Sustainability, Sankofa & Steps Toward Action

Cheyanne Carney, Francheska Colon, Josephine Lewis, McKinley Skala, & Susanna Dolan

Through our analysis of chapter ten Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and Leah Penniman’s Farming While Black chapters three and five, we uncover how the shared individual and systemic responsibility of everyone in society is important to sustain the world we live in. By playing our part in the three pillars of sustainability: social, environmental, and economic – we discussed how to maintain and balance sustainability once we find a way to achieve it after seeing a local example at the Geneseo heating plant. Using examples of African American oral and farming traditions, as well as the spirit of the African Sankofa bird, we further discuss how we as students at Geneseo can play our role in continuing our journey of learning and thinkING about what sustainability means and why it matters.

The Meaning of Sustainability

Sustainability is such a broad word without context; there is so much potential, but the world has to give it the fuel to be something bigger and better. Sustainability is not just one thing, it is very complex and has three pillars: social sustainability, environmental sustainability, economic sustainability; all a part of something bigger but not exactly the same. Social sustainability refers to humans and our health, resource opportunities, and how we educate our youth. Through this, we are attempting to maintain our way of life, our way of thinking as human beings. Economic sustainability refers to job creation, profitability, and the distribution and consumption of goods and services in our society. Here, we focus on what we can get from our environment and others in our society and how we can use these resources to build something for ourselves. Using the other aspects of sustainability, we can build our empire and survive within it. Environmental sustainability refers to our impact on natural resources, our compliance with the laws and regulations we have created regarding the environment, water and air quality, pollution, biodiversity, and the measures we take to protect wildlife and endangered species in our world. All of these pieces are individual, different from the others, and able to stand alone, however, they are interlaced and stand stronger together. It is important to note that true sustainability occurs only when all three pillars are balanced. It might seem pointless to have some aspects of sustainability met and not others because sustainability is not complete until all pillars are achieved and work together in balance. Sustainability is defined as the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level; avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance. 

What does sustainability possibly have to do with a literature class? There are many aspects of our lives that could connect to the literature we experience on a daily basis, including the overarching concept of authorship and ownership. Throughout our time together, especially at the beginning of the semester, we have discussed what authorship really means in literature and generally in our lives. In the Merriam-Webster dictionary, authorship is defined as “1) the profession of writing; 2) the source (such as the author) of a piece of writing, music, or art; 3) the state or act of writing, creating, or causing.” We had many conversations as a class about what can sway people’s opinions about true authorship. Does someone own the work they have written in its entirety, or do the editors and illustrators of the literature deserve authorship credit for the work that they contributed as well? There can be a lot of gray areas regarding authorship and what it means to truly own something. In terms of sustainability, ownership can apply to how humans view Earth. We do not own the planet no matter how much our actions might try to say otherwise. Earth is here to offer us a place to live, food to eat, and water to drink in return for protection and repayment of the resources we use. Chapters three and five in Farming While Black make the connection between Earth and the people that inhabit it in an endless spiritual exchange of give and take with resources and caregiving. We do not own the earth, but we do have an unspoken obligation to take care of it. To get us thinkING about this, some authors, like N.K. Jemisin write, at least partially, through the perspective lens of Earth as an active character with its own emotions and reasons for being. This allows readers an insider’s look at what the planet might be thinking and feeling when we treat it certain ways.

Ownership does not only pertain to environmental factors, it can also refer to Bernice Johnson Reagon’s idea of taking care of her songs by saying that they are free when in reality they are not licensed for sale. She took authorship over the songs she sang to the public and was accused of hypocrisy for not making them “free” like she stated they were. Taking ownership of the songs could allow Reagon to hold the meaning of the music close and safe until the audience was deemed ready to actually appreciate the songs, their historical importance, and the social necessity to keep their messages alive. The phrase that Bernice Johnson Reagon uses to describe the meaning of the songs is “the songs mean what they mean” which actually provides us with a good representation of her idea of ownership in regards to them.

Finally, we thought it was important to look back to when we learned about the African Sankofa bird and understand what happened in the past so that we can move forward together and make the changes needed to reach a state of true sustainability. Sankofa is a word in the Twi language of Ghana meaning “to retrieve” or “go back and get.” This idea of circling back with new information, making connections, and continuing to grow and move forward is the main idea of Sankofa and should be the ultimate goal when trying to reach true sustainability (all three pillars). We must revisit and learn from the past to avoid making the same errors in the future.

