KM: I would love to start with a big typical interview question: what is your area of research and how did you come to study the black outdoors?
JLS: I am interested in creating access to outdoor recreation for Black people. We face a host of barriers that block our access in environmentalism—whether it is conservation, climate crises discussions or outdoor recreation.
My path down this way was simple—for decades I was usually the only Black person in my various outdoor clubs or at events. I wanted to find out why. Things have changed in the last few years. However, Christian Cooper being threatened while birdwatching in Central Park, New York City, and the police murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, put the spotlight on how anti-Black racism shapes many sectors, including environmentalism. And, tired of waiting for white organizations to notice us, Black and other people of colour groups are doing their own outdoor recreation events. We are finding each other using social media; we no longer feel so isolated or alone. It is all part of what I call reclaiming the woods as a Black space.
KM: The outdoors has a special meaning in Canada. It is almost boldly sold as nonblack! I wonder how the history of blackness (as an absence) in Canada functions to shape what we think about the outdoors more broadly?
JLS: The Great Outdoors is the iconic landscape of Canada, whether it is snow-covered land, old-growth forests, or a canoe drifting along the shore. The role of people in these landscapes is interesting. White people are present as pioneers, conservationists or say hikers. Indigenous and Black people are absent—but for two very different reasons. Indigenous people because it perpetuates the lie that the land was pristine and free of humans. This erases how Indigenous nations were dispossessed of their land and their ongoing struggles to reclaim it.
Black people are disappeared because it avoids discussions on race. Slavery is as Canadian as maple syrup! Historically, Black people trekked in the forests following Indigenous trails, they canoed, hunted and snowshoed too. Erasing Black people from wilderness stories reifies the idea that our snow-laden land is best suited for white people, and therefore, they are the ones who are expected to be there. The Group of Seven painters set the tone in their brilliant landscapes; tourism, marketing and environmentalism images continue it.
KM: One of the things I have learned in my research on black geographies is that, while black people are often not imagined to occupy the outdoors—the wilderness, the parks, the bush, the waterways—we do, in fact, have a deep relationship with ecology, waterways, mountains, and more. We love the sky and trees and stars! Do you address these kinds of contradictions—“we are not here” and “we have always been here”—in your research, writing, and outdoor activities?
JLS: To be Black and in the wilderness is to be seen as a surprise, which is a response to black Canadian life that you also note your book Demonic Grounds. Black people are supposed to be in cities. In Canada we are seen as either recent immigrants or we found freedom here via the Underground Railroad in the 1800s. Being seen as out of place in nature erases 400 years of Black history in Canada, including its slavery roots. We all know the stories of the fur trade and the Hudson Bay Company—the iconic and main industry in colonial Canada. Almost unknown are the stories of the Black fur traders, some of whom were free and some were enslaved. When I canoe along the French River, I am following their paddlestrokes. They used the canoe—an Indigenous technology—to criss-cross the rivers and lakes of this vast and magnificent country. If they did it then, we can do it now.
KM: Your work really stands out to me because you are interested in the black imagination. This reminds me a lot of Toni Morrison, Elizabeth Alexander, and other black writers who spend a lot of time unraveling how meaningful it is to imagine more ethical futures. Can you talk more about the role of the imagination in your work? Does the imagination make the outdoors possible for black folks?
JLS: Imagination and knowing your history makes me excited about the outdoors in Canada. For instance, I like snowshoeing and long dreamt of an epic trek, just for the fun of it, and to counter assumptions about blackness and winter—really a coded discussion about race and belonging, but without mentioning either. Snowshoeing became more meaningful when I discovered that a group of Black soldiers, snowshoed 1,000 kilometres across Canada during the War of 1812. Using Indigenous technology (snowshoes and moccasins, toboggans and teepees) they made it from New Brunswick to Ontario in six weeks!
Anne of Green Gables sparked the dream of cycling around Prince Edward Island. As there were no Black people in her films or television series, it’s easy to assume that was because we were not in PEI. Yet, in 1781 the little island passed a slave code—baptism would not free the enslaved. Cycling around the island would be fun and it would bring its Black history back into the light.
KM: I am working on a project that studies how black intellectuals—Paul Gilroy, Sylvia Wynter, Edouard Glissant—critique climate catastrophe and ecocide. What are your thoughts on the role of black communities, and the black outdoors, in relation to climate crises?
JLS: Black people have to be at the table in the climate crises discussions, as we are often the most impacted by it. For instance, hurricanes are more frequent and fiercer in the Caribbean; Hurricane Katrina destroyed Black communities in New Orleans; cyclones rage in Mozambique; droughts in North Africa lead to conflict and desperate migrations from the region. These are all symptoms of the climate crises. Yet, the climate crisis is caused by the over-consumption lifestyle of Western nations, but it is poor countries and communities who pay the price for it. In my view the climate crises cannot be divorced from the legacies of slavery and colonialism.
Jacqueline L. Scott is a PhD student in Social Justice Education, University of Toronto. Her research is on how to create access to outdoor recreation, and the wider environmentalism, for Black people.
Katherine McKittrick is Professor of Black Studies and Gender Studies at Queen’s University. She authored Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle and Dear Science and Other Stories.