Taking Up Space

The story of Blackness in the outdoors is more than a narrative of tragedy.

Kiana kinchelow

One-hundred and seventy-six years. That’s how long the commemorative slave auction block stood in downtown Fredericksburg, Virginia, before it was taken down on June 5, 2020. The block wasn’t the only celebration of the Confederacy in the area. My old neighborhood was named Lee’s Hill; my brother went to Lee Elementary School. We only had two other Black families on Mossy Bank Lane, but many of my friends lived in Lee’s Parke, five miles west, on the other side of Jefferson Davis Highway—one of the main arteries in this Washington, DC, exurb, where I lived until 2009. 

My understanding of the area’s history always colored my relationship with its outdoor spaces. It didn’t matter how lush the grass was, or how majestic the trees stood. The less developed an area, the more reminiscent it was of a time when my ancestors raced through trees for freedom, and of later times when we were brought back among the trees by vigilantes. Camouflaged white men with guns and flags always seemed to “belong” in deeply wooded places, which meant, by default, that I did not. When my brother, Jay, then nineteen years old, briefly went missing during a trip to Fredericksburg in 2015, I couldn’t help wondering if he got a little too comfortable while hanging out with his friends in the shadows of a Civil War battleground-turned-park. 

Don’t worry; this isn’t a story about tragedy. Jay made it back safe, and from that day on he probably thought twice about leaving his phone charger at home. But the anxiety I felt at the sight of the dense tree line that towered above our car as we searched for him was telling. In flat, verdant Fredericksburg, it’s often impossible to see where the leaves end and another outpost of civilization begins. You might hear gunshots during hunting season, but you probably won’t see the hunters, even in the middle of the day. What might be an accessible green getaway for some was nature’s haunted house to me. 

My anxiety may have been irrational. Modern lynchings don’t require trees; Trayvon, Eric, Sandra, Michael, Tamir, Breonna, George—the list goes on—all met their untimely deaths amid the supposed safety of urban and suburban infrastructure[1]. Just a week before my family’s search for Jay, the Ku Klux Klan had marched out of the trees and onto the grounds of South Carolina’s State House in broad daylight. So why was I holding on to the lyrics to “Strange Fruit” and images of J. Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith? I began to question my own relationship with the outdoors and the ease with which I associated trees with trauma. 

Black people are often taught that our worth lies in our tragedies, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the narrative of our relationship with the outdoors (OK, and maybe in Hollywood). While trauma and oppression have shaped our relationship with the outdoors, this is not a story about tragedy. This is a story about an imbalanced focus on tragic events that works to disrupt our connection with the very lands we were forced to labor on.

This is a story about how our resilience will never let that disruption happen. 

As a child I never considered myself an outdoorsy girl. I was blessed to attend public schools with the means to take us on whale-watching trips, plateau hikes, and outdoor picnics, but when it wasn’t an excuse to get out of the classroom I wasn’t exactly begging to be among the trees (with all those bugs?!). I loved riding my bike, roller-skating, walking aimlessly down the street, playing H-O-R-S-E on the basketball court, and even going to the beach. I loved being outside, but had you asked me then if I was a fan of the outdoors, I’d likely have told you, “Not really.” Then I’d have pointed to my white neighbors down the street who wore camo and went four-wheeling, mountain biking, and hunting, and said, “They’re fans of the outdoors, though.” 

Now, the outdoors is both my playground and my medicine. I don’t ride bikes or roller-skate much anymore, but I still walk aimlessly through both urban infrastructure and trees, and I’ve added endurance running, hiking, citizen science, and an “I’m down” attitude to the list of reasons why outside is my favorite place. The recent months of sheltering at home have reminded me why an arbitrary, rustic, white idea of what “outdoors” looks like is woefully misinformed. I no longer think of “being outside” as an amateur version of “being outdoors,” because the healing effects and health benefits are there for me all the same. I’m lucky to live within a stone’s throw of a park in every direction, but sometimes I just like to take a walk down Northwest Lovejoy Street while ogling the street pigeons, street trees, and street art. Running a marathon through Humboldt Redwoods while on a camping trip (true story) is cool and all, but stopping to smell a magnolia tree growing from the sidewalk after being cooped up over a rainy week? Taking your first masked walk down the street with a friend on an especially balmy day? The value we place on being outdoors should never be understated or taken for granted, regardless of the extremity of the activity or the wildness of the location. 

