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Art by JONATHAN SLINGER

TO WALK IN THE WORLD
by QUENTIN PARKER

       Back people don’t go hiking.

       I don’t hate nature. I hate insects, high humidity on a 95-degree day, freezing wind, and bird shit on the sidewalk. The years between elementary school and college were where I felt the lowest inclination to do any outdoor activities. Due to this aversion, I’ve never been white water rafting, rock climbing, bird watching, fishing, hunting, or gardening.
       When I disclosed that my college friends and I were considering going hiking as a fun activity, both of my parents laughed. “What are you going hiking for? That’s for white people.”
       This wasn’t the first time I experienced that criticism. Something you learn growing up Black is that there are some things we have no business doing. Many of those include adventurous explorations of nature.

       I often wonder if Black people avoid pursuing more outgoing ventures because of the associated risks. Journeying to the top of Mount Everest claims around five lives a year. A relatively small number but, in the grand scheme of things, five too many to be worth the trip. Dozens die every year from canoeing and kayaking. The internet shows us white people hanging from cliff edges for an Instagram photo and somersaulting thirty thousand feet in the air in parachutes. These actions are met with the usual response of disapproving hums and headshaking.
       Other times I consider how accessible nature has been for Black people, and whether we’d simply been deterred from doing these things. You get to “act a fool” in nature when the consequences end with just you, and Black individuals are habitually seen as monoliths for the community. The internet also shows us the Black people who are harassed in—or ultimately, ousted from—spaces like public parks and beaches, based solely on their presence being too much of a disturbance to the non-Black people occupying those spaces. I can say I choose not to hang around outside because the elements put me in a less than ideal mood, but I know subconsciously that my existence in nature will one day, somehow, violate someone else’s space.

       The large Maryland house was adorned with numerous Christmas trees. Each one was meticulously decorated with different festive ornaments and twinkling lights, some in the living room, the foyer, the upstairs hallway, the bedrooms. I have to assume some of the locations, though, as I didn’t get to see every one of them that night.

       Walking into a room where there are no other Black people immediately sets off warning bells. It’s a self-preservation response, one that isn’t always needed but is there subconsciously. You can never know for certain how you’re perceived as the lone person of color.
       My mother, brother, and I didn’t need to know what everyone else at this Christmas tree viewing party thought of us, as their eyes never left us. We’d seen less than a handful of the trees my mother’s coworker had decorated her house with before we isolated ourselves to an unseen corner of the dining room. When they could spot us, we were watched like enigmas. Under their judgmental gaze I analyzed the way I was dressed. I was twelve—maybe thirteen—at the time, so I wasn’t exactly styled to the nines. I tried to rationalize every way in which we could draw attention. Maybe they wondered who we knew here or why we had come. Maybe they thought we were lost and saw the pretty lights from outside.
       It was my first brush with the tensions that can come up when Black people revel in the glamour of nature—even when artificial. These elegantly garnished trees were for the eyes of the older white guests. I feared the encounters we could have if just one of us left the others to take a closer look or inquire where the plants were from. Everyone but us were able to marvel at the beauty of these pampered firs. This space belonged to them.

       I learned recently of the secrets buried beneath the United States’ lakes. History books often omit the adverse relationship between Black people and nature. Particularly, they conceal the Black American towns that have been destroyed and “purified” with a lake or natural park. Lake Lanier is one of the most prominent of the “Drowned Towns,” one in a long line of culture decimated and replaced with greenery that was more pleasing to the eye.
       Oscarville, Georgia was drowned by Lake Lanier after two Black teenagers, Earnest Knox and Oscar Daniels, were accused of raping and murdering a young white girl, Mae Crow. They were tried and lynched in the same day. The white men in the area—Night Riders—killed or forced out the rest of the Black population and destroyed their land, churches, and schools. Kowaliga, Alabama was drowned by Lake Martin, along with the first Black-owned railroad. Seneca Village in New York City, a thriving Black community, was torn down in favor of Central Park. Vanport, Oregon gave way to Delta Park after a massive 1948 flood wiped out the town in a day.The Black residents there were never warned of the increasingly high water levels. Many didn’t evacuate, and thousands of Black families were displaced[1].
       The value of nature had never been measured in Blackness. A glistening fishing spot and splotches of forest were more to the taste of the white people in those areas. History tells us relentlessly that white land has nothing to offer Black bodies, and the comfort of both racial groups could never be mutual in nature. These spaces have always belonged to the oppressor. The exclusion started when they conquered the land, then made us work tirelessly on it, the
n took it back by any means. If they saw fit to make more room for nature in their world, they would be sure it was solely for them and their enjoyment.

