Cultural Memory: An Interview with Carolyn Finney

Berkeley, California; Spring-Summer, 2012

by Casey Bush and Tom Webb

Carolyn Finney is a geographer who has discarded maps in favor of storytelling. The UC Berkeley assistant professor has abandoned cartography for cultural narrative. She looks to expand our green horizons with a populated landscape including people like former slave Israel Parson Jones, whose family lived for generations in the lowland that is now Biscayne National Park, and who died as one of the first African-American millionaires. Finney’s forthcoming book, Black Faces, White Places: African-Americans in the Great Outdoors (University of Georgia Press), expands the color palate that is the history and the face of modern environmentalism.

Finney’s unusual career route included 12 years pursuing acting in New York before trekking in Africa and Asia led her to re-enter academia and attempt to redefine the “white wilderness” that has led to a racialization of envi­ronmental concerns. As part of that work, she counted the faces of color in 10 years of Outside magazine, finding only 100 out of 4,000 that were not white. But Carolyn Finney is not an outsider herself and instead is working to change the place of African-Americans in the green movement as a member of the National Park Advisory Board and the Second Century National Parks Commission, among other appointments and awards. Finney earned her undergraduate degree from Western Washington University and her Ph.D. in geography from Clark University.

TBD I wanted to ask about reactions to your work so far, specif­ically from the Park Service and the conservation community.

CF In terms of the conservation community, which is traditionally predominantly white, and the National Park Service, which is changing over time—they are looking at the demographics. All you have to do is read the U.S. census. At some really basic level you are seeing how we are significantly shifting in terms of racial and ethnic diversity, and what does that mean for the conservation community and organizations like the Park Service that want to stay relevant? They are actually going to have to address the issue, and have that be addressed at a lot of different levels in terms of stewardship, engagement, leadership. Who is getting jobs, who is taking part?

I’m being inundated by all different sectors that are looking for ways to figure it out. So the short answer would be that I’m getting a lot of positive feedback. The people just want to know how are we going to do this? And how do we do this well? And for a lot of these organizations, they’ve actually been doing this for a long time, or they think they have been doing it for a long time. And I would say that for many of these organizations, whether they are huge like the Park Service or smaller nonprofits, that they often do these things as projects within calendar years. This year we have a budget, so this year we can address diversity, but next year we don’t. For me, it’s getting organizations to understand it’s an ongoing process.

TBD What about your place in academia—how does your emerging discipline fit into the field of geography?

CF I don’t call myself an academic. I say I work in academia; it’s very par­ticular for me because most of the work I do is out there in the world of people—it’s not largely sitting at my desk behind my computer. I like to emphasize that it’s about the work on the ground. I would say that I might be doing things a little differently, because part of my own politics (I have to be really careful here) is to challenge what academia has historically considered to be valued knowledge. Because we have large communities of people, whether it’s by race or ethnicity or any other difference, that have been largely unable to participate in that knowledge production but have their own set of knowledge that is important and valuable in their lives. Instead of having researchers come into communities, take that information, and use it for their own means—it’s really about, how do we do that differently?

How do we recognize communities out there that have a set of knowledge that is maybe orally transmitted, that’s been written down in their own way, shared in their own way, that is valuable and counts? And this for me has to do with the environment as well. That people have their own environmen­tal experiences that count and are important in their own lives. How do we have relationships with reciprocity as researchers with people out there in the world and communities on the ground, so that we can share what we know and we can collaborate? Out of that collaboration is where there is a potential for something new to emerge.

TBD One of the great contributions I found on the Internet is that you started a small industry in the story of Israel Parson Jones and King Arthur and Sir Lancelot Jones.

CF I love that, “a small industry.”

TBD I can’t find your writing about it, but I can find a lot of other people giving you credit for it.

CF First, I have got to give credit where credit is due. When I was doing this dissertation work, I was living down in Florida. There was a white park ranger named Brenda Lazendorf who worked at Biscayne National Park. She was an archeologist, and I met her because I wanted to interview people and get to know people at the parks down there. She said to me, “Listen, we are looking to hire someone. We found these three items. There is a story about this black family—would you be interested in doing a study for us, because we’d like to get Biscayne on the national historic sites?”

