Contrary to (semi) popular belief, Black people can and do camp. I’m Black, and I went on my first camping trip when I was seven years old. I’m now 36 and camping is one of my favorite things.
I camp because it makes me unbelievably happy. I feel at peace; I feel energized. It helps me to feel more like me. Looking up into the stars, cooking over an open fire, being with friends, smelling the fresh air, unplugging — I love it all. Or most of it.
What I don’t love is the lack of racial diversity and the racism that sometimes comes with it. Black folks are often made to feel out of place when camping. These are just two of the things that can leave Black folks feeling iffy about going. It’s heartbreaking because camping can be so many things: fun, a chance to connect with loved ones and an opportunity for healing. So, I’m loudly and clearly affirming that we have a right to camp and to experience all its wonders. We have a right to healing. We have a right to enjoyment. We have a right to (re) connect with the land. We belong, no matter who or what says we don’t.
For decades after national and state parks were first established, Black folks were barred from visiting. The message of not belonging, then, is rooted in history and institution. Professor of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management at North Carolina State University, KangJae “Jerry” Lee, explains that American parks were conceptualized and created by white eugenicists as places for whites only to enjoy. Among them was the founder and first president of the Sierra Club, John Muir, who is often referred to as the “Father of National Parks.” Muir referred to Black people as “sambos” and at one point believed that Indigenous people should be removed from America’s land, even though they had lived on and cared for it for thousands of years. Black folks won the right to enjoy the parks after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 but, of course, racism in the outdoors has persisted.
My Uncle Quentin, a Black 60-something self-described naturalist who’s been camping all his life (and who was a powerful driving force in my early camping years), has had plenty of experiences with racism while camping. He remembers during one camping trip, when he entered the visitor’s center to claim his reservation, the park ranger said to him, “You know we don’t allow a lot of loud music here.” The ranger didn’t explicitly mention race, but he did make at least two assumptions about my uncle.
The first was that my uncle didn’t know the rules — that he was ignorant and needed educating. The second was clearly tied to an old racist stereotype — that Black people are loud and disruptive. But there was more. He was assuming that my uncle was going to be his loud disruptive self in a place of peace and quiet, that he was going to do the wrong thing. The message then was “You don’t belong here.”
This is the same message I’ve often gotten from whites when I’m camping. It’s usually subtle, but that doesn’t make it any less upsetting. It comes through in hard, silent stares, unreturned hellos, or looks and body language that read as shock or fascination. This is all downright ridiculous, at best.
Over generations, our relationship with and contributions to nature disprove the notion that Black people are incompatible with nature. Harriet Tubman has been called “the ultimate outdoorswoman.” Her feat of leading 70 African slaves to freedom depended on her ability to use the stars to navigate, forage plants for food and medicine, and use bird calls to communicate with others. Stephen Bishop, an African slave, explored, created the first maps of and led tours of the cave system at Mammoth National Park, the longest known cave system in the world at 420 miles. (Which I had the privilege of visiting earlier this year during a camping trip. It was phenomenal.) Dr. George Washington Carver is viewed as one of America’s greatest agricultural researchers and educators, having done ground-breaking work in natural resource conservation. We’ve thrived in nature, whether it’s been out of necessity or just because we wanted to enjoy it.
To be clear, we don’t need to justify our belonging or right to anyone. If we want to go camping or otherwise spend time out in nature, we can and should. We don’t need to wait for anyone to welcome us. Yes, we should be aware of the realities of racism and exercise caution to protect ourselves, but at the same time, we can know and believe we have a natural right to be there. Not only do we have every right to be in nature, we have a lot to gain from it.
Nature heals. The feelings of peace, calm and happiness I feel during and after camping are a testament to its healing power. This idea of nature being healing isn’t solely based on my personal experience, there’s scientific research backing it. Time outdoors not only improves general mental health, but it can also even improve symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Given the generations of trauma we’ve endured from racism and other oppressions, we as a people need and deserve healing. Maybe camping can be part of that healing.