       I learned to appreciate sunshine and fresh air during my first year of college. The COVID-19 pandemic had turned the campus into a ghost town, so my walks outside had gone mostly uninterrupted.I would sit at the picnic tables in front of the library and find solace in how green the grass was. I would breathe, close my eyes, and bask in the warmth of the sun. Breathe again, look over my shoulder. Realize it was the sound of squirrels scouring the grass and trash cans for food, not footsteps. Sigh in relief, then hope I could enjoy five more minutes of this.

       Attending a Predominantly White Institution after growing up in a Black county comes with caveats. I hadn’t faced overt racism before, and aside from the Christmas party, any subtle racism has eluded me. In hindsight I can’t say for sure if I had much reason to be so paranoid. My classmates were all nice, as were my professors. I’d seen other Black students around campus, though rarely in any of my classes. Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I shouldn’t be outside.
       I am unsure of whether Christian Cooper experienced that same feeling while birdwatching in Central Park. In 2020, Cooper captured video of a white woman who refused to put her dog on a leash, despite it being the park rules. He recorded her, as many other birders have before with unruly park-goers, and she weaponized both of their races to establish claim over her space. She called the police and emphasized that an African American man was recording and threatening to harm both her and her dog, which clearly wasn’t the case on video. Cooper knew in this situation that his accolades—former assistant editor at Marvel Comics, senior editorial director at Health Science Communications, Ivy League graduate—would not protect him from the scary Black man stereotype, or the entitlement of this woman to let her dog vandalize the plants in the Ramble[2]. In that moment he was a Black man encroaching on a white space.
       Social media has done well to emphasize these moments where Black people’s enjoyment of nature were met with backlash. Black families have been harassed for having outdoor barbecues, Black children harassed for playing too loud outside, Black conservationists harassed while helping local families get connected with nature. In the eyes of many, nature is not a shared space, but rather one to be preserved from those who did not stake claim to it centuries ago. Nature is continuously kept under lock and key from Black people who simply wish to exist within it; our interest in partaking in the thrill of outdoor adventure has all but diminished.

       Our fears can, at times, be unfounded. In the moments that I looked over my shoulder while trying to enjoy the warm breeze and sunshine, I never encountered any problems for being outside. But, when I walk on campus at night, I still hope that I am recognizable as a student—that I have a place in this area. The social conditioning we endured has taught us to evade nature, and left many of us out of touch with our connection to the environment.
       Nature has been used as a tool of oppression, a method of gatekeeping individuals from looking at the forests, oceans, and mountains as anything other than a means for resources. Black people have a right to go bouldering, to scuba dive, to stand in a public park and take pictures of the blooming flowers. Our space is shared between us. 

 

       If insects didn’t exist, I’d be a little bit more eager to try hiking one day. My home in a largely flat state means greater exploration for hiking spots with the best scenery. I cross my fingers and hope that along the trail my presence doesn’t disturb or unsettle those we pass. I drown my fears in the knowledge that the world is my own to walk on, too.

 

 

[1] Diakite, Parker. “5 Black American Towns Hidden under Lakes and Ultimately from History Books.” Travel Noire, July 9, 2021, travelnoire.com/black-american-towns-hidden.

[2] Betancourt, David. “Christian Cooper Hopes America Can Change. Because He’s Not Going to.” The Washington Post (WP Company, June 23, 2020), https://washingtonpost.com/arts- entertainment/2020/06/23/christian-cooper-central-park-birder-comics/.

QUENTIN PARKER, at the time of submitting this piece, studied Creative Writing at Salisbury University. Quentin lived in Bowie, Maryland, and attended college in Salisbury, Maryland. Quentin worked as a fiction editor and a creative nonfiction associate editor in Salisbury University’s literary magazine, The Scarab.

 

JONATHAN SLINGER grew up in Boulder and competed in alpine ski racing before dabbling in other sports, including big wall climbing and ski mountaineering. He was currently volunteering as an adaptive ski instructor with the National Sports Center for the Disabled at Winter Park, Colorado when he submitted this photo.

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