Race, Nature, and W.E.B. Du Bois

Thomas Moran, The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, 1904. (Source: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

By John R. Eperjesi

Trees? American trees had ropes in them.
–Ed Roberson

Outdoor Afro is a national non-profit organization that uses things like canoe paddles, hiking poles, and tents to help break down the racist stereotype in American culture that says that Black people don’t enjoy the great outdoors. This stereotype was routinely proved false every time Christian Cooper, an amateur birdwatcher, entered the Ramble in Central Park to pursue his passion.

And yet, if some African Americans are hesitant to enter nature, whether it be in the form of a local urban park, the remote wilderness, or some place in between, Mr. Cooper’s encounter with Amy Cooper, who called the police and told them that an African American man was threatening her, when in fact he had simply asked her to follow the park rules and leash her dog, reveals why such hesitation can often function as a survival strategy.

Christian Cooper was ambushed by Amy Cooper, who used her white damsel-in-distressness as a means of enlisting potential state violence against him. False reports of white women being assaulted by Black men, or boys, have resulted in countless acts of racist terror, two of the most glaring examples being the Tulsa Race Massacre (1921) and the horrific murder of 14 year-old Emmett Till (1955). This was no idle threat.

Rob Nixon, a professor of the environmental humanities at Princeton, provides a wide historical frame for thinking about Amy Cooper’s ambush of a Black birder in the Ramble:

Decades after official segregation was outlawed, many African Americans feel shadowed by a history of rural ambush, violence, and terror that retains a visceral, bodily tenacity. Historically, the great outdoors were not so great. [1]

In “Birding While Black,” J. Drew Lanham, a Distinguished Alumni Professor of Wildlife Ecology at Clemson University, vividly describes this shadow, which followed him as he did volunteer work for the Laurel Falls Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) route, which involved recording every bird he could see or hear in three minute intervals, data which helps ornithologists gauge the health of bird populations.

On the one hand, birdwatching gives Lanham deep visceral pleasure:

The scenery seemed worth the work. For good portions of the route the Blue Ridge Mountains crest the horizon. Birding in and out of open land and forests, with field sparrows bouncing songs off the broom sedge at one stop and hooded warblers blasting from a laurel-cloaked cove at the next, I sometimes have to pinch myself. Stop number twenty-four, beside an old apple orchard, is spectacular. Warbling blue grosbeaks, buzzing prairie warblers, and chattering yellow-breasted chats usually make the three minutes go by quickly. Earlier, when a lone bobwhite called from somewhere in the tangle of weeds and brush, I’d taken it as good omen for the day. [2]

But at the same time, as Lanham moves in an out of open land and forests, the shadow Nixon describes is never far behind, and occasionally speaks through the haunting voice of Billie Holiday:

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees [3]

The conflict between a Black person’s desire to enjoy the physical, psychological, and spiritual benefits of nature, and the history of racist terror that haunts rural and wilderness areas, not to mention urban parks, was confronted head-on by one of the greatest American nature writers you’ve never heard of: W.E.B. Du Bois.

De Bois' book

Of course, Du Bois was one of the most important and well-known sociologists, historians, and civil rights/peace activists of the twentieth century, but he is seldom included in nature writing “best of” lists, and his name cannot usually be found on environmental literature syllabi alongside canonical figures like Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, or Gary Snyder. But a lot of things are changing right now, so perhaps this is the time to more aggressively, and more publicly, expand and diversify the canon of nature writing. Du Bois’s essay “Of Beauty and Death” provides a great starting point.

“Of Beauty and Death” appears toward the end of Du Bois’s semi-autobiographical book, Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil, which was published in 1920 just as the Spanish flu was winding down and the Jazz Age was heating up. While this period is fondly remembered as the foxtrotting “Roaring Twenties,” we should also remember that the decade began with the Tulsa Race Massacre, in which roaring fires set by white rioters destroyed black businesses and homes in the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma, aka “Black Wall Street,” killing hundreds of Black people and leaving over 10,000 homeless. The sardonic Jazz Age anthem, “Ain’t We Got Fun,” rings somewhat hollow when heard in this context.

In the essay, Du Bois recounts an epic, seven thousand mile road trip across the United States, which took him from the Rocky Mountains to Maine’s Acadia National Park. Like Thoreau and Muir before him, Du Bois’s ecstatic descriptions of mountains, seas, islands, coastlines, clouds, and trees are filled with the promise of redemption and rebirth. Du Bois discovered the sacred “glory of physical nature” at Bar Harbor:

God molded his world largely and mightily off this marvelous coast and meant that in the tired days of life men should come and worship here and renew their spirit. [4]

The Church of the Wild does not discriminate—all are welcome. The problem for African Americans was not one of faith, but the more basic problem of transportation, of getting to Church. Du Bois recalls sitting in a southern home with a racially mixed group of friends, and wonders:

Why do not those who are scarred in the world’s battle and hurt by its hardness travel to these places of beauty and drown themselves in the utter joy of life?

“I should think you would like to travel,” said the white one.

Du Bois responds to the white one by describing in vivid detail all of the places a Black person must first pass through in order to travel to places of beauty: the Jim Crow ticket booth where they are overcharged; the Jim Crow waiting room which has no heat in winter and no air in summer; the Jim Crow train car which is exposed to rain, sun, and dust. Hateful looks and rude treatment by white passengers, no restaurants to eat in, and don’t even mention the toilets reserved for Black passengers. Travel for Black people in Jim Crow America does not lead to the utter joy of life, but to the opposite, despair and anger at the hatefulness of racial prejudice and the “petty, horrible snarl of its putrid threads.”

