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Black on Earth

African American Ecoliterary Traditions

Kimberly N. Ruffin

Publication Year: 2010

American environmental literature has relied heavily on the perspectives of European Americans, often ignoring other groups. In Black on Earth, Kimberly Ruffin expands the reach of ecocriticism by analyzing the ecological experiences, conceptions, and desires seen in African American writing.
Ruffin identifies a theory of “ecological burden and beauty” in which African American authors underscore the ecological burdens of living within human hierarchies in the social order just as they explore the ecological beauty of being a part of the natural order. Blacks were ecological agents before the emergence of American nature writing, argues Ruffin, and their perspectives are critical to understanding the full scope of ecological thought.
Ruffin examines African American ecological insights from the antebellum era to the twenty-first century, considering WPA slave narratives, neo–slave poetry, novels, essays, and documentary films, by such artists as Octavia Butler, Alice Walker, Henry Dumas, Percival Everett, Spike Lee, and Jayne Cortez. Identifying themes of work, slavery, religion, mythology, music, and citizenship, Black on Earth highlights the ways in which African American writers are visionary ecological artists.

Published by: University of Georgia Press


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pp. ix-x

Elders on both sides of my family contributed to the early imprint that would become this project. As a young child I remember vividly the peace and beauty of elders on my father’s side who lived out in the country with few material possessions and great ecological wealth. My maternal Granpa Rufus grew up...

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Introduction. Message of the Trees: Recognizing Ecological Burden and Beauty

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pp. 1-24

For as long as Africans have been Americans, they have had no entitlement to speak for or about nature. Even in the twenty-first century, standing next to a tree has been difficult. A student tradition in Jena, Louisiana, brought this fact to national attention in August 2006. A black freshman at the area high school asked...

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One. “Toil and Soil”: Authorizing Work and Enslavement

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pp. 25-55

Public awareness about global climate change increased precipitously as a result of the imaginative and intellectual work of former U.S. vice president Al Gore. The book and documentary film An Inconvenient Truth garnered international acclaim and awards, stimulating individuals and organizations to take specific...

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Two. York, Harriet, and George: Writing Ecological Ancestors

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pp. 56-87

Although author and activist Randall Robinson has decided now to “quit America”1 and live in St. Kitts, he details ideas about improving the relationship between African Americans and America in his book The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks. One idea is to increase public acknowledgment of African American...

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Three. Animal Nature: Finding Ecotheology

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pp. 88-110

“They don’t believe in God. . . .” Charlotte Keys responds to a perceived gap between the worlds of environmentalism and religion with a passionate pronouncement of her religious belief. Why would such a gap exist? What makes environmentalism incompatible with religion? Perhaps because, for some, environmentalism...

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Four. Bones and Water: Telling on Myth

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pp. 111-135

Right now, myth might seem superfluous in a hierarchy of ecological needs. Given the material complexity of our ecological condition, academic discourse in the hard sciences may seem more urgent than myth. Even ecocritics have suggested that literature and criticism of it must reflect scientific understanding...

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Five. “I Got the Blues” Epistemology: Thinking a Way out of Eco-Crisis

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pp. 136-157

The written word was and is a crucial tool for African American creativity; however, the place of musicality, aurality, and orality in this tradition also continues to have a thoroughgoing presence. Music, itself, has been with African Americans through a host of environments, and its sonic and cultural DNA represents...

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Conclusion. After Levee Disaster: Learning from a Sinned-against City [Includes Image Plates]

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pp. 158-175

Published in 1949, Aldo Leopold’s essay “The Land Ethic” offers a powerful conceptual frame for ecological progress: citizenship. At the same time, it asserts a premature sense of completion in the area of human relationships and “ecological evolution” (238). Turning to ancient Greece to make his case, he argues...


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pp. 177-186

Works Consulted

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pp. 187-203


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pp. 205-212

E-ISBN-13: 9780820337531
E-ISBN-10: 0820337536
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820328560
Print-ISBN-10: 0820328561

Page Count: 192
Illustrations: 6 b&w photos
Publication Year: 2010

OCLC Number: 692328920
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Black on Earth

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • African Americans in literature.
  • African American philosophy.
  • Ecocriticism.
  • Ecology in literature.
  • Nature in literature.
  • Human ecology in literature.
  • American literature -- African American authors -- History and criticism.
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