Being Black In Nature Is A Whole Trend And Here's Why

Black Folks Have Been Excluded From Natural Spaces Since The Beginning

Research has often suggested that spending time in nature is valuable for people's physical and mental health regardless of age, race, sex, status or ability. Researchers have also confirmed that humans have an inherent connection to plants and animals (coined: Biophilia) that dates back to more than 2,000 years ago. From paintings in the tombs of ancient Egypt that depict natural elements, plants and animals to the remains of Pompeii, that shows how they brought plants into their homes and built lavish (and often expensive) gardens. Some of the first hospitals in Europe were infirmaries with massive central gardens that were considered to be essential in the patient's healing process. Our fondness of Nature stretches beyond simple "survival" strategies and enters a realm of emotional and spiritual well-being that is often undermined...until recently.

Covid-19 impacted billions of people worldwide. The pandemic prompted massive layoffs and shutdowns that left billions of people financially, emotionally, mentally, socially and spiritually stressed. The CDC noted that the pandemic had the potential to cause high levels of depression, loneliness and isolation which could lead to an elevated number in suicides worldwide. Many studies predict that suicide rates could increase by 1% to 145% due to the pandemic. Dr. Joshua A. Gordon also points out that Black youth are particularly vulnerable to the effects of a pandemic. Dr. Gordon notes that "Black youth continue to be less likely to receive mental health treatment for depression when needed, compared to White youth." His research team also found that Black youth are more likely to die by suicide than their White peers. The lack of professional resources and/or information to Black youth in low socioeconomic areas makes them four time more likely to commit suicide during a pandemic.

With these suicide rates and health disparities being considered, the pandemic has left millions of families confined to their homes for months with nothing but each other and time on their hands. As a result, many people began to turn to Nature as a means of free and/or cheap relief from the pandemic. Dr. Eugenia South, an emergency room doctor, remembers the stress and fear that swept through the hospital when pandemic numbers peaked. Reality began to hit as she realized that she would now have to keep her three children safe at home while keeping herself clear-headed and stress free. She turned to Nature as a means of therapy and relief. She also acknowledges that the privilege to turn to Nature is not one granted to everyone. In her interview with National Geographic, it was reported that:

"In the United States, people of color live in places with less immediate access to nature than white people do. The report, led by the Hispanic Access Foundation and the Center for American Progress, found that communities of color are almost three times more likely than white communities to live in “nature deprived” areas, those that have less or no access to parks, paths, and green spaces. Historical racism in housing practices, city planning, and institutions has shaped the pattern, which has been well documented for decades. But its effects are particularly damaging this summer. During COVID-19-related restrictions, access to outdoor recreation has emerged as a crucial component of people’s emotional and physical wellbeing. At the same time, it has become increasingly obvious that Black and brown Americans are unsafe in many of the country’s public spaces."

There exist within our society what many researchers and activists have coined "The Nature Gap". There is an unequal distribution of natural spaces throughout the United States and black communities are disproportionately exposed to fewer nature centers, nature preserves, nature trails, wildlife parks, conservation education groups/initiatives, functioning parks or community gardens. As a result of this disproportionate distribution of green space, Black Americans are three times more likely to live in areas with no natural spaces and therefore cannot benefit from the therapeutic benefits associated with Nature. The Conservation Science Partners (CSP) found that the "United States has fewer forests, streams, wetlands, and other natural places near where Black, Latino, and Asian American people live. Notably, families with children—especially families of color with children—have less access to nature nearby than the rest of the country." These areas are literally "deprived" of Nature. This is particularly concerning because Nature is not merely an amenity, but a necessity for the mental health and well-being of everyone. Yet, not everyone is in a space to take advantage of Nature's bounty.

