Why are African Americans so underrepresented when it comes to interest in nature, outdoor recreation, and environmentalism? In this thought-provoking study, Carolyn Finney looks beyond the discourse of the environmental justice movement to examine how the natural environment has been understood, commodified, and represented by both white and black Americans. Bridging the fields of environmental history, cultural studies, critical race studies, and geography, Finney argues that the legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, and racial violence have shaped cultural understandings of the "great outdoors" and determined who should and can have access to natural spaces.
Drawing on a variety of sources from film, literature, and popular culture, and analyzing different historical moments, including the establishment of the Wilderness Act in 1964 and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Finney reveals the perceived and real ways in which nature and the environment are racialized in America. Looking toward the future, she also highlights the work of African Americans who are opening doors to greater participation in environmental and conservation concerns.
"African Americans have and have always had an intimate, ever-changing and significant relationship with the natural environment." -Carolyn Finney, page xvi
In Black Faces, White Spaces, Carolyn Finney writes about why we are conditioned not to see Black people in the Great outdoors. She finds that it usually comes down to two reasons: 1. America's history of racism and the traumatic events that happened to Blacks outdoors (slavery, Jim Crow, lynching, etc.) and 2. modern day structural challenges such as the reluctance by the media to show Blacks communing with nature in periodicals and environmental parks/organizations reluctance to hire them in order to help diversify the workforce and the patrons who visit. Finney uses a mixed method approach to tackle this topic: interviews African Americans about their outdoor experiences, performs content analysis on environment/nature magazines to see how many Black people appears in their ads, shares lesser known history about Blacks who had strong connections to the environment, and even shares her own personal story. I found the content analysis of the nature magazines very impressive because it shows us that if we don't see Black folks doing these outdoor activities we inaccurately think that none do it at all, and it unfortunately becomes self-fulfilling. One of the most important parts of the book is the last chapter where Finney introduces the readers to Black Americans who have reimagined their relationships to the environment. Many of the individuals she highlighted I had never heard of before, but each of their work are varied and important to show Black people that "we are here" and that we can "construct environmental spaces in our own image".
This book takes you into an in depth analysis of how African Americans have both defined and embodied their landscape as citizens and environmental stewards. I truly appreciated how Dr. Finney was able to effectively integrate the historical impact of white supremacy on the unique relationship that African Americans have to natural spaces. She was able to engage the reader with clear examples of the proactive ways that African Americans have used to counter the narrative that we lack a connection or desire to immerse ourselves in the great outdoors.
This book can become an important entry way into understanding the many ways that African Americans have shaped as well as protected the many natural spaces that, for too often, we take for granted within 21st century America. If you are interested in issues regarding African American ecology, environmental justice, and land ownership, I highly recommend this book.
This book didn't do much for me, but I am probably not in a position to judge it fairly. Maybe it was the extremely academic style of writing, or the qualitative methods, but I didn't come away from it feeling like I'd gained much novel insight into why black Americans are disproportionately absent from the outdoors and conversations about its preservation. There's a lot of stuff that seemed pretty clear to me (lynch mobs often hung black people from trees in forests, black people are rarely employed in popular depictions of outdoor activities), some insights that were interesting and less obvious to me (in our more overtly racist past black people were often depicted as being more "primitive" and closer to "nature" and memories of these associations persist), yet very little examination of alternative hypotheses, e.g. there are more black Americans in cities than in rural areas, or perhaps access to nature is more a function of wealth and class than of race.
Some of the analysis seemed a bit ludicrous to me, like criticizing the Wilderness Act for not explicitly addressing issues of race despite being enacted in the same year as the Civil Rights Act. That seems like a classic case of the historian's fallacy, and just plain confusing, like criticizing a hat for not keeping your hands warm.
The main positive outcome from reading this book is that I just think more about race and its relation to environmentalism and, more specifically, to my own interest in and practice of natural history. I was already aware that my interests are generally the domain of privileged white people (in America, at least), even though I don't think any naturalist would claim those interests are unique to that demographic. In fact, most naturalists probably subscribe to E.O. Wilson's biophilia theory, and believe that *all* humans are intrinsically attracted to other organisms, are hard-wired to find them interesting, and that thus natural history should be of equal interest to us all, and yet, that's clearly not the case. Despite helping me consider the issue more, though, I don't feel like this book helped me understand ways to address the problem. Maybe that's just denial.
This was a disappointing read as I had so much more hope for it. I fear I was not in the right head space reading it, as I mostly read it sleepily before bed. I've never read an academic work by an environmental *geographer* but I thought I'd be able to comprehend it, as I've read a lot of environmental sociology, environmental justice, public lands management, urban planning, and environmental politics...
