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Black Folks And Nature

This story orignally aired in 2014 and most recently aired in the November 7th, 2022 Crosscurrents episode.

There's a mountain of statistics that suggest Black Americans don’t go out in nature as much as people of other ethnicities. But one Bay Area organization is attempting to raise those numbers.

It’s called Outdoor Afro. The organization attempts to dispel the myth that Black Americans don’t have a relationship with the outdoors by leading groups on hikes, fishing excursions, and camping trips.

“Outdoor Afro is an online and in person social and nature network," says founder and CEO Rue Mapp. "Our goal is to inspire African American connections to nature. We’re part of a larger conversation connecting people to our great outdoors and moving people toward conservation.”

Anyone can join in an Outdoor Afro excursion. I joined Mapp and other hikers on a morning hike in Joaquin Miller Park in Oakland and spoke with some of the hikers.

On The Trail

Cush Anderson grew up in Chicago. Walking on a tree-lined trail she explains, “There were not a lot of areas we could go swim. So we kind of fed into the stereotypes because there weren’t a lot of areas we could go swim and then we didn’t know how. But once I moved to California, everybody swam here. In the city, we just knew city life and city stuff and didn’t know outdoorsy stuff.”

When I asked another hiker, Krishna Jude Moore, if he knew of any black contributions to the environmental movement, he paused, and then said, “It was a black man who came up with peanut butter and you got to have peanut butter when you go camping!”

Moore is referring to George Washington Carver. But Carver isn’t just the inventor of peanut butter, he’s one of the most prominent scientists and inventors in the 1800’s. Carver’s contributions to agriculture and nature are part of a rich history of outdoor exploration and innovation by Black Americans that is frequently left out of traditional narratives.

“So much of our history is out there," Mapp explains. "Outdoor Afro looks to break open the natural history of a place but also the human history of a place. In that way, we’re able to help people feel a deeper sense of connection. Purpose. And a sense of ownership. This is mine. This is where my people dwelt.”

The Black Narrative And Nature

After the hike, I wanted to dig deeper into blacks and the outdoors, so I met up with Dr. Carolyn Finney, a professor of Environmental Policy and Management at UC Berkeley. She talks about black narratives and the environment in her book"Black Faces, White Spaces."

“In terms of the majority culture in the United States setting a narrative and tone about the environment and the way we should think about and relate to it, we black and brown folks have largely been left out of that mainstream conversation,” Finney says.

Being left out takes a couple of different forms. One of those is representation in environmental and government organizations, of which people of color are only somewhere between 12-16 percent, even while making up 38 percent of the U.S. population.

Then there’s the media’s representation of black folks in nature. Dr. Finney did a study of Outside magazine from 1991-2001.

In it, she found that of the 4,600 photos that had people in them, just over 100featured Black Americans. And those were mostly famous male athletes.

But representation isn’t just about jobs and the images in magazines. It’s about the larger narrative created around the environment and the outdoors. Black people do get outside — just not in the traditional ways we tend to think about the outdoors.

“So the nuances about what it means to be different than the majority culture in this country, and that those stories don’t always apply to what it means to be black and have a relationship with the environment in this country — It’s not just that we’re lacking in representation," says Finney. "But the way we engage is just different. We’re talking about media and when you see black folks doing something, you know, suddenly the bears start rapping.”

Re-Defining Outdoorsy

Finney explains that we shouldn’t just think about the types of people who are represented when we talk about the outdoors, but we should think of the types of activities they’re doing. Some people get their outdoor activity by hiking a trail. Others head to Lake Merritt in Oakland for a barbeque. It doesn’t have to look the same. 

Back on the trail with Rue Mapp, she explains, “People tell me all the time ‘Black people don’t have a relationship with wild spaces’. But when I start talking about fishing, ears perk up. And the stories unfold. Memories are released."

Part of that memory is the unfortunate fact that coming together in public spaces wasn’t always safe for black folks. That legacy of not having safety in numbers still lingers today and has led to a particular way of thinking about nature for black folks. When the Outdoor Foundation surveyed Americans and asked why they don’t take advantage of the outdoors, more than a third of Black Americans said, ‘they’re just not interested.’

“Nature has a PR problem," says Mapp. "For generations when people have worked really hard on the farms, the idea of going out and sleeping on the ground is not appealing. It doesn’t signal progress to some people. I’ve heard people say ‘Why are you going to play homeless?’"

In my experience on the Outdoor Afro hike, with the birds, smells, views, and tranquility, it felt really good to be outdoors. I might even switch my routine of hanging out at Lake Merritt for hitting a hiking trail.

On The Centennial, An Update

That story first aired in 2014. Since then, our friends at New America Media hosted a panel to discuss how to increase those low numbers of people of color visiting national public lands. On that panel was Rue Mapp, founder of Outdoor Afro.

“In our country, we are experiencing rapid demographic change,” Mapp said at the event. “By 2043 we will have a majority in this country of people who are of color.

So it is imperative that people who are of diverse backgrounds see themselves as represented and engaged in our parks and public lands. Not only for their individual and community health and well being, but also to ensure that those places we hold dear, those parks and public lands, that we expect to be around forever, actually have stewards.”

Kay Wang with the Golden Gate National Recreation Area said for some communities, there’s also an issue of trust.

“They look at us coming in a uniform,” she said, “There is a fear, there is a gap. Especially as we go into Latino communities. We actually — the outfit, the color — almost look like people from the immigration office. So there is a very strange but very real barrier we need to break.”

Anthony Williams, a researcher with Bendixen & Amandi, said it’s key to try to staff parks with more people of color, and also to create programs that appeal to broader audiences. Then the work of reaching out can come from a real place.

“That outreach is critical,” said Williams, “because you have people who are predisposed to have an interest in outdoor activities, that don’t have information, and don’t have any family history of going to national public lands. They need to be touched the first time.”

A number of organizations have joined the movement and formed the Next 100 Coalition. They want to help design a more inclusive approach, so that over the next 100 years, the park service is more reflective of all types of people, all across the country.

Crosscurrents Race & Ethnicity
Todd is a radio producer from Chicagoland. Before arriving at KALW in 2013 he produced works for NPR's Tell Me More. He currently roams the Bay Area searching for stories and super sonics.