A few weeks ago, my wife and I marked the day set aside to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by going to see the movie Selma. It is a powerful film, with many memorable scenes.
One minor element in the overall sweep of the story involves a brief conversation, almost an aside, between the actors portraying two great civil rights leaders. As the protesters start their iconic march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Rev. Hosea Williams sees a heavily armed mob of state troopers and sheriff's deputies waiting for them on the other side. He looks over the rail of the bridge at the waters of the Alabama River, then turns to a young John Lewis and asks, with quiet irony, "Can you swim?" To which now Representative Lewis shakes his head and replies, "Not many swimming pools for black folk where I come from."
This incident resonated with me because it echoed a conversation I had about ten years ago with my friend Phil, who has accompanied Jerry and me on many of our adventures in Alaska, ranging from Denali Park to the Varykino cabin. One of our trips involved motoring and sailing along the outside of the barrier islands in Southeast Alaska, from Sitka to Gustavus.
I hadn't thought much about how spending a week on a sailboat might feel for Phil, although he clearly had even less nautical experience than Jerry or me. However, a few days into the trip, we were preparing to launch the onboard kayaks so we could explore inlets and coves along the coast, including some rock piles where sea lions were hauled out and basking and barking in the sun. It was at that point that Phil allowed he can't swim and had a fair amount of trepidation about the whole kayaking idea.
This was the first time I had heard that many African Americans, like Phil, don't know how to swim. In talking it over, I learned that the long arm of segregation reaches out even to current generations, and that the unavailability of swimming pools that John Lewis's film character referred to reverberates still.
Incidentally, to close out this part of the story, I am happy to report that Phil had the gumption to get in one of the sea kayaks and was soon paddling around with enthusiasm. A few years later, he also made his first venture in a canoe when he accompanied Jerry and me to Varykino. Sailboats, kayaks and canoes -- not too shabby for a guy who can't swim!
I don't presume to understand the complex relationship between race and the experience of wilderness, or to generalize from the example of swimming pools to broader points about environmental justice. I would note, however, that this is an increasingly fertile topic for critical race studies and other explorations of justice and equality.
For example, in her book, Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors, Dr. Carolyn Finney writes that "national parks and forests can unintentionally become sites where African Americans experience insecurity, exclusion, and fear born of historical precedent, collective memory, and contemporary concerns." As I noted in a December post on Wilderness and Civil Rights, Dr. Finney also explores the parallel, but largely separate, histories of the two landmark legislative acts of 1964: the Wilderness Act and the Civil Rights Act.
Many relatively new organizations, like Jourdan Keith's Urban Wilderness Project and Rue Mapp's Outdoor Afro, are working to bridge the historical divide between environmental advocacy and civil rights activism. As the Urban Wilderness Project's website puts it, participants in its programs "move through the intersection of environmental health, social justice, culture and the natural world." Outdoor Afro's goals are similar: it "disrupts the false perception that black people do not have a relationship with nature, and works to shift the visual representation of who can connect with the outdoors."
These innovative social leaders have natural allies among indigenous peoples fighting for their culture and human rights to be recognized in national policy decisions, for example in the protection of the Arctic Refuge, which is sacred to the Gwich'in people and central to their way of life.
The major national conservation organizations are also increasingly aware that social justice issues, including greater inclusiveness for African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans, will be critical to the future of the environmental movement. However, as the work of Dr. Finney and others makes clear, they are only beginning to implement policies, develop programs and provide leadership opportunities that fairly represent the diversity of our country and the variety of our experiences with nature.
A long bridge remains to be crossed.
Post-script: After I wrote this week’s blog, and just before I posted it, The Nature Conservancy posted its own blog on a related topic, noting that African Americans have a rich history in conservation that can be found everywhere from Motown to national parks. The TNC post and a linked article can be read here and here.