Cultivation and Catastrophe: The Lyric Ecology of Modern Black Literature

At the intersection of social and environmental history there has emerged a rich body of black literary response to natural and agricultural experiences, whether the legacy of enforced agricultural labor or of the destruction and displacement brought about by a hurricane. In Cultivation and Catastrophe, Sonya Posmentier uncovers a vivid diasporic tradition of black environmental writing that responds to the aftermath of plantation slavery, urbanization, and free and forced migrations. While humanist discourses of African American and postcolonial studies often sustain a line between nature and culture, this book instead emphasizes the relationship between them, offering an innovative environmental history of modern black literature.

Posmentier argues that environmental experiences of growth and rupture define the literature of black freedom, an archive that ranges from sonnets, mini-epics, documentary poems, periodicals, and novels to blues songs, dancehall productions, and ethnographic writing. In turn, this literature generates important and surprising models for ecological thought. Claude McKay, for example, connects rows of potatoes to the poetic line; Zora Neale Hurston composes rhythmic communal lyrics in the Florida "muck" following a deadly hurricane; and Derek Walcott critiques property-based ecological relations through the archipelagic shape of his mid-career poetry. Posmentier examines how these writers, along with Gwendolyn Brooks, Bessie Smith, Sterling Brown, Lloyd Lovindeer, Kamau Brathwaite, and others give voice to racialized experiences of alienation from the land while simultaneously envisioning a modern poetics of survival, repair, and generation.

Going against the grain of scholarship that has situated modern black diasporic agency largely in metropolitan sites, Posmentier traces a black literary history of environmental and social disaster while exploring the possibilities and limits of poetry as an archive for black modern culture in its many forms. This pathbreaking book offers stunning new insight into modern black literature, environmental humanities, and poetry and poetics.

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Sonya Posmentier