African Americans and Teaching Climate Change

Written by Deirdre Courtney, PhD student at Western Michigan University.

Like many other urban city kids, my life growing up in Detroit was full of wonderful people, but devoid of any real sense of a connection to the environment.  Our family backyard and city neighborhood parks were the spaces for most of our recreation. While these places were critical for physical exercise they did little to encourage us to learn about nature and the value of green spaces. 

Detroit River, Belle Isle, Detroit MI

Much of what I learned in my youth about nature came from reading textbooks and from the few times my parents would pack the twelve of us up on laps in the family station wagon for a summer holiday bar-b-que in city parks like Belle Isle or River Rouge.  Driving to these parks always seemed to be a great distance and upon arrival they were packed often always overcrowded with many Black families.  Important as they were for us, these close-to-the-city parks are a stark contrast to the huge, natural landscapes of vast ecological beauty such as Yellowstone or Glacier National Parks that more privileged children might visit on summer vacations. 

Needless to say, my family and many other Blacks growing up in low-income areas, were less likely to have access to the types of green spaces and more difficulty appreciating their value. 

It wasn’t until I reached my mid-thirties that I was really was able to experience what I considered ‘real nature” and the ‘real outdoors’.  It began with my experience of only a handful of black students in an environmental-themed course at the University which included a field trip to Yankee Springs Recreation Area, a 5200 acre protected area in Barry County, Michigan that included full camping sites with cabins, hiking trails, what seemed like fields of trees and all types of animal sounds. 

One aspect of the field trip was a “night walk” an activity facilitated by my professor and two other nature enthusiasts.  Each student was required to walk alone in the pitch black of night, from one end of the unfamiliar wilderness until they reached the other members of the group (who were instructed not to make a sound).  My initial feeling was one of horror at the thought of walking with only the light of the stars to guide me.  I remember thinking that any sane black person would simply tell them, “NO! And emphatically emphasize the fact that Black people don’t do this type of camping – expletive!”  I tried every way I could to talk my way out of the activity, but to no avail.  The challenge was not only to take you out of your comfort zone, but to connect with nature, become one with nature, hear the sounds, feel the wind, look at the stars and feel the environment in a way you’ve never felt before.  Albeit scary, it was a life changing experiences that marked the beginning of my desire to understand nature on another level.

Over the years I have learned more about the value of nature, traveled to far-off places by camper, and enjoyed fishing and campfires by the lake.  In the green spaces I visit I see few other people of color.  I wonder, Why do Blacks avoid the outdoors and natural spacesWhy aren’t more African Americans out camping, rafting, taking nature hikes, catching butterflies and exploring natural forests?  I will admit as a kid these spaces seemed to be reserved mostly for Whites, who always shared their summer vacation stories of traveling by camper to seemingly “never to reach” far off places where they would spend hours relaxing, reading by campfire and taking a swim in lakes big as oceans and reporting on the environmental changes they see. Is it possible that for urban African Americans heading into rural, predominately white areas is often unfamiliar and uncomfortable? Or, is it that certain spaces appear to be designed for the ‘privileged’ few?

Given that African Americans do not spend much time in nature, we are often not well informed about the serious consequences of climate change for the environment and for humans.  In April of 2018, according to the Keeling Curve measurement series made at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, CO2 concentrations have hit an all-time record high at 410.31 ppm. Due human induced practices of increased fossil fuel usage and deforestation (to name a few).

This information should prove most unsettling for all of us, and especially African Americans.

The combination of climate warming, heatwaves, the urban heat island effect, and the increase in so-called “natural disasters” puts many Blacks at risk of extreme suffering.  A report by the NAACP suggest that heat-related deaths among Blacks occur at a 150 to 200 percent greater rate than for non-Hispanic Whites.  With urban cities having more air pollution and smog, and Blacks living closer to toxic coal plants, Blacks are prone to higher incidence of upper respiratory complications and asthma. Climate change amplifies these conditions.  Worldwide the communities initially most vulnerable to climate change are the poor and people of color.

Climate change is impacting our community in the United States right here and now, with health consequences, disease, food scarcity and increased mortality.  As a parent of African American children, environmental studies major graduate, climate change impacts teacher and advocate, I try to do all I can to educate members of my community about natural ecosystems, changes in ecology and the changing climate. It is important that all students learn about the unequal impacts of climate change on vulnerable communities.

For educators like YOU who want to address topics related to climate change, nature and the African American experience I encourage you to build on minority narratives and resources to engage your students.

Your students might engage in fact-gathering research projects on African American contributors to nature and climate science such as Dr. Warren Washington A Pioneering Black Climate Scientist, awarded the prestigious Medal of Science in 2010 by President Obama or Betty Reid Soskin, at 96 the nation’s oldest career serving Black Park Ranger,.

You can assign young adult novels such as Hurricane Song (2009) by Paul Volponi that describes the experience of African American family in New Orleans when hurricane Katrina hits.  Or “cli-fi” novels such as Orleans written in black English vernacular by Sherri Smith in 2014 and set in a post-apocalyptic, dystopian world ravaged by natural disaster and disease as a result of climate change.

Or Octavia Butler’s powerful Parable of the Sower.  Written in 1993 from the point of view of a Black teenager girl, it describes America in the 2020s and 30s where two leaders arise: one, a demagogue playing on the nation’s fears and religious sensitivities promising to ‘make America great again’ who convinces a large swath of the population to turn against those who don’t conform and the other a young, precocious Black woman with a vision to transcend human misery and build community.

These texts can engage African American students, and all students, and help them to better understand and imagine the impacts of climatechange on the social order, on communities of color, and the importance of addressing it.

Today with increasing greenhouse gases, heat waves, hurricanes and flooding, drought, and other human-caused climate change, African Americans are disproportionately suffering. Our community needs to become better connected to nature and more aware of the impacts scientists are predicting. Living on the frontline of climate impacts, African Americans can join with others and act now to protect their communities and save the planet.

After exploring these reads and engaging your student on issues on the environment what better way to culminate their newly formed knowledge better than a field trip out in nature, local nature centers, botanical gardens to further explore nature, natural landscapes and climate change impacts.

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