Black People Do

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.

This may also help explain the low number of African American visitation to more remote National Parks, and our lack of visibility in the back country, 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 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.

12 Thoughts on “Black People Do”

  • I love you Rue!! YOU are a force of nature and i so admire and appreciate all you are doing to bring this topic to light and inspire more Americans of color to rediscover our amazing legacy on the land…

  • Yeah, “moving that needle” thAng ain’t always easy, yet I guess nobody ever said it would be! Nonetheless, we must all continue to write our story, speak our minds, express ourselves, and yeah, now and then just rock the dang boat! (just don’t fall out in the meantime or get pushed out!) – Thank the Goddess for connecting all of us to what we indisputably have in common: the natural wonders of this world.

  • I have been making an effort to get outdoors more. If the weather permits, I will be camping before it gets too cold here in Atlanta. Btw, great blog!

  • Thank you so much for this blog. I administer a grant program to ReNature and ReGreen urban neighborhoods and I have wondered how my experience with nature differs from the experience of African Americans. I am excited to have this increased awareness as well as a question that I can use when promoting the grant program. “How can African Americans expand their experience of nature?” I plan on visiting your blog often.

  • I hike and camp! I love hiking. I weekly hike with my locale Aurora Center for Active Adults: High Country Hikers. I have camping gear and am looking forward to a camping women’s expedition this summer. I understand and respect the dislike of many African Americans of this activity…however, I am an outdoorsy person, love sports so I am athletically inclined. Hiking and camping for me is enjoyable due to the effort I sustain to accomplish this. Being grimy for a few days is just that…being grimy for a few days. These are escapes for me out of the city and into a natural order I have learned to enjoy and respect. We African American campers are not the norm…and we are here.

    Senior people of color from Aurora, Colorado who enjoy hiking and camping…contact me via Outdoorafro. I am not on facebook or tweeter to this is the best site. Hope this is ok.

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