Troy University professor’s book looks at race, class and gender at Love Canal

Posted: Monday, 05 May 2008

TROY – For Troy University associate professor of history Dr. Elizabeth Blum, a toxic waste-riddled neighborhood in New York state says a lot about environmentalism.

Blum, author of the newly published “Love Canal Revisited: Race, Class and Gender in Environmental Activism,” shows the activists at Love Canal, a neighborhood in Niagara Falls, N.Y., were diverse and that much more than toxins lurked beneath the surface in the neighbor’s struggle to gain relocation.

On May 9, she will be the featured author at a Barnes & Noble Campus Bookstores book signing event from 9 a.m. until 10 a.m. on the Troy Campus. Spring Commencement begins at 10:30 a.m. in Sartain Hall. The book, published by University Press of Kansas, will be available for purchase at the bookstore.

No previous account of Love Canal has considered the plight of segments of the population – from African-American women to middle-class white Christian groups. By doing so, Blum shows that environmental activism opens a window on broader social movements and ideas, such as civil rights and feminism. Her book moves the story of Love Canal well beyond the Superfund Act that makes polluters accountable to highlight another vital legacy rooted in race, class and gender.

“As I started doing research into Lois Gibbs, I found out that there were significant parts of the Love Canal story that no had really talked about – the activities of a group of African American women, for example, as well as a middle class religious group. No on really talked about the men active at Love Canal – most studies just talk about Lois Gibbs and leave the rest out,” Blum said.

It’s this untold story that both spurred Blum’s interest and became the genesis for her book.

“There’s a lot more to the ‘standard story’ of Love Canal lurking beneath the surface,” she said. “The story is far more complicated than just Lois Gibbs’ activism – other groups were there, with other ideas, and they were a part of the process, too.”

Blum said there several other facets to the Love Canal story she hoped here book would help readers realize.

“A person’s race, class and gender played a pivotal role in how people experience, talked about and became active at Love Canal,” she said. “The black women saw the event as an opportunity to expose and press against racism, the white women as a way to enforce their value and worth as mothers and housewives, the religious groups as a way to link wider environmental values, and the elite politicians and bureaucrats as a way to reinvigorate the economy of a dying city.”

Blum points out that while Love Canal is important, it isn’t the first time such ideas come to light. She points out direct historical connections to the maternalistic and economic language used by men and women, as well as the activism by black women.

“One of the most important points I’m trying to make is that by studying environmental activism, we have a window on other broad social movements and ideas,” she said. “I also hope that readers understand that history is not just a dry set of facts and dates. There are real people involved, and each has a different point of view and version of the ‘truth’ – the historian plays a role in letting people into that story and interpreting it for them.”

Through her investigation into the Love Canal issue, Blum said a number of surprises emerged.

“One of the biggest surprises was how different people experienced the crisis in such very different ways, and to find out that black women were active since none of the standard accounts really mentions them,” he said.

Another surprise involved the women’s movement itself.

“Most of the historical literature describes women’s activism in the environmental movement as part of the women’s movement … most historians tend to see that as also pressing for women’s rights and supporting the general goals of equality and feminism,” Blum said.

“In this case, however, the working-class women at Love Canal were specifically reacting against what they thought feminism was – they wanted to show that housewives and mothers had value in society, and could accomplish something positive,” she said.

Blum plans to continue to publish. She currently has two on-going research projects, one continuing the gender and environmental discussion by looking into the messages kids are sent about the environment; the other, looking at “light pollution” in the night sky – an area where astronomers say they are hard pressed to convince environmentalists that the night sky is part of the environment, too.

Laylah Amatullah Barrayn

Dr. Elizabeth Blum, a Troy University associate professor of history, digs past conventional accounts of one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history in her book “Love Canal Revisited: Race, Class and Gender in Environmental Activism.” She will be signing copies of the newly published book 9 a.m. – 10 a.m. Friday, May 9 at Barnes & Noble on the Troy Campus. (TROY photo/Kevin Glackmeyer)