Black on Earth: African American Ecoliterary Traditions

Black on Earth: African American Ecoliterary Traditions

Black on Earth: African American Ecoliterary Traditions

Black on Earth: African American Ecoliterary Traditions


American environmental literature has relied heavily on the perspectives of European Americans, often ignoring other groups. In Black on Earth, Kimberly Ruffin expands the reach of ecocriticism by analyzing the ecological experiences, conceptions, and desires seen in African American writing. Ruffin identifies a theory of "ecological burden and beauty" in which African American authors underscore the ecological burdens of living within human hierarchies in the social order just as they explore the ecological beauty of being a part of the natural order. Blacks were ecological agents before the emergence of American nature writing, argues Ruffin, and their perspectives are critical to understanding the full scope of ecological thought. Ruffin examines African American ecological insights from the antebellum era to the twenty-first century, considering WPA slave narratives, neo-slave poetry, novels, essays, and documentary films, by such artists as Octavia Butler, Alice Walker, Henry Dumas, Percival Everett, Spike Lee, and Jayne Cortez. Identifying themes of work, slavery, religion, mythology, music, and citizenship, Black on Earth highlights the ways in which African American writers are visionary ecological artists.


Cutting down that beautiful tree won’t solve the problem at
hand. It still happened.

Caseptla Bailey, mother of one of the Jena Six (2007)

We don’t have a sense of belonging to the environmentalist
identity…. [This is] a serious identity crisis for the movement
as far as I’m concerned…. We have to reclaim our right to
the environmentalist issue.

Majora Carter, founder, Sustainable South Bronx (2006)

The White Tree

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. A student tradition in Jena, Louisiana, brought this fact to national attention in August 2006. A black freshman at the area high school asked permission from the school’s principal to sit under a tree commonly understood as “the white tree.” The following day when black students arrived to enjoy the white tree, they found three nooses hanging from it. The school’s principal suggested an expulsion of the white students responsible; however, they received only a three-day suspension. Frustrated by this and other incidents of racial injustice, six black teenagers beat a white classmate whom they accused of making racist comments related to the noose hanging. Although the white student sustained relatively minor injuries, five of the Jena Six were charged with attempted murder. Across the United States, people saw the treatment of the Jena Six as representative of a national scourge: a criminal justice system that routinely minimizes or dismisses crimes perpetrated by whites . . .

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