Kimberly N. Ruffin

INTERVIEW

Driving Home The Point: A Closer Look at African American Eco-Literature
Jennifer-Crystal Johnson
phati’tude Literary Magazine, Vol. 3, No. 1

IN THE VAST REALM OF NATURE WRITING — nonfiction writing with a focus on nature and the environment – the contributions of writers of color have been overlooked. However, these points-of-view have the potential to widen the breadth of eco-criticism and environmental writings. With African-American nature writing being such a rarely noticed art form, it has come to the attention of several scholars and organizations that American culture needs to be more informed, open, and accepting of nature writing by African-Americans in the present as well as in the past. Because there have been so many Caucasian writers and poets in the Eco-literature genre, African-Americans have often felt alienated from nature, perceiving an invisible division between their culture and nature.

Though Black on Earth, Kimberly Ruffin’s examination on African American ecological insights isn’t the first book of its kind, it most definitely is an enjoyable read as well as an educational and balanced book about the area of Black nature writing and how people as a whole can come together with nature as opposed to constantly feeling a rift between different cultures.

The lack of Black nature writing was first brought to people’s attention by ASLE, the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment, in 1997 at their conference, reinforcing an MLA session presentation originally given in 1994 by Paul Tidwell.

Reiterating the fact that we need to broaden our horizons and go beyond the nature writing of white people, the conference started a movement to seize the attention of Eco-literature and its followers as well as opening the door for African-American nature writers, both past and present, to be heard. This had an immediate reaction, leading to the publication of several books. Kimberly N. Ruffin’s book Black on Earth is one of these works.

Interested in the topic, we decided to get in touch with Kimberly Ruffin and ask her about her motivation, drive, and hopes for the book as well as for the future of Eco-literature. Her responses were intriguing, just as her book was (please see review on p. 18).

Kimberly N. Ruffin is an Associate Professor of English and Interim Associate Provost for Research and Graduate Studies at Roosevelt University. Her courses often focus on ecology and global literature and culture.  She was recently elected to the Executive Council of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment and also serves on the administrative board for ASLE, the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment.  Her writing has also appeared in Land and Power: Sustainable Agriculture and African Americans, Black Geographies and the Politics of Place, African-American Review, MELUS, Obsidian III, and Green Horizon Magazine. Among her favorite pastimes are bicycling, birding, and gardening.

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In your book Black on Earth, you go into some detail about humanity as a whole needing to acknowledge that there is a problem before that problem can be worked through and solved. To me, this runs hand-in-hand with individual people taking responsibility for their own actions as well as the collective taking responsibility and trying to work through issues to help make things better. When dealing with people, there is always a difference in opinion – do you think it’s possible for humanity to have more respect for each other and face their problems head-on in the near future? Are there any recent events that help support your analysis?

Yes, I do think it’s possible.  More recently, the election of a Black (biracial) man to the presidency of the United States of America demonstrates the ability of human beings to move beyond incredibly destructive ideology and public policy that continue to marginalize people of African descent.  There is still far to go in dismantling the impact of racism, but this event was a significant example of how far we’ve come.

It has often been said that bad things, events, or feelings help us to see the good things, events, or feelings because of the contrast between the two. Clearly there is a connection to the phrase you use in your book: “. . . ecological burden-and-beauty paradox.” How do you think this philosophy is perceived by African Americans today?

For some African-Americans that I talk to, it seems that the ecological burden side of the paradox looms larger than ecological beauty.  I find that many of them feel alienated from ecological issues.  Because it is so easy to focus on the ways African-Americans’ relationship to non-human nature (and even to other human beings) has been endangered by institutional and individual racism, I understand this position.  Yet, there are also many examples of Black people who make it their business to enjoy ecological beauty (e.g.  landscaping/gardening/farming & outdoor recreation) and fight for environmental justice.  An in-depth sense of the historical and artistic record on the subject of African-Americans and the environment can embolden people’s interest in making sure they enjoy ecological beauty and fight against threats to their ecological security. In this way, many ecological burdens can be overcome.

What was your inspiration to write this book, and what was your inspiration to finish it?