I emerge with more questions than when I started it, and with very little answered. Of course I am well aware that African-Americans (and POC, generally) have disproportionate lack of access and influence on outdoor and natural spaces. Of course I know the Black collective memory of slavery, (lack of) land ownership, and inequality is related. But I had hoped this book would unpack it more, dedicate entire sections or chapters to a series of Black people's experiences, and develop a theory or a list of best practices to foster more inclusive spaces going forward. Instead, Finney refers to complex, powerful institutions like the NPS almost in passing, without providing sufficient context or dwelling on her point long enough to fully express her idea clearly. Or, Finney makes interesting connections like the need to fit in with Black culture excluding African-Americans from the outdoors, but does not substantiate these claims with a single quote or statistic, and offers no path forward. What about the magnitudes of Black people who don't live in impoverished urban public housing? And where is the data!
This seems a very anticlimactic result after ten years of research, and I don't fully understand what it accomplishes. I have a couple new tidbits to gnaw over--e.g., inaccessibility to the scary, unknown wilderness when only guided by White people, who are historically untrustworthy--but less than I would have expected, especially after this book has been recommended by several peers. Hopefully I can just move on... I feel badly in poorly rating a "woke" contribution to diversity in the environmental movement, but I really didn't get this. I am interested in reading another title that covers this subject matter in hopes I get more out of it. As someone who works in environmental outreach striving to be as inclusive as a shy White female feasibly can, I sought this book out in an effort to work to better serve my present and future constituents. And that desire still stands, even if this book will not help me get there.
I cannot emphasize the importance of this book enough. If you love spending your time outdoors, and enjoy the privileges of exploring our National Parks, this book is a crucial. It is about the role that slavery and the oppression of marginalized peoples and the effects of systematic racism, and the lack of welcomed participation into the outdoors. I recommend this to everyone, but specifically my friends and loved ones who work with NPS, and those who get to enjoy the privilege of such places like our National and State Parks. It's eye opening, and will help to support the much needed efforts to expand our parks to be truly for everyone.
I first heard about Professor Finney from an interview she gave on NPR about the lack of black spaces out in natural landmarks, forests, National Parks, and rural areas. This is an interesting academic text that draws on perspectives from systemic racism as a result of the abolition of slavery, and the legacy of Jim Crow that haunts natural spaces and does not make room for black bodies. Drawing on historical events such as the Jim Crow South, Hurricane Katrina, the movies of Spike Lee- it is an insightful nuanced analysis on a part of American life and landscapes that people of color still do not feel privy to enter because of the ever constant specter of white supremacy.
3.5 stars -- an interesting and crucial read for any of my white environmental peers. The book was overwhelmingly academic at times (the structure transported me right to my junior year of college) and overall I didn't come away with any entirely new insights. It was good to be reminded of the dangers of complacency and the importance of considering perspectives and histories other than your own.
I was sometimes frustrated by the focus - there was a lot of time spend on the collective past trauma (lynchings and trees, fraught relationship to land from slavery) but not as much time focused on the rural/urban population differences and how class/wealth plays a role. Overall I enjoyed the read and learning new insights like the history of Great Dismal Swamp, the problematic branding/analysis of all outdoor activity as recreational and not considering subsistence, and the lingering effects of our country's past link between Black people, "primitiveness" and the outdoors. As a well meaning white person working at an environmental nonprofit I also appreciated her emphasis on the need to start reconcilation work "at home" (aka examine/work on yourself and your internal organization before external priorities and initiatives).
And that concludes my longest goodreads review yet 😂
This is an excellent look at the history of the environmental movement and Black Americans, along with their relationship with the natural world within the United States.
A bit repetitive at points, but overall a great read. It was understandable to me because I actively engage with other similar sociological texts for what I study, though some of my fellow book club members mentioned that the jargon in the introduction was a bit difficult to get through.
Wow. This was so incredibly informative on so many levels. Both politically and historically, there are so many reasons why, according to Finney, black people have a very different relationship with the outdoors than white people do. Historically, the outdoors was both a place of refuge and caution, especially in the Antebellum south. As Harriet Tubman weaved the way to freedom, and as white plantation owners beat and raped their slaves, the outdoors began to take on a very different reality. Moving forward, we have the forgotten reparations of 40 acres and a mule for every freed slave, as well as the lynchings of black men.
Even in the late 1900s, post-Civil Rights era, magazines and parks advertised to "everybody" while only featuring white people in their photographs. Even today, with diversity programs installed, there is a huge disparity between white employees and any employees of color.