I’m not sure exactly when I stopped differentiating my affinity for “being outside” from a genuine love for the outdoors, but the night we spent looking for my brother made me think critically about how my Blackness informs the way I view natural spaces and outdoor activity. I wondered if the strong sense of self-preservation we pride ourselves on ran down into our DNA, cultivated by centuries upon centuries of terrorism in a home we didn’t ask for. There’s a running half joke among my friends and family members that there are certain things we just don’t do: camping, snow sports, water sports, extreme sports, and nothing solo. In some ways, it’s more than a joke. A 2019 report by the Outdoor Industry Association showed that only about 8 percent of moderate outdoor participants were Black[2], with our participation rates dipping slightly last year even as participation by other groups of people of color rose. For decades, we’ve maintained some of the lowest reported rates of outdoor recreation. This is a national trend; whether I’m in Virginia, California, or Oregon, I’m not likely to see many people that look like me off the paved path.[3]

Why is this? There’s a marginality hypothesis that suggests that, while all groups place value on outdoor recreation, external factors disproportionately affect some groups’ ability to participate. Some of the more understood limiting factors are cost and access. Studies about visitation rates at national parks note that primary constraints include transportation issues and the costs associated with activity-related gear, food, parking, and entrance fees. Initiatives like the federal “Every Kid Outdoors” program [4], which provides free national park passes to fourth graders across the country, have been created in part to address inequities like these. On a smaller scale, environmental and educational organizations often work with schools in underserved neighborhoods to create stimulating outdoor programming and provide reliable transportation to local parks and natural resources. In my own childhood, field trips were my introduction to hiking and, eventually, camping. These approaches address the more quantifiable economic outputs of systemic racism; it’s well known that, when compared to white Americans, Black and Indigenous folks are more likely to live in neighborhoods with few or no parks, or work in what we now understand to be “essential jobs,” which often come with low wages and inflexible schedules. 

Chipping at these barriers is crucial—children under eighteen made up the highest share of each ethnic group’s outdoor participation rates last year, according to the Outdoor Industry Association report—but some of the things that disconnect Black folks from outdoor activities can’t be measured in money or miles. Even with access to parks and sufficient resources to undertake outdoor activities, I’ve experienced countless moments of wondering how safe I would be on the banks of the Rappahannock River, for example, or whether I’d fit in among snowboarders and skiers at a cabin in Big Bear Lake. And for a long time in this country, that apprehension was what the larger parks and recreation systems wanted me to feel. Historically, laws throughout the United States banned us from recreating in many parks and public areas, and social practices picked up the slack wherever there was room for interpretation. Black Americans have faced intimidation and violence while trying to enjoy natural spaces, especially in urban areas. The Red Summer of 1919, so called because of the violent race riots that occurred across the nation, started because a white beachgoer in Chicago attacked and killed a Black teenager, Eugene Williams, who’d drifted onto the white side of the 29th Street Beach while trying to cool off in Lake Michigan. 

(When you have the chance, reader, I recommend reading up on Red Summer and considering some of the parallels we’re seeing almost exactly a century later. I won’t go much further into it here, because this is not a story of tragedy. This is a story about how, even after what’s been called one of the bloodiest summers in US history, we keep pushing.)

