Moving Past the Concrete Comfort Zone
Growing up, I was never much of a "Great Outdoors" person. Like any kid in Detroit, I loved going to the local parks, of course, but I never did sleepaway camps or Boy Scout outings as child. I felt most comfortable in the city, and after years of hearing adults half-joke about black folks not having "no business out there in the woods," I figured I probably wasn't missing much anyways.
I found myself thinking about this anew, though, after reading a nice story in the Michigan Chronicle about Shelton Johnson, an ex-Detroiter who is now a ranger at Yosemite National Park and appears in the new Ken Burns documentary "Our National Parks: America's Best Idea."
As a father of two small children, I was especially drawn to this point:
“One thing we forget is that whenever we as parents take our kids to anything, any kind of experience, we are teaching them that this is how we recreate as a family,” Johnson said. “And then when those kids grow up they take their kids because they've been taught that this is what we do as a family. This is how we recreate. So if you've never had a national park visit as a child, you are probably less likely to be a national park goer yourself.”
Like most parents, I've spent much of my time as a dad trying to provide my children with the best educations and nicest neighborhoods possible. And I've also tried to make sure that they travel enough to know that the world is bigger than the boundaries of our subdivision or the city limits. But when it comes to moving them past the concrete comfort zones I'm so accustomed to, Johnson makes me realize that I've got to do better:
“(The parks are) more than just pretty,” he said. “They are more than just beautiful. They are places that can really change the way you look at the world and you look at yourselves.”
He said African Americans need to experience these environments primarily because they've had so much difficulty and sadness in their history on this continent.
“We sometimes have not experienced the best America has to offer and national parks are among the best places in the world,” he said. “So having a familiarity with them and connection with them is a very reaffirming experience.”
So true. And on many levels, so universal, too. Yes, there are many parents — black, brown, white and otherwise — who want their children to have as broad an understanding as possible of the world around them. But sometimes it takes people like Johnson to remind us that our children also need a broader understanding of their place in that world.
(And of course it should also be noted that Michigan boasts some great state parks, too...)