I have known Ellizabeth D. Blum for several years now. Like many who know her personally, I call her Scout; I’ll have to ask her the origins of her nickname. Elizabeth and I put our heads together on many an occassion as the sub-discipline of African American environmental history began to evolve back in the 1990s. She is an associate professor in the History Department at Troy University. Read her book titled Love Canal Revisited: Race, Class, and Gender in Environmental Activism. Read what she has to say . . .As an academic, I often have to deal with misconceptions about African Americans and the environment. One of the most persistent, and most harmful, is a common belief that the environmental justice movement that emerged in the 1980s was “new” and radically different from the “mainstream” environmental movement. According to these themes, “mainstream” environmentalism focused too exclusively on the concerns of white preservationists – they pressed for parks and protected the spotted owl. Environmental justice brought the plight of minorities, urban areas, and the health effects of pollution to a lily-white movement, and connected it to the civil rights movement. Robert Bullard and Dorceta Taylor, two of the foundational authors of the environmental justice movement, propounded these theories beginning in the mid to late 1980s. Environmental justice activists, including Bullard and Taylor, had vested political interests in these views. The more “new” the movement looked, the more likely it was to receive much-deserved attention from politicians. Unfortunately, although additional scholarship has added much to the picture, this simplistic image of environmentalism is one that has stuck.
My point is not that environmental justice advocates are bad or even wrong about the connections of race and class to environmental harm – to the contrary, I have long been a proponent of environmental justice. My point is that by ignoring history, we ignore the deep roots of a movement and marginalize some of the key players, namely African American women. African American women have been pivotally involved in urban, civil-rights-connected environmentalism since the late 1800s. They formed clubs and organizations and worked to clean up cities for health and aesthetic reasons. They saw their work not as “environmentalism,” but as a part of their ongoing struggle for civil rights. African American men, especially elites like W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, and other literary giants of the Harlem Renaissance made explicit connections between the poor treatment of human beings under slavery and the poor treatment of the land in the south. To heal the land, they believed, African Americans needed to be free and equal. In other words, the ideas of the environmental justice movement aren’t “new” – they’ve been around for around 100 years. Certainly, that fact makes their ideas no less important or valid.
Another part of the problem here is that academics simply aren’t very good at getting their messages out to a larger public. That’s our fault, and a longstanding one. We tend to speak to each other and not to the general public. However, even within the academic community, some of the excellent historical works out there are not seeping into other fields speaking to environmental justice. Academics need to start talking to each other, and communicating with the general public in a more constructive way to break down these myths, and give historical actors some of the credit they deserve.
Elizabeth D. Blum