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Bookmarked: Carolyn Finney on Layers of Land & Earth

Author of “Black Faces, White Spaces” looks at the historical relationship between Black people and nature in the US

Bookmarked is a series of interviews with women and nonbinary writers of color about their novels and memoirs of navigating lands, languages, and themselves—and most of all—about taking up space everywhere we go.

In Carolyn Finney’s book Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors, the geographer exhibits how the myth of racial superiority has historically come between Black folks and land in the US. Armed with history, data, lived experience, and Spike Lee references, Finney tells a story of resistance through a connection to the earth that no person has been fully able to disrupt. That in spite of the best efforts of white supremacy, Black and other people of color continue to hold fast to a relationship to the earth—and each other—based on equality over hierarchy. In a rare gap between stints on her speaking tour, Finney and I spoke about the limits of whiteness, her work to diversify the National Park Service, and the transformative power of travel and nature. Her words in this talk reminded me of bell hooks recalling her sharecropper grandfather Jerry telling her, “You see that sun—the white man can’t make it rise—no man can make it rise—man ain’t everything,” in Belonging: A Culture of Place.

I want to start off by asking you something that can’t be found in the book. You were working as a model and actress when you embarked on a round-the-world backpacking trip that led you right back to the States, where you switched gears and returned to school to pursue a PhD in geography. Did anything happen during that trip that made you want to do the work you do today?

Yes! I’m so glad you asked that. Before I went back to school, I was an actress. The place I come from is the arts. I had gotten married, we were both really young, [and we planned a] trip around the world [that] came out of a conversation of, “We need to get out of here. Let’s do something really outrageous and maybe that’ll save the marriage.” So we bought a bunch of Lonely Planets, saved up money for a year, got backpacks, [and went]. It didn’t save the marriage, but it did change my life entirely.

My divorce had gone through, I had no debt, and all I owned was in a few boxes. It’s the freest I’d ever been. I had no obligations. The trip around the world was like a 180, of everything shifting in terms of how I saw myself in the world, falling in love with that, and reading all these stories of people and the change they [experienced on their travels].

I was obsessed with travel books, and what I was obsessed by was not simply travel but the idea that travel can actually bring you closer to yourself and also expand who you are and could possibly be. And on the trip around the world, one of the places that I had gone to was Nepal and I was really drawn to [it] so I decided to go back and I ended up living [in a village] there for a year and a half. And it was during that time where I got very clear about what I wanted to go back to school for.

I found Black Faces, White Spaces unique in that it could qualify as environmental writing, a memoir, a research paper, a history book, or even as (gasp!) political writing. Did you start out knowing this would be ambitious and far reaching or did you broaden its scope the more you worked on it?

For my masters I had focused on gender and community forest management in Nepal, so when I got to my PhD I was still going to stick with gender and Nepal and I got a Fulbright [scholarship]. But when I got there, I started thinking, “I’ve been looking at gender and environmental issues for some time. I’m kind of interested to start thinking about race and the environment.” That’s right when my family [had to leave the estate in upstate New York where they were caretakers, the land I grew up on]. So I saw what was happening with my family and the land and that meant that I was never going to be able to go back home, either.

I saw what was happening to my parents in relationship to the land. I saw how I was feeling about that and I really started thinking about the history of this country and everyone who’s invisible. You think about land and interests in the outdoors and the environment and that whole myth that “black people don’t do these things,” and, “Black people don’t live in these types of places.” The thing is that we do!

The memoir part is because I believe in transparency. The way that I think as a feminist is less about if women are centered; it’s the idea that you are centered and by giving a bit of who I am, I politically let people know where I’m positioned. By giving a little bit of my story it allows me to say to whoever’s reading it, “I need you to understand I’ve got something personal at stake here and I’m going to be really honest about that, because this just happened to my family.” I really wanted to explore how I could bring all these elements—history, memoir, geography, and a little bit of the arts—[to this project on African Americans and the outdoors].

Carolyn Finney
photo by Peter Forbes

In the book, you talk about your experiences in advising and working with the National Park Service and the outdoor industry at large in order to increase access for people of color in those spaces. As you’re now transitioning away from that, I’m wondering what your major takeaways were from those experiences.

While I was [a professor] at Berkeley, President Clinton came to talk. One of the things he said was that in the US our biggest challenge is the rigidity of our institutions, and I think he nailed it. Change becomes so hard with a lot of our federal agencies [and] our academic institutions who get really hung up on, “This is what we’ve been doing for 100 years.” And that hasn’t worked for a whole lot of people and it’s definitely not working now, because that’s not what the world is about right now. Everything has to shift if you’re really real about wanting to have diversity, and rigidity gets in the way of that in so many ways.

A lot of people use the words “reaching out” to communities of color. I’ve been reached out too. Here’s what real outreach means: I get to reach out to you, I bring you to my table, I bring another chair to the table, and basically you have to learn all the ways we do things. I’m actually interested in relationships of reciprocity and that’s a very different and harder thing to do. It’s not necessarily about, “Let me bring you to my table,” but maybe we have to create a different table because this table isn’t working now and it means the people at the table also have to do the work of change. I’ve been in that position—you’re expected to make all the adjustments, and they’re expected to make little adjustment.

I would say rigidity is part of American institutions, so it’s not just the outdoor industry. For me it’s about understanding that it’s a part of the history of this country [and that] it’s about power and privilege. We can’t have a conversation about the outdoor industry without understanding the role of power and privilege in this country, and sort of the hierarchy of who gets to make decisions about what is the way we do things and understanding the role of whiteness, and not white people.

Your book explores many barriers that keep Black Americans and other POC from accessing the outdoors, but I wanted to explore one of those strands in more depth. In the beginning, you touch on the linkage of wilderness with whiteness in what you call the “American environmental imaginary.” What do you think about how that construct itself can be inaccessible to people of color?

There’s this one James Baldwin quote that goes, “History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.” And he’s the one that also said that whiteness is about power. [We can talk about] white people getting in the way of Black people’s relationship to the land, but “get in the way” only as far as systems having been created. You know when you make people your property to build a capitalist system, when you enslave people to work land, rightly speaking, [that] that’s getting in the way of the relationship. But, that is not to infer that Black people and everyone else didn’t already have a relationship [to the land]. You know, everything is not about whiteness and what whiteness has done. I’m thinking about this idea of radical presence, that despite or in spite of the way in which dominant culture has gotten in the way [of that relationship], people are creative all the time. It isn’t always about being in response to what the dominant culture has done. And that’s often where the tension is.

It’s not as if Black people have never had that relationship. We had a relationship before, we have a relationship in the present, and we’ll have a relationship in the future. Land isn’t just about land; land is also about political and economic power, and when you really, really understand that, you better believe there will be some resistance to allow certain groups to have that.

My parents got removed from that estate because they couldn’t afford to stay on it, but that doesn’t change [the fact] that my parents were such good [caretakers of the land] because they had that relationship [to the land] already in place even if their background was as poor and Black with high school educations. A person’s history, whatever is in your blood, DNA, your ancestral connections can’t be controlled by an exterior force!

The thing that I always have to remember is the mystery in nature. And when we try to understand it, we do it through academia and try to control it. But because we can’t, there’s a mystery there, which means that the possibility of that relationship growing, changing, becoming something new is also always there. And nobody controls that either. When a person has an experience with nature that changes you—when people really write about that—it’s transformative. It goes back to the power of the travel writing I got into [when I was younger] because it’s about transformation. And nature gives us the opportunity all the time to understand transformation. That’s how you can truly understand transformation, and nobody controls that, as far as I’m concerned.