I’m proud to announce that J. Drew Lanham is coming to speak in Lawrence on May 24. Dr. Lanham connects storytelling, wit, and land ethics to advocate for greater participation in the natural world—especially among people of color. He is a conservation ornithologist, naturalist, and hunter-conservationist; Drew is also an Alumni Distinguished Professor and Alumni Master Teacher at Clemson University in South Carolina.
Reading his award-winning book, The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair With Nature, has heightened my awareness that most other people out on the nature trails have white skin like me. Lanham poetically describes the phenomenon of the uncommon black or brown companion birders. He shares lyrically-written stories of deep connections to family, his strong sense of place, a passion for nature, and optimism and humor, along with the frustration of being the uncommon African American ornithologist in a predominantly white field.
J. Drew Lanham is a terrific ambassador who inspires more people to enjoy the natural world yet he also recognizes the empowerment shared by people with similar cultural experiences.
The rest of this post may be familiar, if you read my review in May 2017, feel free to skim to the last line!
“Birding While Black” is a poignant chapter in his book reflecting fears similar to the negative experiences expressed by the phrase “driving while black”. A black man risks being accused of suspicious activity simply for being out in a remote environment.
Dr. Lanham writes:
The wild things and places belong to all of us. So while I can’t fix the bigger problems of race in the United States—can’t suggest a means by which I, and others like me, will always feel safe—I can prescribe a solution in my own small corner. Get more people of color ‘out there.’ Turn oddities into commonplace. The presence of more black birders, wildlife biologists, hunters, hikers, and fisher-folk will say to others that we, too appreciate the warble of a summer tanager, the incredible instincts of a whitetale buck, and the sound of wind in the tall pines. Our responsibility is to pass something on to those coming after. As young people of color reconnect with what so many of their ancestors knew—that our connections to the land run deep, like the taproots of mighty oaks, that the land renews and sustains us—maybe things will begin to change.
I’m hoping that soon a black birder won’t be a rare sighting. I’m hoping that at some point I’ll see color sprinkled throughout a birding-festival crowd. I’m hoping for the day when young hotshot birders just happen to be black like me. These hopes brighten the darkness of past experiences.
J. Drew Lanham has created several entertaining short videos supporting his mission to increase diversity among the community of naturalists; one of my favorites is the witty-satire “Bird-Watching While Black: A Wildlife Ecologist Shares His Tips,” which you can watch here, produced by BirdNote and featured in National Geographic Society’s Short Film Showcase.
This is a rallying cry to help more people connect to the outdoors, and I am inspired by his message. I will be reaching out to be more inclusive in planning future nature-related events. As a Board Member and volunteer with Kansas Native Plant Society, I have organized and attended many outings over the last 18 years; almost all the folks who have joined me have been white. We need to be ambassadors to bring more kids and adults together from diverse communities to explore and connect with natural places.
I crave being outside in nature, but I was well into my 30s before I first enjoyed a wild environment. I wish someone had taken me under their wing to share wild places when I was a kid. I will be following J. Drew Lanham’s lead; when I visit a natural area I will respectfully invite old & new friends of different ages, varied hues and diverse origins to go along. I hope you will join me in this effort, and together we will exponentially increase the advocates for the natural world!
I hope you will consider joining us to welcome J. Drew Lanham to Lawrence, hear his talk, and be inspired. Learn more about Dr. Lanham’s talk on May 24 here.
-Shirley Braunlich is a Readers’ Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.
Cover image credits: J. Drew Lanham photo courtesy of the author. Douglas County KS Tallgrass Prairie photo by Shirley Braunlich.