Letter to My Students: Beloved Community

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Dear Students,

We have reached the last week of classes and this semester will soon be history.  As you are writing your final reflections this week, I would like to write a reflection for you as well. The purpose of this reflection is to create an archival record of teaching and learning in 2020. This record, I hope, will allow us to remember the difficult histories of this year, and to retain a living memory of the work we accomplished.

Your class and the spring 2020 class had the same theme, Beloved Community, and the same first reading assignment, the James Baldwin 1963 lecture, “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity.” In this lecture, Baldwin connects questions of artistic integrity to ongoing Civil Rights struggles across the United States. 

When I think of the spring semester before lockdown, I think of a specific poorly ventilated classroom that was either too hot or too cold. Although the room offered a large floor fan to help with ventilation, the fan did not work. I would urge students to dress in layers for our class. Here is a photo of the room. 


susan_bernstein_0-1607356306576.jpegA broken floor fan stands in a poorly ventilated classroom.

Coats, sweatshirts, scarves, and other layers of clothing are piled on top of the fan.

The word “Love” is embroidered on a black and white scarf on the right-hand side. 


In this room, in the fourth week of the spring 2020 semester, we wondered together: “What would Baldwin do in a place like this?” In week four, we were still meeting face-to-face. I was still taking the train and writing field notes on the long ride home. Covid-19 loomed in the near future. Some of my fellow commuters were beginning to wear masks, but we were not yet socially distancing. Tony McDade, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery were still alive. The spring protests in rage and memory of their murders had not yet happened. 

James Baldwin-- novelist, essayist, activist, Black, queer, Harlem born and raised-- an artist who engaged in a lifelong struggle for integrity-- how would he respond “in a country like ours, and at a time like this”? 

 “Baldwin would protest,” the students said. 

An impromptu multimedia project followed. The students designed a composition from our removable layers of clothing, arranging each piece carefully on the broken floor fan. A photo of this project was posted on social media. Two weeks later, Covid-19 took hold of our city, the governor closed our college, and lockdown and remote learning began.

For our all-Zoom Fall 2020 semester, as you know, we could not use the campus as a social space of sensory experiences, and often we could not see each others’ faces or hear each others’ voices. Instead of face-to-face multimedia installations, you had the option of creating a multimedia journal entry.

You made drawings, collages, paintings, lyrics, as well as your own videos. In your work, you connected Baldwin and King’s activism for Beloved Community to the intersections of the Covid-19 pandemic and the movement for Black Lives. In making a video  (with your permission) to showcase the multimedia projects, I imagined the merging of the campus classroom and our Zoom room. This singular space of reading-writing-teaching-learning, for me, embodies the process of Beloved Community, “the journey and not just the destination.” 

 As we say our virtual good-bys and as I begin to prepare for another semester of remote learning in the new year, I will try to remember this process for the lessons yet to come.


Thank you for this semester and best regards,

Prof. Susan 

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About the Author
Susan Naomi Bernstein (she/they) writes, teaches, and quilts, in Queens, NY. She blogs for Bedford Bits, and her recent publications include “The Body Cannot Sustain an Insurrection” in the Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics and “After Basic Writing” in TETYC. Her book is Teaching Developmental Writing. Other publications include “Theory in Practice: Halloween Write-In,” with Ian James, William F. Martin, and Meghan Kelsey in Basic Writing eJournal 16.1, “An Unconventional Education: Letter to Basic Writing Practicum Students in Journal of Basic Writing 37.1, “Occupy Basic Writing: Pedagogy in the Wake of Austerity,” in Nancy Welch and Tony Scott’s collection Composition in the Age of Austerity. Susan also has published on Louisa May Alcott, and has exhibited her quilts in Phoenix, Arizona and Brooklyn, NY.