Friday, July 29, 2016
July 29, 2016: American Camping: Camping and Race
[This week, I’ll be camping with family up in Maine’s beautiful Acadia National Park. So I wanted to AmericanStudy come contexts for this longstanding form of national recreation and escape. Share your camping contexts in comments, please!]
On two historical and cultural contexts for a complex American divide.
Earlier this week, I mentioned the growing conversation over race—and especially African Americans—and camping in America. As those hyperlinks illustrate, in the last couple decades more and more National Park Service officials and other camping and nature advocates have noticed and commented on a stark divide in how much different ethnic American communities take part in those activities and make use of those spaces. While there’s no necessary reason why this would be a problem, America’s national parks and natural spaces represent a significant, shared national resource, and of course it would be ideal for all Americans to have the chance to experience and benefit from that resource. And in order to address this communal division, it’d be important to analyze some of the historical factors that have contributed to its 21st century existence.
At the first hyperlink above, Yosemite National Park Ranger Shelton Johnson (himself African American) diagnoses the problem as a communal “disassociation from the natural world,” one based, “in part, [on] a memory of the horrible things that were done to us in rural America.” Exemplifying that perspective on nature are a couple of seminal early 20th century cultural texts: Paul Laurence Dunbar’s historical Gothic poem “The Haunted Oak” (1900) and Billie Holliday’s haunting song “Strange Fruit” (1939; based on a poem written by New York city schoolteacher Abel Meeropol). While trees have tended to represent pastoral and even spiritual beauty and power in many American literary and cultural texts—see Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees” (1913), one of the most popular works of poetry from Dunbar’s era, for an early 20th century case in point—Dunbar and Holliday’s texts illustrate the far different cultural and historical roles that trees have played for African Americans. Given that the National Park system was created in precisely the same era as those texts (and the lynching epidemic that they reflect), it’s certainly understandable that many African Americans wouldn’t hasten to embrace the natural world preserved by those parks.
I’d also highlight another cultural factor in that disassociation from the natural world, however—although to be clear, this is amateur sociology that I have in no way researched, and as always I welcome any pushback or other perspectives. Camping, it seems to me, is often a profoundly individual activity, one undertaken by small groups (families, groups of friends, even organizations like Cub Scout troops or the like) who are overtly separating from the society and broader communities around them in order to escape into this natural space. And while this is of course a reductive overstatement, I would argue that for most of American history members of minority communities have understandably sought safety and solace in community, the kinds of ethnic enclaves that allow for individuals to receive the kinds of support and comfort too often denied them by the broader American society. Indeed, Camping in Color, the camping blog on which my first hyperlinked article above appeared, is overtly framed as an effort by its authors to create and pass on such a shared camping community for African Americans, “presented with the goal of infusing family with the appreciation of nature.” If camping is to become a truly national American experience, perhaps such a redefinition from the individual to the more communal will have to accompany that growth.
Monthly recap this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other camping contexts you’d highlight?