Is the Great Outdoors Not So Great To Us?
This summer I went camping. Okay, it was camping in the Hamptons. And my first question after being invited was, does Uggs make hiking boots? But for a born and bred New York City girl it was my first camping experience and it happened at one of the beautiful state parks. Yes, the state park has a beach, and toilets and showers, but I slept in a tent (on an air mattress) and sat around a campfire (built by someone else) at night (baby steps, people. Baby steps).
But the point is I actually enjoyed the experience. It was amazing to sit by the fire, listening to the crackling wood with nothing but our conversation to entertain us. My friends went fishing in the morning and their catch was gutted, cleaned and put on the grill for lunch---the best fish ever! It was nice to gauge time by nightfall and daybreak and wake up to the sounds of birds.
And I couldn’t help but wonder why I hadn’t done this before. Of course, I’m just not the rustic type and I prefer high heels to hiking boots. But I think there’s something deeper because as I told my other black and brown friends that I was going camping or went camping, I kept getting this “Black people don’t do the woods” type of response.
Why is that?
It’s not expensive. But, admittedly, getting all the gear and packing up the car was a bear (no pun intended).
But according to “The National Park System Comprehensive Survey of the American Public” blacks and Hispanics are severely under-represented in terms of visitors to the country’s 394 national parks.
Overall blacks account for just 7 percent of visitors to national parks and when you look at parks that have a wilderness focus, it gets worse. At Yosemite, black folks were a mere 1 percent of visitors in 2009.
Shelton Johnson, a Yosemite National Park Ranger, and one of the few African American park rangers is frustrated at these numbers. He says: "It's bigger than just African Americans not visiting national parks. It's a disassociation from the natural world,' said Johnson, who has worked in Yosemite for the past 15 of his 22 years in the Park Service. 'I think it is, in part, a memory of the horrible things that were done to us in rural America. 'The rejection of the natural world by the black community, he said, is a scar left over from slavery."
Rue Mapp, founder of OutdoorAfro.com says just the opposite. “The issue is not do we engage with outdoors and nature, but how we engage with the outdoors,” says Mapp, a graduate of UC Berkeley and mother of three who started her site to showcase the many ways African Americans do actually connect with the outdoors. “When people say, I don’t do outdoors,”, I ask them well, do you like to fish? Do you like picnics? Do you like gardening? ... They often say yes, but don’t realize that is all connecting with the outdoors.”
In fact, as Mapp notes, Blacks and Latinos are known for having cook-outs and other celebrations outdoors. “But we have to redefine what connecting with nature is, beyond just camping, and make the outdoors relevant to who we are,” says Mapp who grew up splitting her time between urban Oakland, California and her families’ working ranch in the Northern woodlands.
“And we have to validate the ways that we do enjoy nature—whether it’s a cook out, a fishing trip, or gardening.” (You can click on Connect on her site to find local families to connect with, get tips and share experiences.)
I’m planning a Fall weekend camping trip with my kids. I’ll be honest, two nights in a tent is all I can handle right now. But having different experiences, and moving outside your box is what parenting and childhood is all about.