In Ecocriticism, author Greg Garrard makes the distinctions and parallels between two sects within the study of literature and the environment. “Deep ecology” ecocritics think that the cause of anti-ecological beliefs and behaviors are a result of “anthropocentric dualism” between humanity and nature, which “confers superiority onto humans.” Similarly, ecofeminists blame androcentric dualities for the ecological problems that have developed in a society which places males in a superior position over women in the gender hierarchy (Gerrard, 26-27). If the relationship between the two is important due to similar ideology, then I argue that Black Ecocriticism should also be considered as an equally important contribution to the field.
Born in 1933, Barrax spent his early childhood in the rural south. In both poems, “To Waste at Trees” and “What More?” he alludes to lynchings and slavery in his nature imagery. In “What More?”, the suburban depiction of a man mowing his lawn, there is a looming anxiety and discomfort in a seemingly pleasant scene. The American Dream has been attained superficially. Within the safe confines of the suburban home, the main character exudes a sense of deep-rooted uncertainty. As a theme in Barrax’s poetry, “he continually invokes anxieties concerning responsibility and participation in contemporary American life” from a black point of view. Within the context of an inherently historical portrait of the environment, Barrax paints a vivid picture of race relations in America through the technique of allusion.
In “To Waste at Trees,” Barrax builds a colorful landscape of the history of slavery and slave labor through his use of nature. Trees are a foreboding theme throughout this piece. Wasting, or dying at trees, immediately alludes to southern lynchings and the horror of the black, limp body on display for society. He parallels white America’s disregard for black humanity with their lack of care for their environment, and perhaps as an explanation for it. “But it’s when you don’t care about the world/ that you begin owning and destroying it/ like them” (Gerrard, lines 5-7). Perhaps the destruction of the world is an internalized self-hatred for the pain that was inflicted by the oppressor and endured by the oppressed. Reminding the reader that the agricultural wealth of the country was manufactured and nurtured by black slaves in America, Barrax harvests images of slave labor “In the cane, in the rice and cotton fields/ and unlike them, came out humanly whole” (lines 12-13). Referencing the gods of the (Yoruba and others) religion in Africa, Barrax gives a historical, cultural and spiritual explanation for the redemptive relationship between black Americans who’s souls inhabit the U.S. soil.
“Because our fathers, being African,
Saw the sun and moon as God’s right and left eye,
Named Him Rainmaker and welcomed the blessings of his spit,
Found in the rocks his stoney footprints,
Heard him traveling the sky on the wind
And speaking in the thunder
That would trumpet in the soul of the slave” (Barrax, lines 14-20).
He describes the white man as having a scientific relationship with nature, as opposed to a spiritual one, like the black man. In a reference paying homage to Malcolm X, he says “My Brother said, have no leisure like them/ No right to waste at trees/ Inventing names for wrens and weeds,” that the black man, having cultivated and nurtured the land, was far removed from the hollow contribution of the anthropocentric naming of the environment.
In “Ecocriticism: What is it Good For?”, Robert Kern admits that “all texts are at least potentially environmental (and therefore susceptible to ecocriticism or ecologically informed reading) and in the sense that their authors, consciously or not, inscribe within them a certain relation to their place,” I argue that, due to the contributions to the land and foundational development of the environment of America by black slaves, it is inherently important that the black ecocritic contribute to the broader school of Ecocriticism.
Dungy, Camille T. Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry. Athens: University of Georgia, 2009. Print.
Garrard, Greg. Ecocriticism. London: Routledge, 2004. Print.
Toward an Ecocriticism of Color. Callaloo, 29(1), 202-222,239. Retrieved from La Sierra University, Web. 11 Apr. 2014.
Kern, R. “Ecocriticism What Is It Good For?” Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 7.1 (2000): 9-32. Print.
Oxford Companion to African American Literature, and Gale Contemporary Black Biography. “Gerald Barrax.” Answers. Answers Corporation, n.d. Web. 11 Apr. 2014.