The Greening of African-American Landscapes: Where Ecocriticism Meets Post-Colonial Theory
Gerhardt, Christine, The Mississippi Quarterly
Ecologists have long been drawn to places where two ecosystems meet because of such zones' special richness, or "edge-effect."
Earth itself has become the nigger of the world.
ALMOST A DECADE AFTER ITS EMERGENCE as a recognizable school of thought, ecocriticism--nature-sensitive literary analysis--has started to turn to race as an important parameter for the study of literature and the environment. While the first wave of nature writing anthologies, including The Norton Book of Nature Writing (1990) and Thomas J. Lyon's This Incomperable Lande (1991), focused on essays "by the European-American white man," (1) new collections such as David Landis Barnhill's At Home on the Earth (1999) grant at least part of their space to African-American and Native American voices. In recent years an increasing number of ecocritical analyses have turned their attention to the racial and ethnic specificity of America's environmental literatures. (2) Challenging its textual basis and methodological apparatus alike, this shift may well signal a critical moment in the ongoing constitution of ecocriticism.
As an innovative field that stands out for its notable efforts to cross disciplinary boundaries, ecocritism has already reached out to a number of approaches as diverse as regionalism and environmental history, biblical studies and film studies, as well as feminist revisions of these fields. (3) It is my argument here that for a discussion of nature and race in American culture, a dialogue between ecocriticism and post-colonial studies is particularly well suited. On the one hand, post-colonial theory provides very specific critical tools that help to explore the ways in which black literature addresses intersections between racial oppression and the exploitation of nature. Since post-colonial criticism specifically destabilizes the idea of the sovereign white human subject that acts upon its environment in various fields of power, it can articulate fundamentally different ways of interacting with nature within American culture. On the other hand, a post-colonial perspective draws attention to the ways in which the questions typically asked by ecocriticism need to be rephrased in order to broaden the scope and subversive potential of the field--particularly with regard to discussions of nature and race that do not participate in the very mechanisms of exclusion they are trying to dismantle.
In this paper, I begin with a theoretical discussion of the ways in which post-colonial criticism can become productive for a green rereading of African-American literature, focusing on the points of convergence as well as the fields of tension that emerge from such a dialogue.4 The second part of the essay then demonstrates how a combined ecocritical and post-colonial approach works for the interpretation of two very different African-American texts in their respective historical contexts--Henry Bibb's Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, an American Slave (1849) and Alice Walker's autobiographical essay "Am I Blue?" (1986). While both of these texts address the parallel exploitation of blacks and nature fully in the light of file negative identification of black slaves with "wild beasts," they explore the analogy from radically different perspectives, so much so that the late twentieth-century text in many ways reverses the political implications of Bibb's much earlier argument.
Several points of convergence between ecocriticism and post-colonial studies make such a double-focused dialogue appear to be well suited for an investigation of African-American visions of nature. First of all, both approaches firmly situate their analyses in the historical contexts from which specific mechanisms of exploitation have evolved, and both are inextricably linked to social and political activism. Trinh T. Minh-Ha, for instance, stresses that for post-colonialism "the theoretical project is not 'just a theoretical project,' but one that, despite its reality as theory, grows out of a social, cultural, and political context." (5) Ecocritic David Mazel, in turn, emphasizes the need for a green literary activism by conceptualizing it according to post-colonial models:
I am suggesting that American literary environmentalism be approached as a form of domestic Orientalism, as the latter has been formulated by Edward Said: as a "created body of theory and practice," as the "corporate institution" empowered to deal with the environment "by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it," and even "ruling over it." Rather than treating environmentalism as a conceptually "pure" and unproblematic resistance to power, a resistance based upon an objective and disinterested organization of knowledge, I suggest we analyze it as just one of many potential modes for exercising power, as a particular "style," both political and epistemological, "for dominating, restructuring, and having authority" over the real territories and lives that the environment displaces and for which it is invoked as a representation. (6)
In their radical consequence, ecological criticism and post-colonial studies are deeply political endeavors that entail a large-scale critique of Western power structures. My argument here is that without paying attention to how different kinds of land conquest are linked to the colonization of people, ecocriticism indeed runs the risk of compromising more radical political goals. Ultimately, such a critique remains firmly situated as an integral part of Western cultures and does more to stabilize these cultures than to unsettle them at their foundations. Furthermore, ecocriticism and post-colonialism are concerned with the complex relationship between the social and political center and its margins. As Dominic Head points out in one of the few studies that link these two theoretical fields, ecocriticism de-privileges the human subject, while post-colonial theory is, in a structurally similar fashion, concerned with the relative de-centering of the colonizers and their discourses. (7) In both cases, such de-centering also involves the attempt to recenter the silenced other and to listen to his or her voice. Patrick D. Murphy's ecocritical claim that "[n] onhuman others can be constituted as speaking subjects, rather than constituted merely as objects of our speaking, although even the latter is preferable to silence(8) is reminiscent of the post-colonial debate of whether the subaltern can or cannot speak, albeit the answer to the latter question tends to be much less optimistic: "I cannot entirely endorse this insistence on determinate vigor and full autonomy, for practical historiographic exigencies will not allow such endorsements to privilege subaltern consciousness." (9)
Finally, both schools of thought have dealt critically with the limits of their own central concepts which, for all their productivity, also threaten to perpetuate traditional ways of binary thinking. While ecocriticism considers it one of its central conceptual challenges to "[understand] nature and culture as interwoven rather than as separate sides of a dualistic construct" (Wallace and Armbruster, p. 4), Paul Gilroy points to a structurally similar problem …
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: The Greening of African-American Landscapes: Where Ecocriticism Meets Post-Colonial Theory. Contributors: Gerhardt, Christine - Author. Journal title: The Mississippi Quarterly. Volume: 55. Issue: 4 Publication date: Fall 2002. Page number: 515+. © 1998 Mississippi State University. COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.