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When Stacey Ryan lived in Mossville, Louisiana, a free Black community founded before the Civil War, he liked to watch the skyline of the futuristic city rising outside his front door at night.  

"I'm addicted to the light," he says in the 2019 film Mossville: When Great Trees Fall. "Your imagination takes hold and you dream of the future… It was beautiful, and deadly too. But we didn't know that."

In reality, Ryan's futuristic city was a cluster of oil refineries and petrochemical plants. 

I first learned about Mossville back in 2008, when members of Mossville Environmental Action Now (MEAN) showed up to a public meeting of Louisiana state officials I organized at New Orleans City Hall. They were wearing red MEAN t-shirts, and had traveled over 200 miles to demand that officials do something about the toxic industries erasing their community. Families were either being forced off their ancestral lands, or had died from illnesses linked to the pollution. Several of Ryan's family members died young of cancer. 

As the world rages against anti-Blackness manifested through policing, surveillance, and incarceration, Mossville widens our scope of anti-Blackness to show how it emerges in the air we breathe—it is the weather.

Today, Mossville is nearly gone. Ryan, the last resident in his part of the community, now lives  across the river. But he didn't go without a massive fight, as beautifully documented in Mossville, directed by Alexander Glustrom (Big Charity, 2014) and co-produced by Mossville native Daniel Bennett. 

See also: On Blackness and Bad Weather

As the world rages against anti-Blackness manifested through policing, surveillance, and incarceration, Mossville widens our scope of anti-Blackness to show how it emerges in the air we breathe—it is the weather

Black communities like Mossville are too prevalent to list. These are often places where Black people escaped slavery, built communities post-Emancipation, or founded new communities during the Great Migration. They are often rural or suburban places—most without formal state recognition as towns—and as such are missing from many maps. 

"In Mossville you were free. Everybody knew everybody and was kin to everybody. We weren't afraid."

In my experience, having traveled to several Black-founded communities across the South, from Institute, West Virginia, to White Hall, Alabama, there are commonalities in how these places govern themselves and survive. One aspect that many share is the dual practice of familial land stewardship and sustainable agriculture. 

Speak to anyone older than 60 years old in most of these communities, and they'll describe fruit orchards, small farms, and fisheries maintained over multiple generations. The intent in places like this was never to simply own land for profit. It was to sustain safe Black communities in perpetuity. 

Mossville is no different. In the first 15 minutes of the film, Erica Jackson, a descendant of the Fishers, one of seven families that founded the community, describes a safe haven with churches, stores, and schools. 

"In Mossville you were free," she says in the film. "Everybody knew everybody and was kin to everybody. We weren't afraid." 

There were orchards full of muscadine, pears, and wild plums.

"But when the plants came, all the trees died," another person adds.

The company is one of the largest sources of CO2.

Mossville does its best work by both visualizing and telling the story of how the fight against environmental racism is also a global fight for Black safety and self determination. Sasol (South African Synthetic Oil Liquid), Mossville's most prominent industrial villain is a corporation first established to maintain apartheid in South Africa through independent energy production, as global divestment campaigns cut off their oil supply from other countries. 

The filmmakers travel to Secunda and Zamdela, two South African communities already expunged of their indigenous peoples, now occupied by Black people who migrated for the promise of stable work at Sasol and better lives. They connect Sasol's evisceration of the communities' safety, health, and freedom to the company's pending erasure of Mossville. The camera pans across a familiar futuristic city of beautiful blinking lights in Zamdela, as one of the residents, Carolina Ntaopane, points out the distinctive glow of toxic flares against the night sky. 

"It's like they are saying, let's pollute them while they are sleeping."  

See also: In Conditions Of Fresh Water

Sasol built a plant in Mossville similar to Secunda. The company is one of the largest sources of CO2.

Ryan's front yard is filled with DIY infrastructures—water, sanitation, and electricity rigged through pipes, tubes, and car batteries. Sasol had those services cut to try to force him out, but Ryan bested them. He was raised in his daddy's auto mechanic shop, and fixed his first car at 12. 

But when the tree he planted at the age of 11 fell in his yard, that seemed like a symbolic last straw. There are several shots in the film of him slowly cutting away at its trunk, as you hear tractors in the distance stripping more and more of the land for construction. 

"It couldn't hold itself up anymore."

Mossville doesn't end with hope. Glustrom, the director, rightly thought that the sentiment "didn't feel true to [the] characters' realities." 

But watching the film again in the last two weeks, as Black people across the globe chant 'We Can't Breathe,' I found another kind of hope in seeing the hopelessness of racism and capitalism. Mossville inspires a cry for abolition of these interlocking systems, which are deeply linked to the toxicity of policing and incarceration. Abolition is the hope. 

Watch the film and learn more about how you can join in solidarity with Southern fenceline communities like Mossville at our next virtual film screening and panel discussion Breathing While Black: fighting environmental racism in the South. Thursday June 25 at 6:30 p.m. EST.

Danielle Purifoy

Danielle is a Black queer lawyer and geographer at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is the Race and Place Editor at Scalawag.