We Need Histories of Radical Black Ecology Now

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

Photo: Alice Walker (Wikimedia Commons)

The events of the past months have brought two tasks to the forefront of collective consciousness: dismantling the police and other forms of state-sanctioned anti-Black and racist violence; and combating environmental destructionclimate change, and its effects on Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color. From mainstream environmental organizations and climate journalism to grassroots organizations, there is an increasingly widespread realization that these tasks are not separate or antithetical, but interdependent. At the same time, we have been reminded that capitalism and white supremacist settler states cannot be relied upon to ensure the survival and the flourishing of racialized people, nor that of the environments in which we live.

Without alternative political imaginaries—to the state and to capital—this series of realizations risks trapping us in what M. Nourbese Philip has recently described as our “impossible choices”. This is the dilemma of the desire to return to “normal” and the knowledge that “normal has meant the plunder of the earth’s resources, the wars for these resources, not to mention the practices that destroy, dehumanize, and oppress life in its myriad forms on this earth.”

One way to escape this trap is to turn to the “subterranean history” of radical Black Ecology.1 By radical Black ecology I mean Black thinkers, movements, and communities that have refused the ruse that capitalism, the state, heteropatriarchy, and the domination of more-than-human nature are the means and ends of justice and freedom. In this post I focus on the period in which the movement for Environmental Justice (EJ) began to take shape, roughly from 1968 to the mid 80’s. My interest here is not in EJ itself, but in the contemporaneous undercurrents of radical, womanist Black ecology. What is striking about this period of radical Black ecology is how it couples analyses (and experiences) of the brutal violence and power of “the system,” with a wild and palpable sense of potentiality. Returning to it, we get the sense that “another world is possible,” and indeed is already being ushered in as a result of the efforts of these thinkers and movements, the struggles of ancestors, and through solidarity with other oppressed peoples around the globe. Putting this past in a constellation with our present prompts us to reflect on the extent to which our political horizon has become constricted. Yet, at the same time as it reveals the limited and contingent nature of what has come to delineate the possible for us, it also affirms struggles and desires for what we cannot yet name, but know that we need.

In the U.S. context, the overlooked, revolutionary ecological texts of key figures of Black Power are especially timely in light of demands for the abolition of the police, as well as the onslaught of “environmental rollbacks” to the laws and bodies that have served as the main vehicle and hope for Environmental Justice.2 For instance, if we turn to Nathan Hare’s 1970 essay “Black Ecology,” we find an approach that blends Black nationalism (informed by figures such as Harold Cruse and Frantz Fanon) with a kind of social ecology. In this analysis, anti-Black racism and ecological devastation have their roots in the same underlying cause, such that one cannot be resolved without the other. Hare argues that environmental devastation is endemic to capitalist-white supremacy, and that Black people are forced to shoulder it in a de facto apartheid situation; creating a distinctive “black ecology.” This analysis leads to a rejection of the strategies commonly assumed in response to either problem such as: integration, inclusion into civil society, and mainstream environmentalism. Instead, Hare concludes that “the real solution to the environmental crisis is the decolonization of the black race… so that blacks can better solve the more serious environmental crises of blacks.” One takeaway from this is that adequate responses to environmental destruction, and to anti-Blackness, must take these issues as fundamentally linked, and reject the dogma that the only solution to both is a fairer slice of the pie or a seat at the table.

“Black Ecology,” prompts a series of questions. Questions such as: What would a Black ecology mean that is no longer an index of white supremacist domination, but a mode of relationality with more-than-human nature determined by Black people for themselves? And what kind of imaginary of freedom and freedom struggle would be required for this affirmative sense of Black ecology? These questions are reformulated by Huey Newton’s “Dialectics of Nature” (1974), that departs from Hare’s Black Nationalism, and asks us to consider Black ecology through the frame of “Intercommunalism.”

“Intercommunalism” is on Newton’s account, “founded on the basic concept of the unity of nature underlying and transcending all arbitrary national and geographic divisions.” What he calls “Reactionary intercommunalism” perceives, “the interrelationship of all natural phenomena, including all human beings,” but “seizes upon the phenomena in an attempt to distort the balance in its favor.” In other words, insight into “the unity of nature,” and the obsolescence of nation states, does not automatically give ecological or egalitarian results. The socio-ecological destruction, that in his account is exemplified in ocean devastation, racism, and fossil fueled imperialist militarism, testifies to the fact that reactionary intercommunalism is keenly aware of such connections, and manipulates them for the sake of “enormous profits and power in the short run.” If the issue is not mere ignorance, then we need to rethink the common assumption that increased education and knowledge (of the “unity of nature”) will redress the imbalance in question. Newton argues that what is required is revolutionary intercommunalismthat is a counter movement that also takes awareness of the “unity of nature” as a starting point, but has its source and ground in “revolution[s] in the exploited world,” that “will violently disrupt the reactionary distortion of the chain of nature in its favor.”

