By Nizhooni Hurd
It’s still Black History Month, so let’s talk about Black people in the outdoors. When I think of such subjects, I am reminded about the time I attended the Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) Partners in the Outdoors Conference in 2019. Carolyn Finney, Ph.D., gave the keynote address about the legacy and contradictions of African-Americans in the outdoors.
She spoke about the racism she and others have experienced. Along with personal experiences, Finney also shared what the audience and the CPW community could do to better the relationship between African-Americans, the outdoors, and all of the complicated histories that come with it.
While I sat in the session, googly-eyed and thrilled to hear from one of my favorite scholars, I, along with others like myself, couldn’t help but notice the people that walked out of the room as Dr. Finney shared some uncomfortable truths about the Black experience in the outdoors. I heard coughs and pouts and was amazed to see a few people storm out of the room. Why they did it? I truly do not know. But it happened. The message seemed to be clear: that not everything a Black woman on stage could say about the truths of the outdoor world was acceptable and approved. In instances like this, we keep it movin’!
This event with Dr. Finney allowed me to reflect on how, in outdoor and environmentally focused spaces, the presence of Black people, in all of their essence, is never really accepted. Sure, there can be a physical presence. Diversity checkmarks are checked and that is the end. Where is the consideration for the Black intellectual presence? The Black cultural presence (of course when it is not being appropriated)?
Let’s think about things like that. It is heartrending to know that in this society today, we cannot all indulge in the little bit of goodness this earth has left to offer because of assigned stereotypes and systemic racism. A hike doesn’t mean the same thing for everyone. For some, it’s just a walk. For some, generational trauma follows as they go into a space that uncomfortably weighs heavy on them, even if they didn’t know that their ancestors were once bounty hunted in the same type of woods. Black bodies were exploited on the land for hundreds of years to build the “beauty” of America. A recreation space that people think is needed to get away from the “hustle and bustle” would not be needed if such exploitation did not occur. In these truths, recreation is not the same.
When I think about Black people in the outdoors, I think about a story of reclamation. It is a story of fear, but also joy and freedom. It is a story of carving space and remembering that we have always had a connection to the earth (way beyond slavery), and we should remind ourselves of that every day. So, if you are Black and reading this, I want you to know that you deserve your re-connection to land. You deserve to be allowed in these outdoor spaces. It is something for you to do. It is a space where you can find peace and seek health. It is a space for you to be your true and authentic self. And keep demanding that space for you and yours. Go for that hike and let the trees embrace you more than any human ever could. As a former student Atiya Harvey ’18 once told me, “The trees aren’t racist.”