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.

Bad Faith in a Racialized World 

In light of Geraldine Heng’s The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages, the process and result of racialization emerges when we as a people culturally accept race as an important name to have. Heng notes its “repeating tendency” to shape what we hold selective importance for—in such a case it is human difference. As a system we are involved in whether innocently or not, we look at what this does for us as we consider others as well as ourselves. When we “essentialize” based on a quality, we choose to ignore the rest of what makes someone a person as we attribute said quality to their “absolute and fundamental” being. It becomes clear to us then how power is held through “practice and pressure” by those who present with a quality or imply a lacking of a quality. The concept of applying meaning generated from one’s position in a culture suggests that race is constructed, it falls upon people to sort them without ever having a meaning alone. And yet, we stay in the face of its consequences for how we’ve accentuated its meaning within relationships and institutions. Racialization as an experience done to others is brought to our attention throughout N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season

Notions of good or bad faith return to us in our discussion of Jemisin’s novel as the author incorporates the idea of racialization to convey how layers of structural and interpersonal experiences overlap. In the class notes from February 21st, Professor McCoy highlights Heng’s reference of race shows up with the “substantive content” that is the cultural script assumed in racialized societies. A society that we could draw upon is that of the novel, the Stillness, which orders its people into a handful of comms and use-castes among the Sanze—the nation that was founded before the events of the preface and forward. Of these use-castes or socialized groups, we are asked to closely analyze and read the encounters of orogeny and non-orogeny. 

As ultimately a metaphor for the world we find ourselves a part of, Jemisin asks readers to consider how the humanity of some is denied and even lost at the hands of systems that compose many of our current societies—how we are constantly implied in those systems regardless of our individual actions to reject it. Constantly on the edge of rift, the Stillness reminds us of the arbitrary systems that distribute power and privilege to some and keep it out of reach for others causing tension and a burden for those. Counter-intuitively, orogenes who are the only people that possess the ability to manage and control the energy of seismic events experience a loss of attributed power. The orogenes’ power becomes the presented quality in their racialization from the stills of the land; it then effects a “strategic essentialism” to this quality to induce the oppression we know the orogenes are subject to. 

The myth that lingers across their continent is frequently manipulated and managed out of well-intentioned acts and bad-faith. In more specific terms, the Stonelore that the children are conditioned to learn “in creche” brings about the belief that orogenes are to be feared and controlled if it were to be proven as truth (Jemisin 15). As I stated in Mini Collaboration One, even the possibility of what orogenes could do with their ability generates unfounded assumptions amongst the non-orogenes who then “rationalize to commit bad-faith practices,” including isolation and cruelty toward the orogenes. It is further addressed how these instances of intentional deception affect the orogenic youth. A complex system that contributes to this falsity is the Fulcrum as it facilitates orogeny legally to demonstrate that it is a trait that should only be managed and repressed. Mostly it is an institution that is rather “condemned by society,” but meant to operate the utility of orogeny for the rest of the Stillness (Dion). We see this motive to control the orogenes when Damaya is sent to the Fulcrum to become an Imperial Orogene as it is suggested in a transaction-like giving over of her, “[t]here she will be trained to use her curse. Her sacrifice, too, will make the world better” (Jemisin 24). The thought that the force that she will be subjected to during her time at the Fulcrum being portrayed as a sacrifice is misleading since it conveys a meaning that orogeny removes one’s humanity, so for the sake of others denying its quality is in good-faith. In this sense, we must look onto the text with a skeptic glare of how good-faith actions can fall into bad-faith ones as the myth and tradition claim it is necessary in order to stay in good-faith and to survive to then perpetuate the bad-faith purpose of these cultural scripts. 

The concept of possession of people and controlling them based on ideas of fear and antagonism flows with the myths people maintain to make sense of eclipses, resistant to accept scientifically accurate study for an accustomed cultural belief. I would suppose the faulty cycle of Sanze is most relevant to this incessant belief since the depths of its history are founded in its manipulation of power to dominate the Stillness using potent methods. The standard of the Sanzed being as well as the placement within the hierarchy is alluded to as it is recorded as a standalone comment, “Tell them they belong among us, no matter how we treat them. Tell them they must earn the respect which everyone else receives by default” (Jemisin 55). The line traces to the peritext dedicated to “those who have to fight for the respect that everyone else is given without question” (Jemisin 4). The emphasis of its reference makes us reconsider the people of our world that are immensely mistreated, yet fed this narrative that they should nevertheless try to abide by the system that promptly hurts and kills them senselessly. I could parallel this cruelty and falsehood with industries and complexes that build themselves on labor of disproportionately Black bodies. “Then they’ll break themselves trying for what they’ll never achieve,” feels as though a collision to everything that this same society has told the orogenes that they can hold the opportunities and free life the stills have just by breathing. The fate of how the people on the Stillness are racialized belongs in the hands of those with power; those in power form the representation of what is true or not leaving those not having power immobilized to free themselves or resist. Noticing this should make us critically attentive to how representation in society throughout history, oral teachings generationally, and literature even including The Broken Earth trilogy has a lasting influence on our involvement in these systems that reflect much of our own world—and its erasure of art as well as effacement of traditions and lessons that come from non-dominant cultures. 

