Why We Must: On Diversity in the Outdoors by Eddy Harris

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IT’S EASY TO IMAGINE THAT BLACK AMERICANS DON’T SKI, DON’T FLY-FISH FOR TROUT, DON’T CAMP OUT, DON’T KAYAK OR SURF, AND DON’T APPRECIATE NATURE – DON’T DO A LOT OF THINGS. SOMEWHERE ALONG THE WAY, THE BLACK EXPERIENCE, AT LEAST IN THE EYES OF SO MANY PEOPLE – BLACKS INCLUDED – BECAME AN URBAN PHENOMENON, AS IF LIVING IN CITIES PRECLUDES THE DESIRE AND POSSIBILITY OF RE-CREATING IN THE GREAT OUTDOORS AND APPRECIATING THE NATURAL ENVIRONMENT.

I have done all of those activities, and then some. I fish, I camp, I hike in the woods, I hike in the mountains. I even like opera. I have canoed the length of the Mississippi River twice.
If there is a reason we don’t see Blacks taking part in a lot of those activities, perhaps it has more to do with economics and exposure and less to do with the activities themselves.

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"THERE IS A FEAR THAT RESIDES DEEP IN GENETIC MEMORY. IT GETS PASSED DOWN FROM GENERATION TO GENERATION. I HEARD THE WARNINGS AS A KID"

That is only if we stipulate that Blacks in fact are under-represented. I’m not so sure one way or the other. It could be a numbers game. Blacks make up 11 percent of the US population, so we wouldn’t expect them to account for more than 11 percent of outdoors enthusiasts, on average. Let’s take skiing as an example. It’s an expensive proposition no matter who you are, given transportation to the slopes, lodging, lift tickets, equipment, and all the rest of it. As an activity it is fairly exclusionary: only those who can afford it can take part. Eliminate skin color from the discussion and ask merely what percentage of the population skis. Take 11% of that. Maybe blacks are not so underrepresented.

Now that we’ve got the numbers out of the way, let’s look at a different reality.
I didn’t see a single other black paddler when I was on the Mississippi River. Not the first time. Not the second. I did, however, have an encounter with two greasy rednecks who came into my camp to threaten me one evening, somewhere in the isolated wilds of the state of Mississippi. It is incontestable that bad things can and have happened to black people when the night has fallen and evil deeds can be shrouded and secret. Perhaps the prudent black person would and should stay away, stay safe, avoid the danger. There is safety in numbers and the numbers are in the cities. It’s safer to stay in the city.

“NATURE, I DISCOVERED, IS A CURE FOR A KIND OF DEATH OF THE SPIRIT. IN NATURE, ESPECIALLY WHEN YOU ARE ALONE, YOU ARE STRIPPED BARE”

I suppose I’m just not that prudent.

I had never really canoed before. When I looked out at the Mississippi River, I said to myself, I can’t do it. There’s too much water. And I’m afraid.

Fear was not an unreasonable emotion. The river is sometimes very wide and the opposite shore often seems too far to swim to. I could have forgiven myself if I had let that fear stop me. But it was only a certain kind of fear: fear of the river, fear of my inexperience, fear of not being a great swimmer. Not fear because it wasn’t a black thing to do.

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In the immediate run-up to my second canoe trip down the Mississippi River, a young unarmed black was shot and killed by the police not far from where I grew up in St Louis. More and more stories have come out, not only about black death at the hands of white cops, but black death at the hands of white civil society. Jogging while black, driving while black, sleeping while black, simply being while black. Why not hiking, canoeing, or camping while black, too?

There is a fear that resides deep in genetic memory. It gets passed down from generation to generation. I heard the warnings as a kid. I should never find myself over in south St. Louis, known as the lily-white part of town.

