Our Outdoors Heritage
Every day in my work I witness countless ways in which people who look like me connect with and feel transformed by nature. Yet, at the same time, I often get asked the question: “Why aren’t there more black people out in nature?” And my answer is always: “You are not looking at the right places.”
I’ve made it my business to share how black people do have a deep intergenerational connection to nature and the outdoors. And to help people understand the common ground between the Yellowstone bison and urban food deserts.
My journey to Outdoor Afro really began with the profound experience of spending part of my childhood on a Northern California ranch and learning to love the natural world through the eyes and actions of my father. As a black man from Jim Crow-era Texas, my father would have never called himself a conservationist. Yet he profoundly and absolutely lived in harmony with the wild. In fact, to this day I often pause when people call me a “conservationist” because loving the outdoors and taking care of it is simply a part of my heritage.
That heritage goes back to people like Harriet Tubman, our Moses, who led 300 African Americans from the Deep South to freedom using the North Star as her guide. It was because of Tubman’s relationship to the land, her ability to move with and through wildlife, that she was able to guide our people to safety. That heritage includes people like George Washington Carver, a scientist who dedicated his life to studying the ways in which people should interact with the natural world. And, of course, it includes my father, who is no longer on this Earth but lives on in my work.
Through my work at Outdoor Afro, I try to remind African Americans of our heritage and help foster a re-connection with land and nature. Organizations like mine, and many others, are acting as a conduit for getting more people from diverse communities outdoors.
These are exciting times for our national parks. More people are visiting them than ever before. That said, our national parks do have a bit of a public relations problem when it comes to diversity.
But when we say that only a small percentage of people of color visit national parks, we cite a false problem. We have to think in a commonsense way about why these communities are not engaging with parks. The fact is that most of our parks are several hour drives away – they are seen as far away places that are hard to get to. What is more, visiting them is often viewed as a solitary or small group activity. People of color, especially black and Latino people, tend to have large families. We come with grandparents, and kids, and spouses. Having community around us is what helps us have the most meaningful experiences. So it’s a very big ask to expect busy working families to spend their leisure time pursuing an activity that they haven’t done before.
But I’m also reluctant to place the onus solely at the feet of the parks. The national parks system is complex and has its own structural problems that hinder it from implementing changes quickly.
This is why we need leaders within our communities who can build relationships with the parks officials and serve as bridges. Not only do we have to work as partners with the parks, we also need to find sustainable ways to keep our connection with nature going.
Keeping this in mind, I work across the spectrum of opportunities in nature and offer experiences that black people feel comfortable sharing with their families. For example, we know about the iconic parks like Yosemite and Yellowstone, but what about national parks that are closer to home that are easier to access? For us in California’s Bay Area, that would mean places like the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, or the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park, or the John Muir National Historic Site, all places that also include the history of our people.
Ultimately our work together is really about culture shift, within the Park Service and within our communities. I suspect that when our work is done there will not be a parade waiting for us, no balloons falling from the sky. Instead, we will simply look up and see people visibly enjoying and protecting our natural world. And it will be no big deal.
Rue Mapp is the founder of Outdoor Afro, a community organization that reconnects African Americans with natural spaces.