African American Culture and Environmental Justice

African Americans have been at the forefront of the movement against environmental racism since its emergence in the late 1980s, and early 1990s. For many Americans environmental racism was invisible until its results appeared nightly on the news during the Hurricane Katrina human-made disaster. But as with other cultural groups, the history of environmental racism impacting the black community goes back many generations, in this case at to the slave era in the American colonies and early US. Groundbreaking books like Dumping in Dixie by Robert Bullard document the hideous toxic abuse of black communities in the US south in the 20th century. But as other texts cited below indicate, complex relations between African Americans and the natural environment going back hundreds of years in literary and cultural works whose environmental themes were largely ignored until recently.

Some Key Literary and Critical Texts

  • African American Environmental Thought. Kimberly K. Smith. Lawrence: U of Kansas P, 2007.
    Rich study that both reexamines figures like Douglass, DuBois and Locke and also uncovers a long history of connections between freedom and environmental care that predate the EJ movement by generations.
  • Toni Cade Bambara African American author of the remarkable novel, The Salt Eaters a work rich in environmental justice themes.
  • Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry. Edited by Camille T Dungy. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2009.
    A great text for exploring the long history of environmental racism as a theme in the black poetic tradition.
  • The Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity, and the Natural World Edited by Alison Deming and Laurel E. Savoy. Berkeley: Milkweed, 2002.
    A rich anthology of writing from African Americans, Latino/a, Asian Americans, Native Americans, mixed race writers and others that brilliantly challenges the assumption that nature writing is white writing.
  • 'To Love the Wind and the Rain': African Americans and Environmental History Diane D Glave and Mark Stoll, eds. U of Pittsburgh P, 2006.
    Includes much historical work, from the era of slavery to the present, of interest for environmental justice cultural studies and the continuing effort to squelch the myth that black folks are not environmentalists.
  • The Nature of Cities: Ecocriticism and Urban Environments. Edited by Michael Bennett and David W. Teague, eds. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1999.
    Important collection that helps undermine the notion that nature somehow stops at the edge of cities, and includes some work on black urban environmental issues.
  • Barbara Neely African American author of the mystery/environmental justice novels about detective/maid Blanche White.

A Few Key Organizations and Issues