Nature and the Rules of Race: A Conversation with Carolyn Finney
“When we consider landscapes like national parks, or other areas of ‘natural’ beauty, what you see is not always way you get,” writes Carolyn Finney in Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors (117). Addressing the supposed mystery of why black Americans appear less drawn to wild places, Finney—an assistant professor of geography and environmental and sustainability studies at the University of Kentucky—both solves that “mystery” and turns her magnifying glass back to those who had been stumped.
She details how African American aversion to the “great outdoors” stems from “what those spaces represent in the eyes of a black person hobbled by repressive rules, cultural norms, racist propaganda, and the possibility of death” (117). And yet, when she begins hunting for black figures with whom to populate the lily-white history of conservation and environmentalism, she finds more than she can count, begging the question of why they’ve been left out of these stories for so long.
Environmental studies scholar Dantrell Cotton sat down on December 8 with Finney at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to talk about the “repressive rules” of race and her resuscitated African American heroes in a conversation about the origins of her book and its implications for contemporary environmental politics and pedagogy.
Stream or download the conversation here. Interview highlights, edited for clarity and recorded by Edge Effects editor Brian Hamilton, follow.
Dantrell Cotton: It seems that in a lot of your own experiences, you saw similar push-back to what you’re pushing back on in the book when you hear folks say things like “Black folks don’t do environment.”
Carolyn Finney: When I talk about questions of race with people, its an emotional challenging conversation to have, and that’s putting it lightly—you can feel the discomfort in the room rise. For me, if I’m even going to bring up that word ‘race,’ I find that underneath it all I want to remind us of our humanity (not to sound corny). There’s a sort of protection there: if I tell a story about myself in that experience, no one can deny me that story. What I hope they can choose to do is see things that are familiar for them that might show up differently in their own story, but they recognize a vulnerability, a fear, something that’s funny, that parent-child relationship—that strain, that stress. So that’ll allow them to take a leap to the other thing, particularly if I’m talking to non-black people. (If I’m being more specific, if I’m talking to white people and saying, “Listen, there are some things here in terms of power, privilege, and relationships that played out in a very particular way for me. Some are very particular to me and my family. Some are very generalizable to what was going on in the context of race at this particular time in New York and beyond in the United States.” I find storytelling is what people remember.
That’s how I make sense of it. I first go back and forth, and I can start with the personal. I believe that all knowledge is subjective, so I’m gonna bring that bias anyways. So I’d rather call it out and see if I can understand it in relationship to some bigger ideas and some bigger ways of understanding the geography of race, in relation to space and place.
DC: In the book you combat the belief that African Americans don’t interact with the environment. You say you want people to rethink what it means when they say “out in nature” or what it means to experience nature. Do you think that African Americans’ engagement with the environment has been dictated, defined, and scrutinized under this lens of white centrism or being told what it means to interact with the environment?
CF: I think that in general, within the United States, there’s been some universalized story about the way we as people should and can interact with non-human nature, right? If you look at conservation and preservation, just those very ideas are telling us how we should behave. Preservation very generally is about non-human nature, without us. We’re going to protect it and treat it in a very particular way. And conservation is about managing nature for our use or about taking care of it. But here we’re being told how to do it. And at the foundation of that is that humans are separate from nature. So for me, we’re already fundamentally down a path which I find problematic.
And then, if I start thinking collectively about African Americans (and I want to be really careful because I’m not speaking for all African Americans) the dominant narrative there is slavery. The idea that as African Americans—being held captive, being made to work the land and engage with non-human nature under the threat of the lash or death, being someone else’s property (like the property that they worked)—that’s gonna have some impact.
DC: In the book you also talk about folks that you really admire, like John Francis. What were some of those stories and narratives that had a pivotal role for you?
CF: I believed that there’s got to be a lot of amazing stories from African Americans about the environment, but I had no idea the kinds of stories I would find and who I was going to meet. I literally googled “African Americans and the environment.” The name Audrey Peterman came up. Audrey Peterman is an African American, Jamaica-born, who now has a Huffington Post blog, she does great work around national parks. She came up because she runs a company called Earth Wise Productions, and I reached out to her as a graduate student. She became my community partner in my dissertation work, and she’s become one of my best friends and we’ve continued to work together. She partially opened up my way to some of these amazing people.
This was around 2002, there was this second environmental justice summit in Washington DC. I didn’t go to the first one, but I said maybe that’s another way that I can meet some black folks. I’m just going to go show up. That’s where somebody said you need to meet this guy, John Francis. John spent twenty-two years walking across the United States and Latin America to raise environmental awareness. He did it for seventeen years without talking. He got his degree right here at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His commitment is, and was, total, and so many people had never heard about him. He’s charismatic, and he’s thoughtful, and he’s deep.
I met so many people like this. I found myself in Florida sitting in the trailer of one of the Tuskegee Airmen having a conversation. (Somebody had pointed me his way because he used to work in agriculture.) Meeting people like the Highwaymen, who were African American painters—all male except one woman, largely in the fifties and sixties, many of them still alive—who painted the Florida landscape and would sell their paintings on the highway to tourists. If you Google “highwaymen” you see their work, and its like “Oh my God.” So they were helping other people to think about what the landscape looks like through their perspective, but you’d never know (unless you met one of them selling the painting) that it was a black person who was doing it for you.