Opening up this concept of working within the system involuntarily seeing as there isn’t much of a way out of it or to radicalize it, I wonder about the rest of the trilogy and our course. I have a hope for the novels to come as their very existence challenges a remark from Alabaster, “You can’t make anything better…The world is what it is. Unless you destroy it and start all over again, there’s no changing it” (Jemisin 270). As “strategic essentialisms” in a racialized society such as that of The Fifth Season work in bad-faith, those who are given power based on their lack of a quality actively disallow the agency of those with it. The context of a novel that is worth analyzing since we can relate its context to each of ours. For what is to come, it’ll of course continue to be significant to overlay texts and sources for how we interpret the meanings of racialization, myth, and scientific findings. Though I believe it’ll be even more important to recognize the position I take in the course as a reader, how we look upon what we read and conceptualize those experiences through the lens of our world.

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Call-and-Response: A Means to Resist Suffering

Toni Morrison once stated in an essay from Self-Regard, “Black Matters,” how inclusion within the traditional literary canon would open a world where “all of the interests are vested” (Morrison 170). In an essay, “Literature and Public Life,” thereafter Morrison says literature asks us to experience ourselves fully as “multidimensional persons” (Morrison 104). So we keep the thought in mind and when we read the words of W.E.B Du Bois and Bernice Johnson Reagon, it becomes clear to us how song as a method, in whatever form it takes, has been used to resist suffering. 

If we turn to Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois moves us through his commentary with paratextual music sections that flow easily with what he suggests on spiritual strivings. The speaker thinks of his experience in the shape of a vast veil as he is isolated from the rest, “[t]hen it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil” (Du Bois 738). A longing that is later presented as contempt for the White society on the other side, which fades into the realization that he and other Black youth are held down by the society. Du Bois goes on to discuss the two-ness of self concept for Black people, which causes them to constantly fluctuate between how they see themselves as White and Black society does. The inclusion of songs is used to introduce the tone of the experience that Du Bois is about to share. For instance, as we read aloud Symon’s poem/song, we hear the struggle and emotion associated with the time. Though, the repetition of mourning and ache in the outcry implies there isn’t much resolution to what is felt and endured, the idea that one can contend for freedom is a hope itself. 

In the class notes from February 12th, Professor McCoy reminds us that the “sorrow songs” as Du Bois calls them resemble Reagon’s “freedom songs,” of which the song leader says they are often about love and resistant effort, but as much about the internal process as the expression. In The Songs Are Free, Reagon suggests that there is a commitment that comes with the song that Black folks engage in as she represents the practice one does if they “start to run the sound through [their] body,” it goes separate from how they would decide it would, but it was that “[they] get together and sing to do this to the body.” A greater purpose in the sound is how to get to the act of singing. The singing belongs to you as much as it means to me and us. Yet Reagon doesn’t ignore a concern people have with the tradition’s future that figures without the song, Black narratives would not get to the next phase of society. It is then apparent how the song makes way for layers of experience and self-inquiry along with the embrace of a larger group. Reagon frequently refers to singing in the way that it nurtures the African American experience while it furthers reverence and gratitude for the life before us. When she says, “you cannot sing a song and not change your condition,” we are reminded of the significance of these spirituals as they adhere to the cultural “call” to alter what position they find themselves in. Reagon tells us of the world that resonates about “[Black people’s] specialness in the universe” when they have the access to their own voices. Often the most spirited thing to do in the face of violence and cruelty is provoking the structural powers that suppress one’s freedom, for demanding freedom is “the most-the highest risk” to have the chance of it. 

In these texts and others that have informed us of the African American literary tradition, we see references to Call-and-response; such a form that encourages a community by calling upon all people involved. The repetitive interaction emulates what we saw with African fractals, which were brought into effect by the “circular process…referred to as ‘recursion,’ a very powerful concept” (Eglash 17). A dimension of power found in the seed shape of song is its ability to affect the receiving end, partly depending on the singer’s knowledge of it or not; it has value that writers know their readers and listeners closely enough that it may be more than what they are aware of. Here, Gerard Genette’s notion of the paratext comes through as we unknowingly superimpose our own ideas of what song is and means, of what territory should be and conveys. Paratext assumes a process embedded in another —much like when we read, our own thoughts precede and interrupt the words, or lay underneath affecting us. The effect Reagon states in Nobody Knows the Trouble I See, is quite the intentional move of a writer, “[w]ithin African-American culture, there is a very high standard placed on the moment when one not only makes a solid statement of the song or the sermon, but the offering is given in one’s own signature” (Reagon 118). On that same note, in the interview with Reagon, she proposes that the exercise of song for the body is a part of the culture solely because the culture believes it is critical to being a developed person. Whether by personal and structural need, Black artists know how their work can be affective (felt) by employing the power of subtlety in other spoken word. And though the response is mostly expected, it is from this need that the call for it makes itself known to us. 

When we proceed to look for the importance of the seed shape within the literature, we find it right in front of us. It is the Call-and-response we are involved in by interacting with the texts. Seeing how said shape varies not just in its look, but also how it is read and iterated onto the next form challenged what I had thought about songs and more generally art in all of its purposes. Based on what is represented to us as an image of a repeated pattern, we see it as such and become accustomed to how it seems to be. So I’m left knowing that a handful of stories I may have encountered thus far and I tried to reach true understandings of were heavily influenced by who told me them regardless.

I mostly think about the saying that goes something like, if you want a new outcome, change the algorithm as well as Lauryn Hill’s speech from 2000 where she states to “think in doses, think in experiences, and don’t be afraid of experiences that teach you.” With the rest of our course, I want to test what I thought I knew about the literature alone, I want to test the understandings I currently have and had on narratives and movements within a story. I wonder about the ways in which Call-and-response could not just adhere to spoken or literary traditions, but also other traditions and forms within vast cultures we can learn from and almost infinitely.

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