Torkwase Dyson, Ramond (Water Table), 2017. In this series and others, Dyson transforms geologic cartographic systems into abstractions of earth's interconnected layers, exploring how natural and human-devised borders and structures impact Black bodies and psyches.
Ecological Art and Black Americans’ Relationships to the Land
A Review Essay by Mary Jo Aagerstoun, PhD
Hood, Walter, and Grace Mitchell Tada, eds. Black Landscapes Matter. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2020. 200 pages. Color and black and white illustrations. $35 (paperback)
Taylor, Dorceta E. Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution, and Residential Mobility. New York: New York University Press, 2014. 342 pages. $25.45 (paperback)
Ruffin, Kimberly N. Black on Earth: African American Ecoliterary Traditions. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2010. 212 pages. Black and white illustrations. $22.95 (paperback)
Deming, Alison H. and Lauret E. Savoy, eds. Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity, and the Natural World. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2002, revised 2011. 337 pages. $22.00 (paperback)
Savoy, Lauret E. Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape. Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2015. 225 pages. $16.95 (paperback)
I am considering these texts as research for a book I am writing and to help advance my anti-white-supremacy self-education. In my research so far, I have found few Black (1) artists who engage with environmental and climate disruption issues in established, fully ecological art ways. I wanted to understand why.
Works by artists of any ethnic and racial background that fit within the currently established definitions of ecological art are few. The number of Black artists’ projects that address environmental crises in the ways described by this definition is also small. Fewer still meet my (evolving) criteria for inclusion in my book. There are barriers responsible for these small numbers. As in many other US political, economic, and cultural arenas, these barriers become more formidable for Black artists and other artists of color.
There have been several definitions of ecological art over the movement’s several-decade history. The most recent states, in part, that the practice:
...seeks to preserve, remediate and/or vitalize the life forms, resources and ecology of Earth, by applying the principles of ecosystems to living species and their habitats throughout the lithosphere, atmosphere, biosphere, and hydrosphere...involving functional ecological systems-restoration, as well as socially engaged, activist, community-based interventions. (2)
My criteria (so far) for inclusion of projects in the book are not limited to this definition, but include other measures which are in active development and interrogation as I continue my research. The ones that will likely endure (3) will assess projects concerning whether they:
--directly address the destructive effects of the Anthropocene;
--counter baked-in “de-futuring” which design theorist Tony Fry identifies as a key characteristic of our anthropocentricity;
--contribute to the “Great Turning” envisioned by Buddhist eco-philosopher and activist Joanna Macy;
--“stay with the trouble” as scientist-philosopher Donna Haraway has urged in her book of that title;
--follow the directions suggested by the indigenous poet-scientist Robin Kimmerer in several texts, lectures and interviews; and
--foster “flourishing”–a concept defined by ecofeminist philosopher Chris Cuomo.
The works by African American artists I have considered closely to date include:
--The philosophically dense abstractions and performances of Torkwase Dyson that address natural and human-devised above- and underground structures as well as lines and borders, exploring their relationships to constriction and freedom for the Black body and psyche in motion;
--The lyrical, often dream-like landscape-based photo-narratives of Allison Janae Hamilton that encourage viewers to interrogate their reactions to Black people in nonurban, often “wild” settings;
--The community-embeddedness of LaToya Ruby Frazier’s documentary photographic projects, especially her 2016 Flint Is Family, which offers portraits of Black resilience in toxic landscapes;
--Pope.L.’s Flint Water project and his other recent works about water;
--Seitu Jones’s currently in-process intervention ARTARK on the Mississippi River near his home in Minnesota, that is part of his ongoing focus on igniting community engagement with Black justice issues. ARTARK seeks to connect Black communities in St. Paul with the Mississippi River they often only see when crossing a bridge;
--Calida Rawles’ portrayals of black bodies immersed in water that is both menacing and cradling;
--Jordan Weber’s gardens that heal soil and Black youth; and
--Walter Hood’s significant public art that seeks to return visibility and dignity back to landscapes long-neglected precisely because they were where Black people have lived and died.
The works of these Black artists have taught me that the priorities expressed in them are often in dialogue with the long history of Black community-engaging environmental justice activism dating back to Emancipation. They have helped me understand it will be necessary to reconsider how the established criteria and definitions of ecological art, as well as my intent to sharpen and expand them, will resonate differently with Black populations’ lived experiences. I needed help to do this.