Newton’s analysis of reactionary intercommunalism offers an explanation of how, despite the exponential increase in knowledge of the interconnectivity of human and environmental health (since 1974), extractivism and (racist) divisions have only accelerated in the age of the Anthropocene. Given this acceleration, it seems that the kind of counter movements Newton called for have become more crucial than ever. What could or should revolutionary intercommunalism look like now? What is the meaning and place of Black ecology in anti-capitalist/imperialist political praxis? Can we turn to alliances, such as that between Palestine and M4BL, as a way to rebuild networks of global solidarity, and to keep our sights on Black ecologies (both as index of a specific kind of domination and as freedom dream) while insisting on broader movements rooted in the collective necessity of making a world that is not premised on the extraction and oppression of all life?

Newton’s conclusion is that survival and freedom require a profound transformation in relations with “nature” brought about by the struggles of oppressed peoples. By extension, he suggests an understanding of freedom as situated and unfolding within “the chain of nature.” If we turn to the work of Sylvia Wynter and Alice Walker from this same period, we can appreciate that one of its vital contributions is to challenge the (sometimes implicit) heteropatriarchy that tended to undermine the Black Radical Tradition3 by showing that the seeds of such transformations can be found in Black womens’ socio-ecological knowledges, values, practices, and historical memory.4

The renewal of interest and experiments in extra state-based forms of community survivalcare, and autonomy is enriched by an engagement with these texts that situate such forms in terms of a longer history of Black diasporic spirituality, ecological ethics, resilience and resistance. For instance, in “Jonkonnu in Jamaica,” (1970) and “Novel and History; Plot and Plantation” (1971) Wynter excavates the “provision grounds” as sites of the “secretive history” of “plot culture.” These plots reveal the agency and resilience of the enslaved, where the growing of food such as yams sustained material and cultural survival and adaptation. Similarly, in “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens,” (1974) Walker reads Black Southern women’s gardens as sites of creativity, knowledge, and values, that expressed and revived the spirit of individual women (as well as the lives of families and communities) within systems such as sharecropping that exhausted Black people and the land.

What is also common to their early work is an interest in relations with the earth understood as sacred “goddess.” Wynter finds this in Jamaican “folk” culture rooted in an adapted African cosmology that refuses the treatment of earth as land or property enforced by the plantation economy. In The Color Purple (1982) Walker began to explore the idea that Black women’s affirmation of “Mother Earth,” is necessary for the flourishing of forms of gender, sexuality, self, and community, that in turn would allow Black women to affirm themselves. Finally, their work raises (but does not resolve) important questions of how to think of Black and Indigenous land-based histories as intertwined, and attend to their respective “earth ethic[s]”, without falling into settlement or appropriation. The attention to practices that cultivate and honor sacred relationships with the earth might seem removed from the radical Black ecological politics of Hare or Newton. Yet, Wynter’s claim that the earth was a “source of cultural guerrilla resistance to the plantation system” reminds us that such practices and relationships have long grounded struggle and subterfuge. 

Returning to this and other periods of radical Black ecology suggests the need for revolutionary political imaginaries, and struggles for worlds not defined by anti-Blackness and the domination of life, but it also directs us to the embers of alternative futures that already exist in the past, in the earth, and in the Black ecologies of the present.

  1. Glissant uses the term “subterranean history”, to counter i. the consignment of the Caribbean to “the void of an imposed nonhistory” by illuminating ii. the submarine, floating roots of the Black diaspora formed by the middle passage, and by situated eco-cultural relationships of the Caribbean and beyond. See Édouard Glissant, Caribbean Discourse, translated by Michael J. Dash (Charlottesville, VA: Caraf, 1999), 65-57.
  2. One question posed by turning to the radical ecological dimensions of figures such as Nathan Hare (a founding figures of Black Studies), or Huey Newton (Black Panther Party co-founder) is why these dimensions have largely been overlooked both by EJ and Black Studies.
  3. The heteropatriarchy, if not outright misogyny of figures such as Eldridge Cleaver and internally within the BPP is well-known. Although we should also note the BPP’s alliances with the gay and women’s liberation in 70’s. See for example, “The Women’s Liberation and Gay Liberation Movements: August 15, 1970, in Huey P. Newton, The Huey P. Newton Reader, eds. David Hilliard and Donald Weise (New York: Seven Stories, 2002).
  4. It is important to note that in 1984, Wynter’s work moves away from the focus on situated “folk” cultural practices and cosmologies that characterized her early work.
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Romy Opperman

Romy Opperman received the PhD in Philosophy at Penn State University and is now a Postdoctoral Fellow in Philosophy at the New School for Social Research.

Comments on “We Need Histories of Radical Black Ecology Now

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    Thank you so much for this beautiful piece that lands like a balm on our ragged souls.

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    Sublime! Thank for this affirming thought piece. I am black and in environmental and social justice, this is exactly what I needed to let me know i belong. I have a stake and it’s important. A lot of times in this field, you find yourself questioning whether it’s a black women’s thing this is even more heightened in my home country of South Africa where these kinds of professional are even in the community seem to be for white people. Yet all along generations of black people have been practicing without even knowing it. Thank you

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