Civil Rights to Wilderness: African-Americans Reconnect to America’s Wild Places
The Wilderness Act and the Civil Rights Act were both signed into law fifty years ago, but the two movements behind the landmark legislation didn’t join efforts in 1964, and real integration between wild places and minority groups remains elusive today. One organization is working to change that. Outdoor Afro reconnects the black community with natural spaces and outdoor recreation through organized events and social media connections. Founder Rue Mapp wants to disrupt the “false perception that black people do not have a relationship with nature.” She suggests that with the 50th anniversary of both acts, “we have a chance now to make their real connections come alive today, recognizing the delicate and essential links between people and the wild all around for the betterment of everyone.” However, the disconnect between black people and nature is rooted in part by very real fears. She points out that “in the collaborative efforts around the country to re-invent African American connections to the environment…it is often essential to address fears that linger about the wild. These fears are not only about potential contact with wildlife: there are still perceptions among black folks that one might be susceptible to violence in the cover of the wild.” Consider, for example, the plaintive refrain of Billie Holiday’s haunting Strange Fruit:
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Adding insult to fear and horror, many people of color are coldly distrusted and even apprehended when they do visit national parks and other wild places, many of which are located in western states with overwhelming white majorities.
How can such a frightening legacy of fear and distrust be overcome? One national park ranger wants to reframe the African-American engagement with earth and dirt and wild as a continuation of the civil rights struggle. Shelton Johnson points out that access to America’s wild places is ultimately about freedom, not just preservation, and he believes securing that access is a critical piece of today’s efforts to secure all Americans’ civil rights. In his book Gloryland, Johnson argues that a relationship with the earth is both possible and essential. He suggests that “visiting the biome of Yellowstone might also mean a chance to reclaim what it means to be Yoruba, Mandingo–or African-American. Whatever you call yourself, it matters little, because it is all the same people, the same earth.”
While the reconnection of black people and wild places is far from done, Outdoor Afro’s Mapp believes that “with a vision of healing, Outdoor Afro and many other organizations [can help] people re-invent connections to natural places both near and far through a variety of peer led activities. One experience at a time, we can replace old fears and reservations about the wilderness with joy, curiosity, and wonder for all ages in our lands.” She argues that despite the divide between the original networks and movements that produced the Wilderness Act and the Civil Rights Act, “we have a chance now to make their real connections come alive today, recognizing the delicate and essential links between people and the wild all around for the betterment of everyone.” The question she asks is “Where shall we go together in nature from here?”