As I speak to more people these days about African Americans and the outdoors, a question that most often leads the conversation is, “Why don’t African Americans engage with nature?”, which admittedly prompts me to let out a little sigh…
Since founding Outdoor Afro, what has excited me most is the number of African Americans from around the country who share a variety of ways nature can be enjoyed. People post pictures, blogs, and videos that collectively shout, “Yes, we do love the outdoors!”
We sometimes forget that African Americans have always valued peace, recreation, and connection in natural spaces, but the way we connect with nature can sometimes look different than what others may define as “real” engagement and may not take on the form of activities such as primitive camping, rock climbing, mountaineering, or whitewater rafting.
Black participation in nature can also be difficult to measure, and is rarely featured within mainstream media representation. But it does exist. From Harriet Tubman, who knew how to navigate slaves to freedom because of the interpretive path nature provided her, to our mother’s vegetable gardens that nourished our homes, to the black vacationers at American Beach – we have thrived in nature.
“But I hike all the time, and I never see African-Americans on the trail!”
There are indeed some graphic historic associations and memories involving prohibited access to parks; terror in the woods and in open water that inhibit some African Americans from building on our relationship with nature to include more places and activities. Dr. Carolyn Finney of UC Berkeley, Dr. Nina Roberts of San Francisco State University, and authors Audrey Peterman and Dianne Glave have each done a remarkable job of both researching and documenting our fascinating history with nature; they all conclude that in spite of a sometimes tenuous past, positive African American relationships to land and place prevail.
But today, even as we work and conduct business together, Americans still lead somewhat segregated lives when it comes to where we live, worship, and recreate. Many African-Americans share on Outdoor Afro that they enjoy familiar nature easily accessible from home, such as local parks, lakes, or backyards in the company of family and friends, versus venturing miles away from cities to unfamiliar places where few people “look like them” and, in reality, may not welcome them.
So how do we dispel the myths?
Even those African Americans who swear they hate camping, and say they only do the outdoors if there is a 4-star hotel involved, can still admit to fond memories of fishing along the banks of a favorite lake with a family member, or might be found eagerly participating in family gatherings, celebrations, or reunions under the canopy of trees. Like this one:
So it is important to remember that engagement with the outdoors for African Americans, and other ethnic groups, can take on many forms in various places. It might look much different than mainstream adventure based activities. For these reasons, the work before those of us who are trying to create relevant outdoor programming, or share new experiences in nature should recognize and build on existing behaviors and preferences.
Therefore perhaps a more compelling leading query in the journey toward greater participation in the outdoors might be, “How can African Americans expand on their relationship to nature?” — an elevating question that Outdoor Afro and many others are eager to answer and will continue to pursue.