Tools for Change: Black Histories of Place

This post is part of EHN’s Tools for Change series, edited by Nicole Welk-Joerger, in which we earmark resources on environmental-related topics from scholars and thinkers of color who identify as women, trans and/or non binary people.

Environmental history is a field that constantly reflects on place. How we take root in place and shape its properties. How place, in turn, shapes and affects us. How we may long for one place while residing in another. How place is at once tangible and ephemeral, assertive and passive, the protagonist and the setting of our stories. Place is local. Place is global. Place is political. Place can make and maintain inequity as well as challenge and resist it.

This list includes readings from Black scholars and thinkers who identify as women, trans and non binary people about place in the context of Black history and Black feminism. These sources grapple with the ways place has been racialized throughout history, but also fought for, transformed, and reclaimed through resistance. For those readings with unavoidable access restrictions (e.g. paywalls), we’ve linked a relevant and more accessible alternative to learn more about the work. This is a modest list of scholars and writers tracing Black geographies and telling both historical and personal stories of what it means to be rooted in place as we end Black History Month.

Racialized Landscapes

Dr. Carolyn Finney investigates how a legacy of racial violence in the United States continues to inform understandings and experiences of nature in Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors. Make sure to also check out this talk for the New York Botanical Garden, in which Finney reflects on the stories that so often go unheard when it comes to this legacy and its effect on experiencing nature.

In “Your Disdain for the South is Just Anti-Blackness” for Wear Your Voice, Da’Shaun Harrison responds to recent climate events in Texas by mediating on a longer history of geographic, political, and racist sentiments of the U.S. South as it is reflected in popular media today.

In Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Sites During the Jim Crow Era, Dr. Alison Rose Jefferson addresses how African Americans in Southern California transformed recreational spaces from the 1910s to the 1960s, which challenged racial hierarchies and marked spaces of Black identity. You can also listen to this book talk at the LA Public Library, in which Jefferson discusses themes from the book.

In “What is Environmental Racism For? Place-Based Harm and Relational Development” for Environmental Sociology, Dr. Danielle Purifoy (with Louise Seamster) explains how environmental racism has enabled the creation of white places. The piece outlines how development, infrastructure, and environmental harm are intimately linked through legal and political contestation, and resource redistribution. For more, the authors also discuss these themes in this open-access article in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space.

Places of Women

In “Dirty Knowings: What Afro-Texan Women Tell Us About Archiving” for EHN, Endia Hayes explores land as archive for the histories of Afro-Texan women. “Land created a recipe and as it is passed down and taught, dirt holds those memories.”

Dr. Katherine McKittrick situates Black women’s oppression across different places, offering a “powerful interpretation” of Black geographic thought in Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle. McKittrick’s book demonstrates how geographies are alterable, opening up opportunities for social change.

In “This Land Was Made for … : (Re)Appearing Black/Brown Female Corporeality, Life, and Death,” for Hypatia, Dr. Esme G. Murdock argues that the success of settler-colonial systems in North America rely on the continual murder and disappearance of women of color.

Personal Places

In “George Floyd, a Survivor’s Guilt and a Global Black Lives Matter” for Al Jazeera, Dr. Edna Bonhomme writes about how “Black Americans cannot escape the feeling of collective grief,” wherever in the world. “I have come to believe that the anti-racism struggle may take different forms in different places,” Bonhomme writes, “but if we want honest and concrete ways to address the violent histories that we have inherited, then we have to engage in the fight against racism globally.”

In The Grassling, Dr. Elizabeth-Jane Burnett pulls back layers of memory in this poetic reflection on how place shapes us. You can also listen to Burnett reciting “Whisper,” one of the poems in the book, here.

In “From Dirt” for Emergence Magazine, Camille T. Dungy reflects “on the journey of seeds, how much of what we plant in our gardens was brought to our soils during the slave trade, and the legacy of trauma and triumph that lies within our food” 

Mary Annaïse Heglar’s “After the Storm” for Guernica is a personal account of Hurricane Katrina, its aftermath, and how it, and Emmett Till’s murder, inspired a commitment to climate justice. “The climate crisis is covered in the fingerprints of slavery and Jim Crow and colonialism and genocide and patriarchy […] I can’t help but see how those same layers complicate and exacerbate the crisis. Who is saved and who is abandoned.”

In “A Little Patch of Something” for The Paris Review, Dr. Imani Perry writes about the convergence of grief between COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement, and how it relates to cultivating soil, past and present.

Through memoir and historical inquiry, Dr. Lauret Savoy explores the ways landscapes are inscribed with ideas about race in Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape. You can also check out this interview on Edge Effects, in which Savoy discusses the book further.

Fictions and Futures of Place

In “In Afrofuturism, Black Characters Have a Space in the Future” for The Ithacan, Avery Alexander explores how the exclusion of Black voices in fantasy and sci-fi media and literature carries the message that Black people don’t have a place in the future. “That is where Afrofuturism comes in,” Alexander writes, “[…] a space where Black people can define their own place in the future without erasing Black diaspora in the process.”

Dr. Chelsea M. Frazier attends to the literary and visual contributions of Octavia Butler and Wangechi Mutu, respectively, in an exploration of how Black feminist subjectivity can decolonize environmentalism in “Troubling Ecology: Wangechi Mutu, Octavia Butler, and Black Feminist Interventions in Environmentalism” for Critical Ethnic Studies.

Told from the perspective of a future researcher, Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ M Archive: After the End of the World is a collection of artifacts that highlight the resilience of Black communities in the form of poetry on Black feminism and Blackness in a post-apocalyptic world. Gumbs talks more about “how Black feminist theory is already after the end of the world” in this book talk from the National Humanities Center.

In Black on Earth: African American Ecoliterary Traditions, Dr. Kimberly N. Ruffin demonstrates the incredible contributions of Black writers throughout history to U.S. environmental literature and ecocriticism. You can also check out this interview on phati’tude Literary Magazine, in which Ruffin discusses themes from the book further.

In “Human Fragility: The Condition We Fight To Escape” for EHN, Jessica S. Samuel addresses how how disasters exacerbate social inequalities. “A global crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic reinstates what our social orders mean to rearrange,” Samuel writes. “What ultimately discomforts us most is not that there are people in need in the system of capitalism—the logics of that economy have already justified this. Rather, it is who those people are that makes us most uneasy.”

*Cover image: Courtesy of EHN contributor Endia Hayes, who writes about formerly enslaved Afro-Texan women in her dissertation. The woman in the picture, Sarah Ford, lived in Houston around the time of her interview for the Federal Writers’ Project. “Sarah Ford, ex-slave, Houston” (March 9, 1937), retrieved from the Library of Congress.

[*Cover image description: an older Black woman in a white two-piece set poses in a black-and-white picture while holding onto a type of small tree and her feet are hidden in the grass.]