Reimagining and Reclaiming What It Means to Be Black in Nature ‹ Literary Hub

R

In the summer darkness of the Massachusetts Berkshires, my friends and I build a fire. These are not just any friendstheyre dear friends from high school, friends I rarely see anymore because of distance and moving and money and all else that comes with growing up. Its been two years since all six of us have been together in person.

So much has had to happen for us to even get here: the slow rollout of the vaccines in the spring, saving paychecks, finessing work schedules, booking the house listed as a Shangri-La. Thats how we found ourselves there, in semi-seclusion off pebbled roads, encircled by dark green pine and oak and hardwood trees, the crickets absorbing our voices.

And as we all sit around this fire, Im doing my best to soak in every single second. I look at Pierce and remember him years earlier at morning assembly, in his afro era, giving the best speech on the environment Id ever heard. I listen to Soleil and think about Hyde Park, the neighborhood we share, how people believe Black Boston doesnt exist.

I watch Seth throw another piece of wood into the pit and think that if anyone found us here, five Black and brown people with only one white person in the middle of nowhere, theyd all think wed kidnapped him or were in some kind of cult. Instead of for Natashas birthday, for our friendships, for the first vacation weve ever embarked on as a group.

Im doing my best to not take this for granted: that were all surrounded by love in a beautiful place, with clean air, in the backyard of someone who was gracious enough to let us rent it for the weekend. But I also feel sadness lightly knocking on the door. Because these moments, moments spent with people who look like me and my friends, moments hiking, moments laying down in the grass, moments listening to the song sparrows, dont happen enough. Im doing my best to not take this for granted because the end of the trip always comes way too soon.

*

At the beginning of the music video for the rapper JIDs “29 Freestyle,” the camera follows behind JID and Rob as they trudge through a stream. In this shot, JID wears a forest camouflage outfit except for the fitted cap on his head. As they walk, JID and his friends humorously consider the potential of eight-foot-long river snakes. After this exchange, the video cuts and JIDs off-beat Atlantan drawl takes over. Over the course of the video, JID and his dear homies are presented in the great outdoorsoff-roading on dirt roads, fishing and smoking blunts in rivers, flexing in wooded clearings, throwing up the middle finger in prairies.

These moments, moments spent with people who look like me and my friends, moments hiking, moments laying down in the grass, moments listening to the song sparrows, dont happen enough.

Signed to J. Coles label, Dreamville Records, JID has often been described by critics as one of the next heirs of “real hip-hop,” opting for concept albums, narrative driven music videos, and an emphasis on MCing and storytelling. Yet, to label him simply as a lyrical rapper or a spitter with hard bars ignores JIDs many talents, as seen in his beautiful singing on The Forever Storys “Kody Blu 31” or his appearance on the pop song “Enemy” by Imagine Dragons.

Musically, “29 Freestyle” displays JID as fans know him best: lyrically playful, punchy and clever, switching flows out of nowhere into a pocket you didnt know existed. At the same time though, the song, with its lack of hooks and its release as a loose single, is also unorthodox by JIDs standards.

The music video accompanying “29 Freestyle” largely departs from JIDs story-driven visuals and imagery too. His videos, often set in the suburban or urban South, act out whats happening in the music or provide greater context for the meanings of his songs.

In the video for the aforementioned “Kody Blu 31,” there are some flashes of trees and greenery, but the land in this video holds a different meaning than the images in “29 Freestyle.” The land in “Kody Blu 31” is the land of his family, land he re-bought after his grandmother passed away, so that he and his family would never lose it. The imagery of “Kody Blu 31” stuns and touches the viewer, but with context, is also heavier and more serious, as are most works about land and Black people in the United States.

What I love about “29 Freestyle” is the fact that we get to witness JID and his homies experience the outdoors, simply existing and living, with an infectious joy and freeness and lightness. And while the images of “Kody Blu 31” are extremely important and powerful, the images of “29 Freestyle” are just as important, too.

*

When “29 Freestyle” came out in June last year, I couldnt get enough. I rewatched it over and over again. I sent it to all of my friends. I already appreciated JID and his penchant for hard bars and comedic moments, sure, but I knew I treasured this video because of something else.

JIDs music video is important because it serves as a reminder: to be Black and in nature is cool. I have no other way of saying that any time I see Black people in nature its really cool. I feel fucking cool. It always looks really, really, fucking fly. For lack of a better word, what JID did is simply dope. But this video also felt different because of what it evoked: longing.

While watching, I found myself longing for more visions of young Black people experiencing the great outdoors, in green spaces, on the land. Young Black people like JID and his friends, young Black people like me and Pierce and Soleil, and Amir, who I majored in Environmental Studies with, one of my best friends, doing whatever we wanted, without questioning our respect or our care or our right to be there in the first place.