Enter the five books I will discuss here:
The 2017 Hood and Tada anthology Black Landscapes Matter offers “notes from the field” by Walter Hood and other Black landscape architects and urban planners. Hood makes clear in the Introduction how significant and wide-ranging in kind and location are the Black landscapes explored by his contributors:
Black landscapes matter because they . . . bear the detritus of diverse origins: from the plantation landscape of slavery, to freedman villages and new towns, to agrarian indentured servitude . . . northern and western migrations . . . [and to] segregated urban landscapes . . . [Their] constant erasure is a call to arms.
In Hood’s own public art and place-making work, design aesthetic and amelioration intent merge with memorial gesture. They honor and bring to visibility Black landscapes that have been consistently devalued and erased of all references to the histories of African American habitation and use. A recent example is Hood’s landscape design for the International African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, currently under construction at Gadsden’s Wharf. The location is stained by its connection to slavery. For several years beginning in 1803, during a short hiatus in Congressional bans on the importation of Africans for enslavement, over forty thousand Africans were brought to the United States through Gadsden’s Wharf (4). Hood’s design seeks to elevate the infamous history of the site, transforming it into an opportunity to reflect upon and honor African American ancestors’ struggles, suffering, and contributions.
Hood is committed to memorializing erased Black landscapes and reclaiming the Black “mundane.” Hood identifies this “mundane” as omnipresent objects in urban neighborhoods (like power boxes, light posts, street signs, curbs and gutters) that activates space in places important for generations of Black people. Hood’s projects are documented in twenty pages of color photographs, organized in sections labeled The Everyday and Mundane, Lifeways, and Commemoration.
Beyond attention to Hood’s own work, the book offers points of view about specific Black landscapes across the United States, seeking to demonstrate their worth: that they “matter.” In prose both passionate and precise, Hood’s commentators reveal the pain, defeat, determination, and progress African American communities have experienced and instigated on rural land, in Black towns, in urban neighborhoods, and on historically Black college campuses. The book also details essential initiatives by Black planners and landscape architects in North and South Carolina, Louisiana, Tennessee, Detroit, the San Francisco Bay Area, Cleveland, Atlanta, and many more locations, marking the extent and depth of the Black Diaspora across diverse US landscapes and documenting efforts to bring them to visibility.
In Hood’s anthology, and in the other texts discussed here, it becomes clear that the work of making Black landscapes matter to the American culture at large is never complete. The books describe how invisibility has too often overtaken brave, hard-won initiatives. The intent to honor the manifold experiences that inflect the spaces historically occupied by Black people has too often not been sustained, for many reasons. The invisibility that consistently overtakes these landscapes contributes to their ongoing devaluation and exploitation, and to the marginalization of the Black populations who have lived and are living on them.
Dorceta E. Taylor’s (5) mammoth accomplishment, Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution, and Residential Mobility documents this oscillation of Black landscapes from invisibility and erasure to vivid and instructive presence and back to invisibility again. Taylor, a sociologist and professor at the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment, offers readers an exhaustively researched, carefully categorized bibliographic essay of stunning force.
Written in terse and carefully chosen sociological language, the book’s presentation ranges widely—and tellingly—over tough questions: Why are people of color predominant in polluted, health-risky places? Who can leave such places, and why do so many Blacks and other minority groups stay in such situations? Which came first to these sites, pollution or people of color? Is it a coincidence that dirty and dangerous work is so often located in or near communities of color?
Taylor offers decades of research on Black communities that continue to be affected by toxic industrial processes and waste. We see that courageous activism has at times successfully daylighted toxicity and its effects and even spawned some cleanup activity. However, these successes are too often momentary. Taylor’s narrative describes many positive moments as well as the too-frequent subsequent re-toxification and reemergence of declining health and economic woe.
A 2015 review of Taylor’s book in the Natural Resources Journal concludes that:
Toxic Communities is packed with valuable information that will appeal to professional lawyers, sociologists, political scientists, activists, community organizers, and others with a direct interest in environment and social justice. By focusing on facts, however, the stories of real people are at times lost. Much of the book may be difficult and less engaging for environmental justice novices. Those with a professional interest in the field, however, will likely embrace this book as a valuable resource, akin to an encyclopedia of environmental justice research. (6)
Kimberly N. Ruffin’s Black on Earth: African American Ecoliterary Traditions explicates first-person accounts, fiction, and poetry providing the real-people stories missing in Taylor’s book. Ruffin’s strong argument is that the varied examples of Black eco-literature she has selected to analyze, ranging from enslavement to the current climate crises, demonstrate African Americans’ longstanding ambivalence toward land and nature.
