By Melanie L. Harris, Ph.D. ’06, Unitas Distinguished Alumna ’17
Ecowomanism is critical and contemplative reflection on the environmental crisis from the perspective of women of African descent. Connecting ecological justice with Womanist theology and ethics, the new lens argues that intersectional race, class, and gender analysis be applied when examining environmental racism. The first step of ecowomanist method is to honor experience. Ecopoetry helps us to do just that. The poetry written above is reflective of one Union experience. As a graduate whose entering class was confronted with the realities of September 11, 2001, I enter the world of environmental ethics through the doors of comparative and constructive theologies, because it is central to recognize the truths in many religions if we are to face climate change. Honoring our experiences, be they filled with racial tensions, intellectual bliss, or conflict, this methodological step invites us to reflect on how our theological frameworks concerning the earth may be shaped by our passion for social justice. Since social justice is earth justice, it becomes central from an ecowomanist perspective to develop an intersectional lens through which one can examine what one believes about God, the earth, and the right of all beings to have equal access to environmental health.
Step two of the method uncovers the power of critical reflection. Beckoning us to “crawl back through history” and examine the “cargo cults,” to borrow a phrase from historian Charles Long, this step pushes us to confront the normativity of value hierarchies that place human life over other life. Claiming that the legacy of white supremacy that argues that racially categorized white humans are superior and more deserving of air, water, earth, and fire is unjust, ecowomanism critically examines racially biased and colonial concepts that are laced throughout the environmental movement. White supremacy is not healthy for the planet. Delores S. Williams [Ph.D. ’91], Tillich scholar and professor emerita at Union, invites us to consider the parallels between the ways that enslaved Black women were used “ Since social justice is earth justice, it becomes central from an ecowomanist perspective to develop an intersectional lens through which one can examine what one believes about God, the earth, and the right of all beings to have equal access to environmental health.” for breeding during American slavery and the ways the earth has been used and exploited since before the Industrial Revolution. When we do so, we are faced with a harsh truth. There is something eerily familiar about the logic of domination at work in scenes at the lynching tree, because that same logic of domination is interlaced with anthropocentrism.
In James H. Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree, the father of Black theology reminds us of the powerful resilience of Black peoples to believe in the power of Jesus’ resurrection in spite of the death-dealing harshness of white hate, violence, and anger. In his essay “Whose Earth Is It Anyway?” Cone points to this same kind of resilience, courage, and faith. Recalling the image of Black church women protesting dump trucks filled with toxins to be dumped in their neighborhoods, Cone reminds us of the systemic ways environmental racism has attempted to snuff out the lives of Black women, men, and children. Cone, along with Ben Chavis, Dorceta E. Taylor, and others, shows how fighting for racial justice is directly tied to environmental justice. Decades after Chavis first coined the term environmental racism, we are living in a time when we cannot ignore the past. If we are to heal from racial injustice and all forms of injustice of the past, we have to stop, listen, and heal. Ecowomanism provides one pathway towards healing.