Environmental Criticism and the Slave Narratives

Kimberly K. Smith

in The Oxford Handbook of the African American Slave Narrative

Published in print April 2014 | ISBN: 9780199731480
Published online December 2013 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks

Environmental Criticism and the Slave Narratives

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Although not obvious candidates for ecocritical analysis, the classic American slave narratives offer rich opportunities for exploring African Americans’ complex relationship with the land. Promising lines of inquiry include folk beliefs about nature, how plantation slavery organized human and nature relations in the American South, and how the narratives invested the American landscape with political, moral, and spiritual meaning. Drawing on the early nineteenth-century ideology of democratic agrarianism, the narratives explore in depth the effect of oppression on the land and how oppression distorts one’s relationship to the natural world. Although slave agriculture often forced slaves into an intimacy with and affection for the natural world, slavery also tended to alienate slaves from the land and the natural world by associating farming with brutality and coercion. This theme continues to influence black political thought, informing the contemporary environmental justice movement’s analysis of how racial discrimination creates polluted, highly degraded landscapes.

Keywords: slavery; slave narrative; ecocriticism; agrarianism; agriculture; nature; place; landscape; environmental justice

Article.  6879 words. 

Subjects: Literature

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