D.during blistering In the summer of 1919, a stifling heat wave lasted over the South Side of Chicago, and Eugene Williams had turned 17 a few months ago. Williams, who worked as a grocery porter, had built a homemade raft with his friends, and one brutal Sunday afternoon they decided to take it out on Lake Michigan. The raft drifted across the water and accidentally crossed the section of 29th Street. The white section.
According to several historical reports, a white beachgoer threw stones at Williams and his friends, one of whom reported a stone hit Williams in the head before falling into the water. Other reports – including the coroner’s jury – said Williams tried not to be hit when he let go of the raft and drowned. When a police officer refused to arrest the person who was thrown with stones, tensions mounted and riots broke out, exacerbating a season of racial violence in the United States known as the Red Summer.
That was more than 100 years ago. But you can draw a straight line from the tragic death of Eugene Williams – a child who just tried to enjoy the outdoors – to the underrepresentation of black Americans in the open air today. Until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, blacks were legally excluded or segregated from national and state parks and other public areas in many states. The National Health Foundation has identified historical segregation, along with racial violence and economic inequality, as factors underlying the “diversity gap” in nature-based outdoor recreational activities. Today we still see reports of black Americans being treated as “others” in natural areas; We see cases of cops being called when blacks gather in parks or even play golf.
Layer this story of discrimination with the situational and financial barriers that keep black people from visiting these outlets, and it’s hardly surprising that a recent report from the Outdoor Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the Outdoor Industry Association, states that black Americans are significantly underrepresented in outdoor activities. Black youth also had the lowest participation rates of any youth group, which is another cause for concern about the future gap in participation rates for black adults. In 2010, 13 percent of the US population identified as black, but the National Park Service found that between 2001 and 2011, only 1 percent of visitors were black. As a black, I find it daunting not to see myself reflected in these rooms.
The diversity gap in the great outdoors was no accident; it is systemic and has been further perpetuated by biased narratives and stereotypes. To properly understand the collective reluctance of Black Americans to experience outdoor spaces, we must view it as a legitimate response to historical circumstances.
As a black boy who grew up in the suburbs of Dallas, Texas, I’ve rarely ventured into outdoor pursuits. I prefer the comfortable realm of organized sport and the thrill of skating and longboarding on paved asphalt roads. I remember my dad and I had to go to a rural area in east Texas as a teenager for my driving test. It took him a moment as we parked to poke my head that I might run into someone who might say something derogatory about me just because of the color of my skin. He told me to ignore it because they don’t know any better and we have no space and no energy for people who aim to disregard our humanity. I have taken that with me to this day – both the knowledge that rural areas can pose a particular threat to black people and the determination not to let myself be bothered.
I attended college outside of Austin, Texas, and during my freshman year I fell deeply in love with the Hill Country. Whenever I had free time, I would spend it camping, exploring, kayaking, and jumping in any body of water I could find. I spent nights with friends under the stars, telling stories around the campfire, somehow always short of supplies.
These escapades taught me more about myself and the world around me than I had learned in all the previous 17 years. You taught me to appreciate how connected we all are. They humiliated my ego and cultivated a more mindful outlook on life. Nature has shown me a way to be still through heartbreak and stressful times – a way to heal. It helped me see a clearer vision of who I wanted to be. I’ve explored Arches National Park in Utah, ridden in the sun in Glacier National Park in Montana, ridden down enchanted slopes in New Mexico and climbed 19 of the highest peaks in Colorado, where I now live.
The diversity gap in the great outdoors was no accident; it is systemic and has been further perpetuated by biased narratives and stereotypes.
Spending time outdoors has become an integral part of my healthy life. It enables me to escape the noise and pollution of the city, disconnect from the world and the constant pressures of modern society. It’s a way to increase my heart rate, but also to decompress, meditate, and breathe. More than once, nature has saved me from falling into depression.
That’s why I find it so worrying that I don’t see myself and people who look like me reflected in the outdoor recreational culture. That is the reason for my idiosyncratic self-expression in the great outdoors. I want other People of Color to understand and appreciate the mountains too. I want other colored people to feel called to recapture these natural spaces and to break through the cultural constraints into which we have historically been forced.
In recent years we have seen a national movement promoting outdoor inclusion gain mainstream recognition. Black Sand Surf, Outdoor Afro, and Brown Folks Fishing are just a few of the leading organizations. But we can and should do a lot more. We need a stronger representation of blacks in the organizational structure and workforce of our national parks, more partners promoting the outdoor experience for people of color, and above all, more concerted efforts to teach people of color the health benefits of outdoor activities .
Myself and other black relaxation seekers have the ability not only to climb mountains, but also to break cycles of historical oppression – and inspire others along the way. Even if the path sometimes feels lonely, we have to keep climbing: the view from the summit will be worth it.
Joe Kanzangu is an adventurer, writer, and presenter who loves to cook for those around him. He currently lives in Denver, Colorado.