“I NEVER WOULD HAVE KNOWN IT, NEVER WOULD HAVE KNOWN WHAT I WAS MISSING IF I HADN’T JUST DONE IT”

When my father was a young man, the road and the river did not belong to people like him. When he traveled the back roads of America in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, he always had a woolen blanket, a well-stocked ice chest, and a shotgun with him. The arbitrary exclusions he faced meant that he never knew where he could spend the night safely, if he would find a motel, or if he would have to spend the night sleeping in his car. In the wrong place at the wrong time he could easily wake up with a rope around his neck.

It is possible that fear settles in the genes and determines who we are and what we do, and soon becomes who we are. We take the fears and the warnings to heart and we face the exclusions with exclusions of our own. We refuse to participate. We miss out.

I am black. I tend to use that as my reference point. What I have to say might find resonance within all people of color in America. The exclusions are not limited to black people. The table has been set and the invitations sent out, and we are clearly not invited.

That is the message that is hand-delivered with every act of terror perpetrated. It’s more than merely We don’t like you. The message says, This is ours. You don’t belong here.

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The mechanism extends beyond the woods, beyond recreation. The message of exclusion has always been that it is not ours, not for us. Not the good jobs, not the best neighborhoods, not the good schools, not the finer things in life.

As frightening as the Mississippi River itself was to me then when I was setting out the first time, I felt in some unspoken way that the river was mine. As a boy in St. Louis I would sit on the banks of the river or on the steps beneath the Gateway Arch and commune with that river, talk to that river, feel one with that river. It was more than my river. It was a part of me. Once I decided I wanted to canoe the river, I would let no fear other than my fear of the river itself stop me from being on my river.

I was in fact a city boy. I had camped with friends or with a church group only twice. I didn’t become a nature boy until I was paddling my river and sleeping in a tent and sleeping bag beside that river every night. Then I began to wonder why. Not why I was out there. Why it had taken me so long to discover the joy and serenity of being out there.

“DOING, BEING – IN NATURE AND IN ALL MANNER OF ACTIVITIES – CONTRADICTS THE MESSAGE. BEING IN NATURE REMINDS US THAT, YES, THIS IS OURS TOO. WE BELONG HERE. WE NEED TO BE HERE.”
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Nature, i discovered, is a cure for a kind of death of the spirit. In nature, especially when you are alone, you are stripped bare. The noise stops. You are alone with your thoughts, and only your thoughts. You can lie, but you’d only be lying to yourself. The predigested and the pre-determined don’t work out there. Everything depends on you, on how you handle your gear, on how you handle yourself, how you deal with the environment. It is an adventure. Every twig snapping startles you. Every noise in the trees freaks you out. The night has never been blacker, the stars never so bright. The crackle of the campfire is soothing.

I never would have known it, never would have known what i was missing if i hadn’t just done it.

I met a man on the river. His name was Calhoun. He was fly-fishing as I paddled to him. We chatted. He was so passionate about fly-fishing that he made it sound like an art form. When the canoe trip was over, I gave fly-fishing a try. I was hooked. But only because I was exposed to it. To fishing. To canoeing. To camping. Even to opera. Without the exposure, there is nothing.

Doing, being – in nature and in all manner of activities – contradicts the message. Being in nature reminds us that, yes, this is ours too. We belong here. We need to be HERE.

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Eddy L. Harris, a product of St. Louis, Missouri, is the author of six critically acclaimed books: Mississippi Solo, Native Stranger, South of Haunted Dreams, and Still Life in Harlem; all of which partake of memoir, adventure tale, travelogue and cultural reportage. Harris has always been a traveler and an adventurer, leaving home for the first time at the age of sixteen to “light out for the territories,” as Mark Twain would put it, and travel the back roads and by-roads of America. He set his sights next on Europe and then on Latin America and Africa and has been traveling ever since, living long stints in London and in Yorkshire; in Mexico and Guatemala; Japan, Tuscany and Israel. He has traveled to every continent but one. Despite it all, he keeps a connection to the USA, which remains major source of inspiration, seeing it from the point of view of an intimate outsider. His perspective is therefore fresh, sometimes piercing, often unsettling, always honest.

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