Reaching Sustainability Through Embracing Black Literature

By Claire Lustig, Alice West, Emily Bosworth, Chloe Dion, Emily Sneider

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, sustainability has three pillars. There is environmental sustainability—which seems to be the most obvious—along with economic sustainability and social sustainability. The EPA defines sustainability as “economic development with environmental protection and human well-being.” The EPA takes a dedicated stance on the environmental pillar of sustainability as well as having a small focus on the social pillar. However, there are other organizations that have different focuses and perspectives on sustainability. The United Nations Brundtland Commission defines sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The UN has a focus on keeping human society productive and safe for future generations while not risking the livelihood of people who are living now. This definition takes a more social approach to sustainability in contrast to the EPA. Through a comparison of the EPA’s stance on sustainability and the UN’s stance on sustainability, we can see that different people with motives and focuses have their own ideas of what sustainability means. 

Many people from different cultures around the world have a different focus on what sustainability means to them. For example, the Western world mainly focuses on economic sustainability. The culture is surrounded by expectations of consumerism and capitalism and ideals about how those two things are single-handedly responsible for the monetary success of the Western world. Unfortunately, this focus on economic sustainability puts the other two pillars of sustainability (social and environmental) in the background and at risk of being forgotten altogether. What we, as a humanity of people of different global cultures, need to recognize is that the ideal implementation of sustainability is one that combines all three pillars. As a collective, we should devise a plan of sustainability that puts emphasis on preserving the natural environment, ensuring that society is prosperous, and providing equitable opportunities for all citizens of society. 

Literature informed by Black Americans can give us a lot of insight into how to achieve this implementation of sustainability. Lucille Clifton’s poem titled “Generations” gives us insight into social sustainability. Leah Penniman’s book Farming While Black gives us a unique perspective on environmental sustainability. And Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man provides insight into economic sustainability. All three of these texts also provide insight into what happens when one pillar is favored over the others and the consequences that humanity faces. For generations, Black people around the globe have understood how to balance the three pillars of sustainability. They have instructed and educated the rest of the world on their ways through their literature. By looking to Black literature, readers gain a new angle on the various aspects of sustainability, how those aspects are presented in our world, and what we can do to improve all three pillars of sustainability simultaneously. 

As we focus on Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Ellison introduces the narrator as a nameless person influenced into involvement in the Liberty Paints company as a young male worker. The text asks us to consider the flawed objective that is deeply embedded in many industries and makes the system unsustainable. Ellison suggests there is an inseparable relationship between social and economic sustainability based on the culture cultivated within the workplace and throughout society. Our society favors those with opportunity or social capital even if they do not have pre-existing wealth or resources—those who tend to be White middle to upper-class workers. The layers of class and social position are found in the structure of the building. Though White workers are noted in Invisible Man as being those walking above ground, able to access their own agency, Black labor is not as easily visible if at all.

Regarding social implications, Ellison uses effective symbolism and figurative language about the object of their labor: the paint itself. The imagery of “Optic White” coincides with harmful ideas about purity as marked between paragraphs as “Keep America Pure” that is on Liberty Paint cans. It stands for a type of sought-out dominance that the company pushes for to, “make the best white paint in the world” (Ellison 168). The irony of the symbols is that in order for the paint to reach its brightest potential and desired effect, it depends on the bit of dope that the narrator is instructed to mix until the blackness disappears. The process could be an analogy for Blackness and Black labor as it is often discredited until it is completely unrecognized. It is revealed that the resume the narrator was handing out for possible employers was created to encourage said employers to just keep the man running in more vulgar terms. A sort of language that suggests capitalism solely reinforces Black people for what they have to give in a forced process that further isolates Black bodies. One of the very first things the superintendent says to the narrator is,  “Never mind how it looks. That’s my worry. You just do what you’re told and don’t try to think about it” (Ellison 155). Mr. Kimbro expresses no actual interest in the narrator but only cares about extracting the labor and products of his time spent. As it relates to our own world, the context makes us rethink how the same systems that supposedly keep us living “well” and what we “need” to survive hurt us. There is an assumption that the source of labor is endless and it is a dangerous idea to run under since it results in exhaust for workers and depletion of resources. 

Economic unsustainability appears in the need for constant production coming from a stable source—someone providing necessary, fundamental work much like Brockway does. Brockway’s efforts for some sort of respect and milder treatment shows how he is at the base of the company to ensure that the product is “sustained” yet he is at the lowest place in the company alienated away. The company’s strive for productivity and profit caused faults in worker energy and satisfaction, but depending on workers lives is unsustainable as they cannot go on forever. In Camille Dungy’s Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, June Jordan’s “For Alice Walker (a summertime tanka)” and Lucille Clifton’s “Generations” both preface the idea that as the years have passed, values of Black culture have undergone a similar loss.

Many Black authors present a deep connection to and respect for the natural world which is evident in their writing. The poetry anthology, Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, contains hundreds of examples of the relationship between Black authors and sustainability. One of the poems, “generations” by Lucille Clifton contains the line “People who are going to be in a few years the bottoms of trees bear a responsibility to something besides people…” This line supports the idea that people come from the ground and will once again return to the ground. Our lives are part of an ancient cycle of life that is bigger than ourselves. Clifton suggests that because of this, we as people have a duty to respect and recognize that we are simply a part of it. Alongside Clifton’s view that humans must do better at honoring our natural environment, she argues the institution of war makes it much more complex. “This business of war… [is] erasing those natural obedient generations who ignored pride…” Clifton argues that the constant fight over resources and land is not only damaging for both, but also damages the people themselves. How people used to carry on these sacred practices, but because of war, those people have been eliminated. “Generations” is a poem that describes the threat for future generations of people that stems from the disrespect of the natural world by current generations. 

