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Black Joy

As the founder and CEO of Outdoor Afro, Rue Mapp has grown a thriving network of Black outdoor leaders, advocates, educators, athletes, conservationists, and enthusiasts. Her new book, The Nature Swagger celebrates a wide range of Black Americans finding and sharing purpose, place, and happiness in nature.

Rue Mapp founded Outdoor Afro as a blog in 2009. She wanted to create a unique and authentic way to speak to and about the Black experience in the outdoors but, at the time, that was non-existent. Mapp had grown up on a ranch in California, hunting and fishing, with a love of nature deep in her blood. And in 2009, she wanted to grow the idea of how Black Americans experience, share, and find joy in nature. Over the past 14 years, Outdoor Afro has blossomed into a nationwide phenomenon, with a cross-country leadership team of more than 100 volunteers building a vibrant community and training Black outdoor leaders from all walks of life. Her new book The Nature Swagger: Stories and Visions of Black Joy in the Outdoors (Chronicle Books, 2022) shows just what finding this place in nature that Outdoor Afro cultivates looks like, telling the stories of Black Americans of all pursuits and ages and backgrounds across the United States. She recently sat down to talk with EO about the book and the Black experience in nature. 

What is Black joy in the outdoors?

Over the last 14 years since I founded Outdoor Afro, I’ve been hammered with this viewpoint that Black people don’t have a relationship with the outdoors, that our history is only about pain and slavery and we are a community that needs to be rescued and taught and rushed to the altar of conservation practice and policy. Outdoor Afro in a lot of ways has said “time out.” As I have grown in this professional expansion of Outdoor Afro, I have realized that my story is not unique. This is why elevation of those Black nature narratives—especially through our collaboration with REI [a collection of apparel and footwear] over the last year—is so important. We need to curate the narrative of a lineage of Black participation and economic contribution in the outdoors that has been completely obscured.

The hope and optimism of what it means to be Black in America is a very important part of our story. If you only focus on just the peril and the pain, then you don’t know the Black experience. The Black experience that my work lifts up stands on the shoulders of people like my own father, who pioneered from the American South to Northern California and created his own oasis to share and teach others how to be in connection with nature. 

That tradition is actually a lot more widespread than I even knew growing up. Just look at the history of places like Lake Ivanhoe in Wisconsin, Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard, and Lincoln Hills in Colorado—these were places of purpose for connection in nature, as well as healing, that were created in the middle of some of the worst times of the Black American experience, notably Jim Crow, when Black people could not go to the beaches, clubs, or outfitters and resorts of their choosing.

But they valued the outdoors so much that they created their own spaces. These are places that had the equipment, the guides, the lodging, the innkeepers—all contributing to an outdoor economy as we know it today. So we need to have a much more sophisticated conversation of what it really has meant in this country to be Black and connected to the outdoors and how we can build on this real history and tell a different kind of narrative. 

There’s such a deep connection to nature in Black art and culture.

It’s in our music. It’s in our art. Think of Aaron Douglas and even Billy Holiday using a tree as a metaphor [in the song “Strange Fruit”] for protest. It’s always been there; it’s been in our songs that we sing in church; it’s been in the records we played on turntables—Marvin Gaye’s, “Mercy, Mercy Me” beautifully outlines his concern for ecology. There’s all that history that is super important to help us remember. 

When you talk about what Black people don’t do or what we lack, it really boxes you in a corner. You can’t build on it. But when you talk about, you know, our agency and joy and determination, then that to me feels like bedrock. It speaks to the empowerment that we have as an American collective. And that is the aim—to help Black people move from the exceptional space to the ordinary and to continue to normalize that people have a connection to nature and it’s going to look different depending on who you are. 

How do you see Black conservationists reimagining the narrative of how we view and protect public lands?

A lot of these public land battles are, interestingly enough, in places where Black people used to be prohibited from being. In the Ozarks, for instance. I think we have to also lay bare where some of these regions are, how far they are from where Black people actually live today. We have to do a better job of helping people find what I would consider a reasonable connection to these places so that we can develop the kind of care and connection that currently isn’t there. 

I’ve heard people—especially over the last seven years or so—talk to me about the need to protect this place and that place, places that Black people, one, have never heard of, two, were probably prohibited from ever being a part of. And so I think conservationists as a whole need to do a better job of explaining why and to educate themselves about the disrupted history that not only Black Americans but also Native people experience. What does it mean for people to have an empowered, knowledgeable connection to these places today?

What does “the nature swagger” mean to you?

I’m a big fan of the neighborhood walk. If you want to get connected to your biome, go walk in your neighborhood. If you do it at least a few times a week year round, you’re going to be in touch with the changes of the seasons. You’re going to hear different birds, at different times of the year; you will see plants, flowers, and blooms at different times of the year. And then you’re also going to get to know your neighbors. I think we need to have a conversation about the environment that doesn’t exclude what it means to be connected to each other. 

To me, this is the definition of nature swagger. It’s a lived experience that’s informed by the dynamic elements of nature that, in turn, inform you how you live your life, and the confidence that comes with that. It’s the anticipation and excitement that comes from anything from gardening in your backyard to the bike rides that you plan at different times of the year. But it’s also just having that knowledge of what’s possible and living into that possibility as the cycle of life continues to be expressed through nature. That, to me, is a universal ask. But it’s one that, because of my experience, I’m speaking to specifically as a Black person.

I feel like we can learn a lot from nature. Nature gives us the blueprint for equity. It’s not something that you’re going to learn in a workshop. When I’m in a hunting blind with people who live in places that one would think are very conservative, close-minded places, the bonds and camaraderie that I’ve experienced with people who have a very different lived experience with me in those scenarios has been priceless and humbling. I have connected with people that I’ll probably stay connected with for life because of our shared experience in nature. Nature gives us a platform to have much more elevated experiences with each other as humans.

What are you most proud of when it comes to The Nature Swagger book?

This book was not meant to highlight only the most accomplished people, or only the ones we all know about. It was kind of like a party—like, who do you invite to your dinner party? Through this work, I’ve always been able to celebrate the diversity within. This book is focused on the Black American experience. Black is not a monolith. For me, it was like a quilt of people who each brought their own little nugget of joy. And what was so cool about it was not everybody thought that they should have been in the book—this is how bad it’s gotten. But I identified those who I thought had a contribution to make, and I brought them along. I was really thinking about inclusivity. Also, my background is in art history, so I understand intimately how important visual representation is to tell stories, how they record the attitudes and technologies of a time. So I wanted this book to have accessibility across literacy levels, so that if you’re six years old, you’re going to open the book and see a swimmer who’s around your age—or you could be middle-aged, single, married, or an elderly person, and you will find someone who is telling a part of your story. 

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