Chanell's Story / One black woman's journey into backpacking

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Disclaimer:  I (Chanell here) share this post as my own opinion on blacks and their relationship to the outdoors. I am not a spokesperson for an entire race and cultures so please do not take these posts as truth for all blacks. These are my own personal musings, based on my father’s stories, family history, and a very quick Google search. :) 


Initially when I imagined writing this blog post, I thought maybe it would lead to breaking the stereotype around black people and hiking. It would go something like this: Black people don’t hike. After working all day – the last thing I’d want to do is sling on a backpack and traverse through (potentially) difficult terrain to then sleep on a hard ground.

Then I imagined I’d share a bit about knowledge and access: there aren’t any commercials for the National Parks and it can be difficult for communities of color to access far-flung destinations like National Parks or other camping grounds. That didn’t feel right to me either.

What did feel right begins with a percentage.

11 percent, to be exact.

According to the Outdoor Industry Association, that is the number of blacks in 2013 who participated in outdoor activities such as backpacking. I don’t think anyone is surprised by that number. I certainly am not. Despite changing demographics in United States, where people of color either are or are projected to be the majority in a number of states, 70 percent of the people engaging in outdoor activities are white. As a black woman, I keep asking myself this question: Why is this reality?

Backpacking – especially if you have kids – is a great way to respect our environment, appreciate its beauty and power, learn how to survive, and is far cheaper than Disneyland. And yet, my parents never took me backpacking or camping. So I thought about my father and his childhood stories, specifically the ones that related to nature.

As a child, my dad spent his days picking cotton and fruits in the fields. It was back-breaking labor that lasted for hours, but it had to be done. My grandmother was a single mom with four children in the 60s; she needed every penny she could get. His experiences in the outdoors were not spent reveling at the nature around him; it was spent soaking in sweat, laboring in a field, and being exhausted by the end of the day. My ancestors experienced a similar fate: foraging and tracking through the wilderness wasn’t a trip filled with beauty and wonder, it was life or death. I think about Little House on the Prairie (which I love!) and contrast that with my ancestors’ reality. Or I think about John Muir, the father of National Parks, who was preserving the National Parks while my family was suffering under segregation and Jim Crow laws.

The reality is that from my dad all the way to my ancestors, no one had the privilege or access to enjoy the outdoors. The outdoors was either about labor or survival, not recreation. This is the history of slavery is what shapes my relationship to the outdoors. Historically, the outdoors has not been a space of recreation for blacks. And whether it was conscious or not, that’s how I internalized (and externalized) my relationship with the outdoors. 

For a number of years now, I’ve been working hard on a policy level to save our environment. I’ve promoted equity, public health, conservation, and sustainability in our land use and transportation planning. I've been preaching and acting on the conviction that this integration is what we need to do if we want to survive as a society. This work, however, has made me much more critical of my own relationship with the environment and of the (potential) dissonance between myself and others who are not black. 

Let me unpack that. I find that most whites are surprised that I’m not an avid camper or backpacker, considering the kind of environmental policy work I do. For them, saving the environment goes hand-in-hand with enjoying the outdoors. So the fact that I don't see the outdoors as a place of recreation or that kind of enjoyment, can cause quite a face contortion. 

As I reflect on this topic, I’m realizing that our history is complicated when it comes to the topic of people of color in the outdoors. The conversation runs deeper than "urban versus rural" or “black people don’t do this kind of thing” stereotypes - (good thing, because I’m sick of that anyway!). This conversation ignites the organizer in me and I can't help but reimagine policy changes, asking how we increase not only knowledge, but participation of people of color in our National Parks. Is it changing the mediums we use – do we need more commercials that highlight how much fun (and cheap) visiting National Parks can be? Is it by promoting and creating spaces like Outdoor Afro

But this post – this journey, my journey – isn’t about me organizing for anyone or for any policy. It’s about me exploring me before, during, and after my own backpacking trip. To be honest, I don’t have any answers. This trip, to my surprise, has become much bigger than my original goal. Empowerment, space, beauty, and breathing – yes, these are all reasons I want to go - but now, I feel like there’s an opportunity to connect with something much larger and deeper than myself. I’m not sure what that is, but I’m excited to figure it out. 

Thanks for following my journey. It's exciting for me to have a space and reason to share. Stay tuned for more on my practical steps to get on the trail.

-Chanell

P.S. I’m assigning myself some required reading: Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the
Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors
. I found it googling around and now I want to read this on my trip! Well, that is, if it doesn't weight too much to carry. Note: Buying the book using the link above helps supports the work that Liz is doing with Snowqueen & Scout.