Black family history outdoors - Arkansas parks

The smells of honeysuckle and barbecue linger in the humid air as a spring thunderstorm lights up the sky.

I was planted in these Arkansas conditions. Called the “Natural State” because of its clear water, rivers, lakes, wildlife, bayous, and mountains, Arkansas is where my roots run deep, and where my connection with nature began.

There was a time when being outside was a means of survival, not enjoyment. I come from generations of family who farmed and picked the fields in the Arkansas Delta. An agricultural community, the “Delta” is known for its rich soil, access to the mighty Mississippi River, and dark past. My ancestors migrated to this area seeking a new life during the United States’ post-Civil War era, a time when it was common for Blacks to move further west, within the South, seeking opportunity.

I embrace this history when I’m outside: When I see flat or swamp-like areas, I think about past family members who settled and tended the land.

This is precious land with a story to tell.

Black family history outdoors - Arkansas view

Black family history outdoors - childhood in ArkansasGrowing up in the suburbs of Arkansas’ capital, Little Rock, I have fond memories of being outdoors. We’d visit my great-grandparents’ farm in nearby Biscoe, spending time along the Arkansas River with “Paw Paw” and Grandmother. Every week, my family went to Pinnacle Mountain State Park for cookouts, basketball, and family reunions. And right behind my home, I’d take the dog and explore, sometimes spotting wildlife such as deer, snakes, and the occasional bobcat.

As life happened during my early teen years, I strayed away from the outdoors, neglecting the things that brought me joy. But in high school, I was brought back to that joy. Traveling with the youth group I belonged to on a ski trip to Colorado, I was around others who enjoyed spending eight hours in the snow and finishing the day around a campfire.

It was an experience that created a domino effect. I started adventuring again, going on frequent trips to Shepherds of the Ozarks, a Christian retreat in Arkansas’ Ozark Mountains, joined by my mom and brother. We spent time exploring the deep greenery of the surrounding mountains, swimming in the creek, building fires, and watching mountain goats lingering along the cliffs.

“I share my experiences in hopes of encouraging other Black women who may feel unwelcome in the outdoors, to help those who feel it’s ‘not for them.'”

Black family history outdoors - Arkansas Ozarks

I felt at home when I spent time outdoors with family. The more I experienced the lands where generations of my family have been, the more I connected with my family history, too.

As a Black woman, I’ve had my share of stares on the trail and been ignored by salespeople at gear stores many times. Yet, these are moments that motivate me to keep exploring and encouraging others to do the same. I share my experiences in hopes of encouraging other Black women who may feel unwelcome in the outdoors, to help those who feel it’s “not for them.” 

Black people may have a troubled connection with nature, but it’s a rich connection, too, forged deep by families that went before us and filled with their stories. We need to reclaim that connection created by generations of our families and go outdoors — no longer as a means of survival, but of enjoyment.

Black family history outdoors - friends hiking

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Black family history outdoors - authorAbout the author

Nicole Chandler grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas playing sports and being outdoors year-round. She moved to Boston, Massachusetts after college to serve with City Year, an education nonprofit organization and has worked in non-profit and government roles ever since. When she’s not working, she loves to kayak, hike, and camp.

 

Find her online
Twitter: @ncc20