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Greening Africana Studies: Linking Environmental Studies with Transforming Black Experiences

reviewed by Antonio López - August 15, 2015

coverTitle: Greening Africana Studies: Linking Environmental Studies with Transforming Black Experiences
Author(s): Rubin Patterson
Publisher: Temple University Press, Philadelphia
ISBN: 1439908729, Pages: 258, Year: 2015
Search for book at Amazon.com

During the anti-nuclear arms movement of the 1980s, there was a commonly used phrase that summed up the problem of nuclear waste: If the White House says its safe, why not bury it there? Indeed, it turned out that toxic by-products of weapons production were discretely and remotely dumped in regions of the United States inhabited by the poor and people of color. This correlated with another refrain concerning environmentalism: development or environmentally destructive activities are tolerated as part of society, progress and economic growth, as long as they are done somewhere else, preferably out of sight and not in my backyard (NIMBY). This led many to charge that some environmentalists were promoting regulations that benefited rich white populations, who pushed problems away to disadvantaged communities.

Likewise, when it comes to environmentalism and the university, academia has long suffered from a kind of NIMBYism. Scholars that straddle the realms of ecology, and other disciplines not traditionally associated with environmental studiessuch as humanities or social sciencesoften find it difficult to locate their work within a specific academic home. Most universities segregate the disciplines. In recent years the concept of intersectionality has helped bridge this gap: its difficult to look at environmental problems separate from other social issues, such as racism, feminism, or economic justice, and many scholars are starting to connect the dots. The difficulty is building bridges between disciplines that may be unfamiliar to each other or are isolated because of academic silos.

Rubin Pattersons Greening Africana Studies (2015) is one effort to address this problem. Using a very carefully structured, technical, and rigorous approach, he surveys the field of Africana studies and environmental studies to outline common interests. He offers a detailed curriculum, and clearly has a dual audience in mind. To convince proponents of Africana studies that documents and challenges racism while promoting the agency, of people of African descent in responding to and reshaping their social setting (p. 4), that there is a significant connection between environmental problems and the African American experience. Secondly, he successfully argues for why environmentalists need to make race central to their discourse.

He offers a comprehensive overview of the various paradigms of both Africana studies and environmental studies, as a way of promoting dialogue between these respective fields. Patterson is breaking new ground by introducing the argument, building on the increasing number of activists and scholars that are bridging disciplines. Pattersons proposals are closely aligned with the work of Author Van Jones, whose Green Collar Economy (2008) ties the issues of economy, environment, and race. He cites the work of prominent ecology activists like Majora Carter, whose urban gardening projects in the Bronx have gained national attention. Patterson can also be correlated with the work of scholar Devon Peña (2005), who is making similar strides by linking environmentalism with Chicano studies. In other areas, such as media education, there is now an effort to link disparate disciplines with the environment (López, 2014).

One of Pattersons challenges is to make sense of the various (and sometimes competing) paradigms within his own field of Africana studies, and those of environmental studies. The approaches are varied, but the common ground can be summarized as follows:

Africana studies seeks the improvement of the black experience both locally and globally, but cannot happen without the improvement of Black peoples environment, which requires black agency. Environmental studies seeks sustainable economies and communities. Since Black communities are often the most degraded and least sustainable, its mission cannot be achieved without achievement of the Africana studies mission (Patterson, 2015, p. 92).

One interesting connection between them is the historical use of pseudo-science to promote both racism and climate change denial. Environmental studies, in its efforts to be color-blind, has often not lived up to the task of confronting racism and the environment. He believes it can be an important contribution of green Africana studies. Both fields, he suggests, have at the heart of their primary struggle the need to decenter and disrupt Eurocentric hegemony.

Since it is not obvious to many, Patterson carefully details the racial dimension of environmental problems. In particular, he devotes chapters to the impact of brownfield and toxic release inventory facilities on Black communities in the United States; the prospect and opportunity of green jobs; and greening Africa through transnationalism. Communities suffering the consequences of environmental destruction know full well what is happening to them, but within the academy it is less clear. Throughout the world, African peoples suffer disproportionately from environmental degradation, yet the academic field that was created to address their ills has given insufficient research attention to this fact. Relatively speaking, both globally and nationally Blacks have gained the least from Western-led industrialization when in many ways suffering the most from its negative effects (p. 20).

The dearth of environmental perspectives in Africana studies is backed by his thorough literature review that shows how Black studies journals have published very few articles about the environment; his survey of Black studies faculty with environmental studies interests shows scant attention to environmental issues. So what does Patterson mean by greening Africana studies? He proposes that Africana studies needs to address gaps in its own approach in order to: (a) shape public policy debates on the environmental concerns; (b) produce needed studies in local black communities; and (c) play a prominent role in the cultivation of environmental justice activists, including public intellectuals, scientists, lobbyists, and grassroots organizers (pp. 29-30). This will involve compromise, as Patterson acknowledges that, a green Africana studies curriculum will sacrifice depth for breath in its green courses (p. 46).

This effort is important, but challenging. The complexity of environmental issues, and the way they have been isolated from our general curriculum means that, as professionals, we also need to re-educate ourselves. Reluctance to engage the environment is understandable: we need to feel comfortable with the material in order to engage it. Education schools will need to incorporate more environmental studies, just to get educators familiar and at ease with the general principles of the discipline. Patterson emphasizes that its not just about monumental problems, but also monumental opportunities through mitigation and the green economy (p. 202).

Pattersons call is ambitious and visionary. As he states, There has never been, before this study, a book-length argument for a formal intellectual marriage between Africana studies and environmental studies. Bridging literatures can be tricky and often meets with failure, but when they are linked organically and successfully, both literatures and the broader public tend to benefit (p. 205). The broader acceptance of our environmental crisis is an important first step, but confronting the issue is going to require re-tooling our programs and expanding professional development. It will take some time for departments and programs to come around, but given the seriousness of environmental degradation, this is a problem that will not go away, but will become more acute in the foreseeable future.


Jones, V. (2008). The green-collar economy: How one solution can fix our two biggest problems. San Francisco: HarperCollinsPublishers.

López, A. (2014). Greening media education: Bridging media literacy with green cultural citizenship. New York: Peter Lang.

Patterson, R. (2015). Greening Africana studies: Linking environmental studies with transforming black experiences. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Peña, D. G. (2005). Mexican Americans and the environment: Tierra y vida. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 15, 2015
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 18065, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 8:39:43 PM

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About the Author
  • Antonio López
    John Cabot University
    E-mail Author
    ANTONIO LÓPEZ, Ph.D. has a research focus on bridging sustainability with media literacy. He is an experienced curriculum designer, educator, trainer, theorist, researcher and public speaker. He has written numerous academic articles, essays and books. His most recent book is Greening Media Education: Bridging Media Literacy with Green Cultural Citizenship (Peter Lang). He is currently Assistant Professor of Communications and Media Studies at John Cabot University in Rome, Italy.
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