Dianne Glave, Mark Stoll, eds. "To Love the Wind and the Rain": African Americans and Environmental History. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006. 288 pp. $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8229-4275-7; $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8229-5899-4.
Reviewed by Reuben Rose-Redwood (Department of Geography, Pennsylvania State University)
Published on H-Urban (May, 2006)
Environmental History and the Politics of Cultural Recognition
Historians Dianne Glave and Mark Stoll have edited a collection of essays that offers a rich and provocative account of the role that African Americans have played in shaping the environmental history of the United States. The need for such a book, the editors contend, stems from the fact that African Americans have largely been rendered "invisible" (p. 1) in much of the environmental history literature. In the introductory chapter, Glave and Stoll point to the emergence of recent scholarship that examines the intersections of race, class, gender, and the environment, and they call for the recognition of a formal subfield of "African American environmental history." This is an important development in the field of environmental history and reflects a growing interest among environmental historians to critically interrogate the ways in which conceptions of "race" have influenced both environmental politics and historical scholarship. While each of the essays in this volume has its own focus, together they form a compelling narrative of the struggles of African Americans to achieve social and environmental justice in the face of enslavement and systematic racial discrimination. The editors have done a remarkable job at arranging the chapters in such a manner that the material covered in one chapter is drawn upon in subsequent chapters, thereby giving the reader a deeper understanding of the literature.
In chapter 2, Mart Stewart traces the origins of African-American environmental values back to the experiences under slavery, particularly the practices of agricultural production, hunting, and gardening. He argues that African slaves generally had a more intimate knowledge of ecological relations than their masters, because "the slaves who turned the soil, tended the plants, and harvested the crops acquired a firsthand knowledge of the cultivated landscape on the plantation" (p. 11). Stewart maintains that slaves were active agents in their encounters with the environment, which included the hunting of wild animals (such as opossums, rabbits, and raccoons) and also cultivating crops in garden plots for their own consumption (including everything from corn and sweet potatoes to groundnuts and okra). Drawing on slave songs and stories, Stewart suggests that slaves' views concerning the environment differed considerably from their European masters, since "African Americans saw themselves as part of a unified universe of all creatures and did not make a sharp distinction between humans and other creatures" (p. 13). The practices of slave hunting and fishing are documented in greater detail by Scott Giltner in chapter 3. Slaves were often granted permission by their masters to hunt and fish, yet they were generally forbidden from carrying firearms (with some exceptions) and were thereby "forced to hunt by wit and skill, using various traps, snares and other, often homemade, devices" (p. 26). Slaves also used fire and dogs in their pursuit of wild game. Giltner notes the "subversive potential" (p. 31) of slave hunting and examines numerous instances of slaves using "sanctioned hunting and fishing to defy authority by using them to mask participation in other forbidden endeavors" (p. 33). Both Stewart and Giltner contend that hunting enhanced slaves' knowledge of the local environment and was also an important tactic of resistance against the oppressive regime of American slavery.
Chapters 4 and 5 explore the role of African-American women in rural gardening during the Progressive era and the political economy of African-American labor in the turpentine industry, respectively. In the former chapter, Dianne Glave examines how rural African-American women actively participated in local gardening despite the "enormous condescension" (p. 38) of both white and black Progressive reformers. African-American women cultivated vegetable gardens and planted ornamental flowers. According to Glave, this reflected an African-American "garden aesthetic based on traditional and Progressive influences" (p. 45). During the first half of the twentieth century, schools provided training to African-American women regarding the virtues of designing aesthetically appealing lawns and gardens. Home improvement contests were held, and Glave views such practices as resulting in the construction of "distinctively African American spaces that simultaneously mimicked nature and rejected white control" (p. 44). In their historical account of the turpentine industry, Cassandra Johnson and Josh McDaniel discuss the oppressive work conditions that African Americans endured in the turpentine camps. Life in the camps was little better than that under slavery itself and was, in many respects, comparable to the conditions of debt bondage that continue today around the world, from Brazil to Pakistan. Johnson and McDaniel use the example of the turpentine camps to challenge Frederick Jackson Turner's famous "frontier thesis" that the wilderness experience fostered democratic individualism. Instead, they argue that African-American labor in the turpentine industry was "subjugated by the worst kind of despotism" (p. 56). In addition to critiquing the labor conditions in the camps, Johnson and McDaniel also explore the impact that turpentining has had on the formation of African-American collective memory and offer this as a possible explanation for the perceived lack of interest among African Americans in wilderness preservation.
