Nature Fights Back in Brown’s “The River”

Sometimes fantasy and fictional stories go against their tendencies to affirm our complacency as humans despite the existing challenges yet to be conquered,  such as overcoming continuously changing climate, doing away with racism and racial injustice, and even poverty eradication. Through various literary aspects such as non-human elements, a section of authors of these fictional stories have been able to find a way of jeering their audiences out of a conviction of their powerlessness and limitations and to reassure them that it’s okay for them not to do anything about that which is beyond their capabilities because they are not the only superheroes expected to fix the challenges that confront humanity in the world. In her book, “The  River,” Adrienne Maree Brown, American author, and co-editor exemplify these writers when she uses non-human features to give hope amid hopelessness and powerlessness and to reassure humans that nature will fight for their social justice and equality. Through the use of “The River,” Brown creates a story that advocates for socio-economic equality and social justice. The waves from the river act as the strange agent of justice, which targets the upper echelons of society.

The fictional story, “The River,” sets off in a seeming reconstruction era, a time when slavery had ended, and America is grappling with determining African Americans’ legal status and integrating them into the social-economic fabric of the country. It exemplifies a period in which African Americans are subjected to untold social injustice and social-economic inequalities, including limited access to resources for economic sustainability such as land. The grandfather tells the water women that “black people come from a big spacious place, under a great big sky. this little country here, we have to fight for any inches we get…” this statement shows that black Americans experienced significant social-economic inequality to the extent that they had to fight for the least they could get at that point in time. It reflects the historical injustices that mark the darkest history of the US, including segregation and Jim Crow laws such a redlining and blockbusting, gentrification, and others such as over-policing and mass incarceration. These factors suppressed black people and created a divide that its legacies still taint the social-economic landscape of the American society. For instance, gentrification is reflected in the short fantasy story. In the story, the water woman “felt the population of the city diminishes as investors and pioneers packed up, looking for fertile new ground.” (Brown 18). This statement shows gentrification in action. The population is diminishing as prices of properties and homes in the neighborhoods increase, becoming almost unaffordable, which underscore social injustice and social-economic inequalities that black people have been subjected to since time immemorial. 

In his commentary, Derek Hyra notes that evidence gentrification is unrelated to a shrinking supply of affordable housing units (which it often is), but rather that low-income people tend to move at a high rate from all neighborhood types. He further describes the challenge of gentrification to the extent that it aligns with the scenario presented in Brown’s, “The River”.  He notes that in an ideal gentrification, newcomers tend to take over political institutions and advocate for amenities and services that fit their definition of community improvement.  Consequently,  it initiates a process of political displacement which subsequently leads to cultural displacement, a change in the neighborhood norms, preferences, and service amenities(Hyra 171). These aspects of change are described in the Brown’s, “The River”.:  “the waves were moving aggressive today, and she wanted to yell to the babies or the mamas but couldn’t get the words together.” These sentiments reflect the immense cultural displacement that has occurred so much so that things are no longer as they use to be. Hyra notes that in specific respects changing norms may be positive. For instance, gentrification can lead to improvement of the community or neighborhood in terms of counteracting norms of violence or a lack of health-producing amenities and activities. However, it may produce unmatched disadvantages such including new norms and incoming amenities in gentrifying neighborhoods becoming insufficiently capable of catering to the preferences of low-income dwellers.

Brown then uses the non-human elements in the story as agents of social justice, champion of the powerless and hopeless. In the midst of despair, water has been portrayed as the redeemer of justice and equality. Water brings justice and fights for the vulnerable at the mercy of the upper echelons in society. The water woman recalls what her grandfather uses to tell her: 

“black people come from a big spacious place, under a great big sky. this little country here, we have to fight for any inches we get. but the water has always helped us get free one way or another.” (Brown 1).

The excerpt above shows how the author uses water to perpetuate them as agents of justice. Black people have always been constantly struggling to find land after being forcefully taken out of their homeland where there was freedom and plenty of land to sow. However, while they are struggling for land, water has always been on their side, helping them to get free one way or the other. The rivers have always been their champion: “your river? Man, Detroit is in that river. The whole river and the parts of the river. Certain parts, it’s like an ancestral burying ground. it’s like a holy vortex of energy.” It shows how they esteem it as a place of hope and a vortex of energy that holds them together and somehow links them to their ancestors. She says that: “and when she’d gone astray, she’d always been able to return to the river.” (Brown 18). The river is their guide and solace and even their refuge. They run to the river when they feel lost, and somehow the river would rejuvenate them and reenergize them back to focus. 

Perhaps the most ostensible case in which Brown uses inhuman elements is when she talks about when the river began seemingly hitting back on the investors who have disrupted the social setting of the poor and vulnerable communities through gentrification. The following passage highlights how Brown uses the river as an agent of justice:

“the kid turned away from the river briefly to look up at the patrol, slack-mouthed and betrayed. Then the damp confused face turned to her and pointed at the water: it took them. She looked over the side of the boat then, down into the shallows and seaweed. The water and weeds moved innocently enough, but there were telltale signs of guilt: a mangled pair of aviator glasses, three strips of natty red board shorts, the back half of a navy-striped tom’s shoe, a tangle of bikini, and an unlikely pile of clean new bones of various lengths and origins.

