Moving Black Studies Outdoors Brings Nature’s Calm to the ‘Classroom’

Until I moved my classes outdoors, I didn’t realize how much dealing with societal challenges was slowly breaking so many of us down. Racism has deep, long-lasting implications on social, emotional, and physical health. Unless you’ve experienced it many times, you wouldn’t really understand the kinds of panting anxieties that can come from any of it. Every now and again when encountering one of these weary situations, be they cryptic or overtly racist and perhaps even confrontational at times, I can feel a soreness creeping over, into and through my body. I am certain there’s a medication to curb this kind of symptomatic sensation, but there is none to ultimately heal it. In the wake of George Floyd’s death as well as many of his predecessors, I am reminded of my work as an educator and the reasons why we need to forge deeper connections to the earth.

Weekly, sometimes multiple times a day for long stretches at a time, I teach issues related to society’s ills, namely racism, though we all know that’s tied to so many other areas. I don’t profess to have concrete answers to any of the profound questions that my students ask, except that I can recommend a lifetime of readings. “Reading” I usually begin, “is the gateway to understanding what’s really going on, and has actually been going on long before we put our finger on it!” If you asked them whether or not they believed that, they would agree. My other required skills, as a professor, are listening and observing. Suffering at the hands of bias, racism, social inequalities, and violence can lead one down a very dark place. If you watch closely and listen even more intently, you can see it happening. Realizing that the hospitals in our urban neighborhoods aren’t equipped to handle us on a regular day much less during a global viral outbreak, we know we are in troubled waters. We’ve known for too long that we must try and rescue ourselves. So, we moved class outside.

Outside with my class again as we walked through identified sanctuaries in the middle of Manhattan, away from the smog and fumes of our neighborhoods, we could smell lavender growing somewhere nearby.

At the beginning of our outdoor classroom adventures, my students felt silly. They wondered why their Black Studies class was meeting outside, at Central Park. To me, it made sense since among us were several health conditions. In a class of thirty, there were anxiety disorders, diabetes, asthma, sickle-cell anemia, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, lupus, gastric bypasses, multiple surgeries, and several near-death experiences some of which we knew were failures of our society’s response to our needs.

Our bodies needed to be outside.

It was hard for us to frolic the first few times. Not being in the classroom didn’t immediately relax us, and the first time a white woman switched her pocketbook from her right to her left when she saw us heading her way in a pack, I rethought the whole thing. It didn’t stop us although things like this happened from time to time. We continued meeting outdoors, identifying places that tied us to New York and more broadly to American history. It wasn’t that we were ignoring the tepid relationship our community often has with the outdoors, but our being there would protest our common absence. If we depended on media representation of Black and Brown people outdoors, we would have to comb through materials and visuals, and really dig for something of positive contribution.

Though the students mostly change from semester to semester, being outside became much easier and a rumor among the enrolled that, “Dr. B. holds class outside,” peaked a lot of interest about Black Studies outdoors. This was where the benefit began to tell tales for us all.

One afternoon I had a very disturbing confrontation in the most common way that academics will have. The dispute of ideas and questionable practices had drained me, and I was left with a sick feeling. The next day was my “day off,” and I spent it traipsing through a New York arboretum with my children and my husband. We were the only people of color on the grounds, and though there were many children about, mine were the only children of color running to find the redwood trees. The three hours spent there was a luxury and a privilege many couldn’t afford on a regular basis, neither could I. Yet, I felt better for having taken the opportunity.

Time spent among the frogs, the moss, the hornet’s nest we discovered, wooden splinters that gave my daughter a good cry, and the trail my son discovered that led us to a series of caged-owls in rehabilitation led me right back to my Black Studies students with another purpose. Outside with my class again as we walked through identified sanctuaries in the middle of Manhattan, away from the smog and fumes of our neighborhoods, we could smell lavender growing somewhere nearby.

For the first time in a long time, sirens and loud music were replaced by birds.

I told the students the herb was historically used for calmness and watched as they wrote that down. If they weren’t in search of some kind of tranquility what would have been the importance? Instead of succumbing to the cheapness of ninety-nine cents beverages, we found fresh sorrel, and our Jamaican classmate discussed how “sorrel drink” is comparable to American iced tea. For the first time in a long time, sirens and loud music were replaced by birds. We could hear their wings flapping above us, their songs being sung, and we could see them in close proximity to us, unafraid of our humanity. We climbed rocks, high above New York City, and overlooked the city that offered us trials and tribulations alike. We ate on the Great Lawn of the park and discussed Black politics well past the mark of the class being finished. We did some of these things as one of the students lay soundly asleep, flat as a leaf, waiting to be whisked away by a strong breeze.

“Should we wake him?” his classmate asked.

“How can he be bored while we are talking about this?” another asked.

“I think he feels safe. I think he’s tired. Let him rest among the trees,” I said. I wondered when was the last time he had such a sleep, in the company of those he trusted enough to close his eyes.

Sure, many of them fled for shelter when the rain caught us off-guard, but we didn’t altogether leave. The feeling of wellness was too great to disband.

You can’t talk about all the pain, all the hurt, and all the violence in our country’s history, without finding a moral responsibility in providing a balance for those whose historical trauma still plays current roles in their lives. Black Studies for us, has become more than a class. It’s an adventure where we learn the history, politics, and engage in protests even when there isn’t an obvious reason to do so. We aren’t waiting for something awful and tragic to bring us outside, we are already there.

Born and raised in Hells Kitchen NYC, Dr. Regina A. Bernard holds a few degrees, including a Ph.D. in Urban Education. She is the author of three books on education, race, gender, and social justice. She is currently an Associate Professor of Black Studies and Education at the City University of New York.

Photo: Hector Arguelo Canals



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