Finney does a fantastic job of breaking all of this down into bite sized pieces while maintaining a professional and positional stance towards her topic. And it's a topic that needs to be addressed. I know for a fact that I'm frequently concerned about systematic racism, and the type that happens within walls, in places with lots of buildings. And yet there is racism even in the great outdoors happening, and it's hard to figure out what to do about it.
Definitely a perfect read if you're interested in learning about deconstructing racism and learning about park services!
So great, really glad I read this, and it should be essentially required reading for anyone working in parks services or environmental education. This book gets into why Black people seem to be less involved than white people in both environmental movements and wilderness recreation, exploring issues like a lack of Black representation in media depicting the outdoors, the impact of slavery and Jim Crow, a lack of inclusion from people who represent outdoor spaces, and fear of experiencing racism in isolation. Definitely more of an academic read than a popular science-type book, so it does require a lot of active brain power and a commitment to the topic. The structure of the book was really clear, and I really appreciated the conclusion to tie everything together and summarize what we had learned.
While definitely an important topic, it was not particularly readable. (Very dissertation-like.) I'm not sure that Carolyn Finney met the aim of the subtitle...but then again the onus is on us to diversify our organizations and publications and to invite and welcome the participation of African Americans in the creation, design, and redesign of parks and the environmental movement.
I love this book so much I bought five copies to give away to other people, it's the most important book I've read this year and it's completely changing the way I see the work I do, the places I go and the conversation about conservation and public lands.
This reads like a dissertation, and that isn't a slight but only to note that it is very academic. With a lot of new concepts including critical race theory and geographic and spatial analysis, I'm sure there was a lot I missed. Some arguments were lost on me and reader beware, this doesn't read like a lot of popular nonfiction. With that said, this was VERY interesting! I was reading this while we were watching the George Floyd protests and the concepts of space and place as tied to ownership and belonging felt especially illuminating. The concepts brought up in this book don't just feel relevant to National Parks or wilderness areas, but The Land - urban, suburban, and rural. Finney gives enough historical background, and while this is a few years old, it still felt like it should be part of the conversations of today.
For a thin book, it took me a very long time to finish because there was so much to grapple with. Finney uses a lot of previously written critical theory in a new context to talk about the African American experience in the environmental movement, in addition to her own research, interviews, and thoughts. The beginning delves into a lot of method -- necessary for academia, especially given the systems for what we collectively legitimize as knowledge -- but after that quickly dives into more pithy themes. The sections on collective history and collective memory were particularly thought-provoking for me. I think it's an important read for anyone involved in, or wanting to be involved in, environmentalism (especially for white people). We (Americans, as a whole) are going to need to include more voices (especially previously ignored voices) in the years to come if we want to make lasting environmental change for the better. To include those voices, as Finney writes, "it's not that you need to be perfect; but you need to know exactly where you're at in your own growth in order to meet someone else with honesty and clarity, and in order to do no harm." I also thought she succintly summed up representation issues in writing that 'it's hard to imagine what you don't see', then returning to that idea at the end with "when we know different, we do different." It was important for me to read these ideas I'd come across elsewhere specifically applied to the environment and environmental movement. Definitely a book I'll be recommending to friends.
Finley's detailed focus on the representation of Black people in environmental movements and spaces seemed counterproductive to me at first - how does such thorough attention to representation help us deconstruct and dismantle racism in relation to the "outdoors?" That, of course, was just ignorance on my part regarding how, as Finley so effectively outlines, "racism, perceived or 'real,' can hinder the possibility of building long-term relationships of reciprocity between mainstream environmental groups and African Americans" and the envisioning of new futures (113). An examination of the social and economic structures that comprise systemic racism must also be accompanied by an examination of how the stories we tell perpetuate and can even produce new oppressive structures or stand in the way of progress that needs to be made in the dismantling of others. Among the many valuable insights of this book, that lesson was among the most impactful and underscored the need for thorough analyses of racial representation like this one, even to someone like me who thinks they already understand the importance of stories and representation.
Finney's individual experience combined with the heavily resourced collective experience she offers left me both breathless and highly motivated to learn more and help my white friends and neighbors better understand the African-American experience in America and how it relates to environmentalism and the outdoors.
I highly recommend this book for anyone in environmental work, or any other kind of outdoor, park, or recreation work. White people of these spaces are not immune to our racist past, which still has not been truthfully told in our public spaces today.
The novel was and is an incredible read revealing the author's academic research about the environment and the lack of representation of America's people of color.
The entire marketing of the US National Parks, Monuments, and environmental movements was never an inclusive-themed American idea for people of color.