MaVynee Betsch came from a very wealthy black family who grew up on Amelia Island off the coast of Jacksonville, Florida. Her great-grandfather, A.L. Lewis, bought a beach on Amelia Island because black people couldn’t go the same beach as white people in the forties, it’s called American Beach. And eventually after MaVynee went to Oberlin and spent some time being an opera singer in Germany, she came back and gave away all her wealth to environmental causes, over $750,000, and set her sights to protecting both the story and the land on American Beach—the African American story on the land and the beach.
There were so many people, park rangers, community activists, writers, Evelyn C. White, who was the original Alice Walker biographer and had written a piece on black women in the wilderness. As a writer, she had admitted her own fear of being out in the wilderness, largely because she was a black woman. Can I be out here and feel safe? She talks about that experience in the Oregon wilderness, and eventually making the choice when she moved to Salt Spring Island off the coast of Vancouver That was her way of getting back in touch with non-human nature and rebuilding that relationship. And when she invites me up there to interview her, one of the original founders of Salt Spring Island is an African American woman named Sylvia Stark, who’s on the five-dollar bill. (Salt Spring Island has its own money.)
So even beyond the borders of the United States there was a sense of that black environmental experience was so much more than slavery, so much more than one’s parents working the land. So much more than camping, glamping, recreation. There are all these stories of blackness, and difference, and engagement, and love for, and care for.
CF: This past semester I was teaching a geography class at University of Kentucky called Global Environments, and we come in looking at broad world issues having to do with the environment and you can throw your own spice into it. I use this textbook written by a few geographers and then spice it up. So I always try to think about what’s happening now and how people are talking about it, so what’s happening in Flint, Michigan, around water, and Standing Rock. I’m really motivated by public activism/public engagement/public action—whatever you want to call it. Real lives, every day. I look at folks at Standing Rock—the clarity of knowing how they belong, where they stand, and what they’re willing to fight for, and what that needs to look like.
Sometimes, when I’m giving a talk, I put up two images: one of a young black boy drinking a bottle of water in Flint, and the other of a white sporthunter named Ian Gibson, who’s in his fifties. He was in the news because he had been hunting elephant in southern Africa with some Americans and some black African guides. He had gotten really close to an elephant, and it had gored him to death. I put up these two images to say that when I had read about Ian Gibson I followed all the comments by the end was in tears because almost every single comment said “he got what he deserved.” There was only one comment that actually showed some compassion for this man. I wanted to feel compassion because that must have been a horrible way to die, and he was part of a larger community. For me, while he’s responsible to some degree for his individual action, he’s also part of a system that made it okay for him to want to hunt elephants. How do we address that? I actually don’t see that as different from looking at the young black boy in Flint. We made it okay that a system overlooked this lead being placed in this water, and these kids are going to be carrying this around for we don’t know how long. So can we hold both of them in the same way?
DC: What are some tangible ways that professors and TAs can ensure that African American environmental history is not just that one-day lecture or a couple pages of recommended reading, but really integrate it into the work that we do?
CF: People always hear me talk about creativity, and I believe that creativity broadly defined is how we think beyond, how we think differently about, what our work looks like. It means stepping into an unknown. I often spend my time looking beyond any discipline that I study, to art, music, other conversations. How are other people exploring ideas? And, sometimes even borrowing that language, where will it take me? So when I think about environmental history, it’s not about throwing any of the old stuff out. I think the old stuff at the very least reminds us of where we’ve come from and how we’ve talked about it and held it, and there’s a lot of important information there. I think we’re big enough and broad enough and expansive enough to hold it all.
It’s how we choose to come to it. We have to be willing to be uncomfortable in that moment. If we bring in this article from one of the not-usual suspects, which challenges basically everything we just read and looked at, let’s see where that goes. I think it’s about the way we shape curricula, the way that we decide what good knowledge is, how we evaluate that work—and I mean that broadly, from the way we grade students, to peer review, to what we think is actually good work. All those things have to be challenged. It’s not simply about attaching a few extra articles from black people or people of color onto the environmental history curriculum. It’s not only about asking that one African American to come to your class. It’s not only about “diversity,” “inclusion,” and giving people money—that certain Martin Luther King fellowship. All those things are helpful, and I’ve been the recipient of a lot of those and continue to be, and I get that.
But, actually, it’s not about bringing that to the table. It’s about changing the table. And that means everyone’s got to be uncomfortable. I know, especially institutionally, we think in a very particular way because we talk about tradition, and we want to feel stable and grounded. Has anyone been paying attention? We are not stable and we are not grounded. What happens if I take a risk? I know it’s on everybody to decide for themselves what that risk can be, but I think we really need to take a risk to gain, not to take a risk because we don’t wanna lose, but to take a risk to gain.
Featured image: Professors Carolyn Finney (right) and Monica White addressing the Nelson Institute’s Community Environmental Scholars Program in Madison, Wisconsin, April 2016. Photo by Ingrid Laas.
Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.
Dantrell Cotton is completing an M.S. in Environment and Resources in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His thesis explores cooperative economics in Madison’s Allied Drive neighborhood. Contact.
Carolyn Finney is Assistant Professor of Geography and Environmental and Sustainability Studies at the University of Kentucky and the author of Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationships of African Americans to the Great Outdoors. Website. Contact.