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  • "Buried in Guano":Race, Labor, and Sustainability
  • Jennifer C. James (bio)

1. What Guano is Made of

Alice Walker's debut novel Meridian (1976) opens with an African-American photographer, Truman, searching for his former lover from the days of the Movement. Pulling his Volvo into the gas station of a tiny Mississippi town, he hears of a woman "staring down" a tank in the town square and realizes it must be Meridian (2). True to form, she has orchestrated a group of children to protest their exclusion from a free set-aside day for one of the town's few entertainments. The attraction, a "mummified white woman" advertised as one of the "Twelve Human Wonders of the World," scarcely seems worth fighting for. A flyer details her sordid tale: the woman, once a faithful wife, had begun to prostitute herself to satisfy a desire for "furs" and "washing machines" (5). Humiliated, her husband strangled her and then tossed her into a saltwater lake, but she washed ashore miraculously "preserved" years later. He decided to display her "dried up" and "blackened" remains in a final act of revenge and profit (5). If confronting a tank were a courageous act during the Movement, in this context, it appears an outsized gesture performed from habit rather than political exigency. Truman is further confused to learn that not all of the children are black, as the square's "sweeper" explains: "[T]his is for the folks that work in that guano plant outside of town. Po' folks. . . . The folks who don't have to work in that plant claim the folks that do smells so bad they can't stand to be in the same place with 'em. But you know what guano is made out of. [End Page 115] Whew" (4). When Truman counters that they are "too small to work in a plant," the sweeper remarks that their parents do, and as such, their offspring stink by association: "[T]he smell of guano don't wash off" (5).

"You know what guano is made of": it is safe to venture that many twenty-first-century readers do not know what guano is, no less what it is made of. They may find themselves sharing Truman's perplexity, wondering why guano—animal excrement used as fertilizer—merits such an elaborate scene in the novel, even if we frame the work ecocritically, as I have suggested elsewhere.1 But Walker is not alone. Guano appears in other texts about race and land in the Americas, including the visionary landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted's study of southern slave economy, A Journey into the Seaboard States (1856), and Martinican poet and playwright Aimé Césaire's revision of Shakespeare's The Tempest, A Tempest (1969). Though written more than a century apart, both works respond to guano's emergence as an unlikely symbol of economic and earthly renewal within disparate mid-nineteenth-century "utopian" ideologies. These ideologies ranged from the brand of southern secessionist agrarianism Olmsted assails in his ethno-travelogue to an unusual articulation of French romantic socialism Césaire excoriates in his play. Césaire takes particular aim at Victor Hugo, who was among this philosophy's adherents, through a series of allusions to Les Misérables's exultation of manure (2). John Bellamy Foster has noted that the fertilizer phenomenon of the nineteenth century was rooted in a set of global ecological and economic crises created by wide-scale, market-driven agriculture and industrialism (375-83). In the case of the South, planters hoped that procuring sufficient supplies of bird guano, the richest natural guano, could reverse the effects of centuries of land-depleting agricultural practices that had left them dependent on extra-regional economies and threatened the viability of plantation slavery. In France, a group of anti-capitalist Romantic philosophers theorized that collecting and using animal and human guano could increase agricultural production to the point that hunger, labor exploitation, and the money exchange would fall away. Even Engels and Marx, who disapproved of romanticized, "unscientific" versions of European socialism, enthused earlier in their careers that advancements in "soil chemistry" incorporating natural and manufactured guano might stabilize soil fertility enough...


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pp. 115-142
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