The Covering of History: The Implications of The Past on an Unsustainable Future

By: Nicole Malley, Catie Prospero Mcguire, Makel Harris, Hailey Luczak, Victoria Slade, and Jordan Wilson

According to the United Nations, sustainability is defined as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Sustainability can be broken up into three pillars: environmental, social, and economic. Environmental sustainability is the most well-known and refers to conservation of the Earth’s natural resources and preservation of nature. Social sustainability is the creation and maintenance of social structures that provide for the well-being, equality, and stability of the community. Economic sustainability refers to economic gain without negatively impacting social, physical, and environmental well-being.

Sustainability is capable of manifesting outside of these pillars. Sustainability in literature applies to recycling ideas within a piece of text. Written work can also be used to convey ideas, practices, or critiques of sustainable or unsustainable practices (weather, environmental, social, or economic). The book Literature and Sustainability: Concept, Text, and Culture discusses the process of using literature to write about sustainability. “Literature might equally, we would argue, provide a space in which to explore the complexity of sustainability as an ongoing, never fulfilled aspiration, or the difficulties of attaining a sustainable world, or the nuances and dimensions of the unsustainable.” When authors attempt to tackle a concept such as sustainability in their works, they may find themselves realizing that sustainability cannot be 100% achieved. There is always something that can be improved and when one issue is solved there is always another problem buried beneath. That being said, this does not stop authors from writing about the problems with unsustainability in our world. Authors like Ralph Ellison call attention to the unsustainable social structures of racism as well as the harmful intertwined economic and environmental practices through use of a metaphor. 

The importance of sustainability, although the two may not seem connected, proves its relevance throughout African American literature in many ways. Authors write about the problems during their lifetimes that can help lead to a more sustainable world, although this battle is never-ending. In works such as “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, sustainability is shown to be a major issue that impacts society socially, economically, and environmentally. Ellison draws attention to the systematic issues present in the Liberty Paint Factory by bringing attention to social sustainability by writing aboutyoung, black college students who are used for cheap labor. The Liberty Paint Factory uses “optic white” paint as a metaphor for covering up Black history, due to its use being primarily government buildings. The use of black chemical drops called dope is combined with the paint to create “pure white.” The irony of the “pure” white paint, is that it’s not pure white. The black dope is essential in its creation, yet it is hidden and masked in the same way that the government masks Black history. Ellison wrote, “Struggling to remove an especially difficult cover, I wondered if the same Liberty paint was used on the campus, or if this ‘Optic White’ was something made exclusively for the government.” (Ellison 4). This is Ellison’s way of bringing attention to the fact that America is haunted by a history of slavery, and the paint is a representation of the government’s attempt to cover up the wrongdoings.

This idea of covering up slavery is something that we see as terrible and is in essence turning a blind eye to the true history upon which America has been built. Environmental sustainability is becoming a more and more important issue, and there is a growing fear that this destruction of the environment is going to lead to a similar destruction of history. The poem Life by KwameAlexander, approaches the idea of displacement, “This morning / I woke to find / termites / eating away / at my home … / my friends / assured me that / the good/liberal ones / were not involved” (Alexander). The termites can be read as a reflective metaphor of real people. It is humans who are destroying the earth and the land. But this blame is absolved, and the narrator ignores it, placing responsibility on the conservative termites making them the only ones at fault. Meanwhile, the real consequences of the destruction of his home.

This home could have multiple interpretations, one being the idea of “home” as a reference to land; the destruction of land. Ironically, the narrator pays more attention to the political-social world than the consequences of his home being destroyed. The narrator disregards the reality of the situation, the destruction of the land. They will be displaced, losing connection with the land. This could be reflective of practices that have, and continue to dispose of indigenous persons from their land. America has a past of covering up indigenous history, especially dispossession. On the Geneseo campus, the Treaty of Big Tree, in which the Seneca Nation signed over the land of the Seneca Valley to the United States. Now, where this treaty was signed, is a parking lot. The college does not recognize or educate about the history of this land, as close and significant as it is to this community and history. 

This forced removal leads to both a historical and spiritual disconnection from the land. In Farming While Black, Leah Penniman addressed the audience with the statement “In African Cosmology… there is no separation between the sacred and the everyday… Each spring before breaking the ground… we ask permission from the Spirit of the Land and make offerings of gratitude.” (Penniman 53)” There is a respectful relationship between people and the land because of this cultural connection. Penniman also addresses the history of racism (and possibly alludes to slavery) which forced both black and indigenous people to move out of the South, resulting in a spiritual disconnect as they were forced from their land, “I believe that in our exile from the red clays of the South to the paved streets of the West and North, we left behind a little piece of our souls. Forced by structural racism into overcrowded and under-resourced urban neighborhoods.” (Penniman 58) This narrative explains the large disconnect that occurred between the land and the people who inhabit it. By destroying the respectful spiritual relationship that there once was between nature and people, the relationship now consists of taking from the land without giving anything back. This is present due to the lack of respect seen in the modern day. This selfish relationship has devastating effects on the environment. 

On the SUNY Geneseo campus there exists a place called the heating plant. The heating plant is a predominantly steam powered highly efficient plant that provides heating for all the buildings on campus. Even as a “highly efficient” system, the heating plant consumes hundreds of gallons of water a day, and during the colder months or emergencies, the boilers run on fossil fuels. This plant relies on finite natural resources extracted from the environment, but their extraction has detrimental effects on the surrounding ecosystems and communities. There is a lack of awareness, from both the staff and the students, of the process occurring in this building on campus. It is easier to abuse natural resources if people don’t know where they’re coming from. There is no spiritual connection or recognized importance of the land, which helps justify the harm done.  

There is widespread unawareness on the campus. Students are ignorant of how the land is being used where the heat is coming from, and the unsustainable ways in which the buildings on our campus are heated. Furthermore, we are unaware of the land’s history. This obliviousness about history connects back to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and the use of optic white paint to symbolically cover up history. By hiding history, we are allowed to ignore the important interlocking issues that exist in our world. A history of dispossession of land, spiritual disconnection, and racism are all relevant when discussing sustainability, whether that be social, economic, or environmental. Issues of unsustainable practices are deeply rooted in the past. By covering up this history, people are ill-equipped to confront, much less attempt to fix/set right, the complex web of social, economic, and environmental problems. 

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