- the complexity and nuance of black identity and black experience in this country (South and North), culminating in present-day reflections on defining “home” as an African American woman in Vermont, and
- the African Diaspora’s rich, complicated relationship to nature as reflected in African Diasporic literature for generations. One can observe striking patterns in how particular natural elements, such as water, are incorporated into the articulation of the Black experience in written work.
Connection 1. Emily BERNARD ׀ University of Vermont
Professor of Critical Race and Ethnic Studies and Julian Lindsay Green & Gold Professor of English
In January 2019, Professor Emily Bernard’s 12-essay memoir titled, Black is the Body hit the shelves. On January 24th, 2019, she announced its availability to readers like me as a guest on Vermont Public Radio News (VPR News).
An African American woman, living in Vermont, teaching about race and writing a book about her own personal experience?!?! I thought to myself. I couldn’t have tuned in at a better time.
Shortly after her feature on VPR News, she appeared as a guest on National Public Radio (NPR). This time, she was interviewed by On Point Radio‘s Meghna Chakrabarti.
Wow, I thought, someone really wants me to read this book!
I could not order the book immediately. It would be wiser to wait until my next paycheck and budget cycle. In the meantime, I decided to reach out to ask Professor Bernard about Vermont directly and to share about this project. I hoped to be a future fellow black female resident. I imagined that her insight, her wisdom and any frank warnings she may have about life in Vermont would be incredibly valuable to my decision making.
Many of my questions, I soon discovered, were answered in her book.
To my good fortune, she replied. As she had just released a book, her schedule was quite busy. We agreed to keep in touch and consider meeting in the spring. She offered to help introduce me to more black people in the state.* She also recommended that we reconnect when her schedule is less crazy, toward the spring. It was January as well, and we both live in the Northeast. I found myself relieved at the idea of meeting her during more favorable weather and with more time to read her book.
I finished reading Black is the Body. As I wrote to a friend recently, “There are a number of things she expresses that completely resonate with me! Heart and soul. She illustrates them beautifully and accurately with room for resonance personally. It’s Art.”
We are aiming to grab coffee this summer. I am looking forward to meeting her.
*At the time of her offer to introduce me to other black residents of the state, I did not realize how challenging it can be to cross paths and make acquaintances with another black person in Vermont. I’ll write more about this in Strides: Update 3, part 2.
Connection 2. Jonathan Howard ׀ Boston College
Assistant Professor of English, specializing in “African Diaspora literatures and environmental humanities”
In February 2019, mutual friends connected me to Professor Jonathan Howard. As I read over his background prior to meeting, I was joyful in anticipation of all the topics we might be able to discuss. It had been less than a month since connecting with Professor Bernard, and now I’d be able to meet a scholar closer to home. He would be my fourth new African American acquaintance stemming from this project, and his area of expertise was the intersection of black identity and environmentalism. I couldn’t help not also assuming that he shared an interested in getting outdoors.
Highlights from our conversation
- Sharing our backgrounds:
-How did we independently arrive… in the Northeast?
-How did we end up thinking about the environment, nature, social justice, and the complex relationship between Black identity and the natural world?
-How have we navigated black identity differently over time? including in the realization that the outdoors is so often viewed as a “white” space?
Despite our differences in upbringing and Black identity formation, we shared:
- appreciation for the natural world,
- a desire to connect with nature more frequently, and
- a call to challenge the myths, perceptions, and structural realities (e.g. racism, segregation, financial barriers) that separate many black communities–poor urban communities, period–from the restorative virtue of
–Remembering one’s inherent connection to nature, as part of Creation,
-Regularly incorporating time in nature into one’s life, from strolls in city parks to hiking in the mountains.
- Recognizing the violence of a world of concrete:
At one point, Professor Howard reflected on the meaning and impact of living the majority of one’s childhood surrounded by concrete, by man-made surfaces. He described it as a violence. To expound on my memory of this segment of our conversation: these man-made surfaces serve as impenetrable separators of an urban child from the earth in nearly every setting they inhabit.
He recalled one stage of his own awakening to the a greater appreciation of nature. He spent weeks, he said, walking around picking up dirt, putting his hands in dirt, letting it fall through his fingers (I wax a little poetic here), pleased by the physical contact with the dirt. It fascinated him! Listening to his story, I thought of how his fascination was an exception his prior thoughts on soil. I thought of how infrequently I–and likely most of us–reflect on my place and space as part of the beautiful, awesome natural world.
I mean, how often do each of you walk upon raw earth, on any given day of the week, in either an urban or a rural setting?
When we live in industrialized, sanitized, concrete jungles that are cities, we need to be more intentional about incorporating time in natural spaces into our routine.
Reflecting on the long-term impact of a child’s extended separation from natural environments, I pointed to a consideration by African American outdoorsman, journalist and author, James Edward Mills:
One day, the United States of America will be a majority-minority country.
If this “great dissociation” between nature and a significant portion of the majority-minority population remains our reality, how negatively could that impact environmental justice, and environmental stewardship, as a priority for the health and flourishing of all?
- An unconsidered hurdle to homeownership:
“She has always rented,” Professor Howard shared about his mother.
Professor Howard grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Everyone else around her rented as well! He considered this may be a matter-of-fact, and significant, reason for why purchasing a home hadn’t been a priority for either his mother or perhaps for others he knows.
Book: Black is the Body
I did not go into to detail earlier about my reaction to Professor Bernard’s book, Black is the Body. Reflection on her work deserves its own space. Professor Howard also shared resources on black identity and environmentalism. Let’s dive in.
Black is the Body by Emily Bernard was worth every minute. I look forward to reading it again, before meeting the Professor. For now, it is on loan to a friend!
Below is an excerpt of my initial feedback to Bernard about her memoir:
To Emily Bernard:
... Towards the end, when you wrote about your Vermont scoreboard, it definitely got to the heart of my questions about your experience as a black woman in the state. Sometimes I feel ridiculous sharing my interest in moving to a state with such little diversity. As I research, I have wondered what one of your students asked in your book: “Why would a minority stay?” As my discernment process continues, I will reflect on how Vermont is not yet “home” for you, but you have found a place there nonetheless. …
“Your work also encourages me take more initiative to tell my own stories, both for myself and my self-care, and in the knowledge that telling could be/can be a comfort and a witness to others.”
Bibliography: “African American Religious and Civic Environmentalism”
Professor Howard passed along this link to access the African American Religious and Civic Environmentalism Bibliography by poet, librarian, scholar and meditation teacher Elonda Clay. Dozens of books about black identity, nature, faith, you name it, are listed here. This is enough reading for my lifetime.
I have already ordered and received two books that are on this list, as well as one that he and I discussed:
- Rooted in the Earth: Reclaiming the African American Environmental Heritage by Diane D. Glave
- Belonging: A Culture of Place by bell hooks (in progress!)
- The Adventure Gap by James Edward Mills
Recognizing my interest in nature, poetry, and reflection on black identity, Howard recommended “the first anthology to focus on nature writing by African American poets, a genre that until now has not commonly been counted as one in which African American poets have participated.” in the form of:
Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, edited by Camille Dungy
It’s quite $$, so I am saving this title to purchase at a later date.
And that concludes part 1 of this Stride: Update 3! We are mid-stride. I didn’t even get to the photos or the story about my trips around New England, and once to Canada, this year! I actually got outdoor on more than one occasion 🙂
I’ll be back soon! Thank you for reading. As always, I hope you enjoyed it.
Up next: Strides: Update 3, part 2 – Visiting & Being (with photos!)
Copyright © 2019 A.M. Wilsonne