Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

Black Faces White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors

Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

Black Faces White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors

Article excerpt

Black Faces White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors.



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ISBN: 978-1-4696-1448-9.

Carolyn Finney's (UC Berkeley) Black Faces, White Spaces critiques the absence of African Americans from mainstream environmental narratives and movements. She argues that popular perceptions of environmentalism fail to recognize the historical role of race and racism in shaping nature, perpetuating a discourse of a "white wilderness" waiting to be conquered (p. 3). The book is much more than an environmental studies text, however. Clearly influenced by Critical Race Theory, Finney's Black Faces, White Spaces is also a veritable counter-narrative to the dominant notion of environmentalism as a "white space." Analyzing magazine content, park brochures, and catalogs, as well as interviewing Florida citizens, National Parks Service (NPS) employees, and environmentalists, Finney shows that representations of African Americans and their experiences shape collective memory about the environment. Finney's book is an excellent study of how perceptions of the "Great Outdoors" intersect with the African American experience.

Chapter one, "Bamboozled," questions the dominant one-size-fits-all narrative of Americans' relationship to the land, namely the 1862 Homestead Act and western expansion. This view neglects the complexities of the American experience at that time. Black free men were by and large restricted from Homestead Grants, necessitating a sharecropper livelihood. Finney also explores some of the early narratives of nature and how they largely maintain unchanged to the present. Environmentalists such as John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt created a "rhetoric of wilderness conquest, Romanticism, Transcendentalism, and the belief that humans can either control or destroy nature with technology" (p. 28). These ideals are maintained in magazine advertisements and NPS brochures, reflecting the white-washing of nature.

Finney's second chapter, "Jungle Fever," compares perceptions of African Americans with the White environmental narrative. She argues that American's relations with nature are inherently racialized. One of the major failures of Reconstruction was the restriction of Black land acquisition. Finney also seeks to place some of the racial and evolutionary discourse of the nineteenth century into the environmental narrative. Circus exhibitions of Ota Benga and Sara Baartman epitomize the perception that Blacks were less than human; not in nature, but part of nature. Therefore, Blacks were considered "unfit for the responsibilities of citizenship," including land ownership (p. 42).

Chapter three, "Forty Acres and a Mule," seeks to understand how collective and personal memory shapes African American environmental attitudes. Finney points out that collective memories and group trauma of slavery and Jim Crow continue to inform Black environmental engagement. For example, Finney mentions how a history of lynching and injustice have led to a suspicious attitude towards "White spaces." These shared experiences and inherited memories shape African Americans' "cognitive map" of the environment and society (p. 56). Throughout slavery and Jim Crow, African Americans were "psychologically divorced" from the environment, working the land but not reaping the fruits of their labor (p. 59). This environmental alienation has maintained to a degree, according to Finney. African Americans' cognitive maps may still read "whites only" even though no signpost is present (p. 62). Finney also puts forth several examples of African Americans engaging in environmental preservation because the locations connoted positive group memories, such as Virginia Key Beach in Miami. …

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