Invisible Possession

Throughout our course conversations, the discussion has continuously returned to concepts of possession. In one of our early classes, we read an excerpt from Suzan-Lori Parks The America Play and Other Works which provides the definition of “possession” as being “the holding or having of something as one’s own” (Parks, 3). With this definition in mind, it is interesting to see how elements of possession impact personal accountability when implementing sustainable practices that nourish the Earth, economy, and human spirit. Chapter ten of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man raises questions that help readers gain a better sense of their role in sustainable practices at the individual and systemic levels. 

In the chapter, the main character begins working at Liberty Paint, a company that bears the slogan, “Keep America Pure with Liberty Paints.” The company’s logo emphasizes purity with its signature color ‘Optic White’ which is attested to be the “purest white that can be found.” What the main character soon realizes is that the key to this pure white paint is a chemical referred to as ‘black dope’ that gives the paint its blinding white property. On his first day, our narrator is tasked with administering this dope to all of the paint buckets and while doing so questions his role in this task. At this moment, our narrator is taking on a role of personal responsibility by questioning the process that seems unscrupulous. When he asks his supervisor, Mr. Kimbro, about the process he is performing, the response he receives is, “That’s it. That’s all you have to do,” he said. “Never mind how it looks. That’s my worry. You just do what you’re told and don’t try to think about it.” Kimbro’s response releases our narrator from his moral dilemma by asserting that the paint-making procedure is a factory concern and the responsibility is held by Liberty Paint, not individuals. 

This interaction draws attention to practices of sustainability in relation to Earth, the economy, and the human spirit. In terms of Earth, it questions the ethical qualities of adding chemicals to paint. In relation to the economy, this scene illustrates how the ‘dope’ makes the paint whiter, which in turn makes the company more profitable. In a capitalist society, profitability may often take away from environmental or ethical concerns. In regard to the human spirit, this scene asks questions of ethics and individual accountability. Does Kimbro’s response change the sense of possession over sustainable practices within the plant? This scene asks readers to examine when individual responsibility ends and institutional responsibility begins as well as determine whether these two worlds are mutually exclusive. 

Thinking about this scene at a more figurative level, it is important to examine the question of what it means that the black chemical “dope” drops are covered up to create “pure” white paint? Throughout the chapter, there are indications that this scene is meant to symbolize the somatic norm of whiteness and how different groups of people are often compelled to live up to white standards and societal norms. One example of this is found in the character of Mr. Brockway who was the only one who knew how all of the machines in the paint factory functioned. If he were unable to come in, the factory would not function in the same way. When talking to the narrator, Mr. Brockway states “They thinks ’cause everything down here is done by machinery, that’s all there is to it. They crazy! Ain’t a continental thing that happens down here that ain’t as iffen I done put my black hands into it!” In this assertion, the author once again draws attention to the fact that creating Optic White paint would be impossible without the work of Mr. Brockway who is one of the very few people of color working in the factory. Mr. Brockway is more valuable to the company than many of the younger white workers, but he is paid incredibly low wages and forced to endure terrible conditions. 

Although Mr. Brockway does not literally possess the deed to the company, his knowledge of and function within the factory makes it his possession. This factory model is unsustainable because Mr. Brockway is the only one who knows the system. This chapter creates room for critical conversations about personal responsibility and accountability within the workplace. It also draws attention to the somatic norm of whiteness and the enduring power that this has within society. 

The Power of the Individual 

The power of the individual is essential in the progression of the future. This surely applies to how we view individual responsibility in regards to maintaining a sustainable world. One individual who has pioneered the concept known as intersectional environmentalism is Leah Thomas. The concept of intersectional environmentalism is a broad-based form of environmentalism that argues for the protection of both people and the environment. It analyzes the manner in which injustices against marginalized populations and the environment are linked. It puts to light injustices against the most vulnerable groups and the environment, rather than minimizing or silencing socioeconomic inequalities. This is similar to the Black civil rights leader Benjamin Chavis noted in relation to the definition of environmental racism. He stated that racial discrimination is engraved in environmental policy-making, regulation, and law enforcement. It intentionally targets communities of color through toxic waste facilities, official sanctioning of the life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in their communities, and a history of excluding people of color from ecology movement leadership. Furthermore, Thomas was influenced by Kimberlé Crenshaw’s term of intersectionality. The word was coined to describe the oppression of African American women in the feminist movement. In simplest terms, it demonstrates how feminism does not recognize the reality that women come from diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, abilities, and sexualities, among other things. It further favors the demands of those who are white, middle-class, heterosexual, cisgender, and able-bodied.

