Beyond America’s sophisticated interconnected highway system lies an enchanted land of scenic beauty, verdant forests and the pristine sacredness Christopher Columbus might have encountered when he landed on North America’s shores. When I experienced it for the first time I was touched to the depth of my soul. Twenty years of exploring these places that are protected in our national parks, forests and wildlife refuge system around the country have so attuned me to nature that, no matter what is going on in the world, I am able to take a step back and anchor myself in the knowledge that “this too, shall pass.”
Is it any wonder that I want every American to share this experience? Yet a visit to the national parks today is like going through a time portal in which the diversity of our urban centers metamorphoses into a monochromatic world made up almost exclusively of white Americans and overseas visitors and employees. It’s a rare occasion when I can bring up a conversation about the national parks to a non-white person and be greeted with something other than a blank stare.
The lack of information about the national parks directed to non-white communities is consistent with the small but growing number of sites that reflect our contributions. I believe this gap helps perpetuate the idea that one sector of the population contributed more than any other to the development of our country, leading to calls to “take back our country.” Simultaneously it places non-white citizens at a disadvantage as they instinctually reject that rhetoric but remain unaware of the places where our ancestors’ achievements are protected.
So I was excited to receive an invitation to a forum on Capitol Hill this Thursday, November 5, “Reflecting Our Country’s Diversity in the National Park System,” sponsored by the Center for American Progress in collaboration with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the National Urban League (NUL) and the National Parks Conservation Association, (on whose board I’m serving a fifth three-year term.) The forum will look at ways to include the places where women, non-white Americans and members of the LGBT community made history, to be included in the protected realms of the National Park System.
“According to a recent Center for American Progress analysis, of the more than 450 national parks and monuments in the United States, less than one-quarter have a primary focus on (these) communities,” reads the invitation. “. . . The discussion will help identify ideas for how we can build a more inclusive system of national parks and monuments. In particular, the event will focus on steps that Congress can take to help advance this important goal. The event will feature leaders from Congress; the administration; and the conservation, social justice, economic, and faith communities.”
I got to meet President Obama in Everglades National Park and thank him for creating units that honor the Black experience, including Pullman National Monument in Chicago.
The stars must be perfectly aligned to push the park into the American consciousness because I just learned that park leaders in Charleston are responding to the massacre at Mother Emanuel AME Church earlier this year with a two-day racial healing workshop, “Remembering Charleston: Using Historic Sites to Facilitate Dialogue.” The workshop takes place Nov. 4 & 5 and will culminate with the placement of a wreath in tribute to the nine murdered Church worshipers. (Eerily, the accused murderer posted pictures of himself visiting Fort Moultrie National Monument in Charleston, a unit of the National Park System, before heading to Mother Emanuel to commit the heinous crime.)
Simultaneously, park leaders have also been pushing for a unit of the park system that honors the Reconstruction Era, 1861-1898. Films such as “Gone With the Wind” and “The Birth of a Nation” have characterized this era as a time when “noble Ku Klux Klansmen helped ‘redeem’ the South from incompetent black politicians and their Northern manipulators.” A new park unit would show the truth – a dramatic expansion of rights for African-Americans followed by a vicious racial roll back. A Freedom Riders Park in Aniston, Alabama and Stonewall Inn in New York City are among the units proposed for protection in the park system.
I’m heading to the forum in DC with great hope in my heart that our National Park System will finally take its rightful place in American life as a continual inspiration for a nation that knows and treasures the natural, cultural and historic assets they represent. And it’s not happening a moment too soon as these places are being targeted, primarily by Republicans in Congress who prize the short term gain from exploiting their natural resources over the long term benefits they provide to this and future generations.
For the National Park Service to fulfill its mission as it approaches its 100th anniversary next August 25 and enters another century of stewardship, the first call is to inform every American of our heritage and our birthright, so that we know we have a responsibility to push back against the avaricious assault.
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