Where Are the Black Park Rangers?

May 28, 2019, 7:33 PM UTC

RaceAhead has been enjoying a spate of new readers and subscribers of late, for which we are very grateful. As a result, I’ve decided to occasionally re-run an updated version of some of our foundational columns, to give everyone a sense of the work and each other.

This one about fly-fishing and the hidden racism in everything has become the basis of a longer presentation I’ve delivered to corporate and other audiences and was repurposed into the lead-in to a spectacular town hall on blind spots at last year’s Fortune MPW Next Gen in Laguna Nigel, Calif. It also seemed like a good way to kickoff summer.

The man you’re about to meet, Madison Grant, was recently covered in an in-depth piece on white nationalism by The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer; it filled me with enormous pride that regular raceAhead readers already knew who he was.

Many thanks to raceAhead, Broadsheet and Fortune Next Gen super-star Katrina Jones, the first-ever head of diversity and inclusion for Twitch, for prompting me with this tweet lamenting the lack of kids of color in storybooks about nature: “The path to being the lone black woman fly fishing in Montana may start here…”


I came to fly-fishing late in life, and I wish I hadn’t. It is joy to me.

The purpose of fly-fishing is to trick trout by presenting an imitation of a bug that looks both real and delicious, and is precisely what they want to eat at that moment in time. Now, trout have only one job, and that’s to be the most excellent at being a trout as they can be. And the bigger they are, they better they are at it. It’s humbling.

(Stay with me here, the race part is coming.)

Here’s the thing about fly-fishing: It’s a nerd’s game and an endless puzzle trying to figure out what the trout are taking and why, how the water temperature and air pressure is affecting their appetites, and if they’ll believe that the wind just blew this beautiful grasshopper into their food lane. What’s hatching? Do I need to tie on a mayfly nymph and let it hang below the surface to tempt that big brownie out from the depths of the Montana bridge where I know he lives because I’ve nearly caught him before and I try every year? That’s the game. Someday I will trick him and then I’ll do what I always do—I’ll let him go because it’s just such a privilege to be part of something bigger than myself.

You learn about knots and water flow and snowmelt and follow the mating habits of bugs like paparazzi chasing Kardashians—and how climate change means bark beetles are surviving the warming winters, killing off unprecedented acres of Ponderosa pine trees across the West. Ponderosa pines smell like vanilla cake. Not just vanilla and not just cake, but vanilla cake. I love knowing that, and I love knowing that you practically have to hug them to smell it.

But every year I go back to Montana, I see more dying off and know the world is changing and it makes me sad.

This cynical girl from Harlem, USA, didn’t grow up with anyone who fished this way. But it has changed my life more than I could have thought possible. It is a transformational experience to stand in a river and join an ecosystem already in progress.

But I almost missed it all.

Because here’s the other thing about fly-fishing. In the now hundreds of days I’ve spent casting over the years, I’ve never met a person of color on or associated with the river. Not once. Not in a fly-shop. Not one guide, not a park ranger, nobody who works for a rafting company, nothing. Not even an expert on YouTube where I get most of my pointers.

Once, just once, I saw a black man working in a tiny brew pub near a river in rural Montana, we met eyes, and I’m pretty sure we each thought the other was in witness protection.

On one level, this is normal to me. I’m used to being the only one or close to it, from family to school to my career. I accept the risks, even defy them, even while standing in a natural environment which is hostile specifically to me. While it’s survivable, being the only one is also lonely.

But people of color are lonely by design.

Let’s stick with nature for a second. When you first wake up to the beauty of the American outdoors, the ghost of John Muir, the romantic naturalist and conservation advocate, is the first person you tend to meet. His spirit still animates the Sierra Club, which he founded in 1892.

But the National Park system, which turned one hundred in 2016, was also influenced by another person—a conservationist, zoologist and white supremacist named Madison Grant.

