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African Americans and Nature: Aspiring to Build and Expand the Connection

Editor's note: Rue Mapp, featured last month in The REI Blog, is the founder of OutdoorAfro.com, a website she describes as a place "where black people and nature meet." In recognition of Black History Month, REI invited Rue to appear as a guest blogger and share her thoughts on what it will take to encourage greater engagement in outdoor recreation within the African American community.

PlantAs I speak to more people these days about African Americans and the outdoors, a question that most often leads the conversation is this: "Why don't African Americans engage with nature?" Admittedly, this 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 the segregated American Beach in Florida—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 (Legacy on the Land) 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.

BikesBut 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.

This may also help explain the low number of African American visitation to more remote national parks, and our lack of visibility in the backcountry, where my non-black friends say emphatically, "I hike all the time and I never see African Americans on the trail!", which may only affirm that black people are not in the same places as non-blacks in the outdoors.  This, by no means, indicates they are not there at all or don't appreciate nature.

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 they might be found eagerly participating in family gatherings, celebrations or reunions under the canopy of trees. Others engage with nature through church groups, like this group of 50+ women who recently visited Yosemite National Park for the first time, captured by Amy Marquis of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA):

FishingSo 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.

What are some of the most important outdoor experiences you've had that informed your passion for outdoor recreation today?

Photos courtesy of OutdoorAfro.com.

Posted on at 4:34 PM

Tagged: African Americans, Black History Month and Outdoor Afro

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KayeBarnes

Love this story

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Skibloom

I volunteered with Inner City Outings, a part of the Sierra Club. Many of the ICO kids were African Americans. I did experience one negative comment (hope the kids didn't hear it!) from other campers. However, the kids were great, so receptive to the specialness of nature. The kids were proud to reach out beyond their urban experience to touch nature - to endure the fear of wild animals, outdoor bathrooms and cooking outdoors. We gave them the map, let them lead, and many wonderful journeys were had. I will never forget the high school football player, who after leading the hike a couple of hours in the rain was beseeched by some of his followers to go back. His response? "When are you ever going to be back here, to go to this lake?" Everyone kept on (it was truly cold and miserable, but we got to the lake!)

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gig2genius

Reading the above blog, i can say i do not entirely believe the reasons stated are true. There's a very strong point given here by the blogger, but one very powerful and vital reason- perhaps one too vital to ignore.
The mindset of afro-americans or blacks(permit me to use this word) when it comes to the outdoors is one of bitter, and sad history.
To most(if not all) blacks and afro-ameriicans, the outdoors remind them of the 'african wild life and nature' to which they will rather forget rather than try to embrace. This explains why most are so much used to or in love with the city(ies).

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Toni the GlobeRunner

With all due respect, your response is troubling. By definition African Americans were born in the United States, not Africa. To say, "To most(if not all) blacks and afro-ameriicans, the outdoors remind them of the 'african wild life and nature' to which they will rather forget rather than try to embrace" is baffling. Most African Americans have never been to Africa. Like most Americans they only know about the "African wild life" from what they've seen on TV, books and movies. Further, African Americans alive today have never experienced slavery and those born post-1960 have never experienced legal segregation. Your comment sounds like conjecture and not based on any real facts. If you have a factual basis for your opinion I would welcome hearing it, but if not then please avoid reinforcing negative stereotypes about African Americans. Thank you and I hope you able to receptively receive this constructive feedback.

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OutdoorGirl247

Well said GlobeRunner.

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Toni the GlobeRunner

Rue Mapp and Outdoor Afro, thank you bringing an intelligent perspective to this topic. I am running the 2012 Antarctica Marathon next month and am excited to see a discussion on this point because I am the only African American runner in this year's race. I especially liked that your research cited the work of established professors and is based on the real opinions of African Americans (not conjecture). Thank you for starting this vital dialogue!

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Jayne A Broad

Any efforts that get a greater diversity of people appreciating the outdoors is a good thing for EVERYONE - and for the future of national and state parks. Getting more people loving our outdoors will create greater support for creating and preserving natural spaces.

I'm not black, but as no one in my family ever took me hiking or camping, I had no idea the possibility really existed - it was something people did in movies, but they also have jet packs in movies. Once I befriended people who hiked and camped, and invited me along, what seemed so remote and inaccessible and not possible because not only possible, but desirable!

I'm super jazzed by everything Rue Mapp is doing - it benefits EVERYONE!

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afrosela

So excellent!! Thanks so much to Rue Mapp and to REI for this piece; I especially loved the video! Cant wait to get outside!

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AudreyOutdoors

Big kudos to Rue and all those who are actively directing our attention to Mother Nature and the connection that all life has with her. After all, nature is our collective life support system, though many of us have come to the place where we take that for granted or feel somewhat disassociated from her. When i saw my first national park in 1995 - Acadia, in Maine - I felt as if i was living in a mansion and until then i had only seen the kitchen..and suddenly here i was in the grand ballroom, a perfect and sublime environment, just like the people in this video are experiencing. I was so deeply affected that I made it my life's work to get more information about the parks into the public, and now I've visited 162 of almost 400 units.This video is one of the most poignant pieces i have seen in 16 years, and I want to give a shoutout to Amy Marquis, the young woman who made the video while on sabattical from her job at www.npca.org. It just shows the incalculable inpact that one or more people can have when they are inspired. NOTHING inspires more than our national parks! Rock on, National Parks!

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OutdoorGirl247

@gig2genius - smh

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Toni the GlobeRunner

Rue Mapp and Outdoor Afro, thank you bringing an intelligent perspective to this topic. I am running the 2012 Antarctica Marathon next month and am excited to see a discussion on this point because I am the only African American runner in this year's race. I especially liked that your research cited the work of established professors and is based on the real opinions of African Americans (not conjecture). Thank you for starting this vital dialogue!

Reply
OutdoorGirl247

@gig2genius - smh

Reply
parks4u4evr

Interesting discussion--different groups play different ways in the outdoors--that's true!

I have also led wilderness trips with Sierra Club's Inner City Outings, for kids of African American, Hispanic and white kids. It's not just black kids; it's about any kids who have never had a chance to get out of the inner city hood--or the burbs too, for that matter. As a parks professional, we see more and more of that. Are the kids just staying inside watching tv and playing video games? And that's a concern to all of us--where's the next generation of environmentalists?

Reply
parks4u4evr

Interesting discussion--different groups play different ways in the outdoors--that's true!

I have also led wilderness trips with Sierra Club's Inner City Outings, for kids of African American, Hispanic and white kids. It's not just black kids; it's about any kids who have never had a chance to get out of the inner city hood--or the burbs too, for that matter. As a parks professional, we see more and more of that. Are the kids just staying inside watching tv and playing video games? And that's a concern to all of us--where's the next generation of environmentalists?

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