Black Birders Week: An Ode to Our Allies

#BlackBirdersWeek, which began on May 31, has been a week-long event aimed to amplify Black people in every field and their experiences while outdoors.

Crystal Johnson birding. Photo by Jim Boutte. Photo: Jim Boutte

Black Birders Week: An Ode to Our Allies

#BlackBirdersWeek, which began on May 31, has been a week-long event aimed to amplify Black people in every field and their experiences while outdoors.

By: Crystal Johnson

Today is June 4, 2020. A lot has happened recently, including police brutality against Black people, its attempted use as a weapon against Christian Cooper, a long-time Central Park fixture who is a Black birder, protests around the world, the establishment of #BlackBirdersWeek, everyone from celebrities to activists to laypeople publicly speaking out against racism, and a host of other things, all in the midst of the continued coronavirus pandemic. I keep getting asked -- and I keep asking myself -- do I know any other Black birders? I know tons of allies and supporters, but I know very few birders who are Black. I don't even know many Black nature-lovers, campers, or hikers. I can only share what it's like to be a Black birder. One in the deep south, no less. Keep in mind, what follows is an N-of-1. An atypical N-of-1, some would argue. There are 10 million ways to react to what has happened recently, but it is my opinion that sharing is one key way to heal from hurt, injustice, and bigotry.

So, for me, this is what it's like to be a Black birder. I was born a poor Black child in Mississippi. No, literally. I grew up poor. In Mississippi. I always loved nature, including birds, but I never started to learn about birds until I took Jane Patterson's introduction to birding class in spring of 2013. Jane was a passionate teacher who set the bar incredibly high for the rest of us mere mortal educators. She didn't just share what she knew. She personally took me out into the field and taught me how to *be* a birder. I felt chosen. I will never be able to thank her enough. That depth of engagement changes lives.

Now that I fancy myself a birder, I bird in my yard, on trails, at the beach, in traffic, at outdoor weddings, at blues festivals, at red lights... Nowhere is safe. When walking on a trail, I have to watch out for low-hanging branches (or hugs from people wearing velcro straps) because my hair is like carpet. It snags. Many times I have been walking along skulking after birds only to be victimized by the whiplash yank of a branch that got caught in my hair. I do hate to complain because it is also a built-in hat in the winter.

Being a Black birder means I don't have to worry about sunburn. It also means that when I skip an event, my absence is noticed, and later I am asked where I was. Being a Black birder means I likely embarrass my family when I go chasing a Monk Parakeet in downtown New Orleans. It means I will draw stares from Blacks and non-Blacks alike. It means I will probably not share your musical taste as we ride to the trailhead. It means I'm more likely to be visible in the birding event photos when they're posted later.

Another part of what it's like to be a Black birder is that I toggle between feeling sore-thumb conspicuous like a single chocolate chip in a bowl of cookie dough and feeling jarred back to reality when I remember I'm the only Black person in a birding group. For me, seeing another Black person out birding is like seeing an Eastern Screech Owl perched casually in broad daylight in my front yard. It's driving the same street a million times, and stumbling upon this most unexpected creature. I can't stop staring. I don't want to stare too much or squeal or ask too many questions for fear of scaring off this rarity, but I am fighting the urge to join hands and jump up and down and swing around and around in circles like 2 school girls who just got invited to the dance. It is human nature to seek similarities in others and want to belong to a tribe. It is a weird sensation to spend so much time being the only Black person that I forget this fact until I see another Black person. Thankfully the forgetfulness part is my default because my birder friends are such excellent and supportive allies. It's the non-allies that are the problem.

Which brings me to the other part. Y'all. It is indeed scary. Don't let my toothy grin fool you. I do have to be hyper-vigilant when I'm out birding. I do have to avoid neighborhoods that display confederate flags. I do have to look behind me if I'm out on a trail or kayaking in Louisiana. I do have excellent peripheral vision because I've honed it. I do have to keep my surveillance cameras up because of neighbors who explicitly told me they didn't want me in the neighborhood a few years ago. I do worry that if attacked my allies would be killed just for being my friends. I do put extra energy into my disarming smile when I feel threatened to reduce my chances of being seen as a threat myself.

