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“Who Shall Let This World Be Beautiful?”

Black Writers and the Natural Sublime
Photographs by Bradley Ogbonna
Bradley Ogbonna

The scene was picturesque: In the summer of 2021, the second year of the Covid-19 pandemic, I found myself on the edge of a verdant cliff, where the forest hugged the sea. Here, in the Calanques, the clouds gliding across the sky appeared so low it seemed like I could touch them. I’d been walking along the French Mediterranean coast for hours, an afternoon colored by evergreen shrubs on limestones and gristly cacti set on weathered terrain. I stepped around the juniper that corkscrewed out of the dust. Tiny ferns peeked out from under the bristly shrubs; some stones had lush moss that was gripping the surface. Eventually I was winded from the muggy air, yet lifted by the briny tinge it carried up from the sea.

Stretching from Marseille and Cassis, the Calanques are steep rock formations scattered with rugged caverns, underground streams, and aqua-colored swimming holes with a view of the sea. Pebbled surfaces ran along the cliffs, with sea gulls whistling a tune. 

This place is where I found some reprieve from the overwhelming grief of my struggles with infertility: I noticed that the world was prodigious and full-bodied, and that, contrary to the throbbing ache that was grafted in my gut, the world could be healing. The forest’s fecundity was a reminder of life’s relentless flourishing, even when I myself felt barren. More than anything, the forest was a tender escape from my knotty disposition.

One thing that was daunting was the reality of being a Haitian-descended person walking through France. Given that I was neither born nor raised in Europe, I was a stranger on this land, in a country whose prospects and promise were underwritten by the exploitation of my family. The confused and wooden faces of European hikers I encountered only underscored that I was present in unwelcome territory. This wasn’t so unusual. Even now, it feels strange to admit that some people felt like this terrain was theirs alone, even though the leafy thickets were cultivated by nature, not from the will or deeds from these hikers. Europeans in rural spaces could siphon the life out of a Black American writer, even if the greenery was serene. It was, in fact, part of a legacy and pattern that began decades before I was born.

It happened to James Baldwin. Sequestered in the Swiss Alps, Leukerbad was home to six hundred souls when he arrived with his Swiss lover, Lucien Happersberger, to complete his manuscript for Go Tell It on the Mountain. His first impressions of the remote village were tied to how white Europeans perceived him, and to the town’s deep isolation, but they were also about the hoariness of the earth. “The landscape is forbidding,” he wrote, “mountains towering on all four sides, ice and snow as far as the eye can reach.” The scenery was friendlier than the people. At best, his neighbors had reductive ideas about Baldwin’s origins, assuming that by being Black he could only be from the African continent; at worst, some shouted Neger (now understood as the German equivalent of the N-word) or touched his hair. Undeterred by this tense reception, Baldwin returned to the village for two more winters mostly because he found refuge in this rural retreat. 

My situation was mild by comparison: At times, I would get a raised eyebrow. In other circumstances, a jolly hiker would utter a “Bonjour Madame,” an indication that I was emitting some newfound maturity. I was living in Cassis, a small fishing village (and currently an affluent tourist destination) on the Mediterranean Sea, attending a residency that gave me sustenance and the capacity to read and write next to the dramatic congregation of waves. I was part of a community of other creative people. For more than two months, we worked on our projects—drafting, painting, dancing—turning our crafts into something tangible. Nearby, and certainly as tempting as the rippling Mediterranean waves that rose and fell, was the vibrant network that existed in Marseille, a cosmopolitan home to people of North African and West African descent. Given how close it was, I expected to run into more people of color during my hikes. But to the extent that I was struck by nature’s sonic rituals, reveling in the subtle differences in flora, I also felt the solemn weight of being the only Black American in those woods. Even in bliss, I was disaffected by the white wayfarers who expressed mild antipathy at my presence.

Marseille has long been a home for the African diaspora, including writers who have sketched out the quays of the Old Port or given sordid accounts of its nightlife. Claude McKay’s posthumously published novel, Romance in Marseille, captures a pulse that resonates as much with the city as with the ecstasy of afterlife, as in a dream sequence when “[a]ll the jazz hounds who raised hell in the mighty cities of earth were summoned here by the Almighty to welcome him. All the saints were strutting their stuff and the angels fluttering their wings for him, the center of attraction.” McKay, a Jamaican poet and writer who was an integral part of the Harlem Renaissance and lived in Marseille for some time, characterized the city as a meeting spot for the subaltern and the salacious. But the Calanques and other nearby natural areas are nearly absent from his work—not necessarily because Black people didn’t venture out in 1920s France, but because the city’s vibrant social and literary scenes trumped what nature could offer.

