Today the Edge Effects editorial board presents a special edition of Edgy Stuff—our monthly post where we share particularly compelling books, podcasts, videos, images, and more—that features recommendations honoring Black History Month.
My recommendation this month is “Road to Brown V. Board,” chapter eight of Mark Fiege’s Republic of Nature. Fiege points out the color line that existed in many mid-twentieth century American towns restricted black Americans from the resources they needed, and confined them to unsafe, marginal areas. He opens his chapter with a description of young Linda Carol Brown’s walk to the school bus, which took her down six blocks of city street without sidewalks, past warehouses, and over train tracks. Fiege’s consideration of the daily trek black students were forced to make to attend segregated schools shows that Brown V. Board was more than a fight for equal education, it was also a fight against environmental inequality.
What does it mean to come home? In her 2009 book, Belonging: A Culture of Place, feminist scholar bell hooks considers her return to her own childhood home. She dwells lovingly and at times with aching ambivalence on the landscapes of rural Kentucky, using layers of memory to explore questions of race and sense of place. Narrated in her characteristically powerful voice, the short stories that comprise the book add up to a complicated, important, and touching homecoming.
Helen J. Bullard
The first smell that hits me is the compost, and it’s glorious on this dull February afternoon. On shelves all around us, trays of greens are growing: radish, mustard, lettuce, peas, wheat grass, sunflowers, arugula, chard. “Try it!” says my young guide, and we lean in to sample the watercress growing above the perch runs.
Growing Power is a nonprofit land trust organization on Milwaukee’s north side. Headed by Urban Farmer, Founder and CEO, Will Allen, Growing Power is the kind of place you need to see to believe. It’s more than a 2.5 acre urban farm in Milwaukee. It’s also a community force, an “ideas factory” expanding throughout the city and nation with a mission to create an ecologically sound and sustainable food-security, one community at a time. The organization has also proven to be a driving force in the National Farm to School Network, feeding 409,000 students across Chicago’s public schools last year.
Elizabeth Alexander‘s 2009 poem “Praise Song for the Day,” written for Barack Obama’s inauguration, captures the nuanced emotional task of simultaneously acknowledging a painful history of racial injustice, praising the progress that has been made, and confronting the work that still needs to be done:
We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.
In her 2015 memoir The Light of the World, Alexander turns her focus inward and attempts to make sense of her husband’s sudden death. As she says in this interview, the poet has a power and duty to reveal “undergirding truths” that can be complex and even contradictory.
As the United States stumbles through another election cycle, punctuated by tense and often reductive discussions of race and the economy, this poem by Langston Hughes is deeply resonant. Published in 1936, “Let America Be America Again” is a wrenching appeal for an ideal—”the dream the dreamers dreamed”—that has never been realized. Hughes voices multitudes in the poem, grounding Walt Whitman’s magnanimous embrace with the shared experience of the oppressed:
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek […]
Yet Hughes never loses sight of the hierarchy of suffering experienced by “the Negro, servant to you all.” “Let America Be America Again” is a poem that defines solidarity, and that ends in a note of defiant triumph, but will not admit to a unified country. 80 years later, as black communities in particular experience the ongoing legacies of inequality, Hughes’s message remains all too resonant.
In her book, Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors, geographer Carolyn Finney writes about the black experience of environmentalism in the U.S. She dismisses the idea that “black people don’t do nature.” We tend to understand natural areas like Yosemite or Yellowstone as “white spaces,” leaving black visitors to feel out of place—only seven percent of visitors to National Parks are black. In an interview with The Boston Globe, Finney discusses her own childhood and her family’s land stewardship to illustrate how conservation is so often an intimate practice of care that involves no more than a trip to the backyard. These kinds of stories of how black people engage with nature, Finney argues, are too readily overlooked and forgotten. She’ll visit UW-Madison in April, for Earth Day.
By far the most powerful thing to come across my desk this month was Beyoncé’s Formation, the song and music video she released on February 6, the day before she performed it live at the Superbowl. Both a celebration of black culture and form of protest, this song has become a rallying cry for action against interconnected forms of racial oppression—environmental, cultural, political, financial, patriarchal. The video seamlessly weaves together images and allusions to the Antebellum South, post-Katrina New Orleans (some borrowed from the documentary That B.E.A.T. about New Orleans Bounce music), and today’s Black Lives Matter movement, showing the inseparability of our country’s institutional denial of black humanity in the past and present. Since Katrina happened a decade ago, activists and scholars have noted that the destruction caused by the hurricane was in no way “natural”; the hurricane exposed longstanding inequity in the city, and the disproportionate burdens experienced by poor and black New Orleanians were the result of historical and systematic marginalization of African Americans. However, New Orleans is also a story of resilience, and Formation, with its arresting visuals, inescapable lyrics, millions of listeners, and call to “get in formation,” makes this point undeniable.