December 17, 2017

President’s Address 2003

President’s Talk, delivered at ASEH conference, 2003

Citation: Carolyn Merchant, “Shades of Darkness: Race and Environmental History,” Environmental History 8 (July 2003).


Carolyn Merchant

Shades of Darkness: Race and Environmental History

IN THE HIDDEN WOUND, published in 1989, environmentalist Wendell Berry writes that “the psychic wound of racism has resulted inevitably in wounds in the land, the country itself.” When he began writing the book in 1968 during the civil rights movement, he tells us, “I was trying to establish the outlines of an understanding of myself, in regard to what was fated to be the continuing crisis of my life, the crisis of racial awareness.” Berry’s book is an effort to come to terms with the environmental history of race as reflected in his family’s history as slaveholders, in his own childhood on a Kentucky farm in the segregated South, and in his adult life as a conservationist and environmentalist. [1]

In recent years, environmental historians too have reflected on the crisis of racial awareness for the field and collectively have begun the process of writing an environmental history of race. The negative connections between wilderness and race, cities and race, toxics and race, and their reversal in environmental justice have been explored by numerous scholars who have analyzed the ideology and practice of environmental racism. Throughout the country many courses now include multicultural perspectives on the environment.2 We have learned important new ways to think about the relationship between race and environmental history. These include the following perspectives: [2]

  • Slavery and soil degradation are interlinked systems of exploitation, and deep-seated connections exist between the enslavement of human bodies and the enslavement of the land. Blacks resisted that enslavement in complex ways that maintained African culture and created unique African American ways of living on the land. [3]
  • Native Americans were removed from the lands they had managed for centuries, not only during settlement, as is well known, but during the creation of the national parks and national forests. Indians resisted these moves in an effort to maintain autonomy and access to resources.[4]
  • American Indians and African Americans perceived wilderness in ways that differed markedly from those of white Americans.[5]
  • A “coincidental order of injustice”—in Jeffrey Romm’s phrase—reigned in post-Civil War America as emancipated blacks in the South were expected to pay for land with wages at the same time that free lands taken from Indians were being promoted to whites via the Homestead Act and other land acts.[6]
  • African Americans bore the brunt of early forms of environmental pollution and disease as whites fled urban areas to the new streetcar suburbs. Black neighborhoods became toxic dumps and black bodies became toxic sites. Out of such experiences arose African American environmental activism in the Progressive Era and the environmental justice movement of the late twentieth century.[7]

President’s Address continued online in issue 8.3