Ruffin contends that land has been experienced by Black people in the United States as both burden and beauty. She argues that the burden experience has resulted in the marginalization of Black people in relation to the environmental movement’s call to responsible action. She asserts that marginalized Black people are unlikely to address the damaged land and rapidly deteriorating biodiversity of areas beyond the places they inhabit because they “will have little interest in ecological duties and responsibilities if flaws in human ethics continue to go unaddressed.”
Ruffin suggests that art interventions, like the eco-literature in her book, can be a bridge to an expanded human and land ethic, “set[ting] the stage for the ecological righting that needs to take place if the human race is to survive.” She argues that for Black people to become involved ecological citizens will require “difficult, indeed burdensome, discussions and decisions, [but] it also gives us a reason for egalitarian celebrations of our ecological embeddedness.” She calls for many ways to engage and activate community to this end. She asserts that confrontation will be necessary, but this must be joined by enjoyment and celebration. We must embrace both burden and beauty.
Ruffin begins and ends her book with references to trees, emblems of her book’s theme of burden and beauty. In the opening paragraph, Ruffin notes: “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.” She follows this statement by describing a 2006 so-called “white tree” event on a high school campus in Jena, Louisiana. The tree had been a gathering place for white students. It was generally understood that Black students were not welcome to sit in the tree’s shade.
When it became known that a Black student had asked permission from the school’s administration to sit under the tree, nooses appeared hanging from its branches. After a group of Black students beat a white student in the aftermath of the noose incident, five of the Black students involved were arrested and charged with attempted murder A mass demonstration ensued, protesting the charges.
The school’s solution was to fell the tree. Ruffin argues that this decision was a “missed opportunity to make a once ‘white’ tree part of a new complex historical narrative, sophisticated enough to acknowledge an unjust past and to set the stage for a more just future.”
At the end of the book, Ruffin returns to a tree, this time to an ancient oak conjured as metaphor by Black New Orleanian writer and Xavier University professor Ahmos Zu-Bolton II. The poet offers readers an opportunity to “sit under a figurative ‘black tree’” as the poem’s granny interlocutor speaks. Her ownership of the land that supports the tree represents her family’s resilience and belonging and the persistence of the life force streaming through the African American experience of burden and beauty:
[. . . the tree] was born during slavery times
it’s free now
And as long as it’s standing on
my land, it can shake its leaves
and spread its wings
anyway it damn well please . . .
Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity, and the Natural World (2002, revised 2011) could be a companion to Ruffin’s detailed explication of the history of Black eco-literary production since slavery, though Colors appeared over a decade earlier. Colors is an anthology edited by Euro-American poet Allison H. Deming, professor of English at the University of Arizona, and Lauret E. Savoy, professor of environmental studies and geology at Mount Holyoke College who self-identifies as of mixed heritage: African American, Native American, and Euro-American. Many of the entries were commissioned from eminent authors of color specifically for this book; none of the entries was pulled from deep history as were some of the pieces included in Ruffin’s text.
Colors’ editors say their book was instigated by a troubling, recurring question: “Why is there so little recognized ‘nature writing’ by people of color?” They argue that the question requires interrogation because the definition of nature writing has been limited for more than a century to European or Euro-American explorations of nature as “wilderness.” It is past time, they say, to consider seriously those writings that address the far more diverse nature people of color have inhabited: rural and urban, “indigenous, indentured, exiled, (im)migrant, [and/or] toxic.”
Deming and Savoy’s selections were not written exclusively by the descendants of enslaved Africans; one-third of the entries are by African American writers. Readers are offered several dozen recent poems, essays, reports, and short fiction by American authors of a range of racial and ethnic backgrounds who, in the editors’ words, “creatively present how identity and place, human history and ‘natural’ history, power and silence, social injustice and environmental degradation are fundamentally linked.”
All five books I consider in this essay address the themes of silence and invisibility. And, for the books’ authors, silence is not golden. As Colors co-editor Lauret Savoy notes in her afterword: “silence and denial have kept too many Americans from knowing who ‘we the people’ really are.” She expresses the hope that Colors can help “bring into dialogue what has been ignored or silenced, what has been disconnected or dismembered.”
