According to National Geographic, African Americans make up only seven percent of visitors to America’s national parks. Add in other non-white visitors and as a group, they’d still make up only 22 percent of park visitors. About 78 percent of park visitors are white. The National Park Service has sought to shift these numbers a bit in recent years, with their establishment of the Office of Relevancy, Diversity and Inclusion back in 2013.
“For me, it’s more about the culture of the NPS,” says Sangita Chari of that office. “We haven’t become relevant to them in their life.”
African-American Yosemite ranger and author Shelton Johnson has made it something of a personal mission to re-introduce African Americans to nature.
He often dons the uniform of the Buffalo Soldier, the US Army Cavalry Regiment from the mid-19th century composed entirely of African Americans, and performs in historical re-enactments for visitors to Yosemite. Many Buffalo Soldiers eventually served as the first rangers in Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks.
“This is an extension of the Civil Rights movement. Pure and simple,” he says. “[Reconnecting with the earth] is basically the last act of what it means to become an American.”
“You shouldn’t have to convince people to go to paradise,” Johnson explains.
But of all visitors to Yosemite, very much a paradise, only one percent are African American. For Johnson, this is at least partially a result of a deep-seated, negative association the African American community has with wilderness as yet another disastrous legacy of slavery.
“I think it is, in part, a memory of the horrible things that were done to us in rural America,” he said in an interview.
In the short film, “The Way Home: Returning to the National Parks,” depicting African American groups visiting Yosemite for the first time, Johnson explains the importance of connecting everyone, but especially the African American community, with the beauty, connection, and healing of the wilderness. The wonder in the visitors’ faces, most of whom are late-middle-aged, show when stepping off a tour bus and taking their first glances skyward at the majestic granite walls towering above them is stirring.
“It is a necessity that we embrace wilderness and mountains,” Johnson says. “Because our ancestors knew them intimately. So when the day comes that African Americans are commonplace in the national parks, in the wilderness, camping and backpacking, that means the day has come when the negative connotations and associations with the mountains have been purged away. And what is remembered and rekindled, is this old, ancestral blood familiarity with the earth.”
The film is not embeddable but can be watched in its entirety at the Films for Action website.