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What We’re Reading: The Black Side of the River: Race, Language, and Belonging in Washington D.C.

A review of The Black Side of the River: Race, Language, and Belonging in Washington D.C. by Dr. Jessica Grieser

Review by Jan Menafee, Program Specialist for Environment, Justice, and Education at the Red House at Georgetown University.

Photo of the Washington waterfront from the National Museum of American History Archives Center Scurlock Studio Records

How we relate to spaces depends on the stories that we believe about them. 

Telling a story about a space is like casting a spell, with the power to speak into existence a place of beauty and belonging.

These are the lessons that I learned from reading The Black Side of the River: Race, Language, and Belonging in Washington D.C. by Dr. Jessica Grieser.

Dr. Grieser is a socio-linguist who looks at African American English (AAE) as an expression of  intersections between race, place, and social class. For Black Side of the River, she draws on ten years of interviews with dozens of Black residents of Anacostia, a historically Black neighborhood in Washington, D.C., to explore how language is a primary means that residents claim and preserve their neighborhood as a Black space.  

Black Side of the River begins beautifully with an excerpt from an early Langston Hughes poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” With this framing, Dr. Grieser describes how Black souls, including her own, have “grown deep like the rivers.” Now I will never forget that “when Black people cross rivers, it matters.” Memorable lines like these, along with the printed interviews and socio-linguistic analysis, all fit into the book’s testimony to the power of stories and the Black sides of rivers everywhere. 

In fact, while reading Black Side of the River, I noted all of the ways that Dr. Grieser and her interviewees inspired me to reimagine language: as a communal glue, as an ecological restorer, as a historical library, as a line of defense, as a connector and a creator, as a description and a prescription, as a map of relationships and a compass guiding us home, and as the universal invitation to listen closer. Dr. Grieser has done so by listening to the Black side of the river.

Her book felt like a gift as my own memories with rivers came flooding back to me while reading. And that brought me to my freshman year at Georgetown when I first encountered the Anacostia River, and unfortunately, learned the subtly poisonous stories told about Wards 7 and 8.

For a fun field trip, my pro-seminar professor organized an Anacostia River boat tour. None of us had ventured farther than Capitol Hill into D.C.; soon, the tour flipped our perspective of the city upside down. We arrived at the dock not knowing what to expect, standing back with arms crossed across our vests during the on-land introduction. Then one by one, we awkwardly extended our legs out over the dock and into the boat. With everyone secured in seats and life vests, the guide motored us off into the river and began to tell one of its stories:

The Anacostia is named for the people who first belonged here, the Nacotchtank. The river cradled their communities for centuries, along with the Potomac, until colonizers displaced the people and repurposed the rivers. They not only became routes for trade and human trafficking, but also became the boundaries through which North and South, rich and poor, and Black and White would be established.

But the Anacostia’s path diverged from the Potomac’s when city leaders allowed the military and industry to pollute the river, and therefore pollute the Black residents who relied on it. Decades of wasting the river transformed it from a place for swimming, fishing, and communing with each other and nature into a vehicle for corporate profits and environmental racism. Decades of damage done by the polluters has left these communities’ relationships with the river scarred, which has contributed to the negative effects of poverty and urban blight in Wards 7 and 8.

As a first-semester freshman, that class field trip introduced me to D.C. as a place of complex, often unjust, historical, and ongoing relationships among different people and their environments. What was less obvious to me, though more insidious, were the ways in which I unknowingly absorbed this narrative of the Black communities of Wards 7 and 8 as being damaged and in need of saving.   

It’s the single, misleading, story of many places and peoples that I mistook for the full reality of the Black side of the river. 

It’s the stereotype that I heard reinforced in most Georgetown classrooms and campus spaces – in the rare instances when Wards 7 and Ward 8 were brought up at all. 

It’s the unique form of division and environmental pollution, hidden in the words we speak.

This is what makes Dr. Jessica Grieser’s book so important. By listening to the lived experiences of Black residents of Anacostia, she models a form of research and public discourse that centers the agency, desires, identities, and needs of a local community amid persistent urban change. 

Although rivers often divide one community from another, they can also bring people together.  

The Black Side of the River allowed me to see how the Anacostia River that separates Wards 7 and 8 from the rest of D.C. also protects them as undeniably proud Black places. On the Eastern side of the river, through every word spoken, Anacostia residents reclaim their neighborhood as a worthy place, rich in Black history and culture, natural beauty, and possibility. By casting their home in these ways, residents not only undermine the frequent stereotyping and commodification of their community but also envision futures where the relationships between Black people and our ecosystems can flourish. 

This is what it means for Black people to be inextricable from the places we live. This is what it means to honor our stories as a starting point to protecting and healing the bodies of water and land that we depend on. Through such rigorous research and intentional framing, Dr. Grieser compels every reader of The Black Side of the River to remember and respect this form of communal power.

This is part of the Common Home series, What We’re Reading where we welcome reviews of emerging works in the environmental publishing world.

Black Side of the River
environmental justice
Jan Menafee
story telling