Race and Environment in the United States | African American & Native American Perspectives
Saturday, October 19, 2019
This one-day symposium seeks to offer a nuanced view of the nature-culture discourse and to reframe generalizing assumptions about humans’ relationship to the natural environment which persist within western design professions, the environmental movement, and histories and theories of landscape and environmental place making. We Americans pride ourselves on the diversity of our society, yet the concept of “melting pot” has pervaded much of our framing of who we, the “public,” is. The conceptual process of “melting” is founded on the belief that “we” become a rich blending of all. In reality though, the process has grouped the reality into a singular identity that is largely white European, young, physically able, and privileged to possess the dominant voice and economic and political clout. This “we” is empowered with the possibility of choice, and built on a history where the value of nature was believed to be in its service to mankind. As such, this melting pot concept is mere illusion as it has left out much of the variety of distinctly different histories, voices, aspirations and agencies. These have fallen quietly to the bottom of the pot, deposited over time, accumulating into a dense sedimentary ground – out of sight, out of mind, silenced. Meanwhile, the mental concept we carry of “we the people,” the “public” we speak of and for, the “us” for whom we design, has become increasingly thin.
This symposium foregrounds the voices, histories, contexts, and critiques that have been left out of many, if not most, discussions of the place and value of nature in American society. Specifically, it focuses on a sampling of histories of African American and indigenous Native American communities. It raises the question of whether environmentalism is fundamentally a conceit of those who are well off, in power and have choice; how our growing global environmental crisis is perceived by those with different histories, beliefs, and relationships to nature; and how environmental activism across the different subsets of our society may be driven by fundamentally different concerns.
The traditional context of the nature poem in the Western intellectual canon, spawned by the likes of Virgil and Theocritus and solidified by the Romantics and Transcendentalists, informs the prevailing views of the natural world as a place of positive collaboration, refuge, idyllic rural life, or wilderness. In the poetry of African Americans [on the other hand], ...we see poems written from the perspective of the workers of the field. Though these poems defy the pastoral conventions of Western poetry, are they not pastorals? The poems describe moss, rivers, trees, dirt, caves, dogs, fields: elements of an environment steeped in a legacy of violence, forced labor, torture, and death.