Former Detroiter Shelton Johnson, now a park ranger at Yosemite National Park, believes there are a variety of reasons why African Americans don’t tend to visit national parks.
Johnson, who recently appeared in the Ken Burns film “Our National Parks: America’s Best Idea” on PBS, said somewhere between 1 and 3 percent of visitors to Yosemite are African American.
Asked why that is, Johnson said there many reasons but all of them, in concert, lead to that absence. He said it comes down to where African Americans, as a culture, feel comfortable recreating.
He also said if someone, of any demographic, doesn’t go to a national park as a child, he or she isn’t likely to take his or her own children.
“One thing we forget is that whenever we as parents take our kids to anything, any kind of experience, we are teaching them that this is how we recreate as a family,” Johnson said. “And then when those kids grow up they take their kids because they’ve been taught that this is what we do as a family. This is how we recreate. So if you’ve never had a national park visit as a child, you are probably less likely to be a national park goer yourself.”
As an example, Johnson said he both studied in Spain and has lived overseas so he has a great desire to take his own family overseas.
“So what I’m saying is one’s personal experiences have a great deal of importance in how we recreate and it is a cultural value that is passed on from parents to kids in terms of what is the character of that vacation, that recreation,” he said.
He added that he’s paying more attention to that because where parents take kids is a powerful factor.
Growing up, Johnson experienced local parks like Belle Isle. He also made a trip to Point Pelee off of Lake Erie in Ontario. At the time, it was a provincial park but is now a Canadian national park.
“Other than that, there were no experiences of national parks in terms of camping, being in a tent. I never had the experience of being in a tent when I was a kid,” he said. “That was just something we didn’t do. So my first experience of camping was when I was an employee in Yellowstone National Park.”
Johnson, who graduated from the University of Michigan in 1981 with a degree in English literature and who won a Major Hopwood Award in Poetry, became a ranger through an indirect route.
When in graduate school, he was in a master’s program in creative writing and looking for a place to write a book of poetry. A roommate had an application to work at concessions stand at Yellowstone and Johnson filled one out himself as a lark. He ended up being accepted as a dishwasher at the Old Faithful Inn.
“Everything else that I had planned on doing that summer didn’t pan out but what did pan out was the position as a dishwasher at the Old Faithful Inn,” he said. “And I accepted it. And if I hadn’t accepted it, we wouldn’t be having this conversation because that position as a dishwasher led to other things, which led to other things, which led to me being a ranger, which led to everything that’s happened since then.”
Johnson said he was looking for a summer job and found his passion when he got off the bus at Yellowstone. In “The National Parks” he describes getting off the bus and seeing a bison go by. At that moment, he said in the film, he knew he’d “arrived.”
He reiterated that childhood experiences play a significant role, and said his son, now 17, was raised in national parks and just finished his first season as a Park Service employee, working on trails in Yosemite Valley.
“At the tender age of 17, he’s received more experience working in wilderness than I did up to about the age of 29,” Johnson said.
He added that no matter what career path his son ultimately follows, he’ll always have an affinity and connection to parks because they’re part of his childhood memories.
What Johnson would say to African Americans who haven’t visited national parks for one reason or another is that the national parks are for everyone.
“They’re more than just pretty,” he said. “They are more than just beautiful. They are places that can really change the way you look at the world and you look at yourselves.”
He said African Americans need to experience these environments primarily because they’ve had so much difficulty and sadness in their history on this continent.
“We sometimes have not experienced the best America has to offer and national parks are among the best places in the world,” he said. “So having a familiarity with them and connection with them is a very reaffirming experience.”
Johnson’s first novel, “Gloryland,” a fictional memoir of a Buffalo Soldier, was recently published by Sierra Club Books.