Even if Black people are not always welcome in the great outdoors or African-descended people are eschewed from literary portrayals of nature, their presence bears the promise of sovereignty and tranquility. In other words, to be a Black person in rural Europe is to transcend the national and class barriers that often restrict African-descended people’s freedom of movement. To an extent, encountering Black people navigating the European countryside seems extraordinary when we consider how difficult it is for so many African people to migrate or even travel there. Every time I see an image of an overcrowded boat full of Africans, it’s a visual cue that Europeans do not want Africans living among them. It can be perfectly acceptable for Africans to entertain white Europeans at concerts or even clean their toilets, but when Black people appear in grassy sanctuaries, frolicking with ease, their presence begins to agitate a sense of order.


Most people are familiar with some form of existential crisis, which for African Americans can be compounded by racism. A key luminary of African American literature who insisted on giving this condition some hefty consideration was W. E. B. Du Bois. In 1903, his seminal book, The Souls of Black Folk, offered a powerful sociological dissection of Black life amid Jim Crow, and in 1926 he published “Criteria of Negro Art,” a passionate essay about the significance of Black art and imagination more broadly. The text was originally a speech he delivered to the annual National Association for the Advancement of Colored People conference, at a celebration for Carter G. Woodson, a historian best known for his role in founding the Journal of Negro History (now the Journal of African American History) and for establishing, in 1926, Negro History Week (now Black History Month).

Du Bois’s speech made a case for Black art as a cultural exigency—vital, planetary, and profound. He literally went in search of beauty and coaxed it onto the page through writing that is, here and there, a saccharine directive: “Thus it is the bounden duty of black America to begin this great work of the creation of Beauty, of the preservation of Beauty, of the realization of Beauty, and we must use in this work all the methods that men have used before.” His prose is also an edict, affirming that there are more possibilities in the world for Black Americans beyond the prejudices that some white (and Black) folks held about people of African descent.

Du Bois’s prowess as a scholar and artist can be partially attributed to his ability to test the literary boundaries of science and creativity. Darkwater, his 1920 collection of fiction and nonfiction, is an apocalyptic and utopian treatise that unveils the slow violence toward Black people in American society even as it offers moments of pastoral serenity. 

Du Bois’s connection to nature is most compelling in his essay “Of Beauty and Death,” in which, employing a narrator in much the same way one would in autofiction, he composes portraits of natural landscapes, including Mount Desert Island and the Grand Canyon, and, by extension, articulates an indispensable ingredient of his environmental awakening. He opens the essay with a dilemma: When the distressed Black writer describes the ways in which every layer of white society—from the milkman to the child—either ignores or gapes at his presence, he renders the self as both invisible and hyper-visible in a white-majority community, a society that leaves him blurred and less assured of himself. The narrator then embarks on a several-thousand-mile journey across the United Americas, moving from the social violence of feeling frayed to an extrasensory rhapsody. Du Bois writes about this character’s journey to reclaim space with clinical precision, illustrating the narrator’s investment in the scene. He describes the outdoors with corporeal love: “There mountains hurl themselves against the stars, and at their feet lie black and leaden seas. Above float clouds—white, gray, and inken, while the clear, impalpable air springs and sparkles like new wine.” For the reader, his gesture of adoration toward nature is both therapeutic and intoxicating. 

Du Bois is one of several early twentieth-century Black writers who engaged with—and were intoxicated by—the natural world. His forceful etchings of meadows and mountains are a primer for more arresting personifications, such as he does with the Grand Canyon and its “sudden void in the bosom of the earth, down to its entrails—a wound where the dull titanic knife has turned and twisted in the hole, leaving its edges livid, scarred, jagged.” At first, I glossed over this statement. But then I sat with the text, noticing a certain cleverness on the page, particularly in the ways that nature provides a flicker of hope for the oppressed: In nature, Du Bois’s narrator—who could be an avatar for a Black person—finds a light sensuality that contrasts with the brutality of powerful men. In this way, through his unbounded articulation on nature’s beauty, Du Bois isn’t just exercising unwavering narrative authority, but is present—and proudly vulnerable—with unbridled wonder. 


Being Black in nature today is not merely about moving through a pine-filled expanse or a sunflower field, but finding the language to think about the mountains, forests, and trees as an extension of Black freedom dreams. At its core, immersing oneself in nature is a thinking, a doing, a profound encounter with a relaxed state of sovereignty. When Du Bois asks, in “Criteria of Negro Art,” “Who shall let this world be beautiful?” I can’t help but turn to those Black writers who engaged in a radical vision of nature and carved out uncharted groves for consolation. 