One of the most intriguing chapters in this collection is Colin Fisher's analysis of the role of access to outdoor recreation in the Chicago Race Riot of 1919 (chapter 6). He convincingly demonstrates that one of the key elements that ignited the 1919 riot was the struggle over equal access to public recreational spaces, such as beaches, parks, and playgrounds. Blacks were commonly restricted from most open spaces, and Fisher notes that "[w]hite park directors, park police, and lifeguards all played a significant role in blocking full black access to nature" (p. 68). Nevertheless, African Americans resisted such attempts to limit their access to the city's public spaces and viewed "nature" as a place for bodily and spiritual renewal. Considering the gender and class dimensions of African-American environmental activism during the Progressive era in greater depth, Elizabeth Blum compares the environmental rhetoric of middle-class black and white women that was targeted at the "improvement" of lower-class urban residents (chapter 7). Similar to Glave's critique of Progressive reformers, Blum argues that black and white middle-class women "shared a highly condescending view of their lower-class sisters--the very group at whom they aimed their reforms" (p. 78). Both groups embraced a maternalistic discourse as the basis of environmental reform, says Blum, yet middle-class black women also had to combat racial prejudice and stereotypes in addition to gender discrimination.
The remainder of the chapters in this edited collection engage the more recent history of African-American activism for environmental justice and cultural recognition. Christopher Sellers uses the methods of oral history to examine the detailed life stories of middle-class African-American suburbanites, specifically the life histories of Eugene and Bernice Burnett (chapter 8). Sellers criticizes environmental historians for long ignoring questions of racial difference and advocates for "a widening of focus from those nonhuman and material surroundings to issues of human skin color that belong, it would seem from most environmental history, to some other historical specialty" (p. 95). Sellers acknowledges that "race" is a social construct, yet he illustrates how it nevertheless has material effects in the everyday lives of African Americans who have persistently faced discrimination in the housing market and elsewhere. Through a discussion of the Burnetts' journey from Harlem to suburban Long Island, Sellers explores the historical tensions between mainstream environmentalism and African-American civil rights activism.
Issues of environmental justice and eco-racism are considered more generally by Martin Melosi (chapter 9) and Eileen McGurty (chapter 10). Both authors discuss the history of the environmental justice movement, including the pivotal battle against toxic waste dumping in Warren County, North Carolina, a predominantly low-income, African-American community. While generally sympathetic to the environmental justice movement, Melosi stresses that it "is not without its limitations" (p. 128) with respect to the question of class. For instance, Melosi asks: "Is the issue really environmental racism or just poverty?" (p. 129). He goes on to argue that "[e]ven within the [environmental justice] movement there are those who cannot cleanly separate race and class in all cases. Given the political goals of the movement, the unbending assertion of the centrality of race may prove unworkable if broadening the constituency is to be achieved" (p. 129). McGurty is also aware of the exclusionary potential of a racially based identity politics within the context of attempting to build multiracial coalitions for environmental justice. However, she stresses the fact that the mainstream "environmental movement long excluded the poor and people of color and neglected to address the potential for disproportionate impacts of environmental risks either directly from pollution or indirectly through unintended consequences of regulations" (p. 133). The complex entanglement between race and class is not resolved by either Melosi or McGurty, but both rightly highlight the need for further critical analysis.