Throughout the essay, Du Bois juxtaposes the ugliness and violence of Jim Crow America with the beauty and glory of physical nature. His epic road trip culminates with a rapturous description of the “one thing that lived and will live eternal in my soul”—the Grand Canyon. The Grand Canyon was etched in the American imagination by Hudson River School painter Thomas Moran, whose paintings were included in the report that led to the creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872, the first national park in the United States.

One mission of the national park was to give visitors the experience of uninhabited, sublime wilderness. In order to create this experience, Indigenous peoples had to be removed from their homes and from the land. After the Civil War, it was believed that national parks, cleansed of natives, would help reunify the nation, both geographically and culturally [5].

In his descriptions of the Grand Canyon, Du Bois invokes the imagery and emotions associated with the sublime. For the Irish philosopher Edmund Burke, the sublime was opposed to the beautiful. Unlike places such as gardens or pastures, which are ordered and tranquil, the sublime can be found in the chaos of jagged mountains or steep-sided canyons. Whereas the beautiful creates pleasant feelings, the sublime is “dark, uncertain, and confused,” and leads to feelings of horror or terror.

In his description of the Grand Canyon, Du Bois summons the sublime when he writes:

It is a sudden void in the bosom of the earth, down to its entrails—a wound where the dull titanic knife has turned and twisted in the hole, leaving its edges livid, scarred, jagged, and pulsing over the white, and red, and purple of its mighty flesh, while down below—down, down below, in black and severed vein, boils the dull and sullen flood of the Colorado.

Du Bois racializes sublime imagery so that the Grand Canyon becomes the flesh of a body violently torn open by a knife and left bleeding, reminding readers of the Black bodies torn open by the lynchings and massacres that pervaded the United States from slavery days through Jim Crow.

Du Bois uses the rhetoric of the sublime to comment on racist hate in America, but at the same time finds hope in the subtle variety of colors that play on the rocks in the morning:

It is not red, and blue, and green, but, ah! the shadows and the shades of all the world, glad colorings touched with a hesitant spiritual delicacy.

Summarizing Du Bois’s descriptions of the Grand Canyon, John Claborn, a senior lecturer in the English Department at the University of Illinois, writes:

Rather than cover over the trauma of civil war, Du Bois seeks to expose it by de-naturalizing segregation and naturalizing integration in defiance of Jim Crow and early environmentalist discourse. [6]

The euphoric vision of integration that Du Bois saw at play on the canyon walls has yet to be naturalized in the United States. There may not be segregated waiting rooms and toilets any more, but from housing to education, at the start of the third decade of the twenty-first century, the United States is more segregated than ever. The hopeful images of integration that Du Bois found at the Grand Canyon have still not been realized.

Education about and access to nature is also segregated, and one sign of white privilege is the unquestioned assumption that access to nature is universal and distributed equally. Lanham provides one solution to this problem, a solution that Outdoor Afro is also working towards:

Get more people of color “out there.” Turn oddities into commonplace. The presence of more black birders, wildlife biologists, hunters, hikers, and fisherfolk will say to others that we, too, appreciate the warble of a summer tanager, the incredible instincts of a whitetail buck, and the sound of wind in the tall pines. Our responsibility is to pass something on to those coming after. As young people of color reconnect with what so many of their ancestors knew—that our connections to the land run deep, like the taproots of mighty oaks; that the land renews and sustains us—maybe things will begin to change.

But the desire to get “out there” is complicated by the fact that the “history of rural ambush, violence, and terror” is far from over. Vauhxx Booker, an activist and member of the Monroe County Human Rights Commission, discovered this when he and some friends walked through a park to see the lunar eclipse at Lake Monroe near Bloomington, Indiana, and was almost lynched. This happened on 4 July 2020—“Independence Day.”

American trees still have ropes in them.

Scholars working in the fields of ecocriticism and the environmental humanities have been working to diversify syllabi and the archives of nature writing and environmental art for a while now. For an extensive collection of resources that look at nature writing and environmental art from the perspective of race, see Dr. April Anson’s “Race and Nature, resources.”

[1] Rob Nixon, “Barrier Beach,” in The Oxford Handbook of Ecocriticism, ed. Greg Garrard (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 562.

[2] J. Drew Lanham, “Birding While Black,” Literary Hub, 22 September 2016, an excerpt from The Home Place: A Colored Man’s Love Affair With Nature (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2016).

[3] Billie Holiday, “Strange Fruit” (Commodore 1939), lyrics by Abel Meeropol.

[4] W.E.B Du Bois, “Of Beauty and Death,” in Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil (Verso, 2016). Also available as a free ebook from Project Gutenberg.

[5] See Richard Grusin, Culture, Technology, and the Creation of America’s National Parks (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

[6] John Claborn, “W.E.B. Du Bois at the Grand Canyon: Nature, History, and Race in Darkwater,” in The Oxford Handbook of Ecocriticism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 123.

Featured image: Thomas Moran, The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Oil on canvas, 96.5 x 163.3. Smithsonian American Art Museum. Gift of George G. Pratt.

John R. Eperjesi is an Associate Professor in the Department of English Linguistics and Literature at Kyung Hee University in Seoul.

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