Grant wrote a book called The Passing of The Great Race, a breathtakingly racist treatise that was immensely popular when it was published in 1916. It armed generations of leaders with enough pseudoscience to justify segregation, eugenics, race war, workplace discrimination, and the violent oppression of “inferior” races – particularly immigrants. Adolph Hitler cherished the slim volume, quoted from it in his speeches and allegedly wrote a letter to Grant calling it “his bible.”

The Yale and Columbia educated Grant traveled in high-tone circles, and his flattering notions of “Nordic” superiority were embraced by the Manhattan aristocracy, including Teddy Roosevelt, who so loved Grant’s work that he wrote a letter that was turned into a blurb for the book.

Grant was the real deal. If you like the Bronx Zoo, you can thank him. If you like Yellowstone Park, tip your cap to Grant. And if you suspect that all immigrants are sub-human criminals bringing disease and disorder, then the ghost of Grant may be whispering in your ear.

At the time of Grant’s greatest influence, Jim Crow was in full swing and along with it, the Great Migration, as desperate black citizens moved North and West looking to escape the caste system of racial segregation. Grant and his cronies envisioned the National Parks as a respite for white men who needed to refresh their spirits in the face of this insidious onslaught; their refreshment also came at the expense of indigenous people whose land was ripped away, destroying treaties along with their lives.

A hundred years later, the destination cities of the Great Migration – like Baltimore, Chicago, and St. Louis- are still reckoning with the aftermath of his thinking.

And across the country, people of color often still feel unwelcome in even the cultivated outdoors, like the golf courses and tennis clubs where business traditionally has been done.

The National Park Service has been working to reckon with their own complicated past, and I admire and thank them for it. Their diversity report is not good. The vast majority of their employees have always been white, as is the Park Foundation board. Park visitors are primarily white, and numerous surveys show that people of color feel uncomfortable in these natural spaces—citing racist treatment from park police and rangers, and in general, feeling unsafe and unwelcome.

Part of the work has been an important debate about whether or not to fully acknowledge the influence of Grant, America’s racist uncle.

“The way we navigate that history is by not flinching,” Michael Brune, Sierra Club’s executive director told CityLab. “It is true that there were a lot of individuals who were white supremacists or eugenicists or who were making racist comments who were part of the beginning of the conservation movement, or who fought successfully to create national parks. So it’s important to understand our history as a movement, and, as a country, learn from it.”

Grant and his ilk are part of the reason why there isn’t a legacy of park rangers of color, or for that matter, conservationists, fly shop owners, hiking guides, and people of every hue refreshing their spirits and enjoying the trout the Lord made. That nobody in subsequent leadership sought to excise his influence made it systemic. There’s your pipeline problem, and we need to talk about it.

And then go fishing. Tight lines, good people.

On Point

Dayton, Ohio poised for one tragedy, is hit by anotherOnly nine people showed up for the planned KKK rally in downtown Dayton over the weekend, and those intrepid haters were drowned out by some 600 counter-protesters, supervised by 350 additional police officers. There were no reports of violence, arrests or any use of force, report Dayton officials. Though the preparation cost the city about $650,000, the anti-hate protesters carrying “You Are Not Welcome Here” and similar signs, were lauded by city officials. “This is probably Dayton at its best,” said one. Sadly, the good feeling did not last. Last night, multiple tornados touched down in the area, bringing widespread, catastrophic damage.National Weather Service forecasters told NPR the violent weather is part of an ongoing and unusual weather pattern that’s been bringing dangerous wind and storms across parts of the country. Prayers up, all around.NPR

Kenya’s High Court upholds gay sex banl
It was a disappointing outcome for advocates and allies; a three-judge panel upheld sections of the country’s colonial-era laws that criminalize same-sex relationships between adults. "Kenya's High Court has relegated people in same-sex relationships in Kenya to second-class citizenship, based on the absurd claim that the penal code is not discriminatory," said an LGBT rights researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a statement. People convicted of “homosexual acts” may face up to 14 years in prison. More here; below is an interactive map from the rights organization Human Dignity Trust that shows where and how LGBTQ+ are criminalized around the world.
Human Dignity Trust

