«Our unhealthy relationship with the natural environment is linked to the unhealthy relationship we have with each other». In conversation with Carolyn Finney, author of Black Faces, White Spaces
Racism and the relationship of African Americans and the American land
George Floyd was brutally killed by the police in Minneapolis on May 25th 2020. Earlier that same day, an incident took place in New York City’s Central Park: a white woman called the police falsely accusing an African American man of threatening her life. While lying, she emphasized ‘African American’ several times. Christian Cooper, who was bird watching, had simply asked her to put her dog on a leash.
The Central Park episode is of different impact if compared to the lost lives of African Americans: in the first six months of 2020, more than 100 black civilians were killed by the police in the United States. It illustrates how complex the dynamics of race and privilege are, and that «systemic racism exists on both the streets of our cities and inside our national parks», says Carolyn Finney, an African American actress, scholar, and author of Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors. «People have this understanding that the natural world is equally accessible to all, but that is not the reality. For black individuals it can be a fraught terrain where we are at the mercy of someone else’s interpretation of our presence», she adds. Exposing how racism and the problematics surrounding the relationship of African Americans and the American land are rooted in the nation’s history — and how it is perpetuated by modern day media, society, and institutions — Finney also argues that it is possible to reimagine a new reality but while there is a sense of urgency for equality, evolution, and an inclusive sustainability move ment, true change will not come overnight: it must be built one relationship at a time.
Tansy Kaschak: This year has been an opportunity to unlearn and learn. Even though it was published six years ago, your book has been instrumental to this process.
Carolyn Finney: It has legs and a life of its own. It is because I am looking at the relationships between moments in time and the people who lived it, for me that is the story. I do not come to it via academic ways, neither as a historian. I am a cultural geographer and that is how I look at space and places. I come from the arts, so I take liberties to tell stories that resonate at the human level and that are timeless.
I feel angry to see how much of a way we still have to go. We talk about the extreme that black and brown people have lost their lives that cannot be changed, and there is grief about that. This may be the moment that we can do a significant shift, there seems to be enough pressure on, the doors are open a bit further and that is exciting but it is also emotionally exhausting. Thomas Jefferson who was one of the founding fathers had slaves and raped a black woman. John Muir [Scottish-American, founder of Sierra Club and known as the ‘father of national parks] loved nature, and created constructive ideas about wilderness, and, in his own words, he was racist. How do we reconcile from that? What I see in the conservationism and environmental movement is that there is a resistance to look into that, because it is about the environment, and the environment is for everybody.
TK: What can we do?
CF: You have to do your internal assessment. I say that everybody is biased. Which does not mean everybody is racist, but they live in the same family. The main problem is the lack of awareness. Privilege has the privilege of not seeing itself. Whiteness, as James Baldwin said, is about power. Here in the United States it is about power. A white person does not have to say it, it is just there. This is why we need to do that internal assessment first, so you know from where to start. Then, the focus should be on relationships of reciprocity. There is no end game. You need to be open to understand what building those relationships across will look like.
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TK: I would like to mark a quote from your book: «Our unhealthy relationship with the natural environment is intimately linked to the unhealthy relationship we have with each other ».
CF: You cannot pull them apart. When we talk about climate change, but in order to be sustainable our relationship has to be worked on. They need to be worked on at minimum simultaneously, to understand what the power dynamic is, who gets to frame what the issue is and what the questions are, who has the resources, who gets access, what the decision-making structures look like, what the leadership model is. We need to think about building relationships as a practice. Continuously revisiting our models, our organizational models, our leadership models, our mission statements. It took us 400 years to get here. We can take some time to try and correct course and do things differently. So there never has to be a George Floyd again, there never has to be Christian Cooper again.
TK: In «Black Faces, White Spaces», one of the main focuses is the media, and how African Americans have been negatively depicted in relationship with the environment. You analyze 2008’s Vogue cover, where the African American basketball player LeBron James is portrayed as King Kong.
CF: The media is still predominantly white and makes mistakes when representing people of race. But the media is expanding. Vanity Fair just shot the actress Viola Davis for the cover and it is the first time in the history of the magazine that they had a black photographer take the cover photo. It is not just about who you see, it is about who is working, who is doing the make-up, all the things that make the story. It is not just about the stories you tell, but who gets to tell the story and how we are going to tell the story.
TK: The book dives into why people of color appear to be not participants in outdoor activities nor environmental causes. There are many historical and contemporary layers in this conversation.
CF: It is not enough to say we want to protect that river, or we want to protect that piece of land. You have to give attention to the relationships within communities. We cannot bypass the work of self-examination, in terms of the relationships. Not to sound corny, but if we are not all onboard, how can we sustain anything? We’re going to always be at this point of tension, against each other, because we don’t agree, we don’t know who each other is, we don’t share each other’s stories. It cannot be about just one side coming in and saying ‘we are going to fix this, and this is what you need to do’ without having built trust, because it is all about trust.
Widespread mistrust of people of color in the institutions
TK: Another aspect you touch is the widespread mistrust of people of color in the institutions.
CF: Two facts will always be true in the United States: we stole all the land from the indigenous people that were here and we killed them; and we enslaved black people in order to build the backbone of our economy in this country. We can never change those facts. They are the root of everything, they are the foundation of our relationships.
Native people are pushed to the side when we talk about race in this country, we always go to black and white. But what will always be true is that we have the indigenous people that were in this place and they are still here, no matter how much we all pretend they are not. It is hard to grasp the complexity, even in the way we talk about nature in this country, based on the dichotomy that the western Europeans created that nature is separated from us. For native people we are nature. The way they may collectively think about trees, land, the ocean — things we may see as things outside ourselves — indigenous people may see themselves as part of it and this is what drives them to express who they are, to express their commitment to the land.
TK: In regards to operating in community and sustainability in terms of the green economy, you give an example in the book: Sweet Beginnings, the Chicago-based business that trains former inmates, mostly African Americans, to be beekeepers. In these six years that passed since you released the book, have you encountered other cases worth sharing?
CF: There is one called Sustainability Guild. It was started by an African American woman and has the ability to blow the sustainability movement out of the water. It counts with significant input from the black community. It is about how the community gets to decide and participate, about building relationships from the ground up, about keeping space to what might emerge.
Another project I love is Outdoor Afro [an organization connecting African Americans to outdoor experiences]. Their focus is black joy. It is less about dealing with diversity but about creating space for and supporting black joy. Some white people want me to talk about the fear African Americans feel around nature and the environment. I am yet to know any group of people who want to be characterized by the way they have been victimized. We are more than that. Everyone is more than that. We need to be able to imagine more. I first thought of calling my next book ‘The Geography of a Black Imagination”.
TK: And what is it going to be called instead?
CF: A few years ago, when I moved to Lexington, Kentucky, I met the African American poet Nicky Finney. One day, Nicky was driving me around to show me Kentucky and the landscape. She told me that, while architects put pathways that human beings can use to get to the door of a building, we create our own paths, and architects call them desire lines. I said: ‘That is the name of my book: ‘Desire Lines: The Geography of a Black Imagination’’. It points to what we desire, what we imagine, what we want in the world, how we show up in a place and who we are. That is the most important conversation we should have right now.
PhD, a storyteller, author and a cultural geographer who is deeply interested in issues related to identity, difference, creativity, and resilience.