The assumption that a 911 call would automatically lead to Christian Cooper's death via police brutality is terrifying. I remember the sense of wonder I felt at seeing this guy a few years back in the documentary, Birders: The Central Park Effect. He was so passionate and unashamed. It was incredibly inspiring. He looked like me! Growing up in south MS I always thought things were better up north. Boy was I wrong. I'd like to think that having a cell phone will protect me, but at this point I can't afford to make any assumptions. Idiots are feeling empowered and showing their true colors right now. Which does help me know who to avoid, at least.

But, listen. Do you remember learning about the immune system in high school? Do you remember that when a germ enters the body, the troops rally around to deal with it? White blood cells, macrophages, antibodies, and such?  That is what this past week has felt like. The outpouring of support, the non-violent protests (geaux, Louisiana!), the essays, the text messages, and the posts have all warmed my heart. The old phrase, the solution to pollution is dilution, is so true. People's collective outrage at recent events, even when expressed mildly or silently, has reminded me that most people are not idiots, racists, or bigots. Not surprisingly, support has been especially high in the birding community.

If you have said hello, if you've texted to say you're horrified by recent events, if you've helped us with our groceries, if you've donated to a charity that benefits Blacks, if you've spoken out, if you've given us 6 feet of personal space to minimize our risk of COVID, if you've waved or smiled at a Black person and meant it, if you've let us in in traffic, if you've gone out of your way to make me feel welcome at an LOS or MCAS or BRAS meeting, if you've sent me facemask patterns in the midst of this pandemic, if you have helped me, my loved ones, or my students, if you've welcomed me at your sparrow workshop, if you are a Black trailblazer whose sacrifices make my life safer today, e.g., Rue Mapp or J. Drew Lanham, if you've changed your Facebook profile picture, if you've taken the time to explain why my "rare bird" is really just a boring old House Sparrow, if you've taught me how to do a Barred Owl call, if you've allowed me to crash your Gulf Coast Bird Club event, if you've let me look through your scope, if you've taken me kayaking, if you've helped me find my nemesis bird, if you've helped me attract winter hummingbirds, if you've liked any of my silly write-ups, or even if you've just asked me how I'm doing, then I thank you. Mr. Rogers said find the helpers. Well, the birding community is saturated with helpers. Don't believe me, just whisper, in the dark, in a soundproof room, that you've never seen an owl before. These folks will move mountains to help you see that owl. Thank you for pulling out the chair and making sure we feel like we have a seat at the table.

I was raised largely by my grandmother, who is in her 90's now. In recent years I have asked what she thought about certain events and why she was not outraged or shocked. To shamelessly borrow from Marybeth Lima, I think grandma's insight gives me the 10,000-foot view because she has so many decades on me and has seen so much in her lifetime. Sadly, although recent events are infuriating, I don't have the luxury of being shocked. It is not a new story. Only now it is being recorded by higher-resolution cell phone

But I do have the benefit of having some experience in moving forward from tragedy, and making sure their suffering was not in vain. All this fear, dread, and outrage? It's flat exhausting some days. What would cheer me up and reduce my angry insomnia and dread at checking the news every morning? Action. For example, taking the focus off the xenophobes and putting the spotlight of appreciation on the helpers, the trailblazers, the allies, the supporters, and encouraging them to stay the course. Continue to say hello. Continue to be kind. Continue to listen. Keep trying, even if you are afflicted by the unfortunate curse of tone deafness.
Mentor like Jane (see above): each one teach one. Add field safety to courses being taught. Gift a used pair of binoculars or a field guide to that little Black girl down the street. And then show her how to use it. Write your legislators. Hold the door open. Establish a scholarship. Join me in encouraging more Black people to come outdoors next spring. Vote. Share your dash cam footage if you see something. Get to know a Black person. Take us birding with you.

Seriously, any small or big thing. If the solution to pollution is dilution, then every drop is appreciated. Kenn Kaufman says if you enjoy watching birds, then you're already a good birder. I think, if you enjoy helping people, then you're already a good helper. Just. Please. Keep standing with us. You are appreciated beyond words.

Get Involved