Laws that explicitly designate parks and outdoor areas by race have since been repealed, but I didn’t have to live through the summer of 1919 to get the message that “outdoors” means wilderness, and wilderness—at least when it’s being used for leisure—is white. By the time I learned about Red Summer in college, I’d already been steeped to my ears in stories of backbreaking slave labor, lynchings in wooded clearings, and segregated parks. And while textbooks only showed danger for my people in the outdoors, mainstream media didn’t seem to place us there at all. Digging through my memory for movies that involved Black folks recreating—not laboring—outside mostly brings up Cool Runnings and the scene in Friday where Nia Long goes for a jog. Then there are movies like Hardball, a white savior film (like most sports movies, Cool Runnings included) that climaxes with the death of one of the Black Little League players, G-Baby. I didn’t see myself in movies like The Parent Trap, where white kids at summer camp played reckless tricks on each other, slept outdoors without scarves, and made it out alive. I didn’t see myself in Addams Family Values, where the writers themselves seemed to acknowledge the whiteness of summer camp in a scene where the counselors have a hard time pronouncing “Jamal.” 

This goes deeper than entertainment. I don’t see many people who look like me being included in outdoor outlets and organizations, for example. For the past few years I’ve worked at organizations focused on sustainability, conservation, and outdoor activity, and the Black women I encounter, either as fellow colleagues or staff members at partnering organizations, are few and far between. In 2014, the nonprofit organization Green 2.0 reported that the environmental movement is a “green insider’s club” that’s remained overwhelmingly white. While things have improved slightly in the years since, there’s still some way to go. Environmental organizations have a direct hand in the programs and policies that affect the way people interact with the outdoors, and the faces of these organizations end up being the ones we associate most with environmental and sustainability movements. Similarly, the mainstream outdoor industry has, at its baseline, been synonymous with white imagery and stories. For a recent presentation on the topic of outdoor culture, I searched for images online using phrases like “outdoor activities,” “outdoorsy people,” and “people camping,” and the omission of Black faces was glaring. 

This isn’t a groundbreaking discovery. Scholarly and journalistic discourse around disparities in Black outdoor experiences and organizations has persisted since at least the 1970s. At times, it feels like we are most visible outdoors when the conversation is about our invisibility. In response, leadership at nonprofit and corporate entities alike may invest in positions dedicated to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) or community engagement to recruit and educate, but do little to integrate those roles into the actual fabric of the organization. Often, the people of color who are most qualified to tell nuanced stories get shoehorned into these DEI roles, educating their peers about systemic exclusion from outdoor spaces while being excluded from other work or specialization opportunities. Time and time again, mainstream media, outdoor industry outlets, and surface-level diversity initiatives have demonstrated that our value in the outdoors begins and ends with our marginalization. It’s an easy message to internalize, because it is damn near impossible to speak candidly about where we “fit in” outside without addressing the ways in which we’re marginalized.

But this is not a story about tragedy. Yes, there are conflicts, but that’s not where the story has to end. 

The connection between Black folks and outdoor spaces has never been severed. The outdoors played an important role in our political and personal emancipation from legalized slavery, and has continued to be a resource for us in the 155 years since. African descendants living in rural and urban areas were not only able to make ends meet through their knowledge of flora and fauna, but also retained elements of precolonial existence through the cultivation and cooking of crops like okra, watermelon, and yam. Fishing in rivers and lakes continues to be a tradition in my own family, both for sustenance and recreation. In New Orleans, enslaved people and gens de couleur libres regularly gathered in a clearing called Congo Square to connect spiritually, culturally, and commercially. At a time when mass gatherings of Black folks were essentially illegal, this outdoor space was a place of refuge and cultural retention. The fruits of these gatherings live on in the music, dance, culinary, and spiritual traditions of Black Americans in the Gulf today. In the early twentieth century, fear didn’t keep us from traveling for business or pleasure throughout the United States. In 1936, a travel agent in Harlem named Victor Hugo Green created the Negro Motorist Green Book, which guided Black Americans on road trips through and away from the areas most dangerous to us. Stories that center and empower our presence in the outdoors are just as important as stories framed by marginalization, and are not told often enough.  

