As It Happens

What it's like to be a Black ornithology professor cycling across the U.S. right now

When Harvard ornithology professor Scott Edwards first started planning his cross-country bicycle tour, the world felt like a different place.

Scott Edwards says his journey took on ‘a larger purpose’ in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement 

Harvard ornithology professor Scott Edwards is cycling across the U.S. (Submitted by Scott Edwards)
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When Harvard ornithology professor Scott Edwards first started planning his cross-country bicycle tour, the world felt like a different place.

George Floyd, a Black man, had not yet been killed by a white Minneapolis police officer. Christian Cooper, a Black bird watcher, had not yet been threatened by a white woman in Central Park. Thousands of people had not yet taken to the streets across the U.S., Canada and elsewhere to protest anti-Black racism. 

These things, he said, have "changed the tenor" of his journey. Now he rides with signs that promote the Black Lives Matter movement and express solidarity with Black birders. 

And as a Black man travelling alone through the rural U.S., he says he's been having fascinating conversations with everyday people about this unique moment in time.

Edwards is now nearly a month into his trip from the Atlantic to the Pacific. He spoke to As It Happens guest host Duncan McCue from Henry, Ill. Here is part of their conversation. 

I understand you've had this dream of cycling across the country for years now. Why?

It's a dream a lot of folks have, actually. I'm certainly not the first one. And, you know, biking long distance, it's a great way to see a country. 

Whether it's Europe or whether it's, you know, the United States or Canada, bicycling slows you down, allows you to look at stuff, allows you to talk to people, and allows you to see the landscape in a way that you'd never, ever see from a car, or I would argue, even for a motorcycle. 

So that is why I'm bicycling, and yeah, so far it's going really well.

You were able to hatch this trip because things slowed down on the Harvard campus because of the pandemic. When you started to plan the trip, how did your feelings about it change after the police killed George Floyd and then also the incident involving a Black birder in Central Park? 

Those kinds of incidents are terrible. And as an African American in the United States, you know, I will not claim I've had anything close to what the Black birder in Central Park had or anything.

But I have done a lot of fieldwork around the world and worked out by myself in odd places and places where folks might be suspicious and think you're doing something that you aren't. And, you know, you just learn to be cautious, look over your shoulder.

The truth is, 99 per cent of the planet's people are well-meaning and nice. And unfortunately, we tend to hear about the bad incidents. 

So those incidents did not change my plans, although they did change the tenor of my bicycle trip for sure.

How?

About three or four days into the trip, I was planning on a homestay through this organization. And, you know, the woman I was going to stay with looked at my profile online and she immediately reached out and said, hey, "Are you involved with the Black Birders Week?"

I was intrigued by that because, honestly, whether you're Black or white, most people had never even heard of the Black Birders Week.

The next day, you know, it just dawned on me that I might be able to ask this lady to make a few signs for me so I could contribute in a small way to expressing the outrage of African Americans and other people of colour. 

And, my goodness, she just went to town. And within 24 hours, you had beautiful signs made.

It's been a great mix of birds, Black Lives Matter, and just kind of spacing out on the long road- Scott Edwards, ornithologist 

After that, you know, I guess my ride took on a bit of a larger purpose. I won't claim that it's a ride for Black Lives Matter now. But I will say that the signs have definitely generated discussion. They generate notice. People are curious. You know, you get all kinds of reactions, most of them positive.

I can definitely say it's allowed me to connect with people way more substantially and substantively than I would have otherwise.

Well, you're an ornithologist. You're a bird expert. I wonder now, now that you have a Black Lives Matter sign on your bike, how have people been responding to you?

Most people I know have sort of blank stares. It's hard to tell what they're thinking or whether they've even seen the signs at all. But, you know, you do get the odd honk and you get the odd fist out the window.

I stopped by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology on my way through Ithaca, New York, and picked up a couple of signs that they made, you know, capturing the tenor of the times. One says "Birds spark hope," which, you know, I think anyone reading that and thinking about it would have a general idea that, yeah, we do need hope right now. And I think going to nature is one way of doing that.

So it's been a great mix of birds, black Lives Matter, and just kind of spacing out on the long road. Yeah, it's been great.

How easy is it as a Black man in America for you and in some of these smaller communities where there may not be a lot of Black folks?

When I walk into a small pub in a small town and, you know, all the people in the pub are white and ... most of them are over 60 or 70, as the only Black person in the room, yeah, I'm a little nervous.

I suspect a lot of that is unfounded. These are nice people. And, you know, as isolated as some of the communities may be, they're hip to the world. They know what's out there.

And a lot of the Black Lives Matter protests have been taking place in the big cities — Minneapolis, St. Louis. You've been sticking to rural routes, you know, taking pictures of cows and historic sites. Is the conversation different off the beaten track than what we've been seeing in the media?

I've seen some of the themes that we see in the media. For example, a lot of people I've talked with recently, they kind of associate Black Lives Matter with mayhem, with looting, with the chaos that's come in the wake of some of these otherwise peaceful protests. And that's unfortunate.

One guy said to me that this Black Lives Matter movement, "Well, you know it's being funded by the Democrats." I mean, so you do hear a little bit of that sort of crazy stuff.

But in the same breath, they will tell you that, "It doesn't matter what your colour is, we're not racist here." 

What's hard, I think, for me, is to convey to folks in rural communities who, you know, they may not have any Black friends at all, how important this is. But they're going to necessarily see it through the lens of rural and urban. And for many of them, it very much is one of these pathologies that happens in big cities, and the farther away you stay from it, the better.

But in the same breath, as I say, they're super nice, super generous. I have received so much generosity on this trip.

Last question for you: Have you seen any special birds?

Seen a lot of good birds, yeah. Just some like red-headed woodpeckers, which we don't get much of in Massachusetts. I got a few dickcissels, which are kind of a prairie bird. And today I saw what [I'm] pretty sure was an upland sandpiper, which is, again, kind of an inland shorebird that you wouldn't find close to water.

I feel fortunate to be able to connect to nature, at least through birds, and to sort of know who my neighbours are as I'm travelling through their landscape. And that really does bring a sense of community and fulfilment.


Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Tayo Bero. Edited for length and clarity. 

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