Outdoor Afro founder Rue Mapp’s new book The Nature Swagger celebrates the diversity of the Black American experience.
Rue Mapp founded Outdoor Afro as a blog in 2009. She wanted to create a unique and authentic way to speak to and about the Black experience in the outdoors but, at the time, that was non-existent. Mapp had grown up on a ranch in California, hunting and fishing, with a love of nature deep in her blood. And in 2009, she wanted to grow the idea of how Black Americans experience, share, and find joy in nature. Over the past 14 years, Outdoor Afro has blossomed into a nationwide phenomenon, with a cross-country leadership team more than 100 volunteer leaders building a vibrant community and training Black outdoor leaders from all walks of life. Her new book The Nature Swagger: Stories and Visions of Black Joy in the Outdoors (Chronicle Books, 2022) shows just what finding this place in nature that Outdoor Afro cultivates looks like, telling the stories of Black Americans of all pursuits and ages and backgrounds across the United States. She talked to us about the book, equity in the outdoors, and rethinking what we can learn from being in nature,
“Can you explain what you mean by “the nature swagger”?
I’m a big fan of the neighborhood walk. If you want to get connected to your biome, go walk in your neighborhood. If you do it at least a few times a week year round, you’re going to be in touch with the changes of the seasons. You’re going to hear different birds, at different times of the year; you will see plants, flowers, and blooms at different times of the year. And then you’re also going to get to know your neighbors. I think we need to have a conversation about the environment that doesn’t exclude what it means to be connected to each other.
To me, this is the definition of nature swagger. It’s a lived experience that’s informed by the dynamic elements of nature that, in turn, inform you how you live your life, and the confidence that comes with that. It’s the anticipation and excitement that comes from anything from gardening in your backyard to the bike rides that you plan at different times of the year. But it’s also just having that knowledge of what’s possible and living into that possibility as the cycle of life continues to be expressed through nature. That, to me, is a universal ask. But it’s one that, because of my experience, I’m speaking to specifically as a Black person.
What are you most proud of when it comes to The Nature Swagger book?
This book was not meant to highlight only the most accomplished people, or the only the ones we all know about. It was kind of like a party—like, who do you invite to your dinner party? Through this work, I’ve always been able to celebrate the diversity within. This book is focused on the Black American experience. Black is not a monolith. For me, it was like a quilt of people who each brought their own little nugget of joy. And what was so cool about it was not everybody thought that they should have been in the book—this is how bad it’s gotten. But I identified those who I thought had a contribution to make, and I brought them along. I was really thinking about inclusivity. Also, my background is in art history, so I understand intimately how important visual representation is to tell stories, how they record the attitudes and technologies of a time. So I wanted this book to have accessibility across literacy levels, so that if you’re six years old, you’re going to open the book and see a swimmer who’s around your age—or you could be middle-aged, single, married, oran elderly person, and you will find someone who’s telling a part of your story.
“Nature gives us the blueprint for equity.” —Rue Mapp
How can we envision conservation and the outdoors from a new paradigm that speaks more to people with experiences that are not rooted in the traditional outdoor space?
Before Outdoor Afro, there was no other Outdoor Afro. There was nothing; there was no template. I didn’t have a guiding star for how to do this, what it could look like. I was able to funnel a lot of my personal and professional experiences into it and I wasn’t born out of the outdoor industry. I was not born out of academia. I was not born out of conservation. And so what what that allowed us to do is have the freedom to create and not be encumbered by nomenclature and a mindset that I feel a lot of those other domains have kind of clung to—you know, early ecology, 1970s, Rachel Carlson, John Muir. I didn’t grow up with any of that. My parents didn’t talk about that. We talked about Martin Luther King. So I was able to come in from left field in a good way and and not be beholden to the mindsets that I felt were just highly ineffective and not relevant to the communities that I was a part of. And so it’s been wonderful to see how over the last 10 years, there are so many groups have modeled themselves very closely after Outdoor Afro or other affinity groups.
What are the best lessons we can learn from being in nature, no matter our experiences or backgrounds?
Nature gives us the blueprint for equity. It’s not something that you’re going to learn in a workshop. When I’m in a hunting blind with people who live in places that one would think are very conservative, close-minded places, the bonds and camaraderie that I’ve experienced with people who have a very different lived experience with me in those scenarios has been priceless and humbling. I have connected with people that I’ll probably stay connected with for life because of our shared experience in nature. Nature gives us a platform to have much more elevated experiences with each other as humans.