Kwame Alexander’s poem “Life” is short yet extremely powerful. Alexander describes a scene of termites eating away at his home and his friends assuring him that “the good liberal ones were not involved.” Of course, the “termites” eating his home represent people with unsustainable habits who are slowly destroying the natural environment we live in with no regard for the lives of others. The tone of the poem suggests that the speaker does not believe what his friends say about the liberal termites not attacking his home. Alexander makes the claim that no matter what political view a person claims to take, they still need to be held responsible for keeping a sustainable lifestyle. Everyone, no matter their politics, needs to take action to progress sustainability and needs to be held responsible for when they are not living sustainable lifestyles. Kwame Alexander’s poem “Life” is a powerful reminder to readers that every individual and institution needs to be held equally liable for protecting the natural world and living sustainably. 

Leah Penniman touches on this idea of providing for the Earth in her book Farming While Black. Penniman talks about the importance of caring for and sustaining the environment, and in doing so, sustaining the soul and providing for others. The farmers’ relationship with the Earth is one that is a give and take, rather than one solely of taking without in turn, restoring. They prioritize caring for the Earth, because without a requited relationship with our home, “we may invite spiritual poverty, impairments to our physical and emotional well-being, or a sense of disconnection from our purpose” (Penniman 57). The farmers constantly give thanks to the spirits and the earth for providing them with their resources, as they treat the earth as though they are “guests and stewards on this Earth, not owners” (Penniman 54). Additionally, they touch upon the effect that caring for the Earth, or the lack thereof, has on environmental sustainability issues such as forest fires in California, stating that “it is scientifically justified to see rampant wildfires in California and devastating hurricanes of the South as a consequence of human disregard for the laws of nature, specifically, the balance of the carbon cycle.” (Penniman 57). This reading, Farming While Black teaches us that taking care of the environment is just as important and necessary as the resources that the environment provides for us. 

Our trip to the Heating Plant on SUNY Geneseo campus provided us with a similar lesson. In the Facilities Services Mission Statement, “the Heating Plant unit is charged with the responsibility of providing service utilities in an economic, efficient, safe and timely manner. These service utilities include high pressure steam, heating hot water, domestic water and natural gas. To ensure that we are able to meet our responsibilities, the Heating Plant unit in conjunction with both Facility Services and Environmental Health and Safety, have developed efficient customer service, maintenance and safety programs which allow the unit to maintain a user friendly, safe and clean work environment.” During our trip to the heating plant, we learned from Steve Morse, one of the Plant Utilities Engineers, about what it takes in order to keep the residents here safe, comfortable, and warm. The workers’ labor ensures hot water, warm rooms during cold nights, and prevention from explosions and other possible accidents from the machines necessary to make this possible. It is so easy to take for granted what is given to us, whether that be by the earth, or by those we can’t see working to benefit us. We wouldn’t have these necessities and privileges if it weren’t for those at the Heating Plant. The facility acts as a local reminder for us that embracing every pillar of sustainability is possible as they uphold the responsibility of energy conservation and consumption in an efficient manner and serving the people here well. 

These two experiences illuminate the complexity of sustainability issues because there are so many factors and consequences of prioritizing one aspect of sustainability over another. The farmers in Farming While Black contribute to the sustainability of the environment, by taking care of the soil and giving back to the Earth. They also are contributing to social sustainability, because through caring for the environment, in return, they are provided with healthy, natural food, and in the process, they feed their soul. However, the one pillar that the farmers don’t contribute to is economic sustainability, because although they are giving back to the Earth, they aren’t supporting the sustainability of the economy. Meanwhile, the heating plant improves social and economic aspects of sustainability, by providing for the people residing in Geneseo with warmth and protection, and provides for the economy because they use hot steam and natural gasses for heat which is cheaper than hot water. However, the heating plant lacks a benefit to the environment. Although the heating plant takes steps to ensure that their space is clean and safe, and although they are carbon neutral, they are not actively giving back to the environment. Therefore, the complexity of sustainability issues is emphasized through the fact that a good intended action could provide sustainability for one aspect of life but hinder a contribution to the sustainability of others. This also exemplifies the difficulty of providing for every pillar of sustainability and the importance of taking steps to provide for the sustainability of life. 

Literature and sustainability studies reflect and shed light on various areas pertaining to cultural practices, environmental issues, and societal interactions. In observing how literature in itself holds sustainable attributes, we can propose solutions for advocacy and change that could benefit the hierarchical paradigm of sustainability as well as further support literary studies of Black culture. The three pillars of sustainability work in their own unique ways of representing the pros and cons that have been created due to the preaching of sustainable practices. Specifically, the economic pillar raises multiple issues in society. The generational oppression of Black farming practices has had detrimental and long-lasting effects on our Earth. The destruction of the indigenous fertile soil and stripping it of its nurtured past reveals the recklessness of white colonists and their disregard for Black cultural environmentally sustainable practices in order to maintain a stable profit and economy. As discussed in the literature on Black agricultural practices, there is an emphasis on a spiritual connection to the Earth that is perceived as rewarding and nurturing. Perhaps, if we were to equally value the three pillars of sustainability then we would be able to reach a point where we can fully appreciate sustainable practices and where they came from. The importance of this topic goes far beyond practicing sustainable ways of living but rather puts emphasis on the generational issues found within social and economic systems. The various examples seen in the literature we’ve studied show us sustainability issues and its relation to systemic aspects of maintenance and respect. The complexity of sustainable practices is embedded in the generational beliefs of society, the roots of white power come from the oppression and labor endured by the Black community.

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