I could tell you any number of Israel Parson Jones stories, but then there are others like John Francis, planetwalker, who walked across the country for 20 years—17 without talking—to raise environmental awareness. Or MaVynee Betsch, an American black who gave away all her wealth, $750,000, to environmental causes. The list goes on and on. For me, African-Americans are like any other group of people here in the United States. We have multiple stories for complex people, with multiple experiences. What is more interest­ing to me are the larger stories and narratives that we actually tell and what we leave out, who becomes invisible in those stories. I like to think that when I look at any human being I feel empathy with and I feel a connection to because they are a human being, whether they look like me or not. And I know, particularly growing up as a child, if I go see a movie, or read a story, or I see a picture, and I don’t see someone who looks exactly like me, I start to question if it’s talking about me at all. Because our differences also inform us of who we are and what kind of experiences we have, right? It really helps when you have a story like Israel Parson Jones out there, not because it may get more African-Americans going, “Oh my God, I can’t believe this family lived in the parks, and Sir Lancelot Jones ended up giving their land to the Parks Service,” but also to have all people look at it and see that this is a much more diverse story. Because that story is for everybody, not just for African-Americans.

TBD And so it is not just going camping in pristine wilderness, but it’s people living in the world.

CF Yes. For me, this whole thing starts off in a personal place. I tell people about where I grew up. I grew up about a half hour outside of New York City. My parents were poor black folks from the south who moved up after my father came back from the Korean War. The job he got was to be the caretaker of this estate of a very wealthy Jewish family. My parents were caretakers. My father was the chauffer; my mother was the housekeeper for 50 years.

We lived in the gardener’s cottage on a 12-acre estate that had gardens with apple and fruit trees and a swimming pool and a pond. It was a stunning piece of property. The owners were only there on weekends and holidays, so my parents knew that landscape better than anybody. They had to know it because they lived on it; their livelihood depended on it. When they would look at things like why certain trees died, what was going on, my father was responsible for taking care of everything. If there would be fungus on the pond or there was a proliferation of geese, that drove my father crazy—he really had an understanding about that land. My father, my parents would never call themselves environmentalists, but I question that. I think there are plenty of people like that whose connection to and responsibility to and understanding of the land and the natural environment around it is deep. They don’t necessarily know it through recreation, which a lot of times in our country is the primary lens with which we decide to have that conversation about environmentalism.

Environmentalism is not just that you have to love to go hiking, which for me is just a tiny, tiny, tiny piece. I went to Nepal, I loved trekking in Nepal. I don’t have anything against hiking, but what about people who work the land, who guard the land. It’s people who do a variety of things, who fish in the local rivers. Are you telling me those people don’t count? And, in some cases, I would argue they may have a better understanding because their own survival is so intimately dependent upon their relationship with the land. I don’t want to dismiss anybody who sends money to Friends of the Earth. I think those things are important too, but it is interesting what we elevate.

TBD There was a poll that came out from the LA Times last fall about Latinos and Asians, with the poll suggesting that their environmental awareness and concerns were greater than whites’.

CF I haven’t seen it. I’m not surprised. I know I’ve seen such a poll on African-Americans as well. It’s interesting; people are always really surprised. A lot of it is how we measure environmental awareness and care for the environment. In the past, many of these people weren’t even counted.

TBD Isn’t this just one of the problems with history in general. History is written by, in this case, maybe the landowners, where the land’s stewards are forgotten, and in the same way, Israel Jones is forgotten.

CF I think that’s partially true that history has been written by the landowners. I think that’s true when you have black land ownership and other nonwhite folk who have actually owned land as well but their voice doesn’t actually get in. So Israel Lafayette Parson Jones owned that land, but his story didn’t get told until the late 1990s.

TBD I wanted to ask you about Outside magazine, which a lot of your research is based on. So if the editor of Outside was right here, what would you ask him?