Since I began touring National Parks and Monuments as an African-American over thirty years ago, the author specifically defined my beliefs since I started traveling, via motorcycle, by overlanding vehicle, and currently by RV.
There was a time when I would encounter no more than one or two other African-Americans in a National Park or Monument on a two or three-week trip outside of the National Parks in the DC metro area.
Once on a tour of the Grand Canyon, I encountered a young African-American woman and her mother. We were so joyous to see one another as we talked about our shared magnificent scenery. Then we discussed the lack of African Americans visiting the National Parks.
I have encountered many experiences with my children and myself witnessing the surprise of White Americans seeing a dark skin single black man pull off his motorcycle helmet or walk into their business, being their first encounter with any person of color other than seeing one on television.
However, in the past ten years, with the increase in African-Americans and people of color touring National Parks and Monuments, I now encounter 3-to 5 African-Americans at a time. In particular, on the hiking and backpacking trails, many young black and brown people have backpacked the three famous long-distance routes, and outdoor magazines and podcasts have highlighted their achievements revealing their diversity.
In the novel, I have highlighted significant comments the author made about the fears established by White Supremacists. They terrorized my ancestors and other people of color into believing traveling across the US was not for them.
On many occasions during my travels, I have encountered indigenous people for whom we occupy the lands of their ancestors. The indigenous people have been written from American history as corporations profited with the knowledge and blessing of the US government.
The author reveals the hypocrisies with solutions for the National Parks Service as attempts at diversifying their organization are ongoing.
This novel is a must-read for all tax-paying American citizens to explore the US National Parks and Monuments. Every destination reveals America's historical hypocrisies and is an integral source of mental health for the mind, body, and soul.
"Broadening the environmental movement to include the great diversity of the national population requires a full reckoning with this history."
Finney pours her heart-felt intellectual prowess into this book that draws upon multiple strands of data collection and analysis within the social sciences to build a story of African Americans in the outdoors and conservation spheres. This story blends social dynamics, communal historical memory, and unseen and often un-realized prejudice. Finney's chapters deliberately layer on top of one another to make the case for the complex, usually-strained and often unfair relationship African Americans have with the Great Outdoors, with national parks, and with other outdoor enthusiasts and professionals. A must-read for all those engaged with these spheres, in whatever capacity, from whatever background.
First, I deeply enjoyed this book. I have read about ecofeminism, but this book was the first time I thought more specifically about how racial identity would affect a woman’s relationship with nature. To me, femaleness and connection to the outdoors are intrinsically linked, and I’ve never thought about how black women are cut off from this part of themselves, or how that may affect their relationship with themselves and the Earth. One line in particular stood out to me: This legacy—in which whites viewed black people as part of the natural world, and then proceeded to treat them with the same mixture of contempt, false reverence, and real exploitation that also marks American environmental history—inevitably makes the possibility of an uncomplicated union with the natural world less readily available to African Americans than it has been to whites, who, by and large, have not suffered from such a history (Outka, 2008 qtd. as cited in Finney, 2014, 38).
I have read similar assertions as it relates to women—men view women as they view nature, as a resource to utilize, something to be protected by the same people exploiting it—but with women, I do not feel we have been discouraged away from nature in the same way. As a woman, my relationship with the Earth feels powerful, as though I am taking back what has been taken from me. The way Finney describes it, the black experience with nature is similar, but stronger, with far more negative associations and memories to overcome, and far less positive representation to encourage them.
A large part of the book focused on analyzing how deeply society influences people. Finney spent an entire chapter discussing how important representation is, and how important it is to involve diverse viewpoints in creating representation. She discusses one example of an environmental organization not realizing that the only picture of a black individual on their site was of them working—until a black woman pointed it out to them (Finney, 2014, 85-86). This relates to a quote from her TEDx talk: “You can’t solve a problem with the same consciousness that created it”. I thought this was a very good way of putting what she had to say; you cannot improve something without really, truly understanding where it came from, and actively, not passively, trying to change it. Similarly, she quotes “(d)enial of responsibility for racism permits the racial chasm to grow wider with each passing year” (Marable, 2006 qtd.as cited in Finney, 2014, 113). Nobody wants to take responsibility for racism, or admit that they are racist in any way, yet in doing so they perpetuate racism. This is probably especially true of white environmentalists; as environmentalists, they likely see themselves as good, progressive people. Therefore, the insinuation that their own racism is even partially to blame for black people feeling unwelcome in their spaces is something they do not want to think about, and so they continue to push the black community away. Finney discusses “the lack of consensus between African American environmental professionals and their white counterparts on whether or not racism and other exclusionary practices exist creates barriers to greater understanding,” when you would hope that white environmental professionals would recognize that their African American counterparts are the experts in this particular arena (Finner, 2014, 113-114). Instead, they refuse to see any personal involvement to avoid their own discomfort.
