African American Women and Earth-Honoring Faiths

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Melanie L. Harris
Ecology and Justice Series
  • Maryknoll, NY: 
    Orbis Books
    , September
     176 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


American environmentalism in the twenty-first century continues to be associated with the concerns of white people. In Ecowomanism: African American Women and Earth-Honoring Faiths, Melanie L. Harris offers an important contribution for understanding why that is. This bookoffers a fresh perspective on the ways that white supremacist thinking has been embedded in environmental history and discourse, and argues convincingly for what can be done about this problem. 

Harris is not the first person to argue that people of color are central figures in American environmental history (see, for example, the revisionist accounts of Robert Gottlieb and Carolyn Merchant). But Ecowomanism offers a distinctive approach, appealing to both the intellect and the emotions though a writing style that is simultaneously informative, poetic, and personal. A central goal is to deconstruct environmentalism by observing that “the environmental concerns and perspectives of women of color, specifically African and African American women, are not considered normative, and thus are not incorporated into the environmental movement’s framework” (45). Drawing examples from African American literature, history, and scholarship, in addition to her own family’s stories, Harris illustrates how these overlooked perspectives are central to environmental discourse and thought.

Ecowomanism, as Harris defines it, is an approach involving “reflexive and contemplative study of ecowisdom that is theorized, constructed, and practiced by women of African descent” (14). Harris offers a seven-step methodology for enacting ecowomanist analysis, and she explicates that approach as she models it throughout the seven chapters of the book. Ecowomanism opens with step one of the methodology, “honoring ecowomanist experience,” as Harris offers a poetic reflection on connections with the earth in her own family’s history. As the daughter of an avid gardener and granddaughter of black farmers, Harris offers her own ecomemories as an act of political resistance. “The metanarrative of environmental history is ill informed and malformed,” she writes, “in part because it does not include (and sometimes denies) the histories, presence, and contributions of people of color” (4). The stories of Harris’s ancestors, and the ecomemories of other writers that she discusses throughout the book, serve to “correct the lens of environmental history” (4). 

Of course African Americans’ relationships with the earth are often defined by oppression and hardship, not positive memories. Analysis of that complex relationship, which ecoliterary writer Kimberly Ruffin calls the “beauty to burden paradox,” shapes the second and third steps of Harris’ ecowomanist methodology: reflecting on experience and critically analyzing it through the lens of intersectionality. Ecowomanism also involves lifting up positive examples of African and African American women’s contributions to earth justice; engaging transformation through eco-spirituality and earth-honoring faiths; engaging in interreligious dialogue among ecowomanist thinkers, and taking concrete actions for earth justice. 

Just as Harris demonstrates the importance of African Americans within environmental history and thought, she also highlights the centrality of ecological wisdom within African and African American history and culture. Harris contends that the roots of African American environmentalism lie not in black agrarianism, as some other scholars have argued, but instead in African cosmology, which “connects the realms of spirit, nature, and humanity into one flowing web of life” (69). In defiance of the enduring assumption that people of color are too distracted by other social justice issues to care very much about the environment, Harris reframes the activism of Ida B. Wells, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., and other exemplars of African American prophetic justice as leaders in the struggle for earth justice. Moreover, she argues, earth justice is an important component of the Black Lives Matter movement. 

As I read Harris’s suggestion that African cosmology can promote “a kind of innate ethical message to care for the planet” (70), I began to wonder whether this outlook might represent a romanticization of an imagined African past. Harris raises this possibility herself a few pages later, citing the work of African traditional religion scholars who suggest that Western scholarship has misunderstood African cosmologies—and specifically how they might contribute to positive environmental ethics—in problematic ways. Harris emphasizes the diversity of outlooks among ecowomanists and ultimately rejects the prospect that ecowomanism entails romanticizing. But aware of that potential, she calls on ecowomanist thinkers to engage in self-reflection and critique to avoid that and other pitfalls as they construct ethics based on African history and worldviews. 

Harris’s Ecowomanism is an important contribution that has led me to completely rethink my approach to teaching courses on Religion and Ecology. Harris cautions against treating African American environmentalism as its own separate (seemingly less valuable) subfield, and instead calls on us to recover African American environmental history as a significant presence in the field (63).What if we discussed ecowomanism as the dominant perspective in courses on Religion and Ecology, and saved “mainstream” white, colonial perspectives for a unit on “other” voices? 

In the end, Harris simply wants to convince readers that “African and African American women’s voices, theories, and practices [are] valid forms of epistemology” (154). The fact that such a humble suggestion even needs to be made (she is not saying these voices are better than other discourses, but rather that they, too, are valid), underscores the long way that environmental discourses need to go to make ecological reparations and foster inclusivity. Ecowomanism offers an important contribution toward achieving those goals.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Amanda J. Baugh is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at California State University Northridge, and Director of the Program in Civic and Community Engagement. She is the author of God and the Green Divide: Religious Environmentalism in Black and White (University of California Press, 2016).

Date of Review: 
May 31, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Melanie L. Harris is professor of religion and ethics at Texas Christian Univer­sity, author of Gifts of Virtue, Alice Walker, and Womanist Ethics, and co-editor of Faith, Femi­nism and Scholarship (both Palgrave Macmillan). She holds a PhD. from Union Theological Semi­nary, New York.


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