“Harriet Tubman was a wilderness leader,” Rue Mapp told me mid-way through Black History Month this year. Indeed, Tubman’s Underground Railroad, which guided fugitive slaves from the South to the North, cut through forests and swamps while armed men and bloodhounds pursued them.
“Tubman traversed the wilderness without a GPS,” Mapp added.
Tubman is a role model for Mapp, who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, and who founded, in 2009, Outdoor Afro, a non-profit organization that aims to bring black people who live in inner cities into the great outdoors, whether far away or close to home.
No spa treatments, no mud baths and no massages, just the open air, and a path or a trail to follow wherever it may go. Afros aren’t required, nor are dreadlocks and a black skin is not essential. No one is turned away and everyone is welcome.
Mapp has often been a headliner at the Geography of Hope Conference that is held annually in Point Reyes Station, near the edge of the North American continent. The theme for the 2018 conference this March is “Finding Resilience in Nature in Perilous Times.”
Mapp knows heaps about resilience. A UC Berkeley graduate, she was invited to the White House by Barack and Michelle Obama who were impressed by her spunk and by Outdoor Afro.
Nothing like it existed before Mapp came along.
For much of the twentieth-century, the black bourgeoisie looked down on their brethren who went into the wild; women who did so were viewed as un-lady-like.
Zora Neale Hurston explores that idea in her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God in which Janie Starks, the main character, abandons her husband and her middle class life and goes to live in the depths of the Everglades with her lover, Tea Cake.
Mapp hasn’t gone that far, but she’s a warrior for wilderness and for freedom.
In 2016—when the Black Lives Matter movement spread nation-wide—she launched a series of activities called “Healing Hikes” that thrust her fledgling organization into the news.
“We need to lay our burdens down by the riverside,” she told me.
The line “down by the riverside” comes from a work song that slaves sang, and that has been recorded by Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, Van Morrison and Johnny Cash, among others.
Mapp added that, “Streets are a hard landscape to find release from trauma. We can’t be fire and brimstone twenty-four-hours a day.”
Indeed, down by the riverside cares can be washed away.
Amen and hallelujah!
The healing hikes, which might also be called therapeutic treks, or relief and relaxation for radicals, have swelled the ranks of Outdoor Afro that started a decade ago as Mapp’s personal blog.
Now, the organization has members in thirty states and one hundred leaders who guide inner-city residents through woods, forests and meadows where they identify medicinal plants and appreciate the beauty of wildflowers, blue skies, clean air and scenic views.
“Healing hikes came along in tandem with Black Lives Matter,” Mapp told me. “Synchronicity was at work.”
Mapp aims to invigorate families, strengthen communities and make up for lost time. A great opportunity slipped through the cracks of history in 1964, she argues, when the cause of the wilderness and the cause of civil rights might have been linked and weren’t.
That year witnessed the passage of the Wilderness Act and the Civil Rights Act, both of which LBJ signed into law. In the years that followed, African Americans moved toward “Black is Beautiful” and black liberation, while whites moved toward the ecology movement and Whole Earth Day.
“We now have two siloed movements, Mapp told me. “One is for people and the other is for land.”
That might be an exaggeration, though her point is well taken.
Mapp argues that the environmental movement has largely been by and for white people who have for the most part enjoyed the freedom to move about the country. That kind of mobility, she adds, has been to a great extent denied to people of color, whose very presence in parks and forests has often struck rangers, backpackers and tourists as suspect.
Much of the environmental movement has forgotten—or never knew— that African Americans were thrust into the wilderness from the moment they arrived as slaves in Virginia in 1619. As the historian and co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), W. E. B. Du Bois, observed in The Souls of Black Folk, African Americans helped to “beat back the wilderness, conquer the soil and lay the foundations…for a vast economic empire.” And mostly their labor was unpaid.
Mapp doesn‘t call for a revolution, but she does want basic changes in the ways that white people think about and treat black people.
“The environmental movement has to reexamine itself,” Mapp told me. “To environmentalists, I say, ‘Do not go into the hood and talk about the Bears Ears National Monument if you don’t also talk about lives that are in immediate peril.”
(Obama created Bears Ears by proclamation in 2016. A year later, Trump reduced its size by eighty-five percent.)
In Mapp’s view, no matter who occupies the White House, black people have to focus on the preservation of the wilderness and apply political pressure so that they have access to it.
The author and environmentalist, Wallace Stegner, often said he didn’t have to actually venture into wilderness to reap its benefits. Just knowing it was there was good enough for him. Stegner called for “the geography of hope,” and added that, “we simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in.”
Standing at the edge of the wilderness and looking in, isn’t good enough for Mapp. She wants in with body and soul.
“Whether it’s Obama, Trump or someone else who’s president, there’s a basic human right to be in nature,” Mapp told me. She added that, “Nature provides a platform where people can be actualized. It’s also a place where they can connect to one another, share stories and images and begin to change the narratives that impact their lives.”
Of all the many white male environmentalists, it’s Henry David Thoreau who would be most likely to understand and applaud Outdoor Afro and Mapp’s healing hikes. A naturalist and a supporter of the armed abolitionist, John Brown, Thoreau went into the wilderness to escape from cities, railroads and the Almighty Dollar. He also went to jail to protest slavery and thereby gave birth to the idea and the practice of modern civil disobedience that inspired Gandhi and MLK.
If a person “does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer,” Thoreau wrote in his classic, Walden.
Mapp definitely hears a different drummer. She’s unlike the “mass of men” (and women, too) who, Thoreau wrote, “lead lives of quiet desperation.” But she’s not about isolated individuals who go into the wilderness to conquer it and tame it. Rather, she and Outdoor Afro emphasize communities and the interconnections between generations.
“We need to get whole families, including grandmothers, involved with the outdoors,” she says. “This is not about the individual kid, and it’s not about the environmentalist who takes a young black person into the wild and feels good about himself or herself.”
Mapp remembers her own girlhood in northern California. From her father, she learned to hunt and fish. As a girl scout, she explored Yosemite. Later, on hikes sponsored by the Sierra Club, she would look around and notice that she was the only black person present. She knew that something had to change and that she had to be a change agent.
To those who argue that African Americans don’t know or care about nature, Mapp replies that there’s a long history of black engagement with the outdoors that goes back to Harriet Tubman and the old, old South where slaves went into the woods to sing, dance, and express their joy.
Frederick Douglass wrote about those soulful black folks in his autobiography in which he explained that slaves would “make the dense old woods, for miles around, reverberate with their wild songs, revealing at once the highest joy and the deepest sadness. They would compose and sing as they went along, consulting neither time nor tune.”
Mapp doesn’t expect or encourage that kind of abandon.
“In the past,” she explains, “the black engagement with Nature took the form of a picnic, fishing with a relative or an afternoon in a grandmother’s backyard garden.”
These days, she said, she brings her own children, aged 14, 16 and 21, on outdoor adventures to largely white Plumas County, a long drive from the Bay Area and culturally speaking in another world.
Mapp also remembers the days, not that long ago, when African Americans were lynched and “black bodies swayed from trees.” Mapp added, “Lynching created trauma that has carried over to the present day.”
Billie Holiday captured that trauma in her trademark song, “Strange Fruit” (1939) that has the lines, “Southern trees bear a strange fruit/Blood on the leaves and blood at the roots.”
This March, at the Geography of Hope conference, Mapp will be a black face in a sea of largely white faces. Still, she’s been there before and knows that she’ll feel at home.
“West Marin people have always been very good to me,” she said. “We all want to do the right thing and talk about land and people in the same conversation.”
For more information about the 2018 Geography of Hope Conference go to https://gohconference.org.