In the middle of the last century, Carolyn Finney grew up on a wooded estate in Manhattan. Though not a child of privilege, this professor of geography at the University of California at Berkeley recalls fond memories exploring the wild places on the property her father managed for a wealthy landowner. As the only African-American family in this affluent community Finney also remembers feeling less than welcome in this setting surrounded by nature. “It was not natural for us to be there,” she said.
As the keynote speaker in the second day of programs during the “Breaking the Color Barrier to the Great Outdoors” conference in Atlanta, Finney shared her memories of a life in wilderness tainted by the racially motivated injustices of our past. “Those memories continue today,” she said. “And for a lot of people memory is truth.”
Despite institutional changes brought about by the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s people of color today endure a legacy of discrimination that barred our passage to and enjoyment of the recreation areas that many whites have been privileged to enjoy for centuries. Although there are no restrictions that deny minorities access to nature, past memories of exclusion persist today as truth and collectively we stay away.
In her remarks to those gathered to discuss the future of wilderness preservation she referenced the preamble to the Constitution, which reads “We the people of the United States of America in order to form a more prefect union…” Finney acknowledged that the framers of that document at the time did not include people of color.
But by embracing the indiscriminant virtues of recreation in natural settings today Finney says we can become a generation that envisions new memories, an undeniable truth with a brighter future.
“We are offered an opportunity to see differently,” she said. “I refuse to not participate in the change we need in this world. I look around this room and I can see that WE are the people now.”
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