It’s sadly uncommon to see images of African-Americans enjoying the natural landscape of our national parks. Rarely does the media feature black characters biking the Amistad National Recreation Area in Texas, hiking up Booker T. Washington National Monument Park in Virginia, or viewing wildlife out at the Devils Postpile in California.
The way Yosemite Park Ranger Shelton Johnson understands it, we won’t see these images because it doesn’t happen for black Americans, a self-imposed “rejection,” he told the San Francisco Gate Chronicle is a harmful legacy of slavery.
“It’s bigger than just African Americans not visiting national parks. It’s a disassociation from the natural world. I think it is, in part, a memory,” said Johnson, “of the horrible things that were done to us in rural America.”
Johnson has worked in National Park service for more than 20 years. He did not grow up in a small town in the mountains. He was born in Detroit to parents of black, Cherokee and Seminole heritage. He recently won the National Freeman Tilden Award, the highest award in the nation for interpretation, largely as a recognition of his collaboration with Ken Burns’ on a landmark documentary The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.
He’s been greeted by President Barack Obama, and, like the first black president, has challenged ideas and normative notions about the roles and occupations of African-Americans, particularly men, in America. He also seems to be challenging accepted thoughts about conservationists and natural environmentalists in the country, a history polluted with racism as found in some of the writings of early conservationist John Muir. However, that same history includes the protection of Yosemite Park by black “Buffalo Soldiers,” also known for building the first trail to the top of Mount Whitney in Sequoia National Park.
Johnson is a long study in Buffalo Soldier research, but he’s also well aware of the challenges of black youth today. He regularly hosts student groups from inner city schools at Yosemite to teach them about appreciating the environment, but with a subtle agenda that believes taking kids out of their urban environment will help them cope with a lot of the struggles they face.
As he told the Sierra Club, “I learned the wilderness has an edge, and that things might not always turn out okay out there. It made me listen, smell, and hear like I never thought possible.”
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