African American Environmental Thought
Kimberly K. Smith
Choice Outstanding Book
African American intellectual thought has long provided a touchstone for national politics and civil rights, but, as Kimberly Smith reveals, it also has much to say about our relationship to nature. In this first single-authored book to link African American and environmental studies, Smith uncovers a rich tradition stretching from the abolition movement through the Harlem Renaissance, demonstrating that black Americans have been far from indifferent to environmental concerns.
“This book is well written and makes an important contribution both to political theory and African American history. . . . A welcome addition to a growing body of literature demonstrating that far from being on the sidelines of American environmentalism, African Americans were at the forefront from the beginning.”
“An exceptional example of interdisciplinary scholarship. . . . A solid foundation for informing substantive and theoretical discussions about the fundamental nature and significance of African American environmental thought and its effects on the current thinking in many professional and scholarly fields inside and outside the academy, including black studies, environmental justice, law, literary studies, politics, and public history.”
—H-Net ReviewsSee all reviews...
“This is a book that all environmental historians should read, and one that all American historians should consult. In recounting the diversity of black environmental thought, she offers fresh and provocative interpretations of many towering figures in African American history. And in doing so, she suggests how mainstream environmentalists might liberate themselves and their politics from an enduring fixation on purity in nature.”
—Reviews in American History
“In this fluently and carefully argued book Smith . . . broadens our sense of what constitutes environmental thought historically and clarifies the foundations of black aspirations and policy prescriptions in relation to land, space, and urban amenities at different historical moments. . . . Smith has amply succeeded in integrating the environmental dimension into a fresh and stimulating study of political and social thought.”
—Journal of American History
“Smith’s scholarship is critical to a growing historiography and dialogue about African Americans and the environment.”
—Register of the Kentucky Historical Society
“[A] trailblazing, seminal work in which [Smith] powerfully argues that early preservationists and conservationists were oblivious of African Americans’ material and social conditions. Drawing on the writings of Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Alain Locke, Smith ties alienation from the land to racial oppression, and freedom to environmental stewardship. Elegantly written, exquisitely lucid, and thoroughly researched, the book is a definitive contribution to environmental studies. Essential.”
“Thoroughly researched and well-informed, this extraordinarily rich and well-written study reveals hitherto neglected aspects of Black American life and thought.”
—Wilson J. Moses, author of Alexander Crummell: A Study of Civilization and Discontent
“A terrific book that fills an important gap in political theory and offers fresh interpretations of such figures as Douglass, Du Bois, and Locke.”
—Lawrie Balfour, author of Evidence of Things Not Said: James Baldwin and the Promise of American Democracy
“An arresting, insightful, and compelling look at environmental thought through the eyes of African Americans.”
—Carolyn Merchant, author of The Columbia Guide to American Environmental HistorySee fewer reviews...
Beginning with environmental critiques of slave agriculture in the early nineteenth century and evolving through critical engagements with scientific racism, artistic primitivism, pragmatism, and twentieth-century urban reform, Smith highlights the continuity of twentieth-century black politics with earlier efforts by slaves and freedmen to possess the land. She examines the works of such canonical figures as Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Alain Locke, all of whom wrote forcefully about how slavery and racial oppression affected black Americans' relationship to the environment
Smith's analysis focuses on the importance of freedom in humans' relationship with nature. According to black theorists, the denial of freedom can distort one's relationship to the natural world, impairing stewardship and alienating one from the land. Her pathbreaking study offers the first linkage of the early conservation movement to black history, the first detailed description of black agrarianism, and the first analysis of scientific racism as an environmental theory. It also offers a new way to conceptualize black politics by bringing into view its environmental dimension, as well as a normative environmental theory grounded in pragmatism and aimed at identifying the social conditions for environmental virtue.
Smith's work offers a new approach to established writers and thinkers and shows that they justly deserve a place in the canon of American environmental thought. African American Environmental Thought enriches our understanding of black politics and environmental history, and of environmental theory in general. Because slavery and racism have shaped the meaning of the American landscape, this body of thought offers us fresh conceptual resources by which we can make better sense of our world.