Well researched and scholarly, Smith's book uncovers key aspects of the history of the black intellectual tradition from the time of slavery to the early part of the twentieth century, and it shows how they relate to the development of a unique African American environmentalism. The writings of Frederick Douglass, Henry Bibb, Martin Delaney, and especially W. E. B. Du Bois and Alain Locke, are all explored with an eye toward understanding the response of the black community to the environment. And, contrary to what some, blacks and whites alike, might think, there is indeed a black response, one that is valuable and unique, and that strongly supports the notion that we humans cannot effectively care for the environment while racial oppression exists. In other words, social and racial justice is a precondition for a right relationship with the natural world.
Black theorists, Smith says, claim that “denial of freedom to black Americans has distorted their relationship to the natural environment; indeed, it has scarred the land itself” (p. 8). Much of the intellectual journey, then, from slavery to post-emancipation to the Harlem renaissance has involved blacks grappling with the notion that slavery has irreparably damaged their relationship with the environment. On numerous occasions in the book, Smith asks, how could any sort of authentic relationship with the land have been carved out of the oppressive conditions of slavery?
And yet, blacks have done just that. Out of the Harlem renaissance, through the writings of Du Bois and Locke, came a solution. These writers argued that blacks, through their close connection with the land and their experience of slavery, were the true American “folk.” They believed, following Franz Boas, that a group's culture was determined not by its racial heritage but by its history. The idea that culture was racially determined had been promoted and twisted during this time (the 1920s) by scientific racists, who absurdly believed that blacks were somehow limited by their having evolved in Africa.
As Smith explains, by asserting that it is a group's experience and not its racial essence that determines its identity, Locke, in particular, was able to bridge the Boasian culture-race divide. By invoking a critical role for experience, he was able to resolve the apparently conflicting beliefs that culture is historically determined and that blacks are the authentic American “folk,” rooted in the land. Locke felt that, although slavery was an intensely painful experience, it also was essential to the development of the race consciousness that shaped black cultural vitality. In a slight turn of phrase, Smith's earlier question about how blacks could develop a meaningful relationship with nature in the shadow of slavery becomes, after Locke, subtly but critically transformed: “Did slavery alienate blacks from the land, or were they able to forge a connection to the natural world despite (or even because of) the restrictions and cruelties they suffered?” (p. 118).
It is this unique response, Smith argues, that gives blacks invaluable insights into how we should relate to the environment. Smith's book is important because it helps to fill a gap in our understanding of the relevance of black environmentalism. What is needed now is a companion work that explores how African American environmental thought has evolved more recently, from the 1920s through the civil rights era of the 1960s to today's environmental justice movement.