I have been doing diversity and environment since the early 1990’s. It started for me in the M.A. program in the History Department at Stony Brook University. When I transitioned to the Ph.D. at Stony Brook, I said to my dissertation advisor that I wanted to write my dissertation on African Americans and the environment. She gave me a blank look and said there was no one in the department, probably the whole country, who could advise me concerning my topic. Well, I forged ahead, struggled really. I finally finished my dissertation with some help from Mart Stewart, an outside advisor on my dissertation committee.
What is African American environmental history?
Carl Anthony gives us a definition: “African American environmental history is concerned with questions of environmental justice in the past; patterns of exploitation within society that have limited African American access to nature and the fruit of the community engagement with the environment; African American resistance to that exploitation and mobilization to confront environmental injustice; ways that African Americans have acted on the environment and have been affected by it in everyday life; the historical environmental health exposures and risks to African American communities; the role African Americans have played in helping to build sustainable societies. (ASEH News, American Society for Environmental History, Spring 2006, 9)
When I began doing the work on African American environment there were no definitions. Even today, if you google African American environmental history, a definition does not pop up. That’s so unlike google. One of my early efforts in working towards defining African American environmental history was an article on African American women and gardening.
In my personal and professional struggle, I have been an academic for many years. There were few people of color I could count on, and that I knew of who working in various areas concerning diversity and the environment . So my cohorts and primary audience were mainstream academics. I was frustrated and alone, often asked, “Where are the white people?” in my narratives and analyses.
I still teach. I still think like a historian. In many ways, I still write like a historian. What’s different though is I have more people to connect with now that I’m writing for a broader audience with the upcoming book and my ongoing blog.
I have Rue Mapp, Jarid Manos, Rona Fernandez, EcoSoul, James Edward Mills, Evonne Blythers, Phoenix Smith,Danielle N. Lee, Audrey Peterman, Dudley Edmondson, and so many more. And thankfully, I have all of you!
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Dianne, I find Carl Anthony’s definition interesting and sad. I read the descending order of definitions as signifying what’s most and least salient. What about pleasure, joy? Why is so much of the current AAEH work about limitations, inclusion and proving that blacks are into nature, too? It seems that these approaches concede the environment as a white domain instead of also racializing and critiquing their experiences with ‘the environment’.
Marya, I’d thought about the more human ways of defining African American environmental history when I included the quote from Carl Anthony. At least as a starting point it gets people thinking like you. To me the definition can grow, expanding like a universe! Perhaps we can all find ways of expanding the definition/meaning together!