CF First, I would say, in July Outside did a fabulous article on people of color. I knew everybody on the panel and they did quote me, they quoted my facts about their magazine, counted what I didn’t see. And I must say how righteous this was that they were finally having this conversation in a very particular way.

Let me roll that back a little bit and say I was a subscriber to Outside for years, and the only reason I stopped it was that I stopped all my magazine subscriptions. I always loved Outside, especially travel abroad, all their stories about people doing unusual stuff out in the world. In 1997 they interviewed Eddie Harris, an African-American man. His first book was called Mississippi Solo, and at the age of 30 he took a canoe the length of the Mississippi River. He’d never been in a canoe before. It’s a great story about being a person and a man, and doing that as well as being black and doing that, and what that meant. And so in his interview he talks about the outdoors being largely white, so Outside hasn’t been really afraid of that, but for me I wasn’t seeing a change. When I counted over the 10-year period that I looked at from 1991 to 2001, whenever I did see images of a black person, it was famous male black sports figures. I thought, huh, that’s really interesting, because I’m seeing people do things like sail or canoe and take their boats around the world, and I know I’ve done a lot of that stuff. And I’m not a simple anomaly.

A couple of years ago Vogue had LeBron James on the cover. You remember that? He was the first black person on the cover of Vogue or maybe the first black man. And he was holding supermodel Gisele Bundchen, who is blond, in his arms and people went ballistic, black people, because of the image and the way they had him standing, and the face he was making was like a gorilla. It was almost picture perfect to a movie poster of King Kong in the same stance, holding a model in the same color dress, in the same position. And the editors at Vogue denied there being any association. And what I find true is that part of me thinks there is no consciousness around it. Looking back on our history here in this country, and particularly with the eugenics movement—how African-Americans and brown folks and all kinds of people of color were associated with animals in a really negative way. It’s really deep, so people get offended. Then connecting that with the environmental movement, for me there are a lot of links that a lot of white folks don’t make because they don’t know.

TBD Can you give our readers a sneak preview of chapters from your book?

CF So people will say we don’t see a lot of African-Americans in the mainstream environmental movement, and why is that? I really wanted to pull apart that question. Like I said earlier, for any group of people, the motivations collectively for why people do things are really complex. I looked at the power of memory, what you have collectively; people develop long memories about things that have happened to different groups of people. So slavery, lynching, being in the woods and lynching, and people’s own personal experience. If you’re part of a collective whose knowledge has not been valued, who have found that you have developed your own set of truths, because you don’t trust the government or those outside of your community, memory becomes a powerful tool to shape your perceptions and to ultimately shape the way you interact or not interact. It’s a big story as to who we are as Americans, and it is explicitly linked to the idea of American identity.

TBD So when you set out to go to Florida to do your Ph.D. work, you intended to go to Mount Rainier, but you had to abandon that. Still, you have a connection to the Pacific Northwest—did that make it into the book?

CF I only talk about it briefly in terms of the Civilian Conservation Corps. I initially got a Fullbright and I was off to Nepal to look at a conservation area there and gender. In 2001 and 2002, the Royal Family had just been assassinated, and I hung in for seven months. But I couldn’t complete my research there, a group of Maoists broke a cease fire. So I came back to look at race in the environment in the United States. I had finished my undergrad­uate degree in Washington State, and I wanted to do Mount Rainier because in Tacoma you have a significant African-American community, but people don’t think about the Pacific Northwest and black people. We have a story in that place. And when I went out to Mount Rainier to meet some folks at the park, one of the park rangers pulled out an envelope with a black-and-white photo from 1939 of the Civilian Conservation Corps—all black people who had taken care of the trails. I was blown away, because I didn’t know there were all-black units out West. And in California as well, really challenged because of segregation and those types of issues at that time. So I do talk about that piece. At the end it just became my adviser who said, “You just can’t, that’s too much to try and do Florida and Washington state, you’ve got to chose one.” So I took Florida.

