The Greening of African-American Landscapes: Where Ecocriticism Meets Post-Colonial Theory

By Gerhardt, Christine | The Mississippi Quarterly, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

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."

--John Elder

Earth itself has become the nigger of the world.

--Alice Walker

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. …

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