In separate chapters (chapter 11 and 13), each of the editors considers the importance of religion in the history of African-American environmental activism. Mark Stoll provides a general discussion comparing the influence that various religious groups have had in the pursuit of civil rights and environmental justice in the United States (chapter 11). Methodists and Baptists, he suggests, have been quite politically active whereas the Nation of Islam and Pentecostal churches have not contributed significantly to the cause of environmental justice. In chapter 13, Dianne Glave explicitly advocates for the cause of what she calls "black environmental liberation theology," or BELT (p. 189). This is clearly the most provocative chapter of the entire book and offers an explicit political program for a religiously based, race-conscious movement for social and environmental justice. Highly critical of mainstream environmental organizations, Glave calls on activists to "[c]o-opt organizational, strategic planning and management tools from mainstream or white environmentalists…. [and] Limit the role of mainstream environmentalists until they develop a more holistic and equitable understanding of environmentalism pertinent to the African American community" (p. 198). While she acknowledges the need to develop coalitions across ethnic and religious lines, Glave nevertheless insists that such a church-based movement should be "based on the Bible" (p. 199). Since African-American churches of various Christian denominations have been instrumental in the struggle for civil rights and environmental justice, as Stoll points out, Glave's call for a biblically based environmental activism has a strong tradition to draw upon in the African-American community. Yet, whether a religious or secular foundation can best serve as the basis for creating effective multicultural coalitions is worth debating among environmental historians and the public at large.
If chapters 11 and 13 nicely complement each other, as noted above, so too do chapters 12 and 14, written by Gregory Bush and Carl Anthony, respectively. Both Bush and Anthony have been actively involved, not only as academics but as engaged citizens and professionals, in environmental planning debates concerning the use of public spaces in U.S. cities. Bush describes his participation in a diverse coalition the aim of which was to designate Virginia Key Beach, in Florida, as a "civil rights park" (p. 180) in order to acknowledge the historical legacy of racial discrimination and the civil rights movement. He emphasizes the importance of creating places of cultural recognition as a strategy for protecting public spaces from the interests of real estate developers and bureaucratic government agencies. Anthony similarly explains the practical challenges faced when attempting to form multicultural environmental coalitions to support sustainable development. In contrast to the emphasis that Glave places on using biblical theology as the ultimate guide to environmental politics, Anthony adopts a more secularized cosmological and ecological approach to constructing a multicultural narrative of environmental history.
Overall, this edited volume is a welcome contribution to rethinking the role of "race" in environmental history and could easily serve as a required text for an undergraduate or graduate course on U.S. environmental history. The decision to establish a subfield of environmental history based upon a particular racial/ethnic group also raises crucial questions concerning the politics of inclusion and exclusion with respect to environmental historiography. For instance, if the goal is to create a more inclusive, multicultural environmental history, is the best way of achieving this objective to conceptually divide the field of study into separate racial/ethnic clusters of historical investigation? Or, would it be more equitable to call for a renewed commitment among environmental historians to incorporate the voices of many different social groups within the narratives of environmental history more broadly? These are key questions that deserve to be debated in light of this edited volume. Yet, whichever side of the debate one is on, this collection will provide an indispensable resource for considering the relationship between the politics of racial identity and the writing of environmental history.
. Environmental historians have begun to take issues of "race" more seriously in recent years. For instance, see Carolyn Merchant, "Shades of Darkness: Race and Environmental History," Environmental History 8.3 (2003): accessed on 19 May 2006 <http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/eh/8.3/merchant.html>. Also, the Spring 2006 issue of the ASEH (American Society for Environmental History) News includes an edited compilation by Dianne Glave entitled, "What's Next for African American Environmental History?" (2006): accessed on 19 May 2006 <http://www.h-net.org/~environ/ASEH/ASEHnews/20061.pdf>.
. Kevin Bales, Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy, rev. ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).
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Reuben Rose-Redwood. Review of Glave, Dianne; Stoll, Mark, eds., "To Love the Wind and the Rain": African Americans and Environmental History.
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