- Race, Representation, and American Environmentalism
University of North Carolina Press
194 Pages; Print, $24.96
In the United States—a nation that has long claimed to derive cultural and political legitimacy from ideas of “Nature” rather than from inherited conventions—access to green spaces has high symbolic stakes. Besides whatever physical and mental health benefits might come from visiting what Carolyn Finney calls the “Great Outdoors,” disparities in access to green spaces contribute to the social marginalization of entire populations from the cultural identity of a country that the historian Perry Miller called “Nature’s Nation.” In Black Faces, White Spaces, Finney offers an engaging interdisciplinary analysis of the historical conditions that shape the whiteness of “Nature” in the United States. Specifically, Finney details how historical trauma, media representation, and institutional exclusion have colluded to exclude African Americans from green spaces, representations of environmental involvement, and mainstream environmentalist organizations. As its subtitle—“reimagining the relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors”—suggests, the book emphasizes how cultural representation produces environmental and geographical relations: the problem, as Finney defines it, is how “Whiteness, as a way of knowing, becomes the way of understanding our environment, and through representation and rhetoric, becomes part of our educational systems, our institutions, and our personal beliefs.”
Finney’s preface situates her project by telling the story of her parents, who worked for fifty years as live-in caretakers on a twelve-acre estate near New York City. Although their environmental stewardship eventually yielded a conservation easement for one of the property’s owners, Finney’s parents were ultimately both displaced from the estate and marginalized from the story of the land they had come to know so intimately. Finney then connects her parents to a range of other black environmentalists, whose innovative efforts to preserve natural spaces are seldom recognized by mainstream environmental organizations and media. In contextualizing and counteracting this process of environmental exclusion (to borrow the ecocritic Sarah Jacquette Ray’s term for the environmental movement’s representation of particular groups—such as racial “others” and people with disabilities—as environmental threats), Finney makes a vital contribution to a growing body of scholarship focusing on the intersections between race, geography, and environmental studies.
The story of Finney’s parents exemplifies one distinguishing feature of Finney’s methodology: many chapters are built around anecdotes or individuals that challenge or exceed conventional thinking about African Americans’ relationship to the environment. Finney complements these anecdotes with nuanced visual analysis of popular films, magazines, and national park brochures. In addition to making the book more broadly accessible, this story- and image-based approach brings her core disciplines—“feminist geography, environmental history, and work on race and identity”—into productive dialogue with the humanities. Thus, in addition to interviews and participant ethnography, Finney provides sharp cultural analysis of microhistories, storytelling, magazines, pamphlets, film, news coverage of Hurricane Katrina, and even a topiary garden. Rather than dwelling on conceptual and methodological debates, Finney’s mode of interdisciplinary research is intended to enhance her work’s capacity to engage with a broad and diverse audience:
My choice to direct this book to a diverse audience as opposed to simply those who study in my field is reflective of my understanding of how disciplinary silos can limit the emergence of intellectual and creative relationships and approaches.
Black Faces, White Spaces consists of a series of scaffolded chapters that consider the culturally marginalized environmental interactions of African Americans from multiple perspectives. The preface and introduction underscore the centrality of personal experience in both black environmental experience and Finney’s own methodology. Chapter 1 uses a critical analysis of the film Far and Away (1992) and national mythologies of the Homestead Act to illustrate the “flattening out” of historical narratives about Americans’ relationships to land and nature—and particularly the erasure of black experiences of displacement from the land (Finney also briefly touches on other racialized displacements, such as the displacement and marginalization of Native...