‘The Black Outdoors’ course explores race and the environment

by Mia Nelson | 4/11/19 2:00am

This spring, English and creative writing professor Joshua Bennett is teaching ENGL 53.29/AAAS 35.50; “Introduction to African American Environmental Thought: The Black Outdoors.” Bennett said that his work as a poet and a professor of the class both relate to his interest in preservation and spreading awareness.His course seeks to bring light to the vast artistic and ecological life of the African American literary canon as well as their lived experiences in the outdoors. Bennett has a fascination with black literature and poetics, especially in relation to environmental and animality studies. 

According to Bennett, the class seeks to address these essential questions: “How have these people that have been historically denigrated in relationship to this environment they were made to work, how did they reclaim that, how have black people reclaimed the earth and animal life, and how are they in solidarity with animal life and plant life and the dirt?” 

Bennett said he first explored these topics in depth at Princeton University while working on his Ph.D. 

“For these people who have been historically compared to animals in all these violent ways, why would they ever write about them? It’s just a question that haunted me in grad school,” Bennett said. 

After reading the works of African American authors “who wrote beautifully about animals and beautifully about trees and the sea and dirt and the sky,” Bennett was taken aback “because part of what that meant was that racism was not totalizing it can not destroy your imagination or the way you relate to the world,” he said. 

For those of us who are not taking his class this quarter, I suggest reading his collection of poems, “The Sobbing School,” for which he won the 2015 National Poetry Series and was named a finalist for an NAACP Image Award. The book is a reminder of poetry’s importance for all people, not just writers. 

“[Poetry] gets us down to the core of not just what we mean, but maybe what we can’t yet mean or can’t yet say,” Bennett said. “The meanings or the language we are still in pursuit of, I think that is what poetry is at its core. It gives us a language for the ‘not yet,’ the world that is not yet here, and it is helping us build it.” 

In “The Sobbing School,” Bennett’s poetic world focuses heavily on historical preservation. Many of his poems deal with African American characters from history.

He also expressed gratitude for his family and teachers who incorporated African American lives and achievements into his life.  “I always had a sense that black people were active in global and American history,” he said. “I never felt like I couldn’t participate in the world, which I think is one of the aims of the American school system: to make black children, brown children, indigenous children feel left out of the grand narrative of history.” Both his writings and his course are designed to reclaim space for African Americans in the narrative of history and literature. Of his knowledge and awareness of African Americans in history and art, he said that he believes “part of [his] responsibility as a poet is to pass that knowledge down.”

This responsibility is why the title of “The Sobbing School” comes from a Zora Neale Hurston essay.

“I hope when people Google [“The Sobbing School”] they find not only my book and my poems but also her essay,” Bennett said. 

Bennett added that, historical African American figures and writers are an essential element of our common history and that is important to him to “lift those people’s names to the air.”

In anticipation of his two upcoming works­ — a collection of essays titled “Property Once Myself: Blackness and the End of Man” and a new poetry book “Owed” — both of which are projected to come out in 2020, I read “The Sobbing School,” and found it to be is a soaring work of poetry, ruminating on family, history and the black experience.

In the poem “On Extinction” Bennett writes about the resiliency necessary for African Americans to survive in a hostile world: “The woman across the table from is scared to raise her son, fears he will be killed by police.” The line that most struck me and that most communicated both strength and fear was the line, “In 1896, Frederick Hoffman claimed every Negro/in the U.S. would be dead by the year/of my younger brother’s birth.” Bennett’s narrator is claiming ownership of a life that must resurrect itself by the act of living in the face of a predicted and violent disappearance which is inherently revolutionary. 

The speaker writes that, because of this, “...When I consider extinction,/ I do not think of sad men with guns .../but the sheer breadth/of our refusal,/how my mother, without stopping/even to write a poem about it,/woke up yesterday/and this morning again.” The refusal to die is the opposite of extinction, but that refusal is also the crux of what the word ‘extinction’ actually means, for we can only know extinction by the absence of someone who was once there. 

To me, “On Extinction” conjures a reclaiming of the polarity of the word “extinction,” meaning that the existence of the speaker’s mother, and symbolically a larger African American community, is made even stronger by being aware of its opposite. In his poem “On Blueness,” Bennett asks, “Who can be alive today/and not study grief?” “The Sobbing School” is in itself a study of grief punctuated by brief moments of joy.  

For me, my own study of joy centered on my conversation with Bennett, who is truly the most poetic and inspiring person I have ever met. To anyone still skeptical on the power about poetry, I wish to leave this article in the same way Bennett ended our conversation — with the following musing: “poetry is infinitely valuable … poetry gives language to life and gives us a better language for life.”