Even as a new student of ecocritical theory, it is not difficult to see the gaping lack of integration between black criticism and ecocriticism, an obvious result of a society which has cultivated centuries of a pervasive denial of racial oppression and colonialism. In “W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, and Richard Wright: Toward an Ecocriticism of Color,” the author Scott Hicks states that “not only must ecocritics reread the fiction of African-Americans ecocritically; they must also reread African-American critics and thinkers ecocritically, so that all might begin to reformulate the questions and revise the assumptions that undergird any field (Hicks, 202).” Without acceptance of the painful past and present relationship between race and environmental disparities, ecological understanding and unity of purpose will never occur. While I agree with the usefulness of ecocritical theory, I can’t fully believe in it until there is an acknowledgment and incorporation of black critical thought.
In Coal: A Human History, Barbara Freese presents a vivid and enthralling account of the importance of coal in the development of the world. Indeed, she carefully details the history of coal and the profundity of its influential scope. Freese guides the reader through the grand journey in which “the ways coal has redefined the role of workers, changed family structures, altered concepts of public health and private wealth . . . generated social movements even as it has consolidated power structures,” but fails to include a single mention of black people and their place in the coal macrocosm (Freese, prefix). The choice of the title alone and the failure to include any acknowledgement of a black race of people magnifies the history of black oppression under the guise of them being subhuman, and animalistic.
Where the white ecocritic may interpret the meaning and subtext of an environmental byproduct such as coal through a narrow lens of Eurocentric language, a black ecocritic can examine it from the dual perspective of respecting language as an environment worthy of appreciating. In the chapter “Language beyond the human?”, Clark acknowledges the ecocritics who have argued “on how different media of communication enable different modes of subjectivity, identity, memory and knowledge. . . language is not a mere tool but an environment that shapes the very psyche of those who may delude themselves as simply ‘using’ it” (Clark, 50). The word “coal” has an inherently different meaning, depending on who it’s spoken by, and directed to. In “Coal” by Audre Lorde, she appropriates the word to embody beauty, pride, strength, creativity and precious value. Derogatory terms such as “coal-black” and “tar-baby” are infused with a disgraceful and horrific past; A past which, particularly in the Southern United States, included one method of grotesque torture and punishment of those who were “too black” (in appearance or deed) by tarring and feathering. Lorde delineates the dimensions of her own environment of language, describing “how a sound comes into a word, coloured/ By who pays what for speaking,” and distinguishes it from the language of others. Coal, an epic natural resource and environmental commodity, inflicted its dangers on everyone’s health during the Industrial Revolution and it carries its own history of detriment to blacks. When turned into tar, coal became a weapon used to harm black people. However, in reclaiming this paradoxical byproduct of the Earth, Lorde, “the total black” personified, empowers herself through use of her words, the very blackness that is rejected by white society. Her coal (words) is “like a diamond on glass windows” and her blackness comes “from the Earth’s inside,” paying homage to Africa being the oldest known continent with the first signs of human life.
Clark, Timothy. The Cambridge Introduction to Literature and the Environment. Cambridge: Cambridge
UP, 2011. Print.
Crenshaw, Kimberlé. Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement. New York: New York,1995. Print.
Freese, Barbara. Coal: A Human History. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Pub., 2003. Print.
Lorde, Audre. Coal. New York: Norton, 1976. Print.