Each month, we ask a member of the Vanderbilt Divinity School faculty or administration to recommend a book they are currently reading. Our February recommendation is offered by Amy E. Steele, Assistant Dean for Student Life. Dean Steele recommends Ecowomanism: African American Women and Earth-Honoring Faiths by Melanie L. Harris (New York: Orbis Press, 2017).
“…King accepted a request to speak and organize on behalf of sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee on April 3, 1968. The Memphis movement exposed the deplorable conditions and environmental health hazards that workers had to face daily, all the while combating racism on the job. King grasped the connections between poverty, individual and institutional racism, and environmental health hazards, and he interpreted these links as threat to justice. These connections are not lost on many African American environmentalists.” (Melanie L. Harris, Ecowomanism: African American Women and Earth-Honoring Faiths, 67)
Melanie L. Harris, Founding Director of African American and Africana Studies and Full Professor of Religion and Ethics at Texas Christian University, has assembled an important monograph on environmental justice that retraces African and African American interdisciplinary claims and practices of environmental justice in the diaspora. In the opening epigraph, Harris connects the 1968 Sanitation Movement (the 50th anniversary of which we celebrate this year) to intersecting and inseparable realities, which she argues are embedded in environmental justice issues—race, class, gender, and environmental health. Harris’ book, Ecowomanism: African American Women and Earth-Honoring Faiths, emerges the same year, 2017, as Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, a breach with a 196-country pact that steps back from a joint global agreement to limit the human impact on the climate by cutting back on climate change emissions. Harris makes bold claims about the ethical treatment of the earth, from an African American ecowomanist standpoint.
Harris addresses two underlying negations to establish her central purpose: that environmental social justice that has been relegated to a subfield of environmentalism assumes that black people are new and tangential to these discussions and practices, and that black people, who have cared about environmental justice when other competing social issues take precedence, affirm that many of these issues are interrelated.
Harris’ foundational point is that ‘ecowomanist’ methodologies are birthed from ‘ecoautobiography’. In other words, environmental justice concerns often take root in one’s personal story. To mine the rich field of experience and theory, Harris offers readers a seven-step ecowomanist method, which includes excavating experience, using memory, critical reflection, intersectional analysis, readings from within a tradition, engagement in action, dialogue, pedagogy, and reparations. The environmental crises we are in and those we face cannot be fully understood without ecowomanist methodologies that are interfaith, interreligious, intrafaith, and interdisciplinary. Harris’ own ancestral story is featured first as a way of situating herself, her family commitments, and her application of the methods and arguments she raises.
Several compelling essays by Alice Walker and others feature prominently. Walker’s, “Everything is a Human Being,” “Nuclear Madness: What Can You Do?” and “Anything We Love Can Be Saved: A Writer’s Activism.” These essays, writes Harris, contribute to foundational principles for activism. Harris ascribes human value, agency, and honor to the earth and each manifestation of the natural world. Harris does not locate these principles in any particular religious tradition per se, but recalls Walker’s four-part womanist definition as foundational to womanist religious thought and thus ecowomanist praxis. Walker’s nod to “loves the Spirit” is emphasized in Harris’ ecowomanist project to expand the notion of the religious. Rose Mary Amenga-Etego’s observations of Nankani women, who have no term for ‘religion’ but which can be best described as malba as the meshing of ‘belief and practice.’ Mercy Oduyoye’s contribution as an Akan woman is also here an example of the expansion to include voices that speak to Diasporic ecowomanist traditions. Ecowomanist spirituality’ is important as ecowomanism seeks “spiritual perspectives across the diaspora” (102). Harris writes on these and other traditions to emphasize, through the work of Emilie Townes and others, the womanist ‘dancing mind’ a mind that is inherently, Harris would argue, interreligious and interfaith.
Harris does employ a classic theological concept of ‘sin of defilement’ to describe the ways colonization has both ravaged the earth through environmental hazards and the bodies of African American women through the system of slavery as ecowomanist problems built upon dichotomies that have operated by subduing and undermining a ‘planetary wholeness.’
Harris’ book is a concise methodological resource for understanding how ecowomanism fits into womanist spirituality and ethics and for understanding the necessity for enlarging the conversation on environmental justice, especially useful now.