The video made me think about how mainstream Western art often depicts people in nature. Historically, these images portray white men in their own solitude, living and surviving and foraging alone in a so-called wilderness, finding answers to some philosophical question. Thoreau, in his little cabin in Massachusetts for those two years, “contemplating” alone all day. Muir, quietly looking out onto the landscape of Yosemite, hands crossed behind his back, and then returning to his cabin by the river. Painters like Thomas Cole, presenting what they believe theyve only seendense, empty foliage, and if not empty, with a handful of white people, in their “simple” clothing, seemingly enjoying their time, free from anyone disturbing them.

An ominous white cloud of silence hanging over all of these images, silence one of their most important and championed ideals. In the wilderness, but still adhering to perceptions of civility: never acting too wild, never displaying emotions, never acting or dressing like urban people. These images, some more than two hundred years old, still directing and impacting our expectations of what a real outdoors experience looks like.

What would happen to Emersons dear Nature if Nature was full of Black and brown people, laughing, singing Nicki Minaj on the way to the outlook?

These images, the exact opposite of “29 Freestyle.” What would Thoreau say of Black men smoking blunts while theyre on a hike? What would Muir think of his dear national parks as the setting for a rap music video, all of the actors bumping and grinding amongst the trees, posing with ice in their mouths on mountain peaks, in the valleys, shining from the cliffside? What would happen to Emersons dear Nature if Nature was full of Black and brown people, laughing, singing Nicki Minaj on the way to the outlook, posing for pictures with fallen branches, recording each other while sprinting on the paths and jumping off boulders?

JIDs video makes you realize the answer to these questions dont even mattersimply by his presence, he re-contextualizes the outdoors by existing there as a Black person. In his re-contextualization, he pushes against the images of those white men, creating new ones that are more applicable to our experiences and our realities.

I cherish the “29 Freestyle” music video because it is proof. Proof of Black people in the woods for no reason or ulterior motive. Proof that Black people enjoy leisurely time outside. Proof that Black people can have a positive relationship to the outdoors. Proof of all of the small joys: JID and his friends smiling as they race over the dirt hills. JID running across a prairie, dancing and swinging his dreads with towering green trees as his audience. JID finally catching a fish and pumping his fist and looking at it closely and posing with it. JID, accidentally loosening his grip. The fish, tumbling out of his hands, back into the water.

*

The trouble with this tradition of artists those like Emerson and Thoreau and Muir is that they didnt make room for us. They didnt make room for what we might look, what we might sound like, what we might want when we find ourselves in the places they defined as “Nature.” They tried to capture all of the imagination for themselves, so that no one could imagine anyone else in their place.

The so-called pioneers of the American environmental movement, erasing everyone and all other possibilities in the process, so that they could see only themselves and their cabins. Their individualist, masculine imagination, the most authentic, the most real, everything else either a parody or an inaccurate representation. In many ways, still the gold standard of interacting with the environment and natural world, a supposed escape from the modern life we find ourselves in.

But I dont want to be like Emerson, Thoreau, or Muir. Removing themselves from their communities, often experiencing all of this on their own and then living on to tell everyone else about it. I never wanted what they have and I never will. I want me and my people to be something else entirely, unattached from the definitions of these white men and their definition of nature. I want me and my people to be something those white men could never have even fathomed.

So much me and my people still havent experienced, because of those men, so much me and my people still need to accurately represent us in these spaces. So many possibilities we havent been given the room to imagine, so many possibilities we still dont even have the words for. So many words that are still missing, that start with us, that apply to us and sound like us and look like us.

We need a word for a group of Black people who are outside. We need a word for a group of Black people at the park. We need a word for a group of Black people in a set of trees. We need a word for a group of Black people on a hike. We need a word for a group of Black people on the peak of a snowy mountain. We need a word for a group of Black people at the beach. We need a word for a group of Black people who are in the middle of play. We need a word for a group of Black people playing volleyball in the sand. We need a word for a group of Black people swimming in the ocean. We need a word for a group of Black people in the desert.

We need a word for a group of Black people at the lake. We need a word for a group of Black people in a garden. We need a word for a group of Black people pulling weeds. We need a word for a group of Black people eating fruits and vegetables. We need a word for a group of Black people on a farm. We need a word for a group of Black people petting goats and milking cows and chasing chickens. We need a word for a group of Black people in the sun.

We need a word for a group of Black people on a camping trip. We need a word for a group of Black people sitting around a bonfire. We need a word for a group of Black people looking up at the sky. We need a word for a group of Black people who fall asleep in tents under the stars.

