‘Bad things happen in the woods’: the anxiety of hiking while black

A Guardian Profile by Aaron Jones, 32, Chicago

A few years ago, a white friend suggested we go on a hike. All the fears I had about being in nature hit me in the face. It’s a very real fear for black people, especially those from urban communities, that bad things happen to black people in the woods, like lynching. It’s something that you see again and again when you look at the history of the civil rights movement and slavery: black people going into the woods and not coming back.

My friend had grown up hiking. I talked to her about my fears and she respected my apprehension. I said to myself: “You’ve got to do this now or it will never happen.”

I grew up in kind of a rough neighborhood on the south side of Chicago, so my mother kept us in a lot. Our house was across the street from a public park but it was rife with gang violence so we never went there.

I always knew about hiking and camping from commercials and magazines. But the people doing it didn’t look like me. They were white, athletic and attractive. I’d never, ever seen anybody of color doing it, let alone a black male; I associated the outdoors with whiteness. Nobody around me even thought about it. My mother grew up in the backwoods down south, but she never encouraged us to have a connection with nature.

My friend and I headed to Starved Rock state park, two hours south of Chicago. We had to drive through this very wooded area and I remember thinking: “I hope nothing happens. I hope I don’t have to get out of the car.”

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