Let me take that back. The stories have always been told, but gatekeepers in outdoor industries and environmentalist groups are finally losing control over which stories get heard the loudest. Authentically Black experiences in the outdoors are being elevated with the help of social media. Groups like Outdoor Afro, RUNGRL, Black Girls Trekkin’, Color Outside, and Melanin Base Camp have become facilitators for authentic storytelling as much as for meetups and mobilizing. People and organizations dedicated to true inclusion in outdoor recreation helped me understand two things: First, that my feelings of apprehension were valid and based in a limited mainstream narrative about what it means to be Black outdoors. And second, the false dichotomy between developed and wild outdoor spaces that I used to subscribe to is actually more of a spectrum, and there is a place for me along it. It’s important not only for every person to feel represented and welcome in outdoor activities, but also for every type of outdoor activity to be understood as such. When the activities that are more accessible for some of us, like gardening, walking, and picnicking, are nurtured and protected, the path toward wilder endeavors can grow shorter as well. 

Regardless of the activity, Black leaders are showing up and growing the movement. Influencers in the outdoors run the gamut from Ron Finley, the “gangsta gardener”; to Jennelle Eliana, a #VanLife star; to Danielle Williams, a skydiver and adventure sports enthusiast. Digital and analog spaces created for us, by us, continue to increase, even as the outdoor and environmental industries remain decidedly non-Black. It’s important to remember that while our numbers are small, we have been crucial to the environmental movement. Poor representation and lackluster recruiting haven’t kept us from reporting even higher levels of support for sustainability and environmental initiatives than our white counterparts. The theory of intersectionality formulated by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a Black woman and leading scholar in critical race theory, is foundational to the environmental justice movement, where fighting climate change and racism are not treated as mutually exclusive missions. 

This is not a story of tragedy, because tragedy works as a psychological weapon. Our marginalization in the outdoors is important to address; in just the past few months, “going for a run” has been added to the outrageously long list of things that can get a Black person killed, and safe spaces for birding aren’t guaranteed either. But the story of our experience in and with the outdoors is just as incomplete without oppression as it is without resilience, innovation, and adventure. Seeing Black triumphs, joys, and healing moments has affected my own sense of connection with the outdoors more than any field trip, history lesson, or DEI program could. My self-preservation is still intact; my identity as a Black woman will always play a defining role in what activities, places, and people make me feel safe. But seeing people who look like me participating in water sports, creating victory gardens, running road races, or even using a camp stove to enjoy a meal in the neighborhood park has helped me take the calculated risks necessary to have my own triumphs, joys, and healing moments outside. What I’ve needed in order to feel welcome in outdoor spaces as a Black woman can’t be wholly fulfilled through the interpretation of survey results, or in charitable initiatives that focus on the optics of diversity while ignoring the meanings of equity and inclusion. When we divest from an internalized narrative of tragedy, we open ourselves up to all that a relationship with the outdoors has to offer. The empowerment I feel when my Black counterparts share the stories of their truly liberated outdoor experiences is what motivates me to get out there and take up space.

[1] Some may argue that lynchings no longer require mobs of vigilantes, either; an overzealous neighborhood watch participant or police officer may suffice. Sometimes I wonder if mobs of inactive politicians and complicit bystanders have just proven to be much more effective than the vigilantes. Go back.

[2] 2019 Outdoor Participation Report, Outdoor Industry Association. In this context, “moderate” outdoor participants reported recreating outdoors about once a month. Among those who reported “moderate” participation rates, Black respondents were the most likely to consider themselves outdoor fanatics, whereas white respondents with similar rates of participation considered themselves casual users. Results from this report came from a sample of 20,069 participants. Go back.

[3] And also on the paved path. These numbers included plenty of urban- and suburban-accessible activities like road running, biking, and even skateboarding, which happens to be one of the few activities with an ethnic breakdown that mirrors that of the United States as a whole. Go back.

[4] Formerly known as “Every Kid in a Park” under the Obama administration. Go back.

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