South, south, north, north, east, west, never in a hurry: The best an ad can get
Gillette’s latest video ad, released on Facebook, shows the poignant few minutes of a devoted father teaches his son to shave for the first time. The tender twist is that his son is transgender. It is beautifully filmed, and the son as freely shares his personal journey he took, before his shaving one. “I’m at the point in my manhood where I’m actually happy,” says Samson Bonkeabantu Brown, at the point in the video where I suspect you’ll be weeping. “It’s not just myself transitioning, it’s everybody around me transitioning.” Later, Brown shared his own reaction to the ad on Facebook. “This moment overwhelmed me during the filming and again today since it’s been launched. I’m keenly aware of how blessed I am to be able to exist in this world.”
Now This News

Lonnie Bunch gets a big promotion
The founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and national treasure Lonnie Lonnie G. Bunch III was just named the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. According to a statement from the Smithsonian, Bunch will now oversee 19 museums, 21 libraries, the National Zoo, nine research centers, and several education units and centers. He is now the 14th Secretary of the Smithsonian in its 173-year history. His work birthing the NMAAHC was spectacular, and Bunch has forever changed the narrative of American history. Under his watchful eye, the museum welcomed more than five and a half million visitors; raised $453 million dollars; published 22 books; provided 119 public programs; and reached millions online through the web and social media.

On Background

What is sacrificed when we refocus efforts on diversity of thought?
Michael Bush is the CEO of Great Place To Work, a partner to Fortune, a supporter of raceAhead and the keeper of a lot of diversity-related insights and data. In this important post, he publicly asks a question that lots of diversity practitioners have been privately asking each other. What does it mean that the concept of “diversity” is being expanded to include initiatives aiming to expand diversity of thought? Of course, belonging and inclusion have important and very specific meanings and are essential lenses through which to view the work. But Michael wonders if the word diversity itself makes certain people uncomfortable. “While it’s true that diversity is complex, please pause and reflect on why you want to move away from a focus on age, gender, skin-color, or sexual orientation,” he writes. “Give yourself permission for diversity to have visible dimensions.” 
Great Place To Work Blog

Remembering the black women who served in World War II
The 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, nicknamed the “six triple eight” was an all-black battalion of the Women’s Army Corps during World War II. The unit of 824 women traveled overseas where they were responsible for sorting and delivering the huge backlog of mail sent to the service personnel. They were a force unto themselves, who a ran recreational facilities, food service bar, and a hair salon; the military police assigned to protect their compound were barred from carrying firearms, so they learned jujitsu instead. They were disbanded without ceremony in 1946. Surviving members, including 97-year-old Indiana Hunt-Martin, were honored at the National Memorial Day Parade on Monday. Hunt-Martin shared stories of racism in the US and air raids overseas, and another important detail: Her uniform still fits.
NBC Washington

Jamaica Kincaid on life, art, social media and slutdom
Jamaica Kincaid turned seventy over the weekend, so I dug up this collection quotes and interview snippets given by the Antiguan-American novelist and writer, compiled by Emily Temple, a senior editor at Lit Hub. Kincaid does not disappoint. She’s very funny, candid, and not here for any of your crap, by the way. (And doesn’t like Mitt Romney, for some reason.) But here’s the voice you should keep in your head: “One of the things that young people need to know when they go into writing is that they ought to stop writing these stupid books that please people. They should write as if they might fail at it. To succeed at something mediocre is worse than to fail at something great.”
Lit Hub



I’ve been stunned by the excitement and the way that people really care. I’ll walk through the airport and people will give me the thumbs up, or I’ll walk down the street and church ladies will walk up to me and say they’re praying for me…that’s the kind of thing I didn’t expect and it’s very humbling. I think first of all it’s the acknowledgement that being on the national mall is means that this story is important. But being on the national mall also means that a lot of people will see it…It’ the realization is that once you have this museum on the mall, it’s going to be there as long as America.
—Lonnie G. Bunch II

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