Black Peoples Have Been Excluded From Conservation Efforts And Are Unsafe In Natural Spaces

For centuries, the movement to preserve natural lands, resources and wildlife has been a project widely led by White people. This means that all perspectives, ideas and projects lack diversified opinions, options and goals. As a result, areas with less representation within these committees and conversations often do not benefits from the implementation of such coordinated efforts. Even recently, in American's racist history, Black people were legally excluded from beaches, natural parks or community parks. They were systematically excluded and unwelcomed in these natural spaces. Even today, many studies have shown that Black people are often the subjects of random violence, threats and intimidation within natural spaces. I'll never forget my own frightening experience at Cooper Lake State Park in Texas with a friend and her child. The park attendant handed us our ticket and before we drove off offered us a grizzly warning: "I would be gone by 10 p.m. After 10 p.m. a man comes around with a gun." After leaving the park, we immediately reported our experience, but no one ever replied to our complaint or reached out for further details.

The issue is not that Black people do not want to be in natural spaces, but that these spaces are not readily available within Black communities and these spaces are often unwelcoming. University of Missouri scholar KangJae Lee conducted a study in my hometown of Dallas Texas at the Cedar Hill State Park. The park is approximately 1,826 acres and located in a predominately Black community, but Black people only make up roughly 11% of the parks visitors in comparison to 67% white visitors. In an attempt to account for these numbers, Lee interviewed a number of Black visitors (of various ages and backgrounds). Here's what a few of the interviewees had to say about being Black in Nature:

Jennifer*, a city government worker, in her mid-fifties said:

They don’t really say anything to encourage us to come. All we hear is that some groups went, if we hear that any people of color went there, nothing positive that they say about it, so we stay away from there. ...My kids who go everywhere ...haven’t had a desire [to visit the park] ...they just don’t go. They make it sound like it’s not for us. People talk about it, but they talk about it like it’s their [whites’] place that they go.

Sam*, a former city government employee, in his late fifties and “very familiar with the history of the community” said:

Years ago, we couldn’t stay at hotels. You couldn’t go to the diners. You have to go around. Negros only, Whites only. So it has to, you are right [about the origin of recreation culture] has the root, right? So where you might have Caucasians, they can go anywhere they wanna go and enjoy whatever they wanna enjoy, Negros couldn’t ...That culture was, well, it was embedded in us, all right? Maybe that’s all we thought we can do. And we feel, well, say stay home, right? So we don’t have to deal with it [racism].

And here’s Susan, a graduate student in her late twenties, bringing it back to the issue of access and how racism distorts that concept:

We have to talk about access when we talk about the history of leisure, because there was no access to it [outdoor recreation], so how do you expect me [to] appreciate these things if my parents didn’t appreciate it, my parents’ parents couldn’t appreciate it? ....So I feel like it’s, it’s gotten passed down [from] generation to generation to where, “Oh, no we just don’t do these things. We just don’t. We don’t go camping. That’s just not what we do.” It’s something that settled in the Black community, but [a long time ago] it was like, “We can’t do that.

I myself have also heard my family and friends refer to camping or hiking as "white people stuff" and these types of activities are often excluded from our culture and lifestyles. This absence of Nature has robbed an entire people of the health benefits associated with Biophilia and has clouded a mental connection that scientists and doctors have agreed is essential to longevity. What would suicide rates look like amongst Black youth if access to these natural spaces was made available within their communities? What would the conservation conversations sound like in a room diversely populated by Black scientists? What mental and health benefits would Black families experience if they were given the same opportunities to safely experience Nature? How many Black children would discover their passion while standing on the edge of a cliff? How many Black parents would develop a connection to pass down to their children that would be invaluable to their growth and success? How would our world look then? This conversation begins with acknowledging the disparities that exist and the responsibility falls on the shoulders of park authorities to create new dynamics within these spaces. #BlackInNature is a whole social media trend because it is the Black community's attempt to occupy natural spaces in a country that continuously excludes us from these areas. It is our fight to rediscover the roots of our ancestors by exploring the world, defining it and experiencing it in our own unique way. Nature is for everyone and the cost to enjoy the bounty of these natural spaces should not be one's dignity, life or peace.


40 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All