: his low-fade blends wonderfully with the tall grass in the greyscale image. 1 The child’s eyes are closed; his lips are slightly parted as if he is reciting incantation. His face is towards the sky. Prayerful, he looks. One might wonder what this boy is thinking, and if what he is thinking is beyond the frame of the image like the un-pictured heavens. Or, maybe the boy is meditating on something more immediate, something as close as the beetle on his brow.
The insect on the boy’s forehead is tied to a string, held in the boy’s right hand at a thirty-degree angle, creating an interesting kind of triangulation. We see here three points: the boy’s hand, the june bug that is on his brow, and an imaginative point hovering above the boy’s chest. The boy’s chest is shirtless—only the straps and buckle of denim overalls can be seen.
One might infer that these overalls are the dress code of the Black Southern working-class in the 1960s, even though the image does not privilege this inference. There are no definite markers of socioeconomic status; no guarantees of class position or political belonging; yet because of the boy’s Blackness, some might assume that he should be understood as a political subject whose life and wonderings respond to the “political” world that entraps him. The literary scholar Kevin Quashie calls this the general concept of Blackness: the overrepresentation of those who are Black as political subjects always already responding to the state and society. 2 This political view does not attend to the expansive outdoors in which the boy lies or the capaciousness of its self-making parameters. There is little room, if any at all, for the boy to be his own self.
Yet, if we dare to imagine one who is Black as other than the descendant of slaves, the son of sharecroppers, the victim of disenfranchisement, then we might see the june bug, the boy, and the natural world that surrounds them in a beautiful gathering. From that vantage, the photo becomes perfect; it compliments Dungy’s anthology well because it offers an alternative viewpoint of Black people’s relationship with the natural world. 3 This new vista, this other way of seeing those who are Black in relation to the natural world, asserts that this relationship can be something other than dominance. It can be—hinted by the boy’s peaceful face—a relationship of harmony. That harmony is a reckoning in our current moment of climate catastrophe. As we view Black nature otherwise, new questions emerge: How might we imagine African Americans and the environment without the gestures of political activism (like urban gardens or veganism) that cover our social media feeds? What equipment for living might we glean from African American Environmental Thought to ready us for a more viable planet?
There is a classic analogy to the Black Nature image, which appears in Toni Morrison’s 1975 Portland State Speech. 4 She says, “[The artist] also knows that we have not yet encountered any god who is as merciful as one Black man who flicks a beetle over on its feet.” Morrison’s analogy encourages us to contemplate what a vision of “one Black Man” and “a beetle” looks like beyond the idiom of dominance. That is, Morrison says that it is achievable (“we have not yet encountered”) for the human and nonhuman to be in a relationship that is not constituted by human dominance (“merciful”). However, we should note that the problem with human-and-nonhuman relation, in this analogy, is that there is a distinction between humankind and other lifeforms, which are relegated to the natural world. Originally published as “Humanist View,” Morrison’s speech at the level of the title and the sentence imagines human and nonhuman as distinct elements that come into relation; not as elements always already bonded. The quality of such relation, even if it is a relation of mercy, posits nature as a separate, autonomous realm from which humans (as with human political imagination) are disconnected. What would Black nature look like without such separation? What would an ecology of Black nature look like, and what would it make possible?
I know no better example of the nonseparated or inseparable relation between human and all-that-is-other-than-human than with Lucille Clifton’s widely anthologized poem,“cutting greens.” First published in 1973 in The Massachusetts Review, the poem is not unusual for the poet. Like her poems “won’t you celebrate with me” or “blessing the boat,” “cutting greens” honors the human capacity to live beyond the political moment, and within ecological terms. The challenges of state and society, in these Clifton poems and others, do not define the poems’ speakers. Because, as the Ethnic Studies Scholar Rachel Harding tells us, Clifton’s subjects are instantiated in a Black world, a world that has the capacity to recognize Black humanity in nature. 5 When “cutting greens” opens with “curling them around,” we are immediately placed in a situation where the speaker handles the greens with human care:
curling them around
i hold their bodies in obscene embrace
thinking of everything but kinship.
collards and kale
strain against each strange other
away from my kissmaking hand and
the iron bedpot.
the pot is black,
the cutting board is black,
and just for a minute
the greens roll black under the knife,
and the kitchen twists dark on its spine
and I taste in my natural appetite
the bond of live things everywhere.
While we might read human care in this instance as an ethical principle, as with the term “humane” working as a metonym for benevolence, I would argue that the poem is ironic in this initial moment. Beyond the first line (“curling them around”), and through the second and third, the poem uses the phrases “obscene embrace” and “everything but kinship” to emphasize a human and nature relationship. So much so, the reader might not realize what “their bodies” is until the fourth line of the fifteen-line poem.
Even after we learn what “their bodies” are (“collards and kale”), the poem continues to emphasize the kind of relationship that Morrison’s analogy epitomizes. Look at the fifth and sixth lines (“strain against each strange other/away from my kissmaking hand and/”). Here, we see three terms of separation (“strain,” “strange,” and “away”), as though the speaker is using repetition to elaborate on how distinct human (“kissmaking hand”) is from the nonhuman.
Interestingly, after the second sentence, the poem turns towards a nonseparate/inseparable relation. This turn or volta gathers the human and nonhuman within a conception of Blackness. Whereas, “the pot is black,/the cutting board is black” and “my hand/” is left without the adjective (“black”), the greens and kitchen turn black (“the greens roll black under the knife,/ and the kitchen twists dark on its spine/”). The poem has moved from alienating the human from nature to instantiating her in the natural realm. The poem’s couplet elaborates on that instantiation, beautifully: “and I taste in my natural appetite/the bond of live things everywhere.” This “bond” is what the literary scholar Joshua Bennett calls in his work on African American literature and animality studies black ecology. And it is this “bond with live things everywhere” that acknowledges lifeforms are not hermetically sealed and, further, African American Environmental Thought imagines a common practice (i.e. cooking/cutting greens or a child laying in a field) as an occasion for philosophical contemplation.
Seeing everyday activity as an opportunity to think otherwise about the world is significant as an act of imagining humans within nature because, daily, we have made it possible to live and die and live again in a moment of climate catastrophe. Black ecology might make it possible to live otherwise.
- Boy with June Bug (1963) by Gordan Parks, The Gordan Parks Foundation. ↩
- In Quashie’s 2012 book, The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture, he writes, “More specifically, in most regards, black culture is overidentified with an idea of expressiveness that is geared toward a social audience and that has political aim; such expressiveness is the essence of black resistance” (11). ↩
- In the introduction to Black Nature, “Introduction: The Nature of African American Poetry,” Dungy writes, “Its cycles (Black Nature) encourage readers to divert their gaze into new directions, demanding they notice new aspects of the world and accept alternative modes of description” (xxxiv). ↩
- Later versions of the talk can be found in Morrison’s latest publication, The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations. See “Moral Inhabitants.” Also, hear the audio, “Black Studies Center public dialogue. Pt. 2,” at https://pdxscholar.library.pdx.edu/orspeakers/90/. ↩
- Harding writes, “In these poems, as in others, Clifton understands a connection to the natural world via the experience of blackness.” See page 40, “Authority, History, and Everyday Mysticism in the Poetry of Lucille Clifton: A Womanist View.” ↩