Sacred Blood, Transformation, and Ecowomanism
The sacred blood of enslaved Africans poured deeply into the soil during the height of the lynching periods of the 19th and 20th centuries in America (and, many would argue, in the 21st).
As picturesque as are the scenes of budding magnolias and bees buzzing in open-faced southern flowers, the lynching of black bodies by white mobs is also a part of the eco-memory that many of us carry into our environmental justice work and ministry.
Earth Maps of Freedom
Eco-memory refers to the collective and individual memory of the earth and speaks to our continuing relationship with the planet. The agricultural knowledge developed by enslaved Africans over generations of planting cotton, rice, tobacco, and other crops on southern plantations is an example of eco-memory. Another is the knowledge of the natural environment gathered by Harriet Tubman and shared among those brave souls trying to escape north along the Underground Railroad. They got their northward directional bearings – their compass of hope – by the guiding light of the North Star, as well as by observing that tree moss grows on the northern side of the tree. These earth maps – these whispers of the ancestors described in slave narratives about surviving the trek and staying focused on freedom – continue to inspire many to stay “in the struggle until the end.”1
According to ecowomanism, these searing ecomemories hold spiritual and physical significance for African Americans. The sacred blood flowing from the lynching tree is not just an atrocity from the past. It is at this moment soaked into the rings of age-old trees. This blood, this sacred blood, is mingled with the root systems of countless “hanging” trees that stand as witness to eco-terror in America and testify that lynching was used as a weapon of white supremacy. Indeed it reflects the violent, ecologically ruthless Anthropocene itself.
From an ecowomanist perspective, the trees stand as living witness. But so too does the earth. Exploited by countless industries in the name of industrialization and globalization, the earth today is crying out – storming, flooding, forcing us all to see the uncanny resemblance between the logic of domination in the oppressive system of slavery and sharecropping, and the logic of domination at work in anthropocentric attitudes that reduce all other beings to unimportant “other.” In some cases, on the very lots of churches, underneath the historic places of worship, the worst ecological sins languish and mingle. Here are buried the remains of slaves, molested children, and yes, toxic waste and landfills. Where does your church rest?
This is where you and I stand – on the earth’s surface – as witnesses to the history of the rise of multilayered systems of oppression designed to chain the bodies, hearts, and minds of black and brown peoples as well as other disenfranchised groups and non-human beings. We humans are witnesses to the cruelties done in the name of planetary progress, imperialist practice, and economic gain.
Ecowomanism is an approach to environmental justice that helps us see where our faith communities are complicit in environmental degradation – and where we might be spaces of grace and hope. It is a lens that foregrounds the voices of the earth, as well as the herstories of women of African descent and their communities, centering their perspectives and contributions to the environmental justice movement.
Methodologically, ecowomanism insists on raceclass- gender analysis to examine climate injustice, expose environmental racism, and explore ecological reparations. It deploys eco-theologies for their candor about interconnected justice issues. It creates and honors eco-spiritualities that spring from traditional theologies as well as from cosmologies emerging from people of color, African and Indigenous peoples, voices too often left out of Eurocentric environmental frameworks.
Ecowomanism seeks a salvific eco-wisdom for our time. This eco-wisdom sheds new light on old biblical hermeneutical frames, inviting fresh directions in Bible study that include story, poetry, and song as well as scripture. For example, alongside the biblical story of Shifrah and Puah who grounded themselves in a spirit of resistance and refused to take life in order to maintain empire, the poetry of Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, Langston Hughes, and James Weldon Johnson can also serve as sacred texts fusing together African and African-American religious cosmologies to reshape our understanding of the earth’s partnership with human hands. Billie Holiday’s social protest song “Strange Fruit” becomes a contemplative congregational hymn. It highlights the connection between the colonialization of the earth and the colonialization of brown and black peoples. Sung in the eerie, sometimes crackling voice of Lady Day, “Strange Fruit” as sermonic text challenges us to recognize the ancestral blood that was shed and soaked into the earth from which we all bloom and find ourselves rooted.
If we are to devise new and holy directions of faith-inspired activism – and burst into new ecotheological conversations about climate change, ecological reparations, and creation care – then a change, a transformation within us, must take place. Ecowomanism helps to midwife this transformation. It charts a path, one methodological step at a time, by 1) honoring one’s eco-story or experience, 2) critically reflecting on this experience, 3) engaging womanist intersectional analysis, 4) critically engaging our traditions, 5) with an open heart, staying open to transformation, 6) sharing dialogue, and 7) taking courageous action for environmental justice. And this work does require courage – even in the face of the difficult or, yes, the impossible.
How does one love the lynching tree and accept its presence in the earth community? What charge do we have as faith communities to love radically in this time, shedding the hatred that this tree has come to represent? How does one repent for the actions of the white mob – the white mob that forced the tree to join the heinous and violent act of lynching, all the while looking on, gnawing on their corn pipes, watching the grotesque burning of holy flesh for sport? For many of us, these perpetrators were our grandfathers, great uncles, cousins. However distant we would like to make them now, we must claim them. If we are honest with ourselves, our familial connection to our very names makes us reflect upon the fact that these are related to us.
And what of the deep healing from historical trauma that we seek, we who are direct descendants of the thousands upon thousands of enslaved Africans and African-American slave and free persons who were lynched? Where shall we find this healing? If this healing is not informed by our faith, imprinted on our hearts, and interwoven in our eco-theologies, then where else can we go?
Calling the names of these “overlooked” is important, a witness to the quiet hanging graves that maintain dignity in memorials such as the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama. So is the act of remembering the earth and working for its wholeness and holiness, of which we are all part. This is crucial, empowering, and religious. Engaging the difficult work of environmental justice is our call. Ecowomanism helps us take a first step, together.3
Melanie L. Harris is Founding Director of African American and Africana Studies and Professor of Religion and Ethics at TCU. Her research areas include womanist ethics and ecology. She is ordained in the AME Church and is the author of Gifts of Virtue: Alice Walker, and Womanist Ethics (Palgrave, 2010) and Ecowomanism: African American Women and Earth-Honoring Faiths (Orbis, 2017).
1 Martin Luther King Jr., “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” Speech in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. edited by James M. Washington (Harper Collins, 1991).
2 https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/ obituaries/overlooked.html
3 Melanie L. Harris, Ecowomanism: African American Women and Earth-Honoring Faiths (Orbis, 2017).