I won’t lie: I wondered whether I’d see any black people in Wild.
Given the paucity of brown faces in American cinema, my suspicion about the relative whiteness of the cast of Jean Marc Vallee’s Reese Witherspoon vehicle should not arouse much surprise. But it wasn’t Hollywood’s bias that got me thinking. It was the subject matter. Wild, based on Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 memoir, chronicles the author’s cathartic 94-day hike through the wilderness of the Pacific Crest Trail, following her mother’s premature death and a spiral of affairs that led to the end of her marriage. Watching the film, I wondered why stories of blacks finding authenticity or solace in the wilderness were so rare. I’ve been an African-American for 31 years now, and among the things I’ve learned is the simple fact that camping and blackness seem mutually exclusive.
At first, I questioned my assumption that black people in America generally don’t go off into the forest to pitch a tent and cook beans over a fire. I am an urban negro, a man of the cities, but what of blacks in rural areas or blacks with high concentrations of white friends?
A perfunctory search for evidence yielded the statistic that in 2013, 70 percent of “outdoor participants” were white. The Facebook community page “Black People Camping and Hiking” has only 378 likes. Number 128 on the satirical list “Stuff White People Like” is camping. “Camping is a multi-day, multi-step, potentially lethal activity that will cost you a large amount of both time and money,” site founder Christian Lander writes. Performing pricey, temporary poverty, he implies, isn’t exactly appealing to the darkest-hued Americans (or Brits)—groups that are, after all, still beset by entrenched disadvantage.
My roots are tied to the hills and farm culture of northern Kentucky and southwestern Ohio, but I’m Cincinnati-born and raised. In my mother’s social world, camping was more or less taboo; as a child, my Jack and Jill events rarely involved anything outdoorsy, and summer day camp was more likely to involve swimming and basketball than it was hiking and tents. Only rarely was I exposed to the wonders of walking around untamed forests or mountains. I’ve taken to it a bit as an adult, but not to the degree that my white peers have. While in a relationship with a white woman and hiking enthusiast that lasted more than three years, I never once joined her.
Back to the screening room: Wild is filled with white people. White hippies and hikers, hunters and buskers, mothers and lovers, the types of white people with which certain segments of the Pacific Northwest are littered. The one black visage we glimpse in Wild (save Bob Marley’s, emblazoned on Strayed’s T-shirt) is not a camper at all, but an incredulous reporter played by 32-year-old actor Mo McRae. Best known for a recurring role on FX’s Sons of Anarchy, McRae plays a character that’s an ironic counterpoint from the start; he’s a black man named Jimmy Carter who writes about hobos and claims proudly that “Harper’s has expressed some interest.”
Encountering Reese Witherspoon, who is far too old to be playing mid-nineties, mid-twenties memoirist-to-be Strayed, he’s immediately struck by her. Not because she’s blonde and looks distressed, but because he assumes that she’s a female hobo. The hobo beat is a tough one, he explains, and female ones are the most exotic of flowers, but in the process he misses an opportunity to learn about Strayed, a woman whose grief drove her to sex addiction and betrayal, but who had no desire to be a permanent societal dropout, as the term “hobo” implies.
Glancing at the memoir’s version of events, I get the sense that the original reporter wasn’t a black man. (He’s described as having “brown hair flopping over his eyes” that was “shaggy and unwashed.”) So if he’s but a piece of Obama-era casting tokenism, who are the blacks that actually take it upon themselves to roam rocky mountains and dense forests, wetlands and wooded trails?
Last winter, Sierra magazine profiled 19 unusual mountaineers who had spent much of the previous June climbing Alaska’s Denali, the highest mountain in North America. What made them unusual is that they were all members of the African diaspora. Whether from San Francisco or New York, East Africa or California, they remain outliers in the world of such expeditions. James Jagambi, a native Kenyan, suggested that the group wanted to inspire people of color to get more involved in such activities. He explained that in Kenya, “you see a lot of people in the outdoors, but not necessarily for fun or recreation. Most of them just live there, or they are just doing it to make money, since they know that tourists like this stuff. The outdoors as recreation is seen as a waste of money for many natives.”
But what about American blacks? Another one of the climbers interviewed in the piece, Rosemary Saal of Seattle, recalls being part of a program called Passages Northwest. It organized rock climbing and mountaineering trips that always involved young women of color, many from difficult inner city backgrounds. “I was introduced to diversity in the outdoors before I even knew about the stigma of people of color not being out there,” she recalled, while Scott Briscoe of the Bay Area suggested that “for some of [us], it was the first time we’d seen faces that looked like ours in the outdoors.”
It hasn’t always been this way. For many blacks in the antebellum south, camping skills were essential. The faintest hope of freedom depended on surviving in the forests of the deep, still-wild south upon escaping from bondage, as some 100,000 African-not-yet-Americans did between 1810 and 1850. Mentions of rock shelters and bluff tops, which were used as hideouts and improvised camp sites, course through many of the most significant fugitive slave narratives, from Frederick Douglass to Sojourner Truth and onward. The ability to manipulate fire and navigate was often the difference between life and death. The railways one imagines when first hearing the term “underground railroad” were in fact swamps and streams, caves and rivers.
Many runaway slaves without the skills for survival in the forests of the south returned to their plantations when hunger and thirst grew too much to bear. Other escapees, fearing the possibility of re-enslavement, especially after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, continued to live deep in the swamps and forests of the region, in places they rightfully suspected whites would never go. The Great Dismal Swap, once a million-acre coastal marsh on the borderlands between present day Virginia and North Carolina, was a particularly strong draw for runaways. Relatively deserted, it bordered several areas of Virginia that were dense with plantations. As far back as 1728, there are accounts of escaped blacks in the region. John Ferdinand Smyth, an Irish author, recalled the following in A Tour of the United States of America, from 1784:
Run-away Negroes have resided in these places for twelve, twenty, or thirty years and upwards, subsisting themselves in the swamp upon corn, hogs and fowls, that they raised on some of the spots not perpetually under water, nor subject to be flooded, as forty-nine parts of fifty of it are; and on such spots they have erected habitations, and cleared small fields around them; yet these have always been perfectly impenetrable to any of the inhabitants of the country around, even to those nearest to and best acquainted with the swamps.
It’s not hard to see how this history of roughing it in the wild just for a chance to live free pushed black folks away from camping and hiking. For them, America’s great natural bounty has always signified more than leisure time.
Granted, Strayed wasn’t aiming for fun so much as an extended soul-search. But while she and many others flee civilization for the freedom and authenticity of untamed nature, blacks who’ve felt the call of the wilderness were historically seeking refuge from a debased version of civilized society, from the time of the first settlements in America through the Great Migration in the 20th century. The ingenuity associated with camping isn’t new to African-Americans. Black “campers” have found ways to seek protection of the law in a more just society since before the revolutionary war. Hopefully, one day they’ll find it.