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Ecology of the color line: race and nature in American literature, 1895-1941

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Title: Ecology of the color line: race and nature in American literature, 1895-1941
Author(s): Claborn, John
Director of Research: Rothberg, Michael P.
Doctoral Committee Chair(s): Maxwell, William J.; Rothberg, Michael P.
Doctoral Committee Member(s): Foote, Stephanie; Schaffner, Spencer
Department / Program: English
Discipline: English
Degree Granting Institution: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Degree: Ph.D.
Genre: Dissertation
Subject(s): American Literature 20th Century American Literature African American Literature Modernism Environmental Literature Ecocriticism Environmental History Environmentalism Race Ecology Nature Civil Rights Booker T. Washington W. E. B. Du Bois
Abstract: ABSTRACT In the Forethought to The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. Du Bois prophesied that the “problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the colour line.” A hundred years later, ecological crises join racial crises as perhaps the emergent problems of the twenty-first century. In Du Boisian spirit, my project explores how the color line and what I call the ecological line—the line that runs between humans and their environment—intersect. “Ecology of the Color Line: Race and Nature in American Literature, 1895-1941” reimagines many literary genres and critical disputes traditionally focalized through problematics of race and politics: the Washington—Du Bois debates on racial uplift, New Negro cultural nationalism, the Great Migration narrative, black Marxism, and ethnic proletarian literature. Employing methods of environmental historicism, archival research, and intersectional analysis, my project argues not only that intertwining racial and ecological problems erupted along the color line, but also that these problems form a constitutive element of our thinking about Race and politics in twentieth-century American literature. “Race and Nature” begins by reframing the famous Washington—Du Bois rift within the contexts of environmental history and the conservation movement. Chapter one, “Up from Nature: Ecological Agency as Racial Uplift in Working with the Hands,” argues that just as Washington’s second autobiography, Working with the Hands, is double-voiced for both white and black readers, so too does it speak within the dual temporalities of the post-Reconstruction New South and the longue durée of southern environmental history. This historical parallax reveals the text’s promotion of ecological agency—akin to that of colonial-era maroon communities—as occurring off the public grid and within what Monique Allewaert calls the “plantation zone.” Working with the Hands narrates this ecological agency in two ways: first, by scientifically detailing practices of soil conservation designed to restore sustainability (and profitability) to the soil; second, by representing the plantation zone as a black-nationalist space reconstructed through pastoral design and landscape architecture. This shift in reading Washington from social to environmental history—from racial uplift to ecological agency—makes him less accomodationist and more in line with the black radical tradition. Chapter two, “Du Bois at the Grand Canyon: National Parks and Double Consciousness in Darkwater,” focuses on how Du Bois works with and against the emerging conservation and wilderness preservation movements of the early twentieth century. My reading of Darkwater’s chapter “Of Beauty and Death” examines Du Bois’s juxtaposition of visits to national parks such as the Grand Canyon with anecdotes about life under Jim Crow, bringing double consciousness to bear on the history of conservation. Through montage and surrealist formal techniques, he uses Colonel Charles Young—the highest-ranking black military officer at the time and acting superintendent of Sequoia National Park in 1903—as a figure who embodies the intertwined histories of Jim Crow and conservation. For Du Bois, the national parks become an environmental correlative for integration and democratic pluralism, shifting “culture” and “nature” from oppositional to differentiated modern spaces. Moving beyond Du Bois and Washington to the cultural ingenuity of the Harlem Renaissance, chapter three, “The ‘Garden Queer’: Urban Nature and the Ghetto Pastoral in the Poetry of Anne Spencer and Claude McKay,” traces the garden-in-the-machine trope from Spencer’s poetry and McKay’s Spring in New Hampshire (the original version of Harlem Shadows) to the emergence of the multi-ethnic proletarian subgenre that Michael Denning identifies as the “ghetto pastoral.” This urban reversal of the antebellum trope that Leo Marx calls the “machine in the garden” gestures both towards a nostalgic past and a romantic revolutionary future. The “garden queer” of McKay’s 1932 short story “The Truant” and the Bronx Park excursion in Michael Gold’s 1930 Jews without Money show the trope’s continuing political evolution across migration narratives, Harlem Renaissance poetry, and ethnic proletarian literature. Connecting the Harlem Renaissance to natural history, chapter four, “The Crisis, Effie Lee Newsome, and the Politics of Nature,” focuses on Newsome, a Harlem Renaissance children’s poet who wrote scientifically about birds, in order to make a broader argument about the NAACP’s The Crisis and its 1920s engagement with conservation, natural sciences (e.g. biology), and other environmental themes. Newsome wrote on topics unusual—even radical—for African Americans at the time: birdwatching, entomology, ethology (animal psychology), and other forms of amateur nature study. What Barbara Foley would see as an “organic trope”—the yoking of nature imagery to black nationalism—I see as Newsome’s and The Crisis’ attempt both to refute eugenics as a pseudo-science and to substitute conservationist politics as a buoyant alternative to the burdens of the color-line problem. “From Black Marxism to Industrial Ecosystem: Racial and Ecological Crisis in William Attaway’s Blood on the Forge,” the final chapter, helps re-imagine the relation of African-American and working-class fiction to ecology. Typically framed as a black Marxist allegory or a Great Migration novel, Blood on the Forge complicates and radicalizes both by focalizing them through 1930s ecological problematics. The chapter situates the novel alongside a materialist paradigm shift in scientific ecology marked by A. G. Tansley’s introduction of the “ecosystem” concept. Attaway refracts the polluted Pittsburgh of 1919 through this shift, in the process linking ecological degradation to racial conflict, sexual violence, and exploitive labor policies. Finally, I argue that the character Smothers anticipates conservationist Aldo Leopold’s “land ethic,” though with a black Marxist twist, in ways that echo and signify on the ecological agency of Washington’s Working with the Hands. The dissertation’s epilogue centers on J. A. Rogers’s Nature Knows No Color-Line (1952), a study about racial mixing in world history that expands themes of race and nature to a more global context. By opening avenues for thinking about the role of environmental history, conservation, and scientific ecology in African-American writing, my project builds on the recovery and historical work of Brent Hayes Edwards, Barbara Foley, William J. Maxwell, and Cary Nelson. Their work sutures 1920s-1930s African-American writing to concepts of diaspora, and to the Communist Party and other Leftist pre-war radicalisms. My dissertation continues this trend in understanding African-American writing as politically and aesthetically pluralist. More broadly, “Race and Nature” helps deepen our understanding of the literature and culture of the civil rights and environmental movements in twentieth-century America.
Issue Date: 2012-09-18
URI: http://hdl.handle.net/2142/34582
Rights Information: Copyright 2012 John Claborn
Date Available in IDEALS: 2012-09-18
Date Deposited: 2012-08
 

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