Leah Thomas is the founder of Intersectional Environmentalist (IE). This is a platform that focuses on the climate justice community and resource hub centered on BIPOC and historically under-represented environmental voices. Here they promote collaboration, accessible educational resources, and connect people to other organizations. For example, IE connected with Allbirds to create a series of workshops and videos that presented ideas on how to address climate change. This collaboration included a series of posters commissioned by IE artists that were shown in towns around the United States, as well as IGTVs that featured IE council members addressing significant environmental legislation. Leah Thomas, the creator of IE, thought that individuals had the potential to address these challenges that impact people all around the world in various ways. Thomas is only one person who has reached out to thousands of people and created an organization that may assist those in need and those who want to donate to this cause.

Multiple Perspectives

The class toured the Geneseo heating plant unit in order to understand the difficult and time-consuming efforts that go on behind closed doors to secure a better perspective of the deeper meaning of sustainability. A few of the many significant responsibilities that staff members of the campus heating plant at Geneseo take on include overseeing the energy management system, evaluating combustion efficiencies, analyzing chemicals, and responding to maintenance situations. 

The class was invited into a whole new world of knowledge with the help of two passionate staff members of the heating plant: Mr. Morse and Mr. Schunk. Both Mr. Morse and Mr. Schunk spoke with a great deal of excitement as they shared their essential work with the class. There was a distinct gap of knowledge and experience between the staff members and the class as sustainability, heating, and cooling jargon was included in the conversations as well as explanations of how the unit functioned. An overall key takeaway from this illuminating opportunity was the fact that we outsiders knew such little information pertaining to a system that so greatly impacts our lives. There is such an immense amount of detail and technique behind this cyclical process of heating and cooling. 

With the help of her book, Farming While Black, Leah Penniman offers her readers her unique perspective on the process of farming and her thoughtful insights on social issues such as racism and food access. Penniman emphasizes the importance behind the reciprocity between the Earth and the human beings inhabiting it. In order to produce effective and long-lasting change, we must work towards “economic justice, social welfare, and environmental justice” (chapter 3, page 54). Sustainability is merely an idea, which means that human beings must take responsibility for their actions and work hard to make positive changes within their world and the people around them. Consequences of taking from the Earth without giving back include the possibilities of “spiritual poverty, impairments to our physical and emotional well-being, or a sense of disconnection from our purpose” (chapter 3, page 57).

Real-World Application

Through our understanding of sustainability and how both individual and institutional structures work to maintain it, conversations on the continuity of African American culture can be revealed. As seen through the survival of Black oral and farming traditions, the African American community has mastered how to keep their practices alive. As symbolized by the African Sankofa bird, in order to move forward, you have to go back and retrieve what you can from the past. This spirit is emphasized when African Americans refer to the traditions and practices of their predecessors as guidance on what to do in the present and future. 

For example, as explained in Farming While Black by Leah Penniman, the spiritual practices at Soul Fire Farm are informed by their lineages and nature-based religion (p. 54). By connecting the social pillar of sustainability of their religion and community, Black farmers can work together to take care of the Earth. This practice of farming further helps them balance the environmental and economic aspects of sustainability as well. This same cyclical process can be seen in Black oral traditions. If not for the preservation of the songs, enslaved narratives, and stories of African Americans created during slavery, Black writers today would not have the work of their ancestors to draw inspiration from.

This carrying on and evolving of ideas of African Americans has been threatened throughout our nation’s history. Despite the institutional structures of slavery, police brutality, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration, the Black community has continued to thrive. This is necessary to mention because addressing one pillar at the expense of the other pillars will not lead to a balanced, sustainable future. Without the support of equitable organizations and various groups of allies, African Americans can not be socially sustainable. 

Notably, we can carry out this responsibility of balanced sustainability as students at SUNY Geneseo. As seen on the college’s website, Geneseo defines sustainability using the following United Nations definition: “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Through learning how to be an ally to our Black peers through our journey towards belonging or our heating plant recycling water and using steam power, the Geneseo community can work together to balance all three pillars of sustainability. Therefore, through the obvious connections between the three pillars of sustainability of Black culture and the overall sustainability of the Earth, we can continue to educate ourselves and others to change our practices for the better in the future. 

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