Carolyn Finney on African Americans and the Great Outdoors

What place do African Americans have in the environmental debate? Why have we collectively come to understand/see/envision the environmental debate as shaped and inhabited primarily by white people?

These are among the questions asked by Carolyn Finney, geographer and assistant professor in the Department of Environment Science at UC Berkeley, who recently spoke at UC Davis about the relation of African Americans to the environment and to the environmental movement.

Finney came to campus on Nov. 18 to deliver an invited lecture on her book Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors, which was chosen for the annual John Muir Institute of the Environment, Environmental Justice Project book lecture.

Finney introduced her talk by outlining the challenges and difficulties of studying the relationship of African American to the great outdoors. “You are not going to find work on African Americans and the environment in libraries,” Finney said, highlighting the absence of both critical work in this area and documentation of the African American environmental experience more broadly.

African American environmentalists

Black Faces, White Spaces asks readers to consider why the mainstream environmental movement has been so slow to adopt the stories of compelling African American environmentalists like those profiled in her book, including MaVynee Betsh, John Francis, and Pearl Fryar – a South Carolinian topiary artist who cultivates discarded plants in his internally-recognized garden.

Betsh, also known as “the Beach Lady,” was an extraordinary resident of American Beach on Amelia Island off the northern coast of Florida. A co-inheritor of her millionaire grandfather Abraham Lincoln Lewis, Betsh donated her entire fortune to environmental causes and worked tirelessly to protect and conserve the unique black history of American Beach.

Finney also described the work of John Francis, the Planetwalker, who spent twenty-two years traversing the globe by foot and seventeen years of it in complete voluntary silence. Finney explained her delight in telling audiences about the incredible work that Francis accomplished while silent: “John earned his Ph.D. during this period, became a representative for the United Nations, and was one of the original architects of our oil spill policy that was instituted after the Exxon Valdez disaster,” she said.

Whose ownership counts?

Finney’s own biography is a captivating story that brings to light a convergence of questions about ownership, environmental stewardship, and legibility within the mainstream environmental movement.

Born in New York City, Finney was adopted by a black couple who had recently migrated from Virginia. Finney explained that her parents were the caretakers and permanent residents of a large estate outside of New York City owned by the Tishman family. The owners only came to the property on weekends and holidays, so “five days a week” Finney and her brothers used the twelve scenic, wooded acres as their “personal playground,” she said.

Growing up among extraordinary wealth and privilege, Finney recalls her “natural love” of the place, but also how others imagined her and her family as “unnatural” aspects of the community. When the property owners passed away, their adult children determined that Finney’s family could not stay on as caretakers, despite having lived on and meticulously cared for the land for decades.

Using her parent’s story, Finney asked the audience to examine what ownership of land actually entails, and how her parents fit into environmentalist narratives.

Expanding environmentalism

Finney stressed that everyone has a relationship to the environment – we are all in and of it. Considering this, “why are so many people in the past and present invisible in the representations and narratives of environmentalism?” she asked.

This question can be answered partly by examining the ways in which we narrowly define the concept of environmentalism, Finney argued. Starting with a engaged understanding of how place and the African American story are intertwined, Finney pushed the audience to imagine how environmentalism could be changed to account for the myriad ways in which African Americans participate in and actively pursue conservation practices.

Aside from her research and teaching at UC Berkeley, Finney carries out her critical work as Chair of the Relevancy Committee on the U.S. National Parks Advisory Board that is working to assist the National Park Service in engaging in relations of reciprocity with diverse communities. Finney has also appearered on MSNBC, NPR, and in public debates exploring how issues of difference impact participation in decision-making processes designed to address environmental issues.

For more information on Carolyn Finney, watch her interview on the Tavis Smiley Show, or these interviews with UC Berkeley PhD students.

– Stephanie Maroney, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral candidate in Cultural Studies