Reclaiming Our Spaces in Nature

by Chi-Chi Anemelu


“If we think of urban life as a location where black folks learned to accept a mind/body split that made it possible to abuse the body, we can better understand the growth of nihilism and despair in the black psyche. And we can know when we talk about healing that psyche we must also speak about restoring our connection to the natural world”- bell hooks

When you think of the outdoors and nature it is often associated with white men and women going hiking or camping, and even as a black woman I have also fed into the narrative that black people aren’t “into” nature. Recently, I’ve decided to explore the stereotype that black people don’t go out in nature or are scared of it. Carolyn Finney, author of Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors, mentioned, “In terms of the majority culture in the United States setting a narrative and tone about the environment and the way we should think about and relate to it, we Black and brown folks have largely been left out of that mainstream conversation”.  If you look at outdoor magazines and environmental organizations, there is a significant lack of representation of people from the African American community.  This lack of representation has led to many of us in the black community not feeling like these wild spaces belong to us. History has shown when black people are in a space where they’re not welcomed, it can end in a deadly interaction. It wasn’t too long ago that you would find the KKK chasing black folks through the woods, and lynching them on trees. Even with this in mind we should not let our history define our livelihood and happiness; it is time that we reclaim our space and take control of our bodies and our healing.  


Healing Begins with Our Connection to the Soil

It is also important that we start to reevaluate the way in which we use the spaces we inhabit. It is not necessary to travel to a national state park to enjoy the beauty of nature and your surroundings, your own backyard can be your playground. During the summertime you could find boys riding their dirt bikes through the Philadelphia roads, or folks just riding their bikes through Philadelphia. This is their own way of navigating the land around them. Our healing also begins with our connection to the soil. Reclaiming our spaces through urban farming provides physical and mental healing; by working the land and nurturing the plants you are nurturing your soul. Providing more fresh produce to our inner city neighborhoods helps us take control of our health and well-being. There are also beautiful places like the Cobbs Creek trail, Fairmount Park, Clark Park, and Schuylkill River Trail in Philadelphia to explore.  What would be seemingly “little” interactions with the land are often discounted when we talk about various relationships with the environment and land, which shouldn’t be the case. Whatever space we choose to utilize, we have the right to enjoy and celebrate in these spaces as much as anyone else. We should continue to shift our focus on creating safe spaces for black folks to enjoy nature as a space for healing. There is something about being in nature that creates a peace of mind and reduces physical and mental stress.  Organizations like Outdoor Afro provide a great opportunity for the African American community to reconnect with nature and the land. Black Surfers Collective is another group based in California that engages the public in the sport of surfing, and helps individuals build a spiritual connection to the ocean. There is also Black Girls Do Bike, which was a movement started to “grow and support a community of women of color who share a passion for cycling”. They have various locations in cities across the nation.


Self- love as an Act of Revolution

To heal our bodies in natural spaces would also mean practicing self- love as an act of revolution. One of my favorite quotes is by Lao Tzu where he wrote, “Love the world as your own self, then you can truly care for all things.” This unconditional love starts from recognizing your value and worth, and not limiting yourself by living up to the standard of others. If we don’t have love for ourselves and don’t take care of ourselves, then there is no possible way for us to spread love and create unity among ourselves. This allows us to see ourselves in others and realize everyone deserves to be loved. By transforming ourselves, we can transform our spaces and the planet.