Tanzina Vega: Earlier this month, President Trump signed The Great American Outdoors Act into law. It's a bipartisan piece of legislation that puts money towards the maintenance of our national parks, as well as the federal government's Land and Water Conservation Fund. As we've been covering on the show, national parks have notoriously been accessible to mainly white families in this country, and here's what you had to say about that.
Jimmy: Hi, my name is Jimmy. I'm from Long Beach, California. I'm Black and Mexican, and my family was really into the outdoors. We went camping up in Yosemite and Tom's Place and Kern River all the time. Did a lot of fishing, and I don't know why, we're your typical city people, but my family just really liked to connect with the outdoors, and almost all of my lessons as a kid were somehow tied into nature.
Matt: This is Matt. I'm from Bowling Green, Kentucky. As an African American, I was raised by a white family. I was lucky because I called them grandma and grandpa. Grandpa was able to take me camping every so often. I remember we did that a lot. We went ice fishing. I really got to enjoy the outdoors.
Tanzina: Some of you said you still felt excluded until later in your life.
Gwen: My name is Gwen. My husband and I grew up in the segregated South in the '50s. Where if there were public parks, we didn't feel welcome, and certainly no public pools where we could learn to swim like so many Blacks of our era. Today, we live in the wonderfully beautiful Pacific Northwest, and as retirees, we've discovered the robust senior recreation program, and in this way, we've been able to go hiking to some of the most beautiful spots.
Tanzina: You can keep calling us and sharing your stories at 877-8-MY-TAKE. Joining us now is Nikki Brueggeman, a writer and oral historian, who recently published the article Why Black People Don't Go Camping on Medium. Nikki, welcome to The Takeaway.
Nikki Brueggeman: It's so wonderful to be here. Thank you.
Tanzina: Thank you for being with us. Tell us what led you to write this piece. It's sort of coincided with our coverage of this issue so it's perfect timing.
Nikki: Yes. What really encouraged me to write this piece was that it's summer, and growing up, summer was the time when my family and I would go camping, and of course, as there is a pandemic, life is a little bit different. So it had me sitting back and thinking about my past summers. I began to wonder to myself as an African American woman, why didn't I see any other Black people when I was camping when I was younger? Which led me to this Google search, and then down this rabbit hole of this realization that camping had been a segregated activity, and it was something that really just slapped me in the face.
I grew up believing that our national parks were for the people, and to find out that there had been a time when people like me were not welcomed, really just shook me to my core.
So that's what encouraged me to write the piece.
Tanzina: Tell me about how your own experiences with camping and with national parks have evolved over the years.
Nikki: I was adopted by two parents who were white. So growing up, the national parks were my playground. It was where we went on vacation. It was where I bonded with my parents, especially with my father. When I look back at it, I don't remember any incidents of overt racism, but I do remember not seeing anyone who really looked like me. I don't remember seeing anyone in the park service that looked like me. As I've grown up, I've continued to believe that I have every right to go to the national parks and take part in camping or any of the activities worthy, and I have every right to those things. However, not seeing myself in the national parks has made me feel as time has gone on. That maybe I'm not as welcomed as I initially had thought, and I think that also in part led to me looking at this history.
Tanzina: One of the things we've been talking about on The Takeaway over the past couple of weeks has been this idea that the history of the national parks, the lack of information about people of color who have been involved in creating that history but also just this idea that we, i.e, people of color, Black folk and others don't go camping. We don't go to these parks. I think part of that is also because of money. Tell us about how the cost of camping can play into this idea of not going or not being accessible.
Nikki: Yes. I think there are many factors when it comes to camping that many people who do camping, they don't think about what that might mean to a family that is shorter on cash. When I wrote this piece, I had a lot of backlash from people saying, "Well, this is cheaper than staying in a hotel," and of course, I agree. However, you have to take into consideration many things like buying a tent can be a couple of hundred dollars for a decent tent, buying sleeping bags for a family that will set you back, and buying any other camping essentials such as maybe a gas stove or maybe firewood. You have to buy food specifically for the trip.
Then you have to take into account the costs of traveling like driving, some wear and tear on your car. I think that for many people, when I say that camping is expensive, it doesn't resonate because if you're thinking and comparing it to something like a hotel, of course, it is cheaper, but the reality is for some American families camping is a leisure expense that cannot be afforded. I think that when you get the idea in your head that the activity that you do is, of course, affordable for every other American, you are very blinded to the reality that you yourself might have some economic privilege.
I think that's one thing that with camping we sometimes fail to see is that you do have to have some economic ability. You have to have time off work. You have to have extra money to buy a tent, to buy a space at a campground. I think that realization is very difficult for many people.
Tanzina: Nikki, we've got about a minute left in the segment, and I'm just curious, is there anything that you think-- what would you say to people, to Black people in particular, to Latinos and other folks, who just don't think the outdoors and camping is for them? How do we better introduce people of color to the outdoors?
Nikki: I think that the first thing for us to do is to acknowledge the past. When people come to me and say, "Well, that's a white people thing," the reaction I've developed now is, was that a white people thing, or is that something that we've been denied and not allowed to participate in? I think that as we talk about how do we get people of color into camping and into the outdoors, we need as a nation to sit down and address our past of segregation. We need to sit down and address the fact that we have not been a diverse and a welcoming place in the great outdoors.
I think as we begin to do that, and we put that message of welcoming out to communities of color through things like having a more diverse national park service. I think that is how we begin that process.
Tanzina: Nikki Brueggeman is a writer and oral historian. Nikki, thanks so much.
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