TBD Let’s keep talking about the chapters in your book.

CF In the introduction I tell my story about growing up. In the end, the reviewers want me to tell that story even more. I talk about the challenge of what it means to be a black scholar. I talk about issues having to do with race. What does that mean, am I representing only black people? Which I’m not, but to lay the groundwork so the reader can understand that I’m trying to allow them a sense of who I am. I am not interested in creating any further division. For me it’s about coming together and understanding that better—how I can tell you a story that I can put together about African-Americans in the environment.

The first chapter I called “Bamboozle,” which I openly acknowledge that I borrow from Spike Lee. It’s where I start to layout that we’ve all been bamboozled—the role African-Americans have played in the United States’ broadly defined environment. I talk about the power of even decided environment, which assumes we are all on the same page, which is a huge assumption.

One of the things I ask from everyone I interviewed is to define for me when I say “environment,” what do you think I mean? And when I say “park,” “outside” or “great outdoors,” what do you think I mean? And I let everybody define them for themselves—then you recognize that so many people have different ideas of what all those things mean.

The second chapter is called “Jungle Fever,” and this is where I talk about LeBron James, and the history of this country’s eugenic movement. I really start to look back when the Emancipation Proclamation happened, so when 400,000 acres were given to free slaves, and almost at the exact same time, a couple of years later, the Homestead Act was put in place, for white immi­grants to go out and try to grab some parts of the land and hold on to it for five years. Then those 400,000 acres were taken back from ex-slaves. You know, a lot of slave owners were freaking out, so it means they are all going to have all this political power, economic power. So all that land was taken back, and those ex-slaves weren’t allowed to participate in the Homestead Act.

I call it: “Birth of the Nation, the Remix.” It started right at the birth of this country. Not to mention, all the American Indians who got taken off all that land. At the same time these things were happening, John Muir had his first presentation about preserving the wilderness. A few years after that Gifford Pinchot had this idea about managing the forest, and he was hooking up with Roosevelt. And Roosevelt has this idea that we have to look at our natural resources, conservation, but he is also looking at the issue of race. and racial purity. This is where the eugenics movement—environmental organizations, the main stream, don’t like to look at this part of the history. This part of the history is not pretty. But really there were all these world fairs, and Gifford Pinchot ended up pulling out of a lot of that.

In the beginning you have people like Roosevelt going yeah in terms of evo­lution, all the black and brown folks are down at the bottom, but where you want to get to is this civilized purity, which is really equated to whiteness. So conservation was messed up into all of that, in terms of the way we think about ownership.

The next chapter is called “40 Acres and a Mule,” (oh yeah, I just love my titles!). Here is where I look more at the issue of memory. I start with a magnolia plantation, which is in Louisiana, which is now Cane River Creole National Park. In 2000, The New York Times did an eight-week series on race in the United States, and one of the stories was about this plantation, and the white owner decided she couldn’t take care of the plantation, and so she went to the National Parks Service asking if they could take over an area. There was a big plantation house, which was beautiful and had stories of her family, but also on the property were slave huts. But the owner didn’t think they were going to talk about that. And so what ensued was this whole conversa­tion in this town, that is black and white, whether or not the slave history of that place should be told.

And the last piece is the epilogue. And the epilogue is thinking forward. I like to tell stories of the people whom I have met. I tell a story of Brenda Palms Barber, who is an African-American woman who has a store called New Beginnings. She was brought up in this age and had this idea that she could give jobs to people that don’t have them, primarily previously incar­cerated black men and women who came out and needed a job. She came up with this idea to make urban honey, and now it is a big company. They bring beekeepers in, and use what is local. She didn’t realize for a year that she was a green business. But she knows everything about the life cycles, and understands what it means to be a green business—she was doing it.

For me, nature is everywhere. If I’m giving a talk, I will say to students, “Are you breathing?” and I say, “Well, you are in a relationship with nature.” You don’t have to be sitting in the woods for that. Look where we are. It is a privilege if you can go out to some of these really naturally stunning places, but how do we build relationships where we are?