Thoughts of a Wilderness for Whites

 

Again, it always weirdly surprises me when topics in class, or characters from the past, sometimes, somehow, cross paths with events in my day to day free time outside of class. When we were watching the documentary on Yosemite and the African American park ranger, Shelton Johnson, spoke about peering out onto a herd of buffalo he felt like he was in the first day of creation. I recognized him immediately from an episode of the Oprah Winfrey show I saw sometime last summer. The coincidence doesn’t stop there.

Park Ranger Shelton Johnson wrote Oprah about the lack of African Americans that visit National Parks; he wanted Oprah to come experience the beauty of Yosemite and thus inspire other African Americans to come visit as well. I do not know if you all have encountered the phrase “the Oprah effect” but Oprah can suggest a book, movie, food, electronic device, or fried toe nails for desert and people of all color will listen. I was just kidding about the friend toe nails but you get the idea.

So why is there such a “shortage” if you will, of African Americans in National Parks?

In Alexander Wilson’s “The View From the Road: Recreation and Tourism” he explains that nature does not symbolize the same sensation of freedom as it does with middle class, modern society. For legacies of slavery, the cities offer a more appropriate place of freedom and escape. When researching a bit more into Park Ranger Shelton Johnson’s life I expected to find then he was raised in the country with a love for nature instilled unto him at birth. Like most expectations, that was not the case at all. A short biography reveals his home to be inner city Detroit, MI. He did not even experience a mountain range in person until college. He has made it his mission to let inner city African Americans know that “we, too, have a place here”. Only time will tell if Oprah became successful in bringing more people of color into National Parks. Also, as more African Americans are becoming integrated into the middle class, knowledge worker society, they may be able to consider holidays to National Parks with higher wages, paid vacation time, and less feeling of freedom within the city.

Would spending money on outdoor adventure seem like a better investment than jerseys, tennis shoes, and hats? Typically when I think of marketing within the inner city I imagine Nike ads for basketball shoes and jerseys. This is a system set up for consumerism as well but what if suddenly (or over time) this money was invested into an experience as oppose to a specific product. Although yes there are several products within the National Park system (post cards, t-shirts, water bottles, ect.) but how would this different target affect the culture and communities of inner city blacks? These are important questions to contemplate when attempting to go deeper into a discussion about the lack of colored individuals in “nature”. I hope these words have given you further ideas to toy with and to build on from the short discussion in class.

If anyone finds any luck in locating the Oprah Winfrey episode feel free to share it in the comments below. It is worth seeing and will most definitely offer you a nice laugh. I love Oprah and can only hope her Yosemite experience will inspire many to just go outside and look up at a tree, sleep in nature, and soak up some sun…preferable next to a giant waterfall!

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3 thoughts on “Thoughts of a Wilderness for Whites

  1. Wow. This is really interesting. Of course, I’ve already established that it might be true that fewer African Americans visit National Parks than maybe other races. It’s not really one of those things that typical in a household for some reason. I myself have never been to any of the parks unless you count the water park lol. It’s not just money though with me. My dad is disabled and we take care of my 90 year old grandmother so traveling as a family is out of the question and with my allergies, I might as well stay at home anyway.

    But my dad is a Scout Master so whenever I get the urge or the bravery to put aside me going to the hospital to encounter nature I can always trail him to the woods. I will definitely have to look into that video though. Oprah really can sell water to a fish if she tried 🙂

  2. Great blog (and good way of tying together several ideas we’ve covered in this class) and it brings up so many vexing questions. My brother lives in California and so family trips to Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks are fairly common for him. A few years ago he told me about this really cool Park Ranger who gives talks as a Buffalo Soldier and when I first saw the Ken Burns documentary I realized that he was the same person. My brother spoke so highly of him and at some point in our conversation that day he said wistfully, “I want to be a Park Ranger.” 🙂

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