Faculty Favorites: What to Read (and Watch) on Race & Place

black framed glasses resting on an open book, the pages show a map

Recent extreme climate events and crises once again reveal the racialized dimensions of environmental change. Forest fires in the Amazon have aggravated respiratory ailments among Indigenous populations. Heavy rains in Asia have caused hundreds of thousands of people to evacuate or relocate, dealing a devastating blow to communities who lack the resources to prepare for such disasters. Summer heat waves are becoming increasingly unbearable across the globe, and in the Mediterranean region, for example, it is refugees and migrants who are most at risk of dying from extreme heat.

How can we make sense of these stories of health disparities and socio-economic inequalities linked to climate change? How do people of color empower each other and organize in the face of unevenly distributed environmental harm? What new alternatives and futures are available? Edge Effects invited scholars from a range of fields to share with us environmental books and texts on the topic of “Race and Place” that they are most excited to teach in the new academic year.

Ariadne Collins, Lecturer in International Relations, University of St Andrews

The title "Decolonial Ecology" and author information on an abstract, warm-hued background

Recommendation: Decolonial Ecology: Thinking from the Caribbean World by Malcolm Ferdinand (Polity, 2022)

Malcom Ferdinand’s Decolonial Ecology is a must-read for any scholar interested in the interconnectedness of racial oppression and environmental disaster. While much has been written about decolonization from multiple places around the world, relatively little has been written on this topic from the geographic reference point of former French colonies. Ferdinand’s work brilliantly, and sometimes poetically, positions the Caribbean as lying in the eye of the storm and as firmly ensconced within what he refers to as “modernity’s hold.” He roots in colonialism what he refers to as the “double fracture” and identifies this fracture as continuing to separate those groups interested in racial equality from those interested in environmental justice. He proposes instead a decolonial ecology that “shatters the environmentalist framework for understanding the ecological crisis by including from the outset this confrontation with the world’s colonial fracture and by pointing to another genesis of ecological concern.”

Ann Elias, Professor in History and Theory of Contemporary Global Art Discipline of Art History, University of Sidney

Book cover of We Are the Ocean. On it there is a drawing of a reptile and plants as well as title of the book and the author.

Recommendation: We Are the Ocean: Selected Works by Epeli Hau‘ofa (University of Hawai’i Press, 2008)

Next semester, students taking my course, Planetary Art: Environment, Ecology, Nature, will read a collection of essays by Epeli Hau’Ofa titled We are the Ocean. Why? Because I want my students to gain insight into the way Pacific peoples inhabit and understand the three-dimensionality of the Pacific Ocean, not just the surface space of commerce and travel. I want them to know that in imagining and articulating the Pacific Ocean, non-Western maritime traditions, oral traditions, and Indigenous knowledge systems are central. I want them to read about people who “actually engage the ocean,” as Philip Steinberg and Kimberley Peters once phrased it. Hau’Ofa writes, “Before the advent of Europeans in our region, our cultures were truly oceanic in the sense that the sea barrier shielded us for millennia.” But today the diverse peoples of the Pacific Islands are suffering the injustices of the impact of colonialism on their traditional sea country, manifest in rising sea levels and ravaged oceans.

Hsuan Hsu, Professor of English, University of California, Davis

Portrait of a person whose head is leaning out of a window, with their eyes closed and their chin resting on their hands
air conditioner film poster

Recommendation: Air Conditioner, dir. by Fradique (2020)

I’m excited to teach Ar Condicionado (Air Conditioner) (2020), a film by the Angolan filmmaker Fradique, in which window air conditioner units have begun mysteriously falling from Luanda’s apartment buildings onto the streets below. The film’s magical realist situation calls attention to how air conditioning is distributed across geographies of class and race. This infrastructure creates conditions of sensory comfort and environmental detachment for some, while its emissions disproportionately affect poor and racialized populations worldwide. The plot focuses on two invisibilized workers who have been ordered to get their boss’s air conditioner repaired. What distinguishes the film, however, is its atmospheric depictions of unairconditioned people working, relaxing, supporting each other, remembering past intimacies with wind and plants, and dreaming of other spatial possibilities under conditions of extreme heat and precarity. I’m planning to teach this film along essays on thermal homogenization and violence by Eva Horn and Nicole Starosielski.

Carrie Mott, Assistant Professor of Geography, University of Louisville

Book cover of Bankers and Empire. The background is a black and white picture with a man in a white suit, standing in front of a building with the sign "International Banking Corporation"

Recommendation: Bankers and Empire: How Wall Street Colonized the Caribbean by Peter James Hudson (University of Chicago Press, 2017)

One of the books I’ve been most excited by recently is Peter James Hudson’s Bankers and Empire: How Wall Street Colonized the Caribbean. Through this book, we see how the modern banking industry was a by-product of colonial greed, setting the stage for patterns and practices that would shape finance and speculation for decades. Hudson shows the connections between finance capitalism and racial capitalism, and how dispossession in the US West and Caribbean contributed to massive wealth accumulation for some, as well as the subsequent expansion of the banking industry’s reckless practices. In addition to banking, Hudson looks to the built environment and other material practices where racialization and finance converge, such as in the architecture of bank buildings, and racist practices that were commonplace amongst bankers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It’s a very well-researched book. I particularly appreciated Hudson’s use of historical archives as the basis for the empirics.   

Rebecca Oh, Assistant Professor of English, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Book cover of Mexican Gothic. The background image features a woman in magenta dress.

Recommendation: Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Penguin Random House, 2021)

One of the most interesting ways to think about race and place is through infrastructure. I’ve begun some new research in this area and am very excited to be teaching a class on Genre and Infrastructure this fall. Infrastructure and genre, though very different, are both systems of connection and distribution that mediate our attention and are shaped by shared expectations. One of the novels we’ll be reading in class, Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, deploys the gothic genre to interrogate the racialization of place in Mexico. Mexican Gothic is, as its title implies, a modern gothic tale centered on the infrastructure of the house. Like most gothics, the deeper you dig the more is revealed; and in this case the house and its secrets becomes a way to uncover a temporal palimpsest of infrastructural domination in the form of silver mining and longer European colonialism in Mexico, all filtered through discourses of racial eugenics and patriarchal control. The infrastructural conventions of gothic—like locked doors and secret rooms—become a way to examine the continuity of, and anxieties around, racialized, colonial, and gendered history. It’s a very smart read, at times horrifying, and yet also playful, self-aware, and inviting. 

Celeste Winston, Assistant Professor of Geography and Urban Studies, Temple University

Book cover of Dear Science. The bottom half is in black, the top half features a photo of a view of ruins through windows.

Recommendation: Dear Science and Other Stories by Katherine McKittrick (Duke University Press, 2021)

I teach a graduate seminar called Black Geographies, which interrogates how anti-Black racism structures the world and centers Black knowledges, radical struggles, and everyday life practices as guides to reshaping a more just world. This fall, I look forward to discussing with students a new addition to my syllabus: Katherine McKittrick’s Dear Science and Other Stories. This book invites readers to take up methods that are rigorously undisciplined to draw paths between the world we live in now and a world free of oppression. McKittrick’s work offers an important reminder central to Black and abolition geographies: that liberation is not an abstract future horizon but, in fact, already exists in critical and provisional practices of Black life and placemaking. Dear Science and Other Stories is part of Duke University Press’s Errantries series, which includes Torin Monahan’s Crisis Vision: Race and the Cultural Production of Surveillance and my own forthcoming book How to Lose the Hounds: Maroon Geographies and a World beyond Policing.

Featured image: Glasses on an open map. Image by Pixbay, 2015.