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While Ken Burns has called the national parks "America's best idea," it is one born out of race and class issues. Matthew Klingle, in his book, Emerald City: An Environmental History of Seattle, discusses the origins of outdoor groups like The Mountaineers. In its earliest days, the Seattle group lobbied for recreational areas for white, middle-class pleasure seekers. Their early membership was progressive in terms of gender, nearly as many women as men, but the group was "predominantly middle and upper class, overwhelmingly white, and mostly Protestant."
The worship of "untouched" nature and the idea of recreational play (hiking, skiing, boating) was largely an obsession of white, urban people who had leisure and money. Theodore Roosevelt, booster of the parks, conservation, and promoter of the virtues of the "strenuous life," embodied the attitude of the age, but also the pastimes of an upper class man: boxing, polo, big game hunting and skinny dipping in the Potomac River. Black sharecroppers or Chinese railroad workers hardly needed to be lectured about physical activity. Roosevelt's own racial views were, as we say now, complex, which means he was a bit more enlightened on some aspects for his time, but today would be considered racist, especially his belief in the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon-Nodric-Teutonic-Ce
Conservationists and park advocates in the last century (and before) often wanted to keep Indians and the poor out of parks in order to preserve them. Early access to Glacier Park, for example, was developed by railroad barons specifically to attract wealthy turn-of-the-century tourists who could afford to travel to the remote Rockies in a Palace Car and spend weeks trekking from lodge-to-lodge while mule-skinners and servants schlepped their baggage over the high mountain passes. It's still a distant and rather pricey trip for most people.
Carolyn Finney, a Fairhaven grad who is now an assistant professor at UC Berkeley, wrote an interesting report a few years ago called Black Faces, White Spaces: African-Americans and the Great Outdoors (soon to be a book) in which she advocated for linking parks and the conservation ethic to the black experience:
Regardless of where African-Americans live geographically, our common history of slavery, segregation and racism appears to inform our perceptions and attitudes about the environment. Issues of fear, exclusion, little sense of ownership and lack of awareness all come into play....[F]or African-Americans, creating a deep-seated sense of feeling and responsibility regarding the environment may NOT come primarily from telling them they need to save the trees for their children’s future (this isn’t meant to imply that they don’t care about their children’s future). Recent history shows us that African-Americans are continually using the past as a way to represent themselves and say, 'we were there' and 'we are here now.' Why not use the same framework for understanding African-American interaction with the environment?
The way I read that is that connections made through the story of the progress of a people is more compelling than simply walling off nature from people.
There are connections between African Americans and National Park Service units: Some of the first rangers at Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks were the black cavalrymen known as Buffalo Soldiers. There are also many Park Service entities that connect to black history, ranging from the Booker T. Washington National Monument in Virginia to the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial which commemorates a massive explosion that killed hundreds of African American dock workers near Concord, California during World War II.
Connecting in terms of the environment and enjoying the outdoors is another challenge. Bay Area African American outdoor blogger Rue Mapp is an advocate for promoting the outdoors in the black community. In a recent blog post called "And Let the Church say Amen — to Nature," she suggests that black churches can be powerful partners in promoting the environmental ethic: "In this work of connecting more people to nature, I find myself in many rooms, advisory meetings, and email threads with the discussion of relevancy of the outdoors for African Americans (and other less represented populations).... How can we connect the outdoors to more audiences people ask. With 87% of African Americans who associate themselves with a church...the church must play a key part in our planning and partnerships."
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