Carolyn Finney on Race and the Great Outdoors: Whose Stories Do We Tell?

Our national narrative on the environment is incomplete, Carolyn Finney told a packed hall at the East Tennessee History Center on February 29. “What I want to talk about today is how I think it’s incomplete and why it matters.”

Finney, a storyteller, author, and cultural geographer, delivered the 2024 Wilma Dykeman Stokely Memorial Lecture, an annual presentation hosted by the Friends of the Knox County Public Library and the John C. Hodges Society of the University of Tennessee Libraries.

Non-White voices have been largely excluded from our conversation on the environment, Finney said. She noted that, while in graduate school working on the dissertation that evolved into her book Black Faces, White Spaces: “I couldn’t find a single story about Black people and the environment on the library shelves — except for environmental justice [stories] where something bad has happened to a community of Black people.… Where are the nature stories? Where are the adventure stories? Where are the conservation stories?”

“Whose stories do we tell? And who gets to tell those stories?” Finney asked. Noting the hundreds of recent instances of book banning, Finney invoked Carter G. Woodson, the originator of Black History Month. “What,” she asked, “would he say about this current moment, 100 years later, when actually in some places, we can’t even have the conversation you’re having with me here today, to understand how serious it is when certain stories get shut out and why that’s happening.”

Finney recounted a number of very personal stories. She told the audience about growing up on an estate in a very wealthy all-White neighborhood outside New York City. Her parents were the caretakers of that estate. After retiring and moving away, her parents received a letter saying that a conservation easement had been placed on the property and that it would be protected in perpetuity. While the letter “thanks the new owner for his conservation mindedness, there is nothing in the letter thanking my parents who had cared for that land for nearly 50 years fulltime —  which meant just like that they were gone from the environmental history.”

“Land is never just about land. It’s about economic and political power. It is about legacy. It is about the right to say you belong.”

Many stories, Finney said, have simply been erased from the dominant national narrative. “Let’s not forget: all this land was stolen! I’m not saying it to make you feel bad, but I am saying it to make you feel.… We have to be able to tell the whole story no matter how it makes us feel.”

Watch Carolyn Finney’s full presentation: