The cultural geographer on the misunderstood relationship between people of color and nature, and how place shapes identity.
Photo credit: Lynnly Labovitz.
There is a perception in the United States that African-Americans lack a relationship with the great outdoors. Black Americans are rarely represented in media about outdoor recreation—except, perhaps, as workers. Nor are black Americans considered as faces of environmental movements: most people know the names of John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, and Rachel Carson, but few have heard of John Francis, among other African-American naturalists. Even some plantation tours of the antebellum mansions of the American South omit the names and images of black people from their narratives. From writings to schools, from histories of the land to the land itself, people of color are regularly denied access to public spaces, and roles within particular places.
Dr. Carolyn Finney explores this erasure in her book Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors. Finney analyzes not just the omission of black Americans from environmental movements but also the rejection by mass culture of black Americans’ connection to the outdoors. Race and class biases plague our notion of the wilderness, and to exclude black Americans from the landscape of the great outdoors, she writes, is to deny us our sense of identity.
Finney’s fascination with nature took root in a twelve-acre estate in a wealthy, white suburb in upstate New York, where her father worked grounds that he did not own. Years after Finney left the landscape of her childhood, her parents had to leave the land they had called home. As she says in the interview that follows, “I felt what that loss of home would mean for my family—for my parents, for me—to never be able to go back there.” That unsettling moment prompted an interest in the history of land ownership for people of color. She tells me, “I really begin to understand the larger narratives we tell ourselves that are woven through the environmental movement.”
While Finney, a social scientist and geographer by training, structures her book around the language of the great outdoors, the discourse in Black Faces, White Spaces offers a larger scope. The book explores the limits of nature in the American imagination, as well as the history of racial violence against African-American bodies for being in the “wrong natural spaces.” The relationship that exists between people of color in the US and nature is complex and messy, she argues. “Black people also wanted to go out in the woods and eat apples from the trees. But black people were lynched on the trees.”
I spoke with Finney over the phone as she was settling into her new home. Previously a professor at UC Berkeley, she had just moved from the San Francisco Bay Area to teach at the University of Kentucky. We talked about the legacy of people of color and nature in the US, the policing of black Americans in outdoor spaces, and wilderness as a site of the sublime.
—Hope Wabuke for Guernica
Guernica: How did you become interested in the relationship between African-Americans and the environment?
Carolyn Finney: Well, I was always interested in women and economic development, particularly in Asia and in Africa. My undergraduate degree was in international economic development, with a focus on women. My master’s was in social science in international and rural community development, focused on women as well. I researched women and the environment in Nepal on a Fulbright award. By the time I got my PhD, I thought I was still going to continue doing work on gender and environmental issues.
But then I started looking at race back home in the States, focusing on African-American issues. This was also the moment my parents were going to have to leave the estate property in upstate New York they had taken care of my whole life. That personal connection was driving me. I felt what that loss of home would mean for my family—for my parents, for me—to never be able to go back there.
I started to ask questions about ownership of land here in the United States—the history of land ownership for people of color in this country. I really began to understand the larger narratives we tell ourselves that are woven through the environmental movement. Despite the good work those people in that movement are doing, it leaves out a lot of the experiences and the history of a wide variety of people that the mainstream environmental narrative doesn’t fit. It doesn’t tell their story. Sometimes a lot of people with good intentions within that movement say, “Okay, we want to engage these marginalized peoples in our movement,” as though our people don’t have a history and a story with the environment that has value. Those communities are only cast as needing help, not on equal terms with something to offer.
Guernica: That land that your parents took care of, is that where you developed your awareness of nature?
Carolyn Finney: Yes. The estate was beautiful. It was a twelve-acre estate with gardens, a small pond, fish, a swimming pool, and woods in a wealthy white community. The owners only came up on weekends and holidays, and so my brothers and I played outside together every day. I rode my bike everywhere. I learned to swim by the time I was seven. But I don’t consider myself an outdoorsy person. In the US, we think about the outdoors in terms of recreation. If you’re into the environment, you have to be an “outdoorsy” person and look and dress a particular way. I’m not like that. It was just how we lived.
We were in upstate New York, thirty minutes from New York City. The nature of the city influenced me as much as playing in the grass and the woods did. All the things you get from being close to the city, we were getting—and we got to be outside. This is why I talk a lot about how nature is everywhere. I really push back when people say, “Oh, it’s urban, so there’s no nature.” I say, “Really. How do you think you’re breathing?”
We have nature everywhere. Wildlife doesn’t pay attention to human-made boundaries. Wildlife crosses boundaries all the time. And as human beings, we do too. Boundaries are false delineations.
I saw how my parents saw their lives as limited by the racism of the time, and I didn’t want my life to be limited.
Guernica: What was your childhood like on this estate?
Carolyn Finney: My parents were told they couldn’t have kids, so they adopted me. And then they had two boys after that. So I carried a lot of baggage around issues of identity. There is no mystery why I focused on issues of identity. Who are we? Who am I connected to? Who are we in this world?
I grew up on the estate, and my parents were caretakers for a wealthy Jewish family. We were the only family of color. I watched my parents, who came from poor black families in the South with a high school education, maneuver between this very wealthy world and the world that they came from, and make a living for their kids. We had to [navigate] that tension as the only black kids in this wealthy, white neighborhood. I had the privilege of living on that estate, and learning [about the world] from watching the wealth around me. There was something about negotiating that on a daily basis when I was young that taught me a lot about who I am and how I am perceived in the world.
My mother fixed up the house, my father took care of the land and worked as a chauffeur. I saw them do what they felt they had to do to create opportunities for their kids. My father grew up in the segregated South. His fears and mistrust of the world, especially the white world, limited my opportunities. He was really strict because I was a girl. What he thought I could do and couldn’t do really affected me. It’s why I went on to have a less-than-traditional life in the world, and made different choices. I saw how my parents saw their lives as limited by the racism of the time, and I didn’t want my life to be limited.
Guernica: What was it like being the only black girl in the town?
Carolyn Finney: I tell the story of how I was nine years old with my little Afro walking home from school one day. In that neighborhood, police were always patrolling. I was just around the corner from home when a white cop stopped me. He asked, “Do you work there?” I was nine years old. I looked at him and I said, “No, I live there.” Even then, those moments seemed weird to me. Here was a grown-up, a white cop, who couldn’t use his logic rationally and see me. He was looking at a little girl with a schoolbag—what did he think I was going to do, go rob a house? He only focused on the color of my skin.
Guernica: It doesn’t seem that much different from today. I think about Aiyana Stanley-Jones, who was seven years old when she was shot by police. I think about Tamir Rice, who was twelve years old when shot by police. Like with your story, the police said Tamir seemed older. They couldn’t see either of you as children. They saw your skin color and assumed criminality. What do you make of this ongoing violence and terror?
Carolyn Finney: I think there is something for me in the consciousness of this country around skin color, humanity, and privilege. People of all walks of life suffer. You can be a white man and have a horrible, harsh life. You can be a black woman and have a really privileged life. All these things are true. But the larger context is that when you look at American history, anyone who wasn’t white and male at the founding of this country has generally suffered, and has been seen as less than human. And these ideas perpetuate every single one of our institutions: our criminal justice system, our education system, our politics. We’re using a Constitution that was made when people were still held as slaves and when native people were being taken off their land and killed. How do we think these ideas do not continue to permeate our own ideology?
People want to demonize individual people like that cop. Now, he should be held responsible for his individual acts, but we lose an opportunity if we separate him from the flock. We miss what I actually think is the most important issue: the cop who shot Tamir Rice didn’t begin thinking like that on his own. That comes from a larger context. We’re all informed by the larger context in which we live and the messages we receive on a daily basis. When people talk about micro-aggressions, this is what they mean: the response to our very presence in any space.
Guernica: In a time when black bodies are still routinely patrolled and brutalized for being in the “wrong” spaces—Trayvon Martin, people say, shouldn’t have been in that neighborhood, or Renisha McBride—how have the legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, and racial violence shaped cultural understandings of the “great outdoors”? What to make of the tension between the exclusion of black bodies and the idea of natural spaces being “for everybody”?
Carolyn Finney: One of the questions I always ask is: Who is “everybody”? Because I work with a lot of people in the National Parks Service, I know that’s what some of them really mean. But you have to break this down and look at what “everybody” means historically. You certainly weren’t talking about native people who had been kicked out of those spaces so the parks could be created. You certainly weren’t talking about black people who were enslaved Africans then freed and living under Jim Crow. You certainly weren’t talking about Japanese people who were just about to be put into internment camps during World War II. And I could go on. So who is “everybody”? And how has the meaning of “everybody” changed?
The people making the decisions about “everybody” two hundred years ago are not the same kind of people as the ones who are making those decisions today. I think that’s where a lot of the conflict arises.
Guernica: You mention in your book how national monuments to white slaveowners in national parks create, to use your language, “landscapes of exclusion” that do not welcome African-Americans.
Carolyn Finney: About a year and a half ago, I was working on a project with fellow scholars on the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia and the Carolinas, owned by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The Great Dismal Swamp was a place where many escaped Africans went when they ran away from slavery. It is a very intense place. Unlike the National Parks Service, Fish and Wildlife isn’t there primarily to create a story or to engage with the public; their primary concern is to protect the fish and wildlife. But a number of years back, one of my colleagues discovered the remains of enslaved Africans who had run away and lived there. Now, Fish and Wildlife has decided to tell the story of the enslaved Africans. Often you go to these spaces, especially plantation tours, to look for our people, and our story isn’t told. You wonder: Where is our story? The diminishing of the story is the problem. The erasure of the story is the problem.
I’m not quite sure how you teach a course on agriculture in America and not mention slavery, not talk about black people.
Guernica: There are many instances of plantation museums and plantation “resorts” that erase the slaves from the narrative. You mention in your book the example of the Magnolia Plantation. What does this constant erasure do to the story of blacks in America and our relationship to nature?
Carolyn Finney: What does erasure do to anyone? For African-Americans, there is a sense that if you erase my history, you are erasing me. It means we are in isolation. It means we are no longer in relationship with anything or anyone. You take that away and people go crazy. They forget who they are. They act out. They are more susceptible to control—not just by other people but by other ideas, ideas which tell you who you are, because you don’t have your own story to stand on.
At UC Berkeley, eight years ago, I was teaching the biggest class in the Department [of Environmental Sciences, Policy, and Management]: Introduction to Culture and Natural Resource Management in the United States. For three days a week, with 280 students, I was supposed to look at different racial and ethnic groups in the US and their relationship to nature. They showed me the syllabus, and I saw that the course covered Asian-American, Latino, white, and native history. There was nothing on black people. I’m not quite sure how you teach a course on agriculture in America and not mention slavery, not talk about black people.
Erasure is really dangerous—not just to black people, but to everybody. It comes with thinking that the erased population is not important. Therefore we do not have to learn to engage, to respect. We don’t have to evolve, to consider that our way of knowing is not the only way of being in the world.
Guernica: In your book, you look at how the outdoors has not always been safe for black people in America. You mention the song “Strange Fruit,” and the idea that black Americans would have related to trees as violent objects used for lynchings. What does this mean for the relationship of black Americans to nature?
Carolyn Finney: Nature can be violent toward everyone. One can argue that there is an inherent violence to nature—living and dying is violent. But nature, from the perspective of African-Americans, can seem especially violent. Any place can be a violent place. You can be a black kid on a playground and get killed. You can be an African-American girl in your bathing suit at a party having a good time and a cop can throw down your body on the sidewalk.
There’s a way that nature has been talked about as a sublime, peaceful, beautiful space. There’s something deep about going out under a tree or in the woods on a mountain without any human beings. The quiet—there is something meaningful about it. Putting those two things together means, for someone like Henry David Thoreau, going out into the woods to find serenity.
But if you were black at that time, you had better make sure that you had a gun in your pocket and knew where you were going. Because it wasn’t about how nature would be violent to you, but how other people out in nature would be violent toward you because of the color of your skin. Black people also wanted to go out in the woods and eat apples from the trees. But black people were lynched on the trees. The tree became a big symbol.
Nature is sublime; nature is regenerative. We need it to survive. But these are spaces where we can be killed. And so, for some of us, these spaces don’t feel good. Not because of anything nature can do, but because of what other people do to us in nature.
Guernica: Let’s talk more about the question of ownership. One compelling point in Black Faces, White Spaces is about how, in the late 1800s, the land given to newly freed slaves was stolen back by white Southerners just as John Muir’s first conservation efforts were taking place. Like your parents, African-Americans often worked land owned by whites. But blacks had a very clear and important relationship with nature.
Carolyn Finney: Some black people did own land. There is a small number of black people in America who are descended from people who were never enslaved.
One of the ways we talk about our relationship to nature in America is through recreation. And the other way is through resources—we need coal, we need gas, we need food. But we don’t talk about the land through work. We don’t think about how that relationship gives you knowledge.
Working the land has been seen as derogatory for African-Americans because we used to pick cotton. I think we’re getting back to a positive view of working the land with the farm-to-table, grow-your-own-food movement. It’s predominantly a young, white, middle-class thing. That’s very different from someone like my father, who has been doing it for years without getting any props for it. People like my father don’t recognize how valuable their knowledge is because they’re not invited to those conversations. They’re invisible.
Down in Florida, they talk about the lack of black people coming to the national parks despite having a large black population. But we would see black people fishing all day long by the river. A lot of them are fishing for food, so it’s work. But they’re not counted. Clearly they have a relationship with nature. They’re outside, fishing. What does it say to the rest of us that we are not seeing them? That we are not counting them? There is something about how we understand work, how we understand class and race, at play here.
There aren’t as many African-Americans in the national parks as there should be or could be. But that doesn’t mean African-Americans aren’t out in nature.
Guernica: It appears that only certain interactions with nature are counted. I was going to ask you why African-Americans are underrepresented when it comes to engagement with nature and environmentalism. But I think the question really is: Why are African-Americans so seemingly underrepresented?
Carolyn Finney: That’s the real question. There aren’t as many African-Americans in the national parks as there should be or could be. But that doesn’t mean African-Americans aren’t out in nature.
It comes back to, historically, what those spaces have meant and how they have been constructed. Sometimes it’s practical: in the Everglades, there is no public transportation to the park, and it’s an hour away from the city. Many working-class families don’t have a car. Sometimes it’s about awareness. Cuyahoga Valley National Park is in Cleveland, Ohio, right in the middle of the city; people aren’t even aware they’re in a national park.
Having said all of that, it is also about being able to see the value in someone else’s experience and story. It depends on who is in leadership positions. It’s not only about race; white people, like black and brown people, are complicated and diverse. We can get some really well-intentioned white people in leadership positions, but if they haven’t had the experience, they may not see these issues.
About ten years ago, for example, we got together twenty of us to do a weekend at the American Hiking Society on the East Coast. Our group was comprised of nineteen African-Americans and one French woman. After the weekend, the association asked us to take a survey because they were really trying to engage diverse people. We had had a really great time.
But when we looked at their website, all the pictures were of white people—laughing, relaxing, and having a good time. They had one picture of a black person, and the black person was working. The white leadership just hadn’t seen it. They were perpetuating the same old idea: white masters, black slaves. The minute we pointed it out to them, they were mortified. I want to be clear that it’s not black people’s responsibility to educate white people, but we can share our experiences.
Guernica: You mention the story of John Francis, a pivotal advocate for the environment, in your book. I was stunned by the woman who thought John Francis had to be white. She couldn’t envision an African-American being such a strong leader in the environmental movement. What caused the whitewashing of that particular movement?
Carolyn Finney: I thought it was a really brave moment when the young lady admitted her own bias. A teachable moment. And I do think this bias comes a lot from the media—what stories we see, what news we’re told. In outdoors magazines, for example, how many black people do we see, and what are they doing?
But a lot of it comes from school. There are certain things we are told in our history classes and in our literature classes. For instance, one of the faculty members who didn’t want me to get tenure couldn’t understand why I cited Spike Lee or Zora Neale Hurston in my work. Zora Neale Hurston was a black anthropologist and folklorist who did amazing research on black life in the US. But that faculty member’s comments told me he did not know who she was. Not to mention, he didn’t understand that Spike Lee was telling stories about black life. That faculty member didn’t see Zora Neale Hurston or Spike Lee as having any value in the classroom or in intellectual life. He didn’t see the value in a book I was writing about black culture in the United States.
These are the people who are teachers, researchers, who sit in think tanks, who get to determine who gets research money for different research ideas and how that research is supposed to look. White men are the default position. And we are set on that default position when we have a conversation about environment in America, who engages it and who doesn’t, and who has something to offer.
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