Savoy’s memoir, Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape, extends Colors’ purpose of bringing what has been ignored or avoided into dialogue. Savoy explores the dismemberments and disconnections of her own family history, poetically entangling them with the geological and human history-inflected landscapes in which her family’s complex relationships, histories, dramas, and denials have been enacted over extended periods.
Savoy is a professional geologist, so her text offers insights that are both scientifically based and poetically expressed. Through skillful blendings, Savoy conjures how Earth’s layered histories in rock and soil merge with the dramatic, often tragic, human events enacted over long time on a variety of landscapes inhabited and traversed by Savoy’s family. She helps us, as she is helping herself, see clearly the connections and relevance these landscapes have to her excavations of the puzzling silences and voids in her own mixed-heritage family history.
In one section of the book, Savoy describes eventful weeks she spent examining the deeply historied environs of Fort Huachuca in Arizona, fifteen miles from the US-Mexico border (7). Her mother, an Army nurse, had been stationed there at the end of World War II. Her mother did not understand what motivated her daughter’s wish to experience the landscape first hand:
“Why do you want to go there?” I couldn’t answer my mother’s question when she was alive [but . . .] my reasons . . . became far-reaching. [I found a place where] frontiers collided, where consequences still unfold . . . Gloria Anzaldua called a borderland “a vague and undermined place created by the emotional residue of the unnatural boundary . . . in a constant state of transition [where] the prohibited and forbidden are its inhabitants.”
Savoy intended to visit the fort to know if experiencing its physical location, together with her excavation of the region’s human histories, could tell her more about her mother. Her initial intent was to learn when, how, and why African Americans came to this remote Arizona desert location. What she learned was far deeper, spanning centuries:
So many dividing lines have criss crossed this valley . . . [While] visitors to the . . . Aravaipa Canyon can believe they’re hiking in pristine nature, they [probably do not know anything] of the landscape’s tragic unnatural history and burden of violence.
She continues, describing examples of violence enacted in this landscape over many years, as in this passage:
Over a century ago, an American entrepreneur owned copper mines at the San Pedro’s headwaters in Cananea, Sonora [Mexico]. A strike there helped kindle the Mexican Revolution. Today, Cananea hosts one of the largest open-pit copper mines in the world, owned and operated by a corporation in which American interests are key.
The landscape’s relationship to colonial occupation and contemporary extraction, the fort’s often unsavory military activities for more than a century, and the impact these uses had on land and indigenous people come together in another poignant passage. Savoy recalls a moment when, while caressing an old photograph of her mother in uniform, suddenly time and the excavated histories that informed her visits to the Arizona borderland seem to collapse:
Vivian Reeves is fully alive in the shutter-clicked moment . . . Touching this image I try to imagine innumerable present moments in this borderland. An afternoon like this day, but in 1542, In April 1871. April 1945. Tomorrow.
At the end of her book, Savoy considers the meaning of her title:
[Trace is] active search. Path taken. Track or vestige of what once was. Both life marks and home. From twisted terrain within the San Andreas Fault to “indian territory,” from Point Sublime to burial grounds, from a South Carolina plantation to the US Mexico border and the US Capital. Their confluence . . . helps me both join together and give clearer expression to the unvoiced past in my life . . . Home indeed lies among the ruins and shards that surround us all.
The Black artists I have investigated so far engage across some (but not all) of the characteristics of ecological art practice. Their works express priorities, including keeping vibrantly visible the specific issues Black people have faced in the many “natures” where they have lived. These five books have guided me during this phase of my active search, my path taken toward deeper understanding. I am, as a result, more aware than ever that my book research is far from complete and must be ongoing.
Studying these books has encouraged me to interrogate how the barriers to ecological art practice may affect Black artists differently. Their personal accounts, works of imagination, and research have enlightened me about African Americans’ fraught experience with the American landscape, inhabited and wild. They have helped me understand why it may be that Black artists’ projects that address environmental issues emphasize certain aspects of ecological art practice and not others.
Dr. Kimberly Ruffin warns that difficult, burdensome discussions and decisions will be necessary before Blacks will engage fully with ecological citizenship. These discussions and decisions will be necessary bridges across profound chasms that separate Americans from each other and prevent serious attention both to our relationships to the land and all those—human and more-than-human—who co-inhabit it.
That I have failed so far to find African American artists whose projects fit neatly into existing--or proposed-- definitions of ecological art may mean that, like the long-standing definition of nature writing critiqued by Deming and Savoy, the definition of ecological art must be reinterpreted and transformed. It also means that how Black artists’ works relate to the land—and to the experience of burden and beauty so many generations of Black people have experienced on it—will require much more specific attention from curators and art historians, Black and otherwise.
