Lions and Tigers and Black Folk, Oh My! Why Black People Should Take Up Space Outdoors.
"Stuff white people like."
"Black people don't do stuff like that"
Those are a few things you hear when discussing black people's involvement in outdoor activities. I had a different experience. I grew up on a farm. We had cows, I milked them. We also had hogs and chickens. Some mornings I would go out to the barn to see if the chickens laid eggs and that was breakfast. I drove tractors, planted and tended to fields and gardens, and rode dirt bikes and four wheelers in the woods. Climbed trees, picked up bugs and lizards, and would lay in the grass under a nice shady tree to escape long days of work in the fields over the summer. At any given time, you could find me with my encyclopedias and nature books I checked out from the library, identifying plants and insects in the woods directly behind my house. You could also find me in those same trees doing homework or reading a book in my brothers deer stand. That was my childhood, and I loved it.
Growing up, because I was young and impressionable, I also aligned myself to the belief that there were some things that are inherently white. Camping, hiking, skiing, most water sports including swimming, sky diving, mass shootings (too soon or too real?) etc. I personally always wanted to try some of those activities but did not feel like I would fit in considering that was what we were told and considering that most of the kids that did that, also didn't make it a habit to hang out with Black kids. I should mention that I was raised in South Carolina. That means the segregation seen in those activities also involved racism; the main reason my parents didn't want to encourage my involvement in it. I, however, resisted and found myself at my first (mostly white) sleep away summer camp, Camp Wildwood, where I slept in cabins, waded in water with snakes, took a night hike, and participated in relay races in the water among other things. That camp furthered my passion for nature and the outdoors and honestly contributed to who I am today.
Unfortunately, everyone does that have that same experience. Even my siblings, who were also farm kids, don't enjoy the same activities like I do. While I understand the phrase different strokes for different folks, this issue, in my opinion, is much more deeply rooted that a matter of taste. Instead I believe it to be the results of yet another by product of systemic racism. If there are any non POCs reading this that are tired of us black folk playing the race card, I urge you continue to read because something about this topic intrigued you and maybe, just maybe, I have something to teach you.
Facts are facts and American history classes typically have a funny relationship with the truth. By that, I mean things that are embarrassing, shameful, and despicable often gets remixed or removed from the narrative only to be uncovered if matters of education are taken into your own hands. To begin to understand this topic we need to go back in time a bit. I am not about to give you a full history lesson here but there are some really important things to note relating to this topic. Because of our history and the disdain for African Americans from the beginning, White men created laws and policies that further instilled that hatred for African Americans which was also instilled in households across Americas. If the law doesn't even respect black folk, why should anyone else? (Systemic Racism strikes again).
Camping was actually established as a way for the wealthy and elite to venture out into the wild. However, when cars became more accessible, the pool of those that camped start to diversify itself. Not so much with African-Americans but with people of different class levels at first. When Black folks started to partake in those activities, some National Parks service created segregated parks! There were literally NATIONAL PARKS THAT WERE SEGREGATED. White men did not even want us outside. We were free but still micromanaged aka policed literally everywhere we went. Unfortunately, not much has changed. Even before the rise of social media, black and brown people have been constantly policed outdoors by white people that feel like their ancestors did when they took America from the Native Americans; this land is our land. Of course, that does not apply to all white people but the FACT is that it does applies to a lot and we have seen that much more lately. Thankfully, the National Parks service has been trying to implement more changes to encourage and foster the involvement of minorities in nature lately, unfortunately the message is still bogged down with past grievances, poor rhetoric, lack of information, and other outside factors.
Venturing to National Parks, even without discrimination policies was and is very difficult for MOST black people today. Let us consider where our National Parks are located. Looking at this photo, something should be stirring in your mind about where this is going. Most of Americans National Parks are located in the mid west and west coast. Most of the African American population live in the Southeast. Planning a trip to these parks, for people with no camping equipment or park passes start to get really expensive really quickly. It involves flights, car rental, equipment rental, and time off of work to really experience all that the parks have to offer. While there are definitely options locally for a lot of people, our National Parks highlight the reason for this article in a great way.
Now lets get back to that little thing called slavery we all may have heard about. I had a really great conversation with a black therapist that specializes in generational trauma which essentially means that people can inherit their parents trauma. When talking to her, I could not help but think that this generational trauma could potentially go back more than just one or two generations. When we think about why people say "black people don't go camping" we need to really consider why that is. For a long time, prior to most of our existence, the woods were a scary place. Bad things happened in the woods. Lynchings, hangings, KKK cross burnings, dogs sent after runaway slaves and more. All of these events have scarred the image of wilderness for a lot of black people. The KKK is comprised of a very common type of person and those types of people are those that surround the areas of National Parks; rural country white folk. The same applies for water activities. Slaves got here by sea. Many drowned, were thrown overboard, became sea sick, and even jumped to escape bondage. Learning to swim is not something that just happens in black households like with other races. My parents, born in the 1940s, did not grow up around integrated pools so they didn't learn to swim and because of that they couldn't teach us how to swim. Inner city kids don't really have access to public pools neither did their parents or grandparents. I personally didn't learn to swim until my junior year of college. I was 20.
We have seen a great deal of progress in this area and there are several studies that show that. I didn't cite those studies because I personally feel like the areas that show that more African Americans frequent or even participate in these activities are in places with relatively easy access. These locations also often have programs that encourage involvement that are close to home for those participants so it is much easier for them. My main point for writing this article is to continue that growth, erase stigmas about African-Americans that are afraid of regarding camping, and change the perception that non POCs have about what Black people do or don't do.
I feel safe in the woods. I feel comforted by the trees. I feel energized by the soil and rocks. I feel awakened by the breeze. I feel invigorated and inspired by the rain. I am fascinated by storms. Nature is terrifying but only because of the unlimited capability it possesses but I do not fear nature. And my hope, above everything else, is that black and brown people start inhabiting this space more. If we are expected to sing and believe “This land is your land” or the National Anthem, if we are expected to say the pledge of allegiance, and if we are expected to full cherish and respect OUR country, then WE need to start fully inhabiting it.