Robert s. duncanson - blue hole, flood waters, little miami river - google art project

Black eco-poetics

Craig Santos Perez

Above: “Blue Hole, Flood Waters, Little Miami River” by Robert S. Duncanson | Wikimedia

Our relationship to nature and animals is shaped by our culture and race. While we have discussed Native American and Pacific eco-poetics in earlier course sessions, we recently focused on African-American eco-poetics.

In 2009, the first anthology of its kind, Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, was published. Introducing the work, editor Camille T. Dungy wrote:

Black Nature brings to light the myriad ways African American poets have engaged the conflicts and confluences between their environments and their daily lives…Some poems resemble traditional pastorals, in which speakers escape through landscape into spaces that allow unhindered imaginative freedom. In others, overland escapes promise, and sometimes fulfill, actual legal and physical freedom. The transformative powers of nature yield potential for facilitating change in the world. In many poems the landscape is tainted by a legacy of racially motivated brutality, while in others the promise of a future unfettered by fear is realized through the natural forces of change. People work in these poems, and they reflect and relax as well. They form alliances with plants and animals as often as they question those alliances. They look at trees and see history, many sources of horror. They look at trees and see grandeur, sources of sustenance, beauty, and shade.

Our class read Dungy’s profound introduction, as well as a selection of poems by Marilyn Nelson, Lucille Clifton, Yusef Komunyakaa, Audre Lorde and Tara Betts. While we did not read the entire anthology, I highly recommend it.

Spoken word, hip-hop, and performance poetry are important threads within Black aesthetics, so we also viewed and discussed several videos of four well known African-American poets.

First, we watched Patricia Smith perform her poem, “34,” written in response to Hurricane Katrina, a natural disaster that traumatically impacted the Black community:

The second poet we viewed, Douglas Kearney, performs his avant-garde ocean poem about slavery and the middle passage, “Swimchant for Nigger Mer-folk (An Aquaboogie Set in Lapis),” below:

The third poet is Ross Gay and his poem, “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude,” is about a community orchard in Indiana that Gay helped co-found and nourish:

The final poet is Prince Ea, whose two poems, “Dear Future Generations: Sorry,” and “Why I Think This World Should End” have been viewed more than 6 million times:

Some of the most powerful eco-poetry is being written by poets of color, and whose vitals should be vital in any conversation about poetry, ecology, environmental justice and climate change.