- Black on Earth: African American Ecoliterary Traditions by Kimberly N. Ruffin
Kimberly N. Ruffin’s Black on Earth: African American Literary Traditions ranges across history, genre, and geography in exploring African American relationships with, in, and despite nature. The study’s thesis centers on what Ruffin calls “an ‘ecological burden-and-beauty paradox’” (2). As Robert Bullard, David Pellow, and others have shown, African Americans bear a disproportionate share of environmental burdens, forced by social, political, and economic discrimination to live and work amid toxic waste dumps, heavily polluting factories, and concentrated animal-feeding operations and slaughterhouses. At the same time, however, they draw on heretofore underappreciated and understudied perspectives of natural beauty and belonging that rebuff the malevolence of racism, a point made by Helaine Selin’s collection Nature across Cultures: Views of Nature and the Environment in Non-Western Cultures (2003), Kimberly K. Smith’s African American Environmental Thought: Foundations (2007), and others. Ruffin’s gift in Black on Earth consists in her ability to meld the antipodes of this profound paradox across not only two centuries of African American history and culture, but borders of genre and space as well. Given this considerable accomplishment, Ruffin’s book could have provided even more insight into the complex relationship between race and the environment had it grappled directly with recent ecocriticism of African American literature.
Sandwiched between her recounting of the violent fallout over a “white tree” in Jena, Louisiana, and her narrative of a beautiful parade of people and plants sponsored by Bates College in 2006, Ruffin’s analysis delineates and focuses on the interfaces that distinguish African American environmentality: “work, citizenship, enslavement, ancestry, religion, region, myth, and music” (21). In chapter one, Ruffin closely reads selections of slave narrative, antebellum poetry, and oral testimony to call attention to African American survivalist knowledge and agrarian nostalgia cultivated despite the effects of enslavement and violence to deny African Americans roots in the landscape. Chapter two explores recent poetic reinventions of important African American forebears: Frank X Walker on York, William Clark’s enslaved body servant; Quraysh Ali Lansana on Harriet Tubman; and Marilyn Nelson on George Washington Carver. Ruffin’s purpose in interpreting reinventions of these figures, and not their primary texts, seems explained by her conclusion that “[t]heir work allows readers to claim the historical figures as ecological ancestors” (85). Again in this spirit of identifying models, Ruffin proposes in chapter three that Octavia Butler and Alice Walker serve as “ecotheologians” (93), while chapter four turns to the power of mythmakers: Henry Dumas, who creates ecological “beauty… out of the ashes of trauma” (116), and Percival Everett, who satirizes the racist myth of the U. S. West in order to nurture new narratives of belonging. Finally, chapter five uses the blues as a philosophy for confronting ecocrisis and turns to [End Page 485] Jayne Cortez’s poetry as a tool for resistance. The blues, Ruffin explains, privilege the disadvantaged, celebrate collective experience, and “[dwell] in reality no matter how stark” (142), among other qualities—all crucial to grappling with the onslaught of imminent global ecocatastrophe. With wide-ranging quotations from Cortez’s searing work and nuanced interpretations of those citations, Ruffin underscores the complexity of the poet’s ecovision: “Those who are in ecological crisis may find in Cortez’s poetry artful acknowledgement and advocacy,” she writes. “Those sheltered from ecological crisis may find their buffer eroding from her acidic vision” (150). Such multiplicity comes in handy when confronting a disaster the scale and scope of Hurricane Katrina—the immediacy and immensity of which force Ruffin to leave for a future project a full consideration of its import. Despite the terror and trauma of Katrina, Ruffin closes Black on Earth with the affirming images of diverse people united in their celebration of earth and art—making real Ruffin’s call to “act and shape human systems in alignment with our soundest ecological desires” (175).
Despite its comprehensive overview of African American texts and compelling narrative of African American environmental engagement, Black on Earth...