When I was growing up in New Jersey, my siblings and I typically spent our summers crammed in the back of my grandmother’s station wagon, heading to the Jersey Shore. With blankets and coolers in tow, we would start our days at sunrise and end them at sunset.
But one summer, when I was 11 years old, my grandmother wanted to do something different. I’m not sure why she singled me out, but to this day I’m glad she did.
My grandmother took me on a camping trip with her church group. Imagine a bunch of old ladies whose typical Sundays included their church fans and tithing buckets “roughing” it in the wilderness. It was a sight to behold.
These women knew what they were doing. Although my grandmother opted for a cabin that was equipped with a bunk bed, some of the other women stuck to the basics of pitching their tents and communing with nature.
Every night the women, some as old as 70, would tell stories about how their parents taught them to camp—not for recreation but because of a need to survive. They told tales of how black people were naturally one with nature and equipped with survival instincts. From stories about Native Americans to the Underground Railroad, the women with whom I camped shared everything they knew about getting in touch with nature and the history of the land.
It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized how valuable a lesson I’d been taught by my grandmother’s church group. But then I also realized how little some people actually know about camping.
Spreading the Word
The camping bug hit me one fall, and I asked a couple of friends if they wanted to plan a weekend camping trip. I researched areas and even made a supply list, but the feedback from my friends went something like this:
‘You’ve seen horror movies. You do know how this will end?’ said a friend who had obviously seen one too many.
“Black people don’t camp,” said one person.
“You really think I want to sleep outdoors?” said another.
“You’ve seen horror movies. You do know how this will end?” said a friend who had obviously seen one too many.
That pretty much put the kibosh on my camping trip.
But the truth is, black people do camp, and Rue Mapp’s mission as founder of the online community Outdoor Afro is not only to dispel the notion that we don’t but also to educate and encourage black people to venture outdoors and reconnect with nature.
Mapp, who grew up in Oakland, Calif., was first exposed to camping at the age of 10. “My parents had a ranch near Oakland, and I spent weekends and summertime at the ranch. That experience set the stage for me to not only engage in nature but to understand the value of connecting others with it,” she said.
Outdoor Afro reconnects African Americans with natural spaces, and one another, through recreational activities such as camping, hiking, biking, birding, fishing, gardening and skiing. For more than two decades, Mapp has used digital media as an important and practical tool to connect with other people of color who share her outdoor interests.
“African Americans have a strong connection to land. Outdoor activities can mean a lot of different things. Just because people don’t call it camping, black people spend a lot of time outdoors, from church services to family reunions. We have to change the way people talk about camping. Even tailgating can be considered camping,” Mapp told me.