Storytelling through nature is part of a Black radical tradition—the continuing development of a collective consciousness informed by a perennial strife for liberation. Finding solace in the natural world, especially when I was contending with isolation and bereavement, gave me the tools to suture my emotional scars. As a Black hiker navigating the rural landscape during the coronavirus pandemic, I often felt like I was circumscribing new paths while simultaneously surrendering to stillness. In my case, slowing down provided fuel to my prose, which I observed in other Black American writing.

That kind of storytelling can take many forms. While Du Bois gestured to the world’s natural beauty, Lucille Clifton dug toward the core of nature’s essence through visually charged lyrical brevity. For Clifton, there is an insolvency between craft and purpose. Her poetic practice engages with a solemn inquiry of ordinary Black folk and naming the mundane. 

In one untitled poem, Clifton makes a sharp intervention in her writing practice; she affirms her identity as a writer who sets a scene, laying out her poetic sensibilities as well as her right to express them: 

surely i am able to write poems
celebrating grass and how the blue
in the sky can flow green or red
and the waters lean against the
chesapeake shore like a familiar,
poems about nature and landscape.    

The physical freedom to transcribe the countryside in situ is the artistic freedom to expand the boundaries of her writing, and Clifton’s poem is, in essence, a declaration of the Black artist’s infinite possibilities for narrating the world.

Like many mid-twentieth-century African American artists, Clifton had an unrelenting vision. According to the poet Elizabeth Alexander, Clifton wrote “physically small poems with enormous and profound inner worlds.” That slight and melodious bent dominates her style. 

There is, too, a refrain in each stanza of Clifton’s poem “the earth is a living thing”—“is a black”—that circles back to a singular perception of the Earth, wherein Black(ness) is the nucleus, a living and integral part of the natural world: 

is a black shambling bear
ruffling its wild back and tossing
mountains into the sea

is a black hawk circling 
the burying ground circling the bones
picked clean and discarded

is a fish black blind in the belly of water
    is a diamond blind in the black belly of coal.

Shaping and transforming the world through this optical flow, Clifton indexes the self-management of creatures and entities that spring through their condition that might be perceived as obscurity. To be Black or sightless does not necessarily render one incapable.

The truth of the matter is that Clifton isn’t just concerned with nature as she sees it, but Black writing as she wants it. Aware of the pigeonholing that restricts Black writers to a myopic set of subjects, she uses poetry to usher an authorial account of Blackness—resistant, cognitive, and magnificent.


Growing up in Miami, I often heard people say things like “Black people can’t swim” or “Black people don’t like camping,” assumptions rooted in the myth that African Americans were both afraid of and alienated from nature. One argument for this presumption is rooted in the residual effects of slavery and Jim Crow, when many African Americans were prohibited from swimming at white-only beaches or excluded from swimming pools like their white American counterparts. Nevertheless, the anti-swimming trope does not explain what Black people yearn for. As Dorceta E. Taylor found in a 2018 study exploring racial identity and the desire to be in nature, not only did the Black participants prefer natural landscapes over urban ones, but their inclination overall echoed the preferences of their peers, both white and non-Black people of color. The perception that African Americans are disinterested in nature isn’t because of their own doing but rather longstanding intentional policymaking that fails to offer communities green spaces, and all too often puts them in the path of toxins and pollution. Studies have also found that greater access to nature, particularly in urban settings, can improve mental health.

Whether people are conscious of this research, there has been an increase in the visibility of Black hikers and hiking groups since the beginning of the pandemic, despite their continued underrepresentation in outdoor recreation. The waxing adoration of the great outdoors has not been a trend but an attempt to circumvent the looming apocalypse, to find something better than wandering through a damp swath of ferns in a bayou or an abundance of dandelions on the Great Plains.

By attending to the tangibility of the Earth, Black American nature writing calls into question how African diaspora people seek sovereignty and mobility on parcels of land that they were historically barred from navigating freely. It is a way to push the boundaries of place and identity, expanding Blackness’s literary and lived meanings globally. Whether strolling through the French Riviera or an evergreen forest, being intentionally present in nature can affirm that Black Americans, too, have the right to roam, even if there are structural conditions that have prevented many of them from doing so. (To be fair, since the colonization of what is now the United States, just about everyone’s relationship with the ground they walked on has been shaped by legislation, which disenfranchised the land’s Indigenous stewards. The statutes of these limitations were plentiful; prohibitive and targeted federal and state legislation throughout the nineteenth century collectively frayed movement and accessibility for Indigenous, Black, Asian, and Latino people.)

