Cultivation and Catastrophe: The Lyric Ecology of Modern Black Literature

by Beth Sattur

The Johns Hopkins University Press published Professor Sonya Posmentier’s book by this title in Spring 2017. Professor Posmentier realized that she wanted to write a book like this while she was still in school. “I was taking a class in graduate school on pastoral literature,” she tells me as we discuss the intricacies of her new book. It wasn’t a class on black literature at all, more of a transhistorical overview; “We were reading things from Virgil to the present.” It was she who made the connection. Noting the ways that 20th century black literary experience had moved away from nature in its encounter of urban experience, she also noticed a persistent concern with agricultural labor and the experience of environmental disaster. Without displacing the importance of the city, she saw that 20th century black literature remained attentive nature in specific ways: “This is one important aspect of black historical and black literary experience in the 20th century that we haven’t fully accounted for.” Part of the uniqueness of her book is its focus on the significance of compulsory agricultural labor, both during slavery and the Reconstruction period when sharecropping was the only option for many recently freed slaves. (Sharecropping was a system where ex-slaves did the fieldwork for someone else who owned the field, in exchange for board and low wages, but the landowners would often insist that they incurred debt and tenants had to keep working to pay it off, effectively keeping the system of slavery alive.) Cultivation and Catastrophe discusses not only the lost agricultural lifestyle but climate and nature as well. Disasters like Hurricane Katrina disproportionately affected the black community and were not handled well by the government, while the Flint water crisis is still ongoing. Climate change affects black and indigenous communities the most, Professor Posmentier notes. For a distinctive look into the relationship of blackness and nature, when and whether that relationship is tempestuous or not, look no further than this new book.


Prof. Posmentier is currently teaching a class entitled “Black Poetry and Social Movements,” which revolves around the question of what poetry and activism have to do with each other. “I’ve never really believed that literary study or poetry replaces activism,” she says, but study—reading and writing—is a crucial compliment. She is currently working to develop a related class for Spring 2018 that will be directed at the idea of “sanctuary.” It started very much as a response to the current administration’s attacks of immigration, but the course will ask students to think more expansively too, about climate and other pressing matters of concern.