In troubled times, spending time in nature can be key for restoring emotional balance and reducing stress. It can also be an excellent way to connect with family, friends, and members of the community (not to mention nature itself). While nature is for everyone, certain groups have sometimes felt a sense of alienation in the outdoors community.
There’s an unfortunate stereotype that African-Americans don’t like spending time outdoors, and that stereotype is “proven” by the low number of participants in activities like camping, hiking, and kayaking. However, that’s finally starting to change as more black and Hispanic Americans participate in outdoor recreational activities.
When Adrienne Troy-Frazier and her husband moved to South Carolina from Chicago, they were looking forward to taking advantage of the year-round temperate weather. But on their first camping trip, they did not receive a warm welcome from other participants. On subsequent outdoor outings, she was often met with stares of surprise from organizers.
“I started to wonder why I wasn’t seeing more black people outdoors here,” said Troy-Frazier. “I knew I wasn’t the only black person [in the Lowcountry] that loved the outdoors.”
Troy-Frazier soon learned about Outdoor Afro, a nationwide organization that is dedicated to connecting the black community to nature. Founded in 2009, Outdoor Afro now operates in 28 states and has 18,000 members. They focus on hiking, kayaking, camping, biking, and birdwatching, among other activities. The group also offers “Healing Hikes,” which are outings that are specifically intended to provide peace and comfort for members of the African-American community during stressful times.
Group founder Rue Mapp noted that nature has historically made many African-Americans uncomfortable or fearful. She noted that the act of lynching often took place in the woods, so the idea of finding solace in the forest might make some African-Americans uneasy. Mapp noted that the community has “had generations of terror in the woods in our collective imagination. Until I asked my dad that question [about lynching], I didn’t realize the discomfort that the outdoors can have for us.”
Mapp has made it her mission to turn that terrifying history into one of empowerment. Outdoor Afro’s efforts inspired Troy-Frazier so much that she applied to become a group leader for the Lowcountry region in 2013. What started with a sparsely attended outing picking strawberries has blossomed into a local membership of almost 500.
Each activity typically brings in anywhere from a few members to a few dozen participants. They’ve gone on hikes, learned how to surf, carved pumpkins on a farm, and learned how to fish. The group will often tie in an event with a piece of black history or a personal narrative that deepens these experiences.
Troy-Frazier notes the importance of these connections: “I think we don’t usually hear about how we are connected in ways that are most meaningful for us. In the Lowcountry, the common history about our connection to the outdoors is a slave narrative. While that is an important story for us to remember, there are far more stories that can be told about our contributions to local communities here and across America.”