Though these laws were sewn into the fabric of American society, as were conditions of legal apartheid, African Americans challenged being denied access to the natural world. Langston Hughes’s 1936 poem “Let America Be America Again” stressed the dispossession of African Americans, along with other oppressed people. 

We, the people, must redeem 
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers. 
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states— 

For Hughes, reclaiming the land was one way to quell the American imperial fire, undoing some of the destruction that had been carried out by the state. “Let America Be America Again” is more than just a manifesto articulating a strategy for redemption; it is an exercise in imagination, one in which the poet dwells artfully in lush vegetation.

As splendid as it might be to embrace the transport of the wilderness, with its dappled light and magnanimous trees rising from the Earth, it can also help to perch oneself within the landscape as a humble fugitive seeking a leafy haven. 

Speaking on the history of Black nature writing and a collection of Black nature poems she edited, African American scholar Camille T. Dungy notes, “If we look at history and say, well, Black people can only write about the natural world and think about slavery or think about being a runaway, you forget that other component—that there has always been promise and survival in the natural world. …And so that is as much a part of the poems: the hope and the potential for a real connection and collaboration, as much as this devastating and horrible history is there.” This desire to survive in environments that, on the surface, have been restricted or even hostile—that is Black resistance.


I’ve always considered myself a godless bastard (given that my parents were unmarried when I was born)—so I never thought I would find myself on a pilgrim’s route that was originally intended for Christians, let alone one in southern Europe. But for a little over a week, my partner and I embarked on a portion of the five-hundred-mile Way of Saint James, between Le Puy-en-Velay and Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. The road was established in the ninth century for Christians seeking the shrine of the apostle Saint James, in what is now the city of Santiago de Compostela, in Galicia, Spain. For most people we met during our expedition, their journey began at their homes or congregations. In our case, it all started with a boisterous bus ride to Aumont-Aubrac. For the pilgrims, their goal is to get closer to their saint. For the irreverent, their goal is to get closer to nature.

We became pilgrims of a sort, invading the delicate, intimate spaces of nature, foliage-strewn, seemingly frozen in time. Moving through the crest of plateaus and the troughs of valleys, we celebrated, with just a little excitement, when we finally found some shade among a grove of towering trees. We are not religious, but, out of our love of adventure and pushing the boundaries of physical comfort, we followed the miserly practices of the pious. By exercising material prudence, we were depriving ourselves of the sensual pleasures of a warm bed or the luscious gulp of aged wine, mainly because we were hiking by carrying everything we needed on our backs. Each step reminded us of what we needed to get through the world and what we were missing. When we camped alongside various riverbanks and forests, we fed each other—not just through food, but by finding the language to talk about the mountains, forests, and trees as an extension of our humanity. More than that, I wanted to understand how pushing my body could lead to emancipation: Would I reach a higher state of consciousness if I felt the pain throbbing through my knees?

While hiking, I tried to reflect on how my partner and I related to each other, even if our feelings about the voyage shifted according to our physical abilities. (For the most part, I fared relatively well, whereas he suffered from heat exhaustion and blisters.) More than anything, as we passed through the French countryside in the searing heat, I wondered what we might owe the Earth so that, in the future, anyone can trek the same ninety-three miles I did over eight days under tenable conditions. 

In her influential work Primate Visions, science historian Donna Haraway asks, “What forms does love of nature take in particular historical contexts? For whom and at what cost?” This question reveals that our connection—or lack of it—to nature is not an arbitrary event but tied to the past. For Haraway, loving the environment is contingent on time and place, dependent both on how humans perceive their relationship to nature and, in a way, how the heart responds to other humans. My hike was more than just a leisurely exploration; it compelled me to think more deeply about how to embrace a deep love for these spaces.

In Europe, hiking as a Black person in the mountains, searching for swimming holes amid birdsong, I often think of the people in my family who have never made the Way of Saint James, an older generation whose relationship with nature was strained by the toil of tilling the land. The privilege to write about the land also gives us permission to write a leisurely version of ourselves.

When Du Bois wrote “Criteria of Negro Art,” he affirmed that beauty is everywhere, and what Du Bois was pointing to—with clairvoyance and urgency—is that racial equity was not the only thing worth fighting for. Equally critical was the possibility for Black Americans to absorb Earth’s transformative power, to conjure beauty for themselves—writing about nature, inserting ourselves into its narrative while telling our own stories of how we connect with the land. Instead of continuously enduring racism and its razor’s edge, I want to escape into the mountains, against the backdrop of the forest, peripheral and entirely in the world, and with the understanding that it is possible, if we allow ourselves to see it, to make the world beautiful. 

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Published: June 6, 2024