These five books offer significant insights by African American writers, researchers, and activists about Black connection to and alienation from the land. These authors demonstrate how to recognize and reveal the environmental injustices baked into the economic and political system in which we live. They also model the importance of acknowledging and celebrating the many times these injustices have been righted, if only partially and temporarily, and always because of the care and activism of the Black community members most directly affected.
I am grateful to these eloquent and knowledgeable Black writers and researchers and to African American artists’ pioneering engagement with environmental issues on their terms and with their priorities. I have benefited immensely from their expertise, wisdom, and creative imagination. Now it is up to me to work productively with all this, in my own life and practice, and in the book I am currently writing and beyond.
Mary Jo Aagerstoun, PhD, (she, her) is an environmental activist and art historian living in West Palm Beach, Florida, on land of the Jeaga people (8) where Jim Crow-defined Black landscapes persist with little public acknowledgment of their meanings. (9) She founded EcoArt South Florida (2007-2014), a nonprofit arts organization dedicated to expanding ecological art practice in South Florida, and Artists for Climate Action (2015-present), an international platform on Facebook for artists interested in bringing their skills and imagination into action on climate disruption and crises. She is currently working on a book featuring a selection of ecological art projects that contribute to “The Great Turning” by modeling how to “stay with the trouble” and foster flourishing in damaged landscapes, current and future.
1. When I refer to Black artists whose works I am researching for inclusion in my book, I mean artists of full or partial African heritage who are American citizens and live predominantly in the United States of America. Occasionally I will use the term “African American” as well. I have not investigated the ecological art practice of African artists nor of artists of the African Diaspora elsewhere.
2. There have been several definitions of ecological art over its multi-decade history. This is the most recent. It was crafted in the early 2010s by members of the EcoArt Network, an international, invitational network of ecological artists; environmental scientists who work with these artists; curators and writers who write about the movement, etc. See full definition at: Ecological art. The network’s website is: https://www.ecoartnetwork.org
3. Tony Fry. Defuturing: A New Design Philosophy. London: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2020; see https://davidkorten.org/great-turning/origin-of-the-term/ for origin of Macy’s Great Turning concept; Donna Haraway. Staying with the Trouble. Experimental Futures. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016.; Robin Kimmerer. Braiding Sweetgrass. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Milkweed Editions, 2013; Chris Cuomo. Feminism and Ecological Communities: An Ethic of Flourishing. London: Routledge, 1998.
4. See https://greenbookofsc.com/locations/gadsdens-wharf/. Downloaded 6/29/2021.
5. Taylor is one of the pioneering giants of the Environmental Justice Movement. Her work follows in the path of another famous environmental justice pioneer, sociologist Robert Bullard, (see Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality (Boulder, CO, Westview Press, 1990 a landmark publication which reviewed the environmental justice struggles of several African American communities); the stories underscored the importance of race as a factor in the siting of unwanted toxins-producing facilities. In 1991, at the first National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C., Taylor was key in developing the "Principles of Environmental Justice," a seventeen-point document that has guided the movement’s vision and actions for nearly thirty years. She is on the faculty at the University of Michigan.
6. Book review: Alan Barton, “Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution, and Residential Mobility by Dorceta E. Taylor,” Nat. Resources Journal 55 (2015): 236. https://digitalrepository.unm.edu/nrj/vol55/iss1/12. Downloaded 6/10/2021.
7. Among its many uses, Fort Huachuca had from 1913 to 1933 served as the base for the African American “buffalo soldiers.” It was also the first Army base to be commanded by an African American general.
8. Regarding the Jeaga people, of whom there has been found no trace for two hundred years in what is now known as Palm Beach County, Florida, see: https://www.westpalmbeach.com/the-jeaga-palm-beach-countys-indigenous-tribe/.
9. The Palm Beach County History website begins its history of African Americans in the area now known as West Palm Beach with the 1929 ordinance that made “official the blacks-only section of the city that had been ‘generally in force under an agreement of many years’ standing.’” See http://www.pbchistoryonline.org/page/african-american-settlement-patterns. For an authoritative history of Blacks in the area now known as Florida, see: David R. Colburn and Jane Landers, eds., The African American Heritage of Florida (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, reissued 2017). https://ufdc.ufl.edu/AA00061985/00001 PDF downloaded 7/5/2021.