Anissa Janine Wardi’s Water and African American Memory: An Ecocritical Perspective is a pleasure to read and consider. In well-wrought prose, the book interweaves scientific, metaphysical, and literary understandings of water. The edifying result is a rich, thought-provoking, and thoroughgoing elucidation of the centrality of this lifetaking and lifegiving substance in African American history, consciousness, and expression.
The book’s opening pages immerse the reader in the material and semiotic richness of its subject. Drawing on Simon Schama, Wardi invokes the linguistic connections that have existed from antiquity between bodies of water and the bodies of man and woman. Quoting cultural histories and scientific texts, she emphasizes the significance of water in planetary and human existence, notes its role in communicating human emotion and enabling human sight and cognition, and underscores its physical property as an agent of change, in deep time, for all with which it interacts. Such a wide range of interdisciplinary reading expressed with confidence, clarity, and nuance cannot help but influence the richness of her demarcation of African American literature: not just fiction and poetry, but criticism and film as well; not just continental, but oceanic too; and not just fiction and nonfiction, but all shades of creation, experimentation, and production in between, by, for, and about African American people. A memorable line from Toni Morrison’s “The Site of Memory” (1987) captures the urgency and wisdom of Wardi’s project: “All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was…. It is emotional memory—what the nerves and the skin remember as well as how it appeared. And a rush of imagination is our ‘flooding’” (qtd. in Wardi, p. 5).
Wardi’s ensuing chapters provide fine-grained analysis and sharp focus to these overarching elements. Chapter one explores Ntozake Shange’s Sassafras, Cypress, and Indigo (1982) and Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1992), asserting that this novel and film depict a water-saturated landscape that undermines Western ontology, gives form to the presence of the ancestors, and fosters connection and remembrance across the diaspora. In chapter two, Morrison’s Beloved (1987) and Henry Dumas’s “Ark of Bones” (1974) take center stage, and Wardi employs them to ruminate on the paradox of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers in particular and United States rivers in general as simultaneously givers and takers of African American life, dynamic arteries of existence and death that stitch together ocean and terra firma, past and present, white and black. Exploring Morrison’s Tar Baby (1981) and Kasi Lemmons’s Eve’s Bayou (1997), chapter three centers on the swamp as a site of postcolonial resistance. Drawing throughout the chapter on scientific [End Page 275] understandings of estuarial ecosystems, a move that eviscerates Western classifications of “art” and “science,” Wardi finds in wetlands a repository of memory that resists human marginalization and colonial repression: “In environments that are radically transformed, colonized, and cultivated, the wetlands, in defiance of facile categorization, are powerful tropes of struggle and resistance” (p. 114). Bookended by readings of Langston Hughes’s “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (1920), August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean (2003), Richard Wright’s “Down by the Riverside” (1938) and “The Man Who Saw the Flood” (1961), and Hurricane Katrina (2005), Wardi’s study underscores the timeliness of African American ecocriticism. “Hurricane Katrina is not an isolated storm,” she writes, “It is tethered to environmental degradation, toxic geographies, racism and classism, and our nation’s historical, material, and political identity” (p. 140)—the very stew of forces that must continue to animate not only ecocriticism but literary and cultural studies as well, as we face together a future circumscribed by global climate change, unpredictability, and differential impact.
Water and African American Memory is at its best when it enjoins the literary texts it considers within the fertile field of multidisciplinary texts that it coalesces in seamless conversation. Wardi’s gift in this aspect has me wanting to read her assessment of the African American...