In the excerpt, water is portrayed as an agent of justice. Water fights for the locals that have been displaced by gentrification as the investors settle in by making it almost unbearable for them to live in the area. Water or waves kills their children, nothing can be done, or anyone can be blamed for it. Water directly speaks to the upper echelons of the society that oppresses and subject the poor to homelessness and displacement.

“no one else seemed to notice that the bodies the river was taking that summer were not the bodies of Detroiters perhaps because it was a diverse body of people, all ages, all races. all folks who had come more recently, drawn by the promise of empty land and easy business, the opportunity available among the ruins of other peoples’ lives.”

The excerpt above shows how the river selectively brings justice to the people who had lived in the area for a long time. It is becoming the agent of social justice and fighting the social-economic injustices in society. Water has been portrayed to work by targeting those who take advantage of their economic power to oppress the powerless, subjecting the vulnerable in the society to displacement and homelessness. According to Solomon et al., Homeownership and high-quality, affordable rental housing are necessary for economic development at the individual level, including facilitating wealth-building. They note that the lawmakers in the US have long sought to secure land for, reduce barriers to, and expand the wealth-building capacity of property ownership and affordable rental housing based on this knowledge. However, the ripple effect of these moves is a manifestation of social injustices and a perpetuation of socio-economic inequalities that have long tainted the history of the US. In their efforts to expand the wealth-building capacities, the poor and the vulnerable communities have been left behind and often fall victims to this effort as they get ripped off their homes. Solomon et al. argue that “these efforts have almost exclusively benefited white households; often, they have removed people of color from their homes, denied them access to wealth-building opportunities, and relocated them to isolated communities” ( 1). It reflects the case portrayed in the short story “The River.” The population has diminished as investors creep into the area. Despite their good intentions, their actions have subjected the residents to unbearable suffering as they are forced to relocate from their homes. 

Therefore, Brown uses the river, an unhuman element, to bring hope and to reassure humans that they are not always the ones to fight their battles. The river epitomizes nature fighting back to restore justice to the individuals who have been deprived of justice. It is an agent used in the text to perpetuate and foresee the return of “our city” to the presently dispossessed communities who had no otherwise and who had been convicted by their powerlessness and vulnerabilities to give in to the incoming population investors. Brown vividly and creates the scene in which the locals receive justice

“and she noticed who stayed, and it was the same people who had always been there. a little unsure of the future maybe, but too deeply rooted to move anywhere quickly. for the first time in a long time, she knew what to say.” (Brown 21).

This excerpt implicitly shows that the investors found the place unbearable and unlivable to the extent that they had to relocate. Ultimately, the individuals who stay behind are the locals who had been deprived of their justice due to gentrification. In doing so, “the River” selectively punishes or fights back. For instance, Brown states that: “it never did touch us know. maybe, maybe it’s a funny way to do it, but maybe it’s a good thing we got our city back?” (Brown 21). It shows that the rivers had little effect on the locals who had lived there for many years, only to be disrupted by encroaching gentrifications and selfless investors. The rivers only bring justice by destabilizing the investors and giving the city back to the rightful owners. It exemplifies the restoration of socio-economic equality and social justice. Zimmer notes, “the history of urban housing in the United States is rife with injustice, ranging from racist discrimination to policies designed to displace poor tenants to enable land grabs by wealthy developers.” ( 54). It exemplifies the case presented in Brown’s “The River.” Wealthy investors have caused depopulation as individuals are displaced to give new developments, which amounts to social-economic injustice. Zimmer argues that “A close historical examination of these injustices would undoubtedly lead us to conclude that the status quo should be changed in significant respects.” (54). As an agent of justice, the river begins to change the status quo by acting strange and making the lives of the investors unbearable. The waves from the river act as the peculiar agent of justice, which targets the upper echelons of society.

Overall, fantasy and fictional stories can sometimes affirm our complacency as humans and reassure us that it is okay not to do anything about that which is beyond their capabilities. They are not the only superheroes expected to fix the challenges that confront humanity in the world. These stories often use their literary elements, such as non-human elements, to shows how injustices are resolved by nature when it fights back. “The River” by  Adrienne Maree Brown exemplifies these literary texts; it uses non-human features to give hope in the midst of hopelessness and powerlessness and reassure humans that nature will fight for their social justice and equality. Through the use of “The River,” Brown creates a story that advocates for socio-economic equality and social justice. The waves from the river act as the strange agent of justice, which targets the upper echelons of the society making their lives unbearable and ultimately suspending the gentrification displacing the poor tenants in the area, and threatening to take over their city. 

Work Cited

Hyra, Derek. “Commentary: Causes and consequences of gentrification and the future of equitable development policy.” Cityscape 18.3 (2016): 169-178.

Imarisha, Walidah, ed. Octavia’s brood: Science fiction stories from social justice movements. AK Press, 2015.

Solomon, Danyelle, Connor Maxwell, and Abril Castro. “Systemic inequality: displacement, exclusion, and segregation.” Center for American Progress 7 (2019).

Zimmer, Tyler. “Gentrification As Injustice.” Public Affairs Quarterly 31.1 (2017): 51-80.