My inspiration to write the book was both personal and professional.  For a long time in our country, Black people weren’t thought of in the same breath as words like “environmentalism,” “ecology,” or more recently, “green lifestyles.”  A lot of this had to do with the way mainstream environmentalism emerged: it was deeply connected to the Euro-American tradition of “nature writing.”  White authors wrote about places they loved and spawned national and international movements to protect them.  So I ran into more than a few folks who felt that my interest in African-American environmental engagement was a little farfetched.  After all, outdoor recreation and saving the whales was a “White” thing? Right?   But I knew in the back of my mind that this wasn’t the full story.  My family history of being voluntary and enslaved agricultural workers also kept leading me to the fact that there were plenty of Black people who loved non-human nature just as much as anyone else.  So my inspiration to finish the book came from trying to get a better sense of what the historical and artistic record actually said on the issue.  It showed that Black people were always engaged ecologically.

Many writers often find themselves either overwhelmed or unmotivated once they get to a certain point in their work or in a single book. How do you handle and overcome writer’s block?

I wish I could say that I overcame writer’s block with ease.  But it didn’t.  Perhaps the most effective strategy was to write nonstop for set blocks of time (e.g. fifteen minutes). Sometimes this just helps clear your mind so you can get to the place where you’re writing about what you really want.  I also found joining a writing group helpful because I was accountable to others.

As people discover your book, Black on Earth, what do you hope its impact will be, in general?

I hope that the impact of my book is that people will be inspired by the history and artistry of African-American ecological agency and consider being (more) active ecological citizens.

Being sort of a pioneer in bringing to light the unheard writings of African Americans about nature, what is your hope in future years for this type of work? Have you seen more contemporary African American nature writing that you feel should be heeded?

I hope that African-American nature writing will benefit from the generation of African-Americans who are having more formal environmental education and exposure to things such as urban gardening programs.  It’s exciting to see the history of Black ecological thought getting more attention. At the same time more Blacks are being exposed to formal ecological curriculum in their K-12 and post-secondary experience.   Their voices will expand the artistic horizon.  Books such as Black Nature : Four Centuries of African-American Nature Poetry by Camille Dungy and Rooted in the Earth: Reclaiming African American Environmental Heritage by Dianne D. Glave should definitely be heeded.

How has your career as an Associate Professor of English helped to influence your life and your writing?

My career has kept me in a community of intellectuals and activists who have shaped the way I think about the world.  I enjoy being a professor because my students also stretch me to think in fresh ways that inevitably influence my writing.  Now that I have an academic monograph under my belt, I hope to do more popular writing that will expand my research on ecological issues.

You mention in the book that we are genetically inclined toward hierarchical behavior; we get stuck on who has the best or the most. Being that we are genetically predisposed to such instinctual behavior and perception, do you think it will be possible to overcome this and instead become enlightened to things that are more important?

I think there’s real evidence that this is already happening, especially if you take a look at two ecological trends:  voluntary simplicity and efforts to institutionalize, “transpecies,” sensitivity.  There is a lot of mainstream attention to the concept of voluntary simplicity (with, ironically, an entire magazine called Real Simple) and people are definitely questioning what is important.  Yes, some of that is spawned by economic distress, but I think this effort to rethink what constitutes success will last beyond our current economic struggles.  Sure, our tendency toward hierarchical behavior may manifest itself in other ways beyond just material consumption; however, I think this is an important moment of mass critical thought that may thwart the negative aspects of acting hierarchically.  Examples from Latin America demonstrate the ways in which our tendency toward hierarchical thinking and focus on merely human environmental needs are changing.  In Bolivia in 2010, the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth crafted the “Universal Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth and Climate Change.”  This document is an excellent example of concrete expressions of “transpecies,”/more-than-human nature sensitivity that have the potential to impact policy.  Also, Ecuador has revised its constitution to protect the rights of more-than-human nature as well.  These two examples show humans can recognize the tendency toward hierarchical action that ends up in ecological injustice and finds ways around it.

If there’s one thing you’d like your readers to take away with them after reading this book, what is it and why?

Ecological issues aren’t just about bad news.  They’re also about the joy in recognizing yourself as an ecological citizen who can work with others to help secure ecological security and enjoy a world of creativity that expresses the very fact that human beings are nature.

 

 

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Source: Jennifer-Crystal Johnson

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