I wonder if Richard Wright’s 12 Million Black Voices is read much anymore. It’d be quite a shame if it wasn’t. Few books do as good a job framing the Black experience of “nature” in America, historically.
You can guess, I’m sure, what that experience entails: “We,” says Wright, “who were landless upon the land; . . . we, who had had our personalities blasted with two hundred years of slavery and had been turned loose to shift for ourselves—we were such a folk as this when we moved into a world that was destined to test all we were, that threw us into the scales of competition to weigh our mettle.”
Wright is describing the Great Migration, that exodus of Black communities from the South after the failure of Reconstruction and the institution of Jim Crow. Northern cities promised jobs and opportunities. And although it was oftentimes no less exploitative than the South, the city at least offered an escape from plantations and their related terrors.
It’s this trauma that writers like Evelyn White and, more recently, Rahawa Haile have had to confront and grapple with when writing about nature as Black women. And in the tone of their writing, I hear echoes of Frances Harper whose poem “Bury Me in a Free Land” describes the baying of bloodhounds and captives pleading across countrysides—even across generations. Memory isn’t passive. It reaches for you.
Just as it reaches for Donavon Smallwood’s Langour. In a very brief remark at the end of the book, Smallwood says, “I made these photographs between the spring and autumn of 2020. Each day, I woke around sunrise and wandered Central Park accompanied by a plume of memories. Thinking of what the park has meant for me all my life, thinking of Seneca Village, thinking of escape, thinking of home.” I highly encourage fans of the book to check out the essay that Magali Duzant wrote for LensCulture. It’s a fantastic piece that connects the history of Central Park to the Black communities of Seneca Village. The short version is that NYC made Central Park possible by way of eminent domain, displacing 1,600 Black inhabitants.
So, on the one hand, Smallwood’s enchanting portraits are allusive. They recollect a presence, but only insofar as the viewer can summon the right stories from the past. And for that to work, we need the stories. We need the history. We need it in our classrooms and in our pulpits and on our nightstands.
On the other hand, the portraits collect the present. And in that present is a story that makes no distinction between human and nonhuman settings, characters, or events.
And that’s the point too, I think. You wouldn’t know, for instance, that you were looking at Central Park if it weren’t for Smallwood’s reflections toward the end. That’s not to say that you wouldn’t sense the importance of Black portraiture in spaces (nature preserves, conservation areas, wilderness retreats, etc.) disproportionately lacking in that imagery. But because of the way Smallwood arranges these images, the overall impression one gets has more to do with deep, indecipherable (I’m thinking of those marvelous ciphers tattooed on the young man’s face) bonds between lives only superficially divergent: trees and insects and people and everything that glints and wriggles in the streams. On some pages, we see dense, branchy entanglements. In others, we look closely at flower stems in their dying singularities, their seedpods open like stars. It’s a book of macro and micro affinities.
Which is just another way of saying that nothing exists individually in nature, though everything is individual. And what’s true about this in Central Park must be just as true anywhere, everywhere. It’s just that, given the history at stake, Donavon Smallwood’s Langour feels to me just a little truer.