*

Heres what I long for: spending time outdoors with the people that I appreciate, my best friends and my family and my acquaintances and everyone else I might one day love. And I know I sound selfish, but I want more. In addition to the memories I already have, in addition to the moments that already exist. No matter how much I have, I long for more and more and more. No matter how much more I get, it will never be enough. I want it perpetually. I want it always.

Im outside in the river again with Amir, carrying yardsticks and pretending theyre swords and watching the water float downstream. The sun starting to set, when me and Kenneth find that waterfall by accident and we touch the water and watch how it leaves the rocks slick and we listen to it flow down in the quiet. After months of not seeing each other, after a year of living together and talking about going on a hike but never being able to.

At the lake, Natasha the first in the water, gently floating before we get in. All of us screaming that its cold. Edriel and Rosiel, my little siblings, reading the information tag of every single plant at the Arboretum, picking their favorites, measuring themselves next to the bushes, guessing their names. Pierce, in a tree by himself. Then, me, climbing up with him. And then Adi rising up next to me, only to be followed by Seth, and then Soleil and then Natasha.

Which makes JIDs video, and any kind of documentation of Black people, of marginalized peoples, in the great outdoors, on the green parts of this world, even more essential.

And then I see all of my friends, every single friend Ive made ever, in the same tree, beaming and giggling and telling their favorite stories and examining different kinds of leaves and smelling the pine cones and debating how they might taste. The voices of all of my friends, every single one, in the branches above me and below me and next to me and close behind me and right in front of me. All of us in that tree, touching the trunk and feeling its bark and all of its layers at the same time. All of us, in that tree, in our own kind of embrace.

*

The best part of JIDs music video is that it exists at all, on the internet, in someones hard drive somewhere, forever, its own kind of testament, its own kind of archive. Of JID and his friends, of young Black people experiencing what shouldnt be novel to so many of us, but definitely is.

And Im definitely a little jealous of the video, compounded by how cool it looks and the editing and the video effects and the fact that they have the equipment to do it all. But hear me out for a second. When Im outside, I want the cameras on me too. Thats when I want the cameras on me most of all. Not because of narcissism or because I want to post on Instagram or because I want to drop a fire music video.

I want the cameras on me when Im outdoors because I want proof. For documentation, for the building of an archive, of me, of all my people, in this beautiful green world that we want to desperately save but is also disappearing. For me, and the people that I love, in places that might not last forever. To be able to show to others, to be able to show to my children and my childrens children.

Like when we all pause to look at the crows in the yellow field. Like that time we scared the deer and the deer scared us. Or that time we found that beautiful cocoon, threads perfectly straight, bisecting the hiking path, spinning and spinning and spinning. All of us leaning in so close we almost touched it with our noses. All of these moments special to me because they happened. Memorable to me because I experienced them with someone else, in a place where I still dont feel like I should be or havent been enough.

And to me, thats the difference between the Nature that I want and the idea of Nature expounded by people like Thoreau and Emerson and Muir. Unlike them, Ive always longed to experience Nature with the people important to me, with my communities and the communities I might one day be part of. Unlike them, Ive never longed to be on this journey by myself or for myself, to transcend and find spiritual “insight” on my own.

Because most of the time, everything I learn or remember from those moments in the outdoors is from my relationship with others, from the memories of folks coming together, folks whose access has been historically limited. Folks whose access, with climate change and environmental change, will never be the same as those other white men in the first place.

Which makes JIDs video, and any kind of documentation of Black people, of marginalized peoples, in the great outdoors, on the green parts of this world, even more essential. Why we must create our own nature archives, our own Black nature archives, existing in all of these places. So that we can make the room that was never allotted to us. So that we can make room for ourselves and provide another vision, a more inclusive and holistic vision, of a new Nature.

I always long for my Black nature archive to be more full, to be more robust, for it to continue growing. I always feel like I havent experienced enough. But right now, that doesnt matter.

Because heres what I do have: a picture of Amir in the sun, knee deep in the river, the water sparkling around him. A picture of Edriel and Rosiel, hiding underneath the needles of a low-hanging pine tree, the green gently touching and crowning their heads. Kenneth, posing at the outlook, a city of one hundred year old trees at his back, the cell tower in the distance the only visible sign of Boston. A picture of Adi and Soleil sharing the weight of a backpack on a hike, one strap on each of their shoulders. A picture of Pierce, Seth, Natasha, Soleil, Adi, and me, sitting on a fallen log, exhausted, smiling so wide, at the stranger who offered to take the picture for us.

And the picture exists. Like JIDs video, these pictures, my own proof. Im looking at them right now. And they are more than enough.

Add Comment

Recent Posts

Archives