The unbearable whiteness of Wild: a black perspective

Perhaps the most interesting meditation on the movie Wild to date comes from Brandon Harris on the Talking Points Memo site. He frames the question a little less provocatively than my headline wondering:

Why is camping a white thing? 

He points out that the one black character of any stature in Wild, a self-described hobo, appears not to have been a black character in Cheryl Strayed's famous book, upon which of course the movie is based. As a black man, he takes no great offense at this "tokenism," but as a hiker and camper does explore the subject, noting a Sierra piece about black mountaineers, and pointing out that in the not-that-distant past, black people often did camp out — for their lives. 

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.

And then adds:

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.

Both the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Committee, perhaps the two most prominent of grassroots environmental organizations, have come out in support of protesters in places like Ferguson. 

When Al Huang, an attorney for the NRDC, is asked why his group and the Sierra Club supported the Ferguson protests, he replied:

Why wouldn't we? Our mission is to advocate on behalf of issues that impact the environment. We talk about protecting the ecosystem. Well, one of the most important part of any ecosystem is the people who live in it — without diversity, it's unhealthy. Without diversity in our human community, it impacts all of us. 

Good to see these groups doing something for the unrepresented — human and wild. 


Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

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