While Lorde’s written act of reclaiming the negative imagery that has plagued blacks for centuries was a liberating subversive action, poems like Herman Melville’s “The Swamp Angel” reinforce the stereotypical depictions of black people as being uncontrolled, frightening, animals, of base moral character. The first two lines of the poem are the quintessential nightmare for the racially conscious black American: “There is a coal-black Angel with a thick Afric lip” Melville proclaims. The image of the angel, denoting that the being was “other,” not necessarily “good” as we tend to think of angels in modern terms, is not to be mistaken for a positive image. The reader is confronted with imagery of a dirty, murky, “swamp” creature that is ironically, both “hunted and harried,” like slaves who existed under the constant threat of capture, punishment, and violent oppression, and dreamt of escape. Lorde honorably digs into the depths of her soul, and presents the reader with the beautiful visual depiction of coal, which, once believed to be the same base substance that produces diamonds, represents her confident self-awareness, internal peace and vision for a future of endless possibilities.
While she “wills” her future and subsequent reception, Melville’s poem presents the “pale fright” of his main character who lives in “fear: of the “thief in the gloaming” (Melville). Despite the abundance of literary criticism that supports “The Swamp Angel” as Melville’s personal reflections on a specific incidence during the Civil War, he chooses the derogatory and demeaning depiction of the black, devilish sub-human figure that reigns from the swamp to represent the horrors of war. It is no coincidence that his interactions with black soldiers was likely the first of its kind during that era, and no doubt left many impressions on the cautious minds of the racial majority.
The lack of the inclusion of black discourse in environmental criticism pervades the system of ecological study. According to the most recent official academic definition of the field, ecocritics explore literature through its relationship with physical environment, “conducted with an acute awareness of the damage being wrought on that environment by human activities” (98). It is theoretically problematic in its efforts to plausibly uphold the “moral and political rights” of the environment, which is to be regarded as “no less than human,” when there has been a clear disregard (at the very least) and decision to exclude the history of the dehumanization of black people within the United States (100).
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, 1995. Print.
Freese, Barbara. Coal: A Human History. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Pub., 2003. Print.
Hicks, Scott. “W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, and Richard Wright: Toward an Ecocriticism of Color.” Callaloo (2006): n. pag. ProQuest Research Library. Web.
Lorde, Audre. Coal. New York: Norton, 1976. Print.
Melville, Herman. Battle Pieces: The Civil War Poems of Herman Melville. Edison, NJ: Castle, 2000. Print.
Pinderhughes, Raquel. “The Impact of Race on Environmental Quality: An Empirical and Theoretical Discussion.” Sociological Perspectives 39.2 (1996): 231-48. Print.