I was also very interested in the way Finney talked about memory as something beyond the individual. She states that memories are “borrowed, inherited, and learned,” a common experience shared between “individuals, communities, cultures, and nations” (Finney, 2014, 55). Memories are usually thought of as something that exists purely inside the individual, having to be personally experienced to be legitimate. But it isn’t quite so straightforward as that, as Finney makes clear. One of the layered reasons that African Americans are underrepresented in environmentalism and the outdoors itself is the community memory, the cultural fear, that black Americans have as it relates to the outdoors. From the distrust of institutions to the forced outdoor work to the deeply-instilled fear of attack, especially lynching, it is not a huge surprise that they may feel uncomfortable with the outdoors. She also states that “(c)ultural memories can be suppressed or awakened by media representations” (Finney, 2014, 91). This made me think of how often we will see explicit racism portrayed on-screen, fictional or otherwise. If you’re constantly seeing people like you attacked and abused in the outdoors, and never seeing positive representation of black hikers, adventurers, or environmentalists, it tracks that positive cultural memories would be suppressed, while negative cultural memories would grow stronger.
Another discussion I particularly liked was that of stereotypes and self-identification. Finney discusses the bell hooks quote of trying to “see myself beyond all the received images,” emphasizing the important of looking beyond what we are shown to develop our own sense of self-worth, and to analyze “who is constructing these images and how these images have been affected by their own racism or internalized oppressions” (hook, 1994, qtd. as cited in Finney, 2014, 72). This ties into the idea of a Euro-centric view being both normative and universal, where whiteness is “a pre-condition of vision” (Finney, 2014, 49). The white perspective is the base, “neutral” perspective in almost every situation; the images that African Americans receive are constructed from a white, racist viewpoint. This viewpoint comes through from all sorts of mediums—representation in media, academia, the way one is treated by the people around them. Especially damaging is the way these images are simplified, distilled into “a binary form of representation—good/bad, civilized/primitive” (Finney, 2014, 70). When a person’s self-worth is based upon two-dimensional caricatures of personhood, their “ability as individuals to fully realize who they are” is restricted (Finney, 2014, 72). Some people try to avoid stereotyping by choosing not to identify as black, but even when they do not see themselves in that way, others “insist on ascribing such an identity… and consequently… treat one accordingly” (Shelby, 2005 qtd. as cited in Finney, 2014, 53). They have given up their “thick blackness,” for whatever reason, but their “thin blackness” cannot be shed in the same way.
Pretty academic read, where I felt like it would be a book assigned to me in one of my old college AFAM, cultural anthropology, or environmental studies courses. But it was a short read and very insightful with a detailed examination of the social, cultural, & historical connections we African Americans have with our environment. I could relate to alot that was being expressed in each chapter. It was disappointing to learn that there's still an all time low in diversity of people of color visiting national parks, being employed by the parks service, and the limited narratives expressed regarding mainstream environmentalism. The biggest take home from reading this book is that our nation and the National Park Service's legacy should continue to be revisited and revised to include everyone. I'm so happy to see current initiatives being taken by the US Forest Service & Ad Council to encourage more people of color to get outside, reclaim and visit our natural parks. I only hope that my future children will freely explore, connect to, respect and be respected by their natural environments and not see it as something to be feared or excluded from. I also appreciated the film references and poetic quotes introducing each chapter. Bamboozled was probably the best chapter.
"This is about more than color. It is about how we learn to see ourselves. It is about geography and memory." - #LucilleClifton (2004, "the river between us" in Mercy)
Finney provides a succinct, yet thoughtful and relatively comprehensive examination of the historical and contemporary relationship of African Americans to the environment. She states that "my goal in this book is to draw together key concepts and frameworks from several theoretical perspectives in order to understand and explain the intersections of racialization, representation, identity, and their subsequent impacts on African American environment relationships." One anecdote in the book that I found particularly powerful was the one that relayed the story of Martin Luther King Jr.'s rejection by a Canadian national park accommodation on the grounds that the presence of a black couple would likely make other park visitors uncomfortable.
By the end I wasn't quite as satisfied or captivated by Black Faces, White Spaces as I had initially expected, however it is still a great read.
In regards to environmental history, Finney's work further illuminates how far the field still has to go and how many topics/peoples are still underrepresented in the literature.