I want people of color to feel called to recapture natural spaces.
Lake McDonald is located along the stunning Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park in Montana.
This story was originally published by Undark and is used here as part of the Climate desk Cooperation.
During blistering In the summer of 1919, a stifling heat wave lasted over the South Side of Chicago, and Eugene Williams had turned 17 a few months ago. Williams, who worked as a grocery porter, had built a homemade raft with his friends, and one brutal Sunday afternoon they decided to take it out on Lake Michigan. The raft drifted across the water and accidentally crossed the section of 29th Street. The white section.
Corresponding several historical A white beachgoer reportedly threw rocks at Williams and his friends, one of whom reported that a stone hit Williams in the head before sinking into the water. Other reports – including the coroner’s jury – said Williams tried not to be hit when he let go of the raft and drowned. When a police officer refused to arrest the person who was thrown with stones, tensions rose and Riots erupted that exacerbated a season of racist violence in the United States known as the Red summer.
That was more than 100 years ago. But you can draw a straight line from the tragic death of Eugene Williams – a child who just tried to enjoy the outdoors – to the underrepresentation of black Americans in the open air today. Until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, blacks were in many states legally prohibited or subjected to racial segregation in national and state parks and other public spaces. The National Health Foundation has identified historical segregation, along with racial violence and economic inequality, as factors underlying the “diversity gap” in nature-based outdoor recreational activities. Today we still see reports of black Americans being treated as “others” in natural areas; We see cases of police being called when blacks gather Parks or even Golf.
In 2010, 13% of the US population identified as black, but the National Park Service found that only 1% of its visitors were black between 2001 and 2011.
Overlay this history of discrimination with the situational and financial Barriers which forbid blacks to experience these outlets, and it is hardly surprising that a current report by the Outdoor Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the Outdoor Industry Association, found that black Americans are significantly underrepresented in outdoor activities. Black youth also had the lowest participation rates of any youth group, which is another cause for concern about the future gap in participation rates for black adults. In 2010, 13% of the US population identified as black, but the National Park Service found that only 1% of its visitors were black between 2001 and 2011. As a black, I find it daunting not to see myself reflected in these rooms.
The diversity gap in the great outdoors was no accident; it is systemic and has been further perpetuated by biased narratives and stereotypes. To properly understand the collective reluctance of Black Americans to experience outdoor spaces, we must view it as a legitimate response to historical circumstances.
As a black kid who grew up in the suburbs of Dallas, Texas, I rarely ventured into outdoor pursuits. I prefer the comfortable realm of organized sport and the thrill of skating and longboarding on paved asphalt roads. I remember my dad and I had to go to a rural area in east Texas as a teenager for my driving test. It took him a moment as we parked to poke my head that I might run into someone who might say something derogatory about me just because of the color of my skin. He told me to ignore it because they don’t know any better and we have no space and no energy for people who aim to disregard our humanity. I have taken that with me to this day – both the knowledge that rural areas can pose a particular threat to black people and the determination not to let myself be burdened.
I attended college outside of Austin, Texas, and during my freshman year I fell deeply in love with the Hill Country. Whenever I had free time, I would spend it camping, exploring, kayaking, and jumping in any body of water I could find. I spent nights with friends under the stars, telling stories around the campfire, somehow always short of supplies.
These escapades taught me more about myself and the world around me than I had learned in all the previous 17 years. You taught me to appreciate how connected we all are. They humiliated my ego and cultivated a more mindful outlook on life. Nature has shown me a way to be still through heartbreak and stressful times – a way to heal. It helped me see a clearer vision of who I wanted to be. I have explored Arches National Park in Utah, ridden towards the sun in Glacier National Park in Montana, down on skis enchanted slopes in New Mexico and scaled 19 of the highest peak in Colorado where I now live.
Nature has shown me a way to be still through heartbreak and stressful times – a way to heal.
Spending time outdoors has become an integral part of my healthy life. It enables me to escape the noise and pollution of the city, disconnect from the world and the constant pressures of modern society. It’s a way to increase my heart rate, but also to decompress, meditate, and breathe. More than once, nature has saved me from falling into depression.
That’s why I find it so worrying that I don’t see myself and people who look like me reflected in the outdoor recreational culture. That is the reason for my idiosyncratic self-expression in the great outdoors. I want other People of Color to understand and appreciate the mountains too. I want other colored people to feel called to recapture these natural spaces and to break through the cultural constraints into which we have historically been forced.
In the past few years we have seen a national movement to promote recording win outdoors recognition in the mainstream. Black sand surf, Outdoor afro and Brown Folks Fishing are just a few of the leading organizations. But we can and should do a lot more. We need more black representation in the organizational structure of our national parks and Employees, more partners committed to the outdoor experience for people of color, and most importantly, a greater concerted effort to teach people of color the health benefits of outdoor activities.
Myself and other black relaxation seekers have the ability not only to climb mountains, but also to break cycles of historical oppression – and inspire others along the way. Even if the path sometimes feels lonely, we have to keep climbing: the view from the summit will be worth it.
Joe Kanzangu is an adventurer, writer, and presenter who